What began as a joke between aspiring comic book creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, eventually morphed into a multi-media juggernaut bestowing wealth and status upon the two. Along the way though, few predicted such big things out of a property titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The books sold well, but they were independently produced and in small numbers limiting how much money could be earned. Plus they were pretty violent and would never be considered suitable for a general audience. Eastman and Laird believed in it though, they just needed to convince those with the means to catapult their franchise to believe in it. Toy companies passed though, but eventually doll maker Playmates, needing to add a “boy’s toy” to its portfolio decided to take a chance. In order to help market the toys though, they needed something more suitable than the black and white, ultra-violent, comics that existed and a cartoon was born.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon was conceived basically as a means of promotion. A direct-to-syndication order was out of the question, and even a full season was apparently deemed too extravagant. Instead, a five episode mini-series was produced for air in 1987. The confidence in the property was still too low to even warrant a more traditional half-season order of 13 episodes. Five episodes was all it took though, and kids were hooked pretty quickly causing them to flock to stores and leave bare the TMNT section of the action figures aisle. A second season would be ordered, and apparently confidence was still a bit tepid as that was only 13 episodes. It wasn’t until the third season, which premiered in 1989, that the property received a direct-to-syndication massive order of episodes.
Because of the wavering, Turtle-mania basically had to wait until 1989 to really flourish. That’s when all of the merchandise started to arrive now that it was a proven hit. The first movie would arrive the following year, with the second close behind in 1991. 1989 was also the first year when video games started to arrive, and the no doubt biggest video game release of the year for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the arcade game of the same name.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game gave fans a chance to basically play through an episode of the show. It was as true to the cartoon as any game would get and even featured voice talent from the show. The very first stage has Splinter sending the Turtles into a burning building to rescue April O’Neil and culminates in a showdown with Rocksteady and ends with Shredder making an appearance. The game throws a seemingly endless supply of Foot Soldiers at the Turtles and brings in more characters from the show such as Baxter Stockman (in human form), Bebop, Krang, among others and ends with a showdown against Shredder himself.
The game was created by Konami, who was awarded the license for all of the video games for this era. At this stage, Double Dragon had taken arcades by storm ushering in the era of the Beat-Em-Up genre of games. This genre, in which one or more players controlled a character who fended off wave after wave of enemies, became the preferred dumping ground for licensed software. Konami was arguably the leader in this development as it looked to the genre to support not just the Turtles, but also The Simpsons and X-Men. Konami’s take on the genre was far simpler when compared with rival Capcom or Sega. Rather than introduce complicated maneuvers to the action, Konami focused mostly on performance and presentation making sure their game resembled the source material while remaining accessible.
Even by Konami standards, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a fairly simple gameplay experience. Players control one of the four Turtles with each one being mapped to a specific joystick on the four-player version of the arcade cabinet (the less popular two-player edition allowed players to select a character). Michelangelo was oddly assigned the color yellow instead of orange, a mistake Konami would double-down on with the sequel, Turtles in Time. Each Turtle could perform just two actions: jump and attack. Players could combine them for a jump attack, but special super moves were years away. Players simply walked right for the most part and took down whatever came their way. A skateboarding level was tossed in to mix things up, though that just made the level auto-scroll instead of the usual deliberate pace. Still, little tricks like that work wonders on kids and most cited the skateboarding level as the highlight of the gameplay experience. Stages also introduced multi-level layouts and there were some interactive elements in the stages too. The only power-up was a pizza to restore health, a logical decision.
The music and visuals were where Konami really distinguished itself. The gameplay may be shallow, but there was enough glitz to sort of hide that. The Turtles looked and moved great and the boss characters were often bigger and a touch more elaborate. It felt like a real technological marvel to battle Rocksteady at the end of stage 1 followed by Bebop in the next stage, only to later take on both of them at the same time! The game was also murder on quarters as it was primarily designed to extract as much money as possible out of kids (or more appropriately, parents) and the game was pretty long to boot. Enemies are not staggered easily, or at all, forcing the players to either be deliberate or just charge in. The game is noticeably easier with 4 players, especially for the final boss who splits into three enemies. My most vivid memory of the game is playing it at a cousin’s birthday party at a roller-skating rink (yeah, dated). We made it to the Technodrome and were in the midst of battling Krang, the penultimate confrontation before Shredder arrives, when a kid who had been hanging around watching the whole time accidentally stepped on the power chord ending the game. My cousin, the birthday boy, was apoplectic while my aunt was probably relieved that she no longer had to feed us quarters. I was disappointed as I think it was the first time I even saw that much of the game, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for the kid who accidentally stepped on the thing.
As was the case with any popular arcade game, Konami moved to release the title to home consoles. Since it arrived after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES), it had to be re-titled as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. It was a severe downgrade as the sprites all had to be redone with less detail and fewer colors. The Turtles were just green and whatever color their mask was, while the boss characters often were limited to two or three colors as well. Konami tried to make up for this by adding additional stages, but you can’t put lipstick on a pig. It was also a lot easier so the game was actually beatable without a ton of quarters, but it was an immensely inferior experience.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a huge thrill for arcade-goers and fans of the cartoon in 1989. It had the look, the sounds, and the swagger to get attention and mostly satisfy. In 2020, the nostalgia does make up for the diminished returns, but only so much. This is a simple and depth-free gameplay experience so it’s really only worth playing for the experience of seeing everything, before it runs out of steam. It makes it hard to recommend as an arcade cabinet for one’s home, whether you’re talking about buying an old cabinet or investing in Arcade1Up’s emulation machine as you’re not only devoting a considerable sum of money towards such a thing, but also the space it will occupy in your home or place of business. The NES port holds up even worse, and while I considered it a passable experience as a kid, I think I’d rather play any of the other TMNT NES games over it. The time to get one has mostly passed on it as in the late 90s one could have acquired a cabinet in decent shape for a reasonable sum as the nostalgia wasn’t quite there yet to drive up the price. Still, there are other ways to experience it and those might be worth a look for individuals wanting to take a stroll down memory lane or introduce a kid to the game. If you’re in the right headspace, you can have a bit of fun with this one, just don’t expect the fun to last very long.