“All the Classic Feels”
From the comic page to the television screen, from toys to video games to movies, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made their biggest splash on popular culture from the mid-80s through the early 90s. These Four-fingered fellows represented the enthusiastic, fun-loving and do-good spirit of their age.
During their original heyday, something about these turtles begged me to physically interact with them. In Kindergarten I boasted I could draw the best Turtles (the key was in the bulbous muscles), and I craved opportunities to play with Turtle-verse action figures at friends’ houses. More than both of these things, I was obsessed with a certain arcade cabinet at our local skating rink.
That game was called simply Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989). If lucky I could recruit up to three friends in braving the nasty Shredder and his Foot Clan. The music was motivating and the graphics were gorgeous. The exciting beat-em-up environment was addicting, and I felt contentedly immersed in the Turtles’ world.
When it came to converting this cabinet classic to console in 1990, there was an understandable downgrade in visual and aural distinctness. But Konami were able to catch enough of the spirit of what they had created on the arcade cabinet to make their NES rendition a timeless title as well. Changing the name to TMNT II: The Arcade Game, the developers brought the Turtles to console better than had ever been done before.
According to NESguide, Konami were responsible for publishing 30-some US titles and developing about 40 for the NES. They were incredibly diverse with their craft — not only did they create such top-tier titles as Contra, Super C and the Castlevanias, but they made some darn good SHMUPs (Life Force) and war-themed games (Jackal) as well. Konami’s Double Dribble and Blades of Steel — as well as another Konami/Ultra dual effort, Kings of the Beach — are some of my favorite B-tier sports titles for the NES.
Konami tended to use minimal storytelling as an effective means of pacing action. As a result, Turtles II plays out simultaneously as a tense narrative where the gamer is not distracted from all the necessary brawling needed to reach the game’s conclusion. A few opening story screens reveal that the Turtles must save their human friend, the yellow jump-suited April O’Neil. The Turtles find the level 1 boss, Shredder’s goon Rocksteady, guarding a tied up April in her apartment. But when they off him, Shredder whisks April away. After saving April, the Turtles must also rescue their humanoid Rat sensei, Splinter. Each step in the story is animated with a nice little cutscene.
The in-level difficulty of Turtles II is spot on, which makes the player feel he’s earned each colorful storyboard. Each level has a sensible difficulty grade. Initially you’ll engage with up to three Foots at a time, which takes timing to off them one by one if you’re solo. There will inevitably be the introduction of projectile-welding Foots, as well as some level-specific mid-tier enemies to deal with. Enter more Foots, then more mid-level baddies before reaching the final boss. Each level has an overall mix of ‘infantry,’ ‘cavalry’ and ‘artillery’ that produce the perfect Konami cocktail.
The main thing Konami did in successfully converting TMNT from cabinet to console was to retaining the game’s sense of epic atmosphere. The music plays a key role in this, as does the visually appealing sprites. While it wasn’t possible to entirely retain the illusion of depth from the arcade, the isometric view in TMNT II is a balance that gives the player plenty of room to brawl without having to waste time plodding from frame to frame. The end result is one of the purest brawlers the NES has to offer.
No arcade beat-em-up would be complete without epic boss battles. TMNT II offers a slew of bads from the original TV show, including Baxter the Fly, Krang the brain from Dimension X, and of course, Shredder himself. The boss difficulty was at times chin-scratching, as some of the middle-game bosses are rather pushover easy. And Stage 2’s Beebop is twice as difficult, if not more, than his counterpart goon Rocksteady, despite their having the exact same attack pattern. All told, the boss battles are best when taken on cooperatively, as one Turtle can duck and dodge while his brother destructs from behind.
While it’s regrettable TMNT II can be played with a max two as opposed to the four of its arcade counterpart, it’s still a lot of fun to play cooperatively. Rather than a point system ala the Double Dragons, TMNT II simply tallies the number of Foots and other villains offed by each player, making an in-game competition of consistency, longevity and even memorization a premium. Or else two Turtles can team up for a pure partnership as they do battle. Whatever, watching two Turtles kick shell is a Turtleverse must that was sadly absent from the 1989 prequel.
The Turtles of TMNT II have the most even effectiveness out of the trilogy. Unlike TMNT I in which Donatello’s bo staff wielded twice the reach of his counterparts, TMNT II features exactly equal fighting ability for all characters. And while each Turtle is equipped in TMNT III with a unique special move, TMNT II equips each Turtle with the same double-hit power move. While this may seem overly simplified at first, one has to consider the multiplayer element to the game — especially when in friendly competition, it wouldn’t do to have one player with a towering advantage.
This streamlined approach is more true to the original cartoon than it may seem. While traditionally each Turtle has his own niche in the gang (see above captions), no turtle stands above the rest when it comes to fighting skill. They all work together, and generally all defeat or get parried by Shredder. As it relates to TMNT II, the gamer is still free to choose his favorite Turtle, and be satisfied by the nicely animated whoosh of that respective Turtle’s weapon.
TMNT II stays true to the canon in two ways: by casting characters from the original TV show, and keeping a healthy balance between humor and suspense. Despite the peril of their friends, you have instances of lightheartedness. Such as Michaelangelo’s stumble in the opening sequence, pizza product placement, and … is that a member of the Foot clan driving a Chevy?
All told, TMNT II is a complete video game. Not only was is designed by some of the system’s best developers, it’s a timelessly fantastic cabinet-to-console conversion. What’s best is it kept the spirit of the Turtles in tact. Now that’s Turtle Power.