Ask some folks of a certain age to look back at the 1980’s and they may spend a lot the time pointing and sniggering, justifiably so to be fair as let’s be honest for a moment, that decade was certainly interesting. From fashion and make-up to music, film and TV everything was very loud, over the top colourful and sold to you as something you needed in your life. The decade where capitalism exploded into western mainstream culture and celebrities became more than famous, they became role models and something to aspire to be as if it were a type of job.
Look a bit deeper though and the 1980’s was so much more and way deeper than the surface layer of bad hairstyles and MTV, it’s the decade where franchises became influential to multiple genres of entertainment. A time when it wasn’t just enough to have something popular on TV, or in the cinema but the decade where companies unified products to appeal to global audiences across multiple interests under one brand. With the electronics and technology sectors in full bloom and people starting to fill homes with multiple entertainment devices such as colour TV’s, Microwaves and video tape players the opportunity was there to attract consumers with a product in one sector then follow up with support products to enhance, continue or further encapsulate people into something they had an interest or passion for.
Thanks to Star Wars, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Transformers and several others, kids were watching cartoons on TV, reading comics and then going out to buy toys to replicate scenes or create whole new adventures thanks to imaginations and action figures/ play sets. It was expensive, it drove parents crazy but an entire generation, and every generation since as a matter of fact, where now indoctrinated into a new way to build childhood memories, through a love of a franchise… or six! The rise of the video game home systems only multiplied this sudden and complete fascination, especially by younger audiences, with the franchise world. Do you like comics and cartoon shows? Of course you do, well now you can be Spider-Man or Superman instead of just reading about them in comics or seeing them in action on your TV screen. Early consoles like the Atari VCS 2600, Colecovision and home computers such as the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 had games libraries full of software that connected to existing globally popular TV, comic and toy brands.
One such brand franchise from the 1980’s that connected with millions of people around the world was that of a group of four anthropomorphic turtles raised by their anthropomorphic Rat sensei in the art of Ninjitsu. Named after Italian renaissance artists they would protect the city above the sewers where they would live, train and hide from a society that might not accept them. Initially a cult comic book it became a phenomenal cartoon show and toy line, generating huge sales and a massive collecting mania in both America’s and Europe especially. A video game was a certainty in order to connect the existing franchise models together and in 1989 when the toy range and cartoon show were in full swing the Japanese video game giant Konami unleashed a game that would go on to define a generation. For the month of February 2017 it’s time for RGG to take a look at when the world’s best selling 8-Bit home console met 4 teenage heroes in a half-shell. Let’s take a closer look at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Developed by Konami, TMNT is a side scrolling and top down action adventure classic. Released first for the Nintendo Entertainment System / Famicom in May 1989 in Japan it was rapidly brought to North American shores in June of that same year. The timing was perfect as the second season of the cartoon show has just aired and along with the toy line the turtles mania was sweeping all major markets. Had it been an average run of the mill videogame it still would have performed well at retail however the magic combination of timing, quality and installed user base of the NES came together to produce a genuine “wow” moment for a still young gaming industry.
The story is that of our heroes setting out to retrieve the ‘Life Transformer Gun’ from their arch nemesis ‘Shredder’. This superbly cartoon-esque piece of hardware allows the transformation of one life form to that of a fully fledged Human being, how incredibly fortunate eh? At the same time however, Shredder and his army of Foot Clan and thugs, are trying to capitalise their hold on the city through terror and fear. To this end the cool, resourceful, but completely naïve and dumb, April O’Neil has been kidnapped (classic 1980’s / 1990’s story fodder) by Bebop and Rocksteady who are minions of Shredder in order to stop her from reporting on the real events in the city and also tie up the turtles in a vain rescue attempt… and they say the bad guys don’t think things through. It’s a solid plan.
The game story itself get’s more interesting however when the Turtles sensei and father figure is himself kidnapped by another of the Shredder’s foul clan adding yet more branches to an already deep series of dastardly actions by the game’s lead villain. This not only leads to more depth of back-story but also allows the game to have more mini boss battles in order to give each section/level it’s own genuine identity, at no point does this ever feel like one level following another for the sake of it. Put in simple terms TMNT is very much a cool episode/issue of the cartoon/comic that you control. The very definition of how to do a franchise videogame… and then some! From rescuing both April and Splinter to tackling Bebop, Rocksteady, a Mecha Turtle and a giant Mouser, discovering the Technodrome and then facing off against Shredder himself it’s a rollercoaster ride of pure childhood fun. I cannot express in more detailed terms how genuine and real to the show, toys and comic this is.
Gameplay is split between two fundamental viewpoints and styles. The first being that of an overhead or top down viewpoint where you move around the game world in order to locate areas to explore further. Upon discovery of the next level the view then switches to a traditional side scrolling platformer. This is one of the key ingredients as to why this doesn’t ever feel like a level followed by another level copy and paste game, the exploration of the top down mode binds everything together to create a genuine and real sense of actual adventure and continuity. The game starts when you press the button and finishes when the credits roll as per the norm however it’s the two connecting styles of viewpoint and gameplay that make it one continuous episode. I keep coming back to that aspect because it shines through and it’s instantly noticeable and at the same time strangely reassuring.
