A History of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Video Games
Since we have a new Ninja Turtles movie coming out tomorrow, an accompanying game for 3DS, and a recently released free Kinect game, I figured it would be appropriate to do a little history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games to celebrate their 30th anniversary. The franchise was born in 1984, and I was born not too long afterwards, so I grew up with these iconic reptiles, and I hold them very dear to my childhood. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello have been around for 30 years now and with a franchise this popular, there were obviously going to be a lot of video games. The turtles have been in video games since 1989, 25 years ago, which is a very long video game career, especially for a licensed franchise. Their games have arguably dipped in quality over the years, but as far as beat ‘em up games go, the Ninja Turtles are easily one of the most iconic franchises in the genre.
As I said before, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game released in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, which was based on the popular cartoon series at the time. Konami was the developer, but for the first outing it was published by Ultra Games in the states (most games after being published directly by Konami, more on that in a bit). Playing in a top-down perspective for part of the game and avoiding various hazards, your goal would be to get to the side scrolling stages by entering manhole covers or buildings, very similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. If you died, your current turtle was captured and you’d have to pick a different one, if all four turtles were captured you had to start from the very beginning. This game was infamous for being considered to be one of the hardest NES games of all time, and I remember being a kid borrowing it from my cousins (who had a large NES game collection), and I remember not getting very far. I made it to one of the sewer levels, which were considered a nightmare for gamers at the time, and I remember not making it out alive as I was attacked by numerous mousers with unbearable difficulty. Regardless of the criticism the game received, it was a smash hit and sold 4 million copies worldwide, which if you compare to games of today, that’s actually quite an accomplishment, and more than enough to launch the turtles into a video game franchise.
Not too long after, or even arguably before it, Konami also released an arcade side scrolling beat ‘em up, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, which was significantly less difficult (though obviously balanced to eat many quarters in an arcade). It brought in four-player co-op, and was easily one of the most popular arcade machines during the time, as it would be difficult to find an arcade that didn’t have it. Using the song from the hit cartoon, memorable one-liner voice clips (“Pizza time” and “Tonight I dine on turtle soup” just to name a couple), and some impressive sprite animation for the time, it was no wonder that arcades kept hold of it so long. The turtles had such a memorable presence in arcades that an arcade cabinet even earned a small cameo in Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” film in 2012. I remember playing it myself and probably spending close to $30 worth of quarters over the course of many sessions. It did so well that it prompted an NES port in 1990, dubbed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, and published by Ultra Games as well in the US, though with scaled down graphics and sound, as well as cutting the multiplayer down to two players. Despite losing content, it also gained new content with the addition of extra enemies and stages, as well as extended gameplay.
It’s also worth noting that in 1991, the Turtles had their first legitimate release on a portable platform (I’m really not going to count all the little handheld games from various companies like Tiger Electronics). Again published by Ultra Games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan was released on the Game Boy platform, and brought with it a unique gameplay mechanic. Players would choose the level they would start on, and play as one of the four turtles, but like the original NES game, if they were to die in a stage, that turtle would be “captured”, and they would have to choose one of the remaining turtles. If all four turtles are captured, it’s a game over and the player would have to start over again from the beginning. Despite this, the game was still notably easier to play than the original NES title. It was successful enough to earn the Game Boy a sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back From the Sewers, releasing in 1991, and this time published by Konami in the US. It maintained similar gameplay
Now I couldn’t write this article without mentioning one of the golden games of the franchise. Now we may remember the first game for the difficulty, and we might remember the original arcade game for being very popular, but many gamers from the 90’s know that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time is arguably the best game in the series. Released in 1991 in arcades and ported in 1992 for the Super Nintendo (sans the 4 player co-op), it featured colorful graphics and polished effects like enemies being thrown into the screen, and slick animations. It also had an original theme song with new lyrics made specifically for the game, which a lot of gamers remember fondly. Still taking elements from the cartoon series, the game also took special bosses from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze film that released at the time. The game was considered to be a favorite among fans and even earned a remake in 2009 by Ubisoft, who was the licensed publisher for the heroes at the time. Staying mostly faithful to the original, it added new 3D model graphics and online play, but lacked the ability to join games already in progress. Due to licensing, they were unable to get the lyrics for the theme song, so an instrumental version was used instead. Due to licensing of the franchise, Ubisoft had to pull the games from the Xbox Live Marketplace and the PlayStation Network not too long after release. Even though I played all three of these releases, I surprisingly spent most of my time on the SNES port at a friend’s house, as I didn’t have enough money to buy a copy myself and I began spending more time in school than at the local arcades.
