Retro reflections by Nick H.
The Ninja Turtles have been popping up a great deal lately. My oldest daughter recently discovered the Nickelodeon animated show. My youngest (for some reason) thinks the most recent movie is pretty entertaining. There is a new game courtesy of Activision and Platinum based on the aforementioned show. Unfortunately it looks like that game’s shaping up to be a bit of a dud, but it’s always noteworthy when Platinum is working on something. Toys are showing up everywhere – including one where you squeeze Leonardo’s body and his tongue and eyes bulge out of his face in horrifying fashion. What would life be without toys that have the potential to scar kids for life?
I have long been a big fan of most things Ninja Turtles. I still remember the old comics from back in 1984 as I had quite a few of those as well. Now, to prepare myself for this, I found some old episodes of the original cartoon to watch. I was also a fan of the animated show, which the NES game attempted to emulate with its very simple storyline. The villainous Shredder has gotten his hands on a new weapon and also kidnapped the best friend of the Turtles, April O’Neil. Popular cartoon villains Bebop and Rocksteady show up, as does the Technodrome.
Looking back on it now, I believe the original NES game was a mixed bag in how successful it was in capturing the essence of the cartoon. The Ninja Turtles title was a single-player game that allowed you to alternate between the turtles who each had slight differences in how their attacks worked. It helped to differentiate them, but very little actual personality came through as the turtles were all basically the same in appearance except their headband and weaponry. My favourite was always Michelangelo from the show, but in this game he has no personality to speak of and his nunchucks always seemed underpowered. I spent most of the game using Donatello and Leonardo because their weapons had greater range while Mikey and Raphael were usually relegated to ‘last resort’ status due to their limited ranges.
The NES TMNT (lots of capital letter alphabet soup going on there) brought us a top-down view for navigating around stage maps (with some really basic combat mechanics at play) and a side perspective where combat and platforming took place when entering a passage. Initially the game made a great impression on me. A variety of mousers and foot soldiers attempt to do you in, and damage is accrued very quickly, so it was tough and challenging, as most good games from that era were. As one would expect, gathering pizza helps your turtle to recover from damage. After a while, you start to learn enemy attack patterns and how to navigate the somewhat more labyrinthine levels later in the game.
However, the level design is something that really stood out to me replaying it through now, and not in a good way. There are some truly frustrating jumps, overly narrow passages, enemy locations that are too punishing and more. But as bad as those matters were, nothing was as silly as the underwater second stage that took place in the Hudson River. You have a limited amount of time to disarm eight bombs. The swimming mechanics are sloppy and the seaweed that damages your turtles on contact (because electrified seaweed is apparently a major issue in that area?) make it a frustrating level well beyond being charmingly tough.
On replay, I can safely say that this version of TMNT proves what I have suspected for a few years – I was far better at video games twenty to twenty five years ago than I am today. Many things may get better with age, but quick twitch gaming reflexes are not among those. That being said, I was able to beat the game one more time and it was a satisfying experience to do so. As an experiment, though, I got my kids to play it for the first time, to see how they got along with it now, and they did not hold up so well. We blew dust off of the cartridge, fired it up and like me, they enjoyed the first stage or so as they learned the game’s mechanics. But, after hitting some Game Over screens they decided that this title was not for them and that my version of the ‘good old days’ was skewed.
The thing is, they might have been right.
While this game did a reasonable job of looking and sounding the part, I have to say that the arcade TMNT did a far better job of capturing the spirit of the cartoon. There is a dark steeliness to the NES version of TMNT that I did not fully appreciate when I was younger, but in retrospect today almost better matches the darker tone of the comics. However, going back to it, this title is not one that played as well as I remembered due to control and level design issues. In contrast, there is a mindless fun to the later arcade games that worked far better when you just want to pick up the controller and have some action antics with your friends. The multiplayer element really makes the arcade games more interesting and more tonally similar to the show and comic. Certainly there were times when each of the turtles had their own adventures and solo arcs, but at its heart the series has always been about their camaraderie and that element is sorely lacking from the single player NES experience.
|The game’s original box art|
I am still not convinced that the new cartoon is any better than the old one. My oldest daughter continues to watch the new one, but refuses to give the old one a chance. So asking her to compare the two is a moot point. I’ll go with the classic version of the show personally, but one thing is for certain; the original NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is probably not the best way to reflect on and remember the series.
– Nick H.