A one player game only you control all 4 turtles through the selection screen, this adds in a huge level of strategy to the overall adventure because each of the heroes has unique weapon based attributes such as power, speed and reach. There will be times when a particular turtle will be best used in order to navigate an area and so it’s vital to make sure you protect that party member in order to allow progress through the game. Each one of the heroes in a half-shell has an energy bar which is affected by attacks from enemies or situations in each area/level and upon depletion of said energy meter this turtle essentially becomes captured. This can lead to early examples of the Game Over screen until gameplay patterns and enemy movements are worked out or in the case of one particular level the player learns through huge amounts of practice to get through a water based section without dying. After the third level however and once per level past that you can find and rescue a previously captured turtle which is a superb way of essentially rewarding the player with an extra life. Nice touch Konami, nice touch indeed. It’s also a nice way of showcasing that even heroes need saving themselves once in a while and not just some worn out princess in a castle, copy and paste theme we all saw far too many times.
The most diverse and interesting aspects of the game are most definitely in the side scrolling sections where you meet the vast majority of enemies from standard foot clan soldiers to all manner of creatures. As well as your specific weapon you also collect power-ups to help you along the way such as single throwing stars (shurikans), triple Shurikans, boomerangs and the “Kiai”. This is a scroll that delivers massive damage to all on screen foes and is best kept for the boss battles in order to make those parts more manageable. Those familiar with the franchise will also know that the turtles restore lost energy by finding and eating Pizza’s because in the 1980’s Junk Food culture was cool… To be fair, still is!
When the game finally made it’s way to European shores in August 1990 it was re-branded to fit in with the existing interpretation of the comic and cartoon show with the word “Ninja” being replaced by “Hero” in most countries located in that territory. This was mostly to satisfy the UK’s completely stupid and utterly insane view that the “Ninja” term was harmful to children, like we would all grow up into masked crusaders running around with cool weapons fighting crime. When you think about that further surely that would have been a great idea, who doesn’t want to be a Ninja Turtle? Come on? Seriously!
To say that this game sold well would possibly be the biggest understatement. This game flew into homes the world over. Over 4 million copies of the NES game made it’s way into the bedrooms and front rooms of gamers. When you think about that further it’s a massive achievement for a third party game on a console for that time, even a console with such a large installed user base. It still to this day remains one of the most successful games for Nintendo’s 8-Bit monster and rightly so, because it’s a superb videogame. The story however does not end there, far from it…
1990 also saw the release of the game onto the various home computers of the time period. The 8-Bit micro computers that were the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC all got great conversions thanks to Probe Software who somehow managed to get the Spectrum version to display more colours than it ever had/could or should. The 16-Bit machines known as the Atari ST and Amiga 500 got graphically and musically superior versions although in all truth something was lost in those versions, probably due to those computers having other games in similar genres with wildly better looking graphics and sound. The game was very much lost in a sea of quality regarding those two iconic home computers. The MSX was taken care of and even the PC got a version although this one contains a gap you cannot cross without cheating so essentially a potentially game breaking bug. The superb Playchoice-10 arcade cabinet also had this game.
Gaining a positive reaction from reviewers on almost all formats in all territories helped cement this game as a pinnacle moment for the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Awarded game of the year for 1989 on the NES by Nintendo Power magazine was another reason why North America especially has always been in love with this game. Nintendo Power is very often completely connected to that generations memories and is often cited as the best magazine of it’s time in that region. For those in the UK reading this, think C&VG or Mean Machines and that should help convey how important that publication was.
In many ways the perfect franchise videogame, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a game you cannot ignore for several reasons. It’s essential play for NES fans of then and now, it was ported to every single important home computer so it’s reach is enormous and it’s such a product of it’s time that it remains to this day as fresh and cool as the day if trickled off the production line. It feels right from start to finish, it looks the part, it sounds great and it moves superbly although NES fans on actual hardware better get ready for that good old flicker you love so much. You feel so connected to it from both a story and character standpoint and it’s design so perfectly replicates a cartoon episode or comic book issue with all that over the top nonsense that somehow, for that small moment of time, feels completely realistic and logical. Of course you can have 6 foot ninja turtles, I’ve seen it, I’ve played it, it has to be real, right?
28 years after it’s first release it’s still got it, that’s what separates the good games from the bad and the classic ones from the great. Graphics have moved on, controllers have moved on, gameplay genres have evolved and presentation levels have gone through the roof but one thing never changes. Fun! When something has that “special” factor, when it’s truly an iconic product of a time then it holds on to that like it has the magnetic pull of the North Pole. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a giant of our gaming industry, not only a superb comic and cartoon show it’s also produced several outstanding games but this one is the benchmark. It’s tricky as hell at times, it will frustrate but it’s pure nostalgia wrapped up in plastic form that slots into one of the most important and greatest games machines of all time. Without doubt the Nintendo franchise hitters stole the spotlight with games like Super Mario Bros, Metroid, Zelda etc but the cool kids knew that TMNT was the game to get.
The 1980’s was special, if you were a kid in that era then I don’t need to preach, you know what I’m saying because right now those hearts are connecting to memories and nostalgia is running through your veins and we both know that grin on your face is growing wider. If you didn’t experience this at the time, trust me when I say that this is 8-Bit gaming showing off. This isn’t just good, this is Konami starting to John Travolta strut down the road with it’s own theme music good. If you want to know why people fall in genuine and total love with gaming then spend 15 minutes in the company of this game or the company of someone who had it as one of their most fond childhood moments. If that doesn’t reach you then let me just say this…
In 1989 Konami put a cartoon show into a console, a cartoon show where you played as 4 human sized turtles who had Ninja skills and fought crime against an incredibly powerful enemy who had claw blades on his arms and several cool mutant minions. A reporter in a bright yellow jumpsuit was your closest ally and a giant rat was your mentor. Awesome! It's time to get your Cowabunga on people!