As you can see, the history of this franchise in gaming jumps around quite a bit, but hopefully I’m making it easy for you to keep up so far. The success of Konami’s NES port of the first arcade game made it a no brainer for another sequel on the NES, and that spawned the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project in 1992. Now I hold this game in a very special place in my heart. It was my very first TMNT video game that I actually owned, and I remember playing it repeatedly, especially when my friends came over. I know I’ve logged many hours into this game, and I pretty much know the first level by heart at this point in time, not to mention a good amount of the rest of the game. For the most part, it stuck to the formula of the previous title, but added a couple extra moves like a throw attack, as well as a special attack that would take a bit off your health bar (unless you were on your last bar of health). I also remember never seeing the Triceraton enemy that was on the fairly gritty boxart, which always had me confused until I learned more about how misleading NES box covers really were for the time. Despite this, I enjoyed playing this game as a child and I remember whipping my NES out not too long ago to play it again just for nostalgia. I can still remember the classic chiptune soundtrack and easily hum the various stage songs. It enjoyed a successful reception and even earned Electronic Gaming Monthly’s “Best NES Game of 1992 Award”, and it’s well deserved despite being one of the underrated games of the series.
Also released in 1992 was the first Sega Mega Drive or Sega Genesis game in the franchise, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist. Using a lot of similar assets from Turtles in Time, it was notably brighter in colors, and I even remember taking note of the game’s “anime” color mode setting in the options. Even though it was visually brighter and a bit more animated than the SNES Turtles in Time, it was notably weaker in the sound department, having inferior voice clips and a somewhat lower quality soundtrack. Despite the retooling of the Turtles in Time assets, the game offered a new plot, new enemies, and even had a slightly grittier style more akin to the comic books than the television series. Despite this, it would mark the series only main entry on a Sega platform, as the only other game released was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters, which coincidentally marked the final NES and SNES turtles games as well. Tournament Fighters was an interesting fighting game, released on NES, SNES, and the Sega Megadrive/Genesis between the years of 1993 and 1994, which many would consider the “fighting game boom”. Each version was notably different, due to various limitations of the controllers of each system, as well as the hardware. They also have very different rosters, which the Genesis version notably had April O’neil as part of the roster, one of her three playable appearances in a game. Other characters appearing were taken from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Adventures comic books being done by Archie at the time, and some even used original characters just to beef up the rosters.
Taking a small step back to 1993 again, I feel it should be worth noting the final Gameboy title as well. Konami released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue for the platform, which took a departure from the gameplay of previous games by making it more like a Metroid title. Players would start off with only Michelangelo, and they would have to rescue the remaining turtles throughout the game, switching between them to use their special abilities to advance through the game and reach new areas. Michelangelo could hover using his nunchakus like a helicopter (A feature that would be used in many TMNT games later on), Leonardo could drill into floors with his katana, Raphael would retreat to his shell to go through “Morphball” like passageways, and Donatello had the ability to climb walls. It’s pretty interesting how portable titles back in the 90’s were more like unique entries compared to the home console games of the same franchise. Developers were a bit more experimental and it shows that a bit more thought went into these titles rather than just making an inferior port.
For a while, the turtles had a bit of a hiatus from the gaming world, as it wouldn’t be until 2003, nearly 10 years later, that Konami revived the game franchise, releasing games based on the 2003 cartoon for the Nintendo GameCube, Sony PlayStation 2, and Microsoft’s Xbox console, as well as a unique Game Boy Advance version. Releasing the first game in this new series, just titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the game was the turtles’ first foray into 3D game space. With new cel-shaded graphics, great 3D animation for the time, and solid voice acting from the cartoon series, the game was actually pretty fun from what I remember, despite being a simple button masher. I played it on the GameCube as my friend actually purchased the game back then, and I helped him play through the game. There were unfortunate complaints about the sound and repetitive voice clips, as well as a lack of a four player mode, as it was two players across all platforms except for the GBA version, which was a single-player sidescroller. This would quickly be rectified in 2004’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Battle Nexus, which returned the four player co-op to the franchise, not to mention giving the turtles the ability to use a special team attack.
I actually owned Battle Nexus for my GameCube back when it released, as I was actually a fan of the newer, darker cartoon series at the time, and I remember playing through most of it with three of my friends. Part of the reason I got the game was because it advertised that included the original arcade game as an added bonus, only for me and my friends to find out that it had to be unlocked by playing a majority of the game and finding a specific item. We eventually unlocked it and found out that one of our cherished childhood games could be defeated in a matter of minutes given unlimited “quarters” and 4 players to wail on the enemies with. Despite that, the main game was actually pretty fun, and I even did a fan review of it back then. Similar to Radical Rescue, each turtle would have a special ability that would help you progress through the game, meaning you would either switch between the turtles during single-player, or rely on teamwork to advance during co-op. Of course it wasn’t a perfect game, but with nice improvements over the original, it was a pretty good co-op beat ‘em up to play with friends. One of the complaints of the game was the shared life bar, meaning if one of your teammates was taking too much damage, they would jeopardize the team and risk a loss for the level, which could be very frustrating during boss fights. It’s also worth mentioning that getting far enough in the game would allow the player to unlock new characters that could be switched out with the turtles, maintaining the same abilities as the turtle they replaced.
Continuing with the popular storyline of the 2003 cartoon series, 2005 brought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: Mutant Nightmare, which was fairly similar to the previous game, albeit now including a slightly altered Turtles in Time as the bonus game now. Also added was the ability to have AI controlled teammates, so all four turtles would always be on screen. It’s also worth mentioning that this was the first TMNT game on the Nintendo DS, as Konami ditched the GBA and released this game on the DS instead. I will say that despite this game not doing well both critically and commercially, I remember liking the well animated introduction FMV sequence. Shortly after the release of Mutant Nightmare came Konami’s final TMNT game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. Released as a sort of Power Stone like fighting game, this game had various modes like “King of the Hill” and “Last Man Standing”, with four player support and recycled assets from the previous games, which unfortunately didn’t seem to be enough to entice players to buy the game.
It wasn’t long until Ubisoft won the publishing rights for the franchise, as it was announced in early 2006 that they would be making the newest game based on the 2007 CG film. Releasing for the most platforms of a Ninja Turtle game to date, the licensed movie tie in, just called TMNT, was released on the GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS, and PC. A unique Game Boy Advance version was also made, sans the multiplayer component and a shift in gameplay. As expected, it was a generic licensed hack n’ slash that just didn’t live up to the legacy of the Turtles’ previous games, and things looked bleak for Ubisoft’s newly acquired license. It wasn’t until Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash-Up, developed by Game Arts, that they really had a game that fans could look forward to.
Game Arts was a studio formed by former fighting game talent, most notably Super Smash Bros. Brawl, as well as Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden, as Smash-Up was a fighting game that used similar gameplay as the Super Smash Bros. series. Releasing in 2009 for just the Wii and PS2 this time, it used a roster that combined features from the CGI movie, the 2003 cartoon, as well as the comics, not to mention, much to the chagrin of many fans, the inclusion of Ubisoft’s own Rabbids from the franchise of the same name. It’s interesting to note that the upcoming Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS actually takes a cue from this game, taking the color coded auras to make it easier to distinguish the characters apart. With online gameplay that was supposedly improved from Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s netcode, the game was meant to be a spiritual successor using the TMNT franchise, featuring 13 characters from the franchise, as well as three Rabbid’s to pad out the roster. Despite being a significant step up in terms of quality, and the positive reviews, it was still considered inferior to Super Smash Bros by many, and the roster left a lot to be desired from the older cartoons and movies. I still remember the cries for Bebop and Rocksteady.
As mentioned before, Ubisoft released Turtles in Time Re-Shelled in 2009, a remake of the arcade classic, but their final game would be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Arcade Attack, a budget beat ‘em up made for the Nintendo DS, also released in 2009. From what I saw of it, it was actually a pretty decent game, if not generic. Only one month before the release of Arcade Attack, Nickelodeon had purchased the rights of the franchise from Mirage Studios head and TMNT co-creator Peter Laird. This not only meant that the franchise was owned by another company, but this also gave Nickelodeon the choice to choose the new publisher for the video games.
Again, the franchise was on hiatus, not seeing a new game until just last year, with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. The 2013 Xbox Live Arcade and PSN title was published by new series license holder Activision, and was meant to be a return to the turtles we knew and loved. Unfortunately, despite the gritty and realistic approach to the Turtles, the game was met with negative reception and continued a steady decline in TMNT games. Later that year, another game released, Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this time based on the newer CGI cartoon series. This title was originally planned for several platforms, but only ended up releasing on the Xbox 360, Wii, and 3DS, with the PS3 and Wii U versions cancelled before release. I will admit, I actually rented this title and played all the way through it, though this was honestly to use up a free game Redbox rental that would score me an easy 1000 gamerscore…it wasn’t really worth it. Though it had the charm of the newer cartoon series, which is critically praised, it was riddled with audio issues, terrible game design, and brainless AI companions that seemed like they were only programmed to follow you around rather than fight enemies. The visuals were also a significant step down, as it couldn’t even compare to the already simplistic design of the cartoon it was based on, which is sadly what we are left to expect of licensed titles these days. Yes, it’s a kid’s game, but these characters are beloved figures in the gaming world, so they definitely deserve to have better quality games.
Sad to say, the iconic heroes in a half-shell don’t seem to have a promising future as far as video games are concerned. What were once gaming icons up there with the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Battletoads, and various other franchises, are now a “shell” of their former glory, at least as far as games are concerned. It can even be argued that the franchise has the record for most games using the same name actually. Sure, you’ll get your occasional mobile game, and you’ll get a few tie-ins, like the Kinect game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Training Lair, some of which might actually be mildly entertaining, it doesn’t seem like we’ll ever get a TMNT game that lives up to the series name again. Maybe with the movie and the continued interest in the franchise, Activision will try to cater to the fans of the storied franchise and make a game with the budgets that would be expected for AAA games in this generation. Could you imagine a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game with as much polish and depth in the combat as a God of War title? Maybe even a true stealth game in the style of the Tenchu franchise, or even just a new fighting game with a roster done right. Even if the future of the games is looking bleak, I will still have my memories of playing the classic titles in the franchise, and Manhattan Project will always remain a big part of my childhood. What are your favorite memories of the TMNT games? Let us know in the comments section.