The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: as the cartoon's theme song informs us, they're heroes in a half-shell, and they're green. Are they, though? Obviously, yes, they're green heroes, but it's the half-shell bit I have a problem with. What's the yellow bit on the front of their torsos if it's not shell? Turtle pecs? They have as much of a full shell as any other shelled animal. You wouldn't go up to a non-mutated turtle and say "nice attempt at evolving a full protective carapace, half-shell," that would just be rude. Raphael might say something like that, I suppose, but then he is rude. That's in the theme song, too. Anyway, none of that matters now, because I'm going to write a bunch of words about Konami's 1991 Game Boy cowabunga-em-up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back From the Sewers!
Yes, they're back from the sewers, leaving a trails of filth behind them and cloaked in the indescribable stench of creatures that live in human effluent and only eat pizza! What diseases do they have? Science doesn't know, but they're definitely full of them!
The turtle brothers gather together for a family snapshot, all of them trying to look as serious and intense as you can when you're a mutant reptile. Fortunately the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are so well known - and are still the subject of new TV shows and movies to this day - that I don't have to explain who they are. We've all grown up with some iteration of the antics of Lennyardo, Micky D'Angelo, Don E. Tellow and Raff, their characters and catchphrases engraved into our hearts and, sometimes, onto our lunchboxes. This particular TMNT game is based on the original cartoon series, so do not expect any of the later TMNT series' slightly darker edge to come through. The closest the first cartoon Turtles got to a dark edge was Raphael telling someone to go suck a lemon.
Pick a turtle, any turtle. It doesn't really matter which, they're all identical aside from the length of their weapons, he says as the Innuendo Police pull up in front of VGJunk Towers. Raphael's sai have a short range, Donatello's mighty and definitely ninja-appropriate stick has a long range but slightly slower attack speed and Michelangelo and Leonardo are somewhere in the middle. Nice and generic, that's Leonardo. He doesn't have Michelangelo's party-dude persona to make him interesting, either. Speaking of Michelangelo, I picked him for the first stage, probably due to lingering resentment that his nunchaku were censored in the UK broadcasts of the cartoon. I spent enough money on TMNT merchandise as a kid to feel that I'm owed these nunchucks, all right?
There's no plot revealed at the start of the game, so those of us without the manual will just have to assume that April O'Neil has been kidnapped. It seems like a pretty safe bet. Anyway, the gameplay: Back From the Sewers is a single-plane side-scrolling beat-em-up with the odd novelty stage thrown in to mix things up, and I'll get right to the ugly truth - this is an extremely shallow and limited game. You can jump and attack, plus the requisite jumping kick which isn't always that useful but is at least a damn sight better than the one in Street Smart. Your chosen turtle lumbers around the screen sluggishly enough to suggest that maybe the thrill has gone out of rescuing April O'Neil and they'd rather be sitting in their underground lair, eating pizza and counting their vast Michael Bay-inflated fortunes. Foot Soldiers - who are both footsoldiers and soldiers of the villainous Foot Clan, and also robots - walk onto the screen just as slowly. You poke the Foot Soldiers with your weapon and they explode, you walk forward a short distance and do it again. Sometimes the Foot Soldiers are hanging from the wall or firing guns or sliding at you, but on the whole it's the same thing repeated, and repeated a lot.
This Foot Soldier is a traitor, a Judas, a backstabbing cur who will burn in the lowest pits of Robot Hell for his efforts to supply the turtles with health-restoring pizza. Michelangelo will go to a slightly higher rung of Turtle Hell for mercilessly destroying the Foot Soldier who was only trying to help him.
Once you're out of the sewers, the turtles' usual desire to remain hidden and unseen by the general populace now rendered moot by every living human having deserted New York, the game tries to stretch itself a little with multi-level areas and Foot Soldiers that attack by throwing manhole covers at you. They are not exactly thrilling additions to the combat. I'm trying to to get too negative too soon on this one, but I can't help but feel it's lacking that certain spark. The limitations of the Game Boy hardware don't help, and I do wonder if the slow movement speed of, well, everything in the game was an attempt to mitigate the blurring effects of motion on the Game Boy screen, but mostly I think I'm comparing it to Konami's other TMNT beat-em-ups. That's patently not fair, but it's a difficult comparison to avoid when so many aspects of this game are lifted from the TMNT arcade brawlers, like the (spoilers) upcoming skating sections and the ability to fall into open drains complete with "who turned out the lights?!" text bubble.
One thing I can't fault are the game's looks. Big, chunky sprites that look just like the TMNT action figures of the time with just a twist of a Japanese manga aesthetic, they capture the feel of the show remarkably well. Then there's the soundtrack, which is probably the best thing about the game, or at least the part of Back From the Sewers that I can recommend wholeheartedly. It's heavily based around the cartoon's theme song in large part, which is no bad thing considering the TMNT theme is a sharpened spike of pure hummability thrust deep into the brain of anyone who's ever heard it. Here, check out this theme from stage three.
Pretty great, but hardly surprising given that Konami's TMNT games include some of the best videogame music of the period.
Back to the game, and Master Splinter pops out of a window, throws a whole pizza on the ground and says "Eat that floor-pizza! Get down on your creepy three-fingered hands and knees and eat it like the animal you are!" He doesn't say it out loud, but he'd definitely saying it with his eyes. Splinter hates himself, you see, he hates what he has become, he hates having to work in a turtles-themed pizzeria that apparently the heroes in a half-shell own and operate. He's a distinguished ninja master, not Papa John.
Splinter's pizza bonanza was a hint that a boss would be appearing soon, and so it proves in the warty and stunningly unintelligent form of Rocksteady. Part man, part rhino, yet somehow able to project enough competence that Shredder trusts him with a gun, Rocksteady represents a wild upswing in Back to the Sewers' difficulty level. It's not that he's particularly challenging to defeat, it's that the entire first stage was so monotonous and simplistic that by the time you reach Rocksteady you've been lulled into a strange torpor and having to pay attention in order to proceed comes as a shock.
Rocksteady mostly attacks by firing his gun and jump at you, so you can negate his attacks by jumping over his bullets and walking under him when he jumps. However, this simple pattern is complicated by the Foot Soldier in the windows above, who joins in by trying to drop flowerpots on your head while you fight. That's some real martial arts training you got there, buddy. Learn that at Ninja Academy, did you?
With Rocksteady out of the way, the turtles can indulge in a Bonus Game, which will almost certainly be pizza themed. I hope the bonus game invoves trying to cram as much pizza into your fat face as possible while simultaneously pushing your feelings of shame deep, deep down inside of you. I'd like the opportunity to put my years of practise to use.
That's sort of how it works - pizzas appear at random points around the screen, and you have to dash around and collect as many as you can. My top tip: you can collect the pizzas by kicking them, which means less time spent slowly walking over to them. Do not try this in real life. Your pizza delivery person will not thank you for it.
I thought I'd take Leonardo out for the next stage. Well, I should probably give him a chance. It's only a bit of forced-scrolling skateboarding action. You can't even fall off the skateboard! Just kick or avoid the Foot Soldiers, how hard can it be?
This is why no-one likes you, Leonardo.
Donatello is making a much better fist of the skateboarding section, even though he's riding a skateboard so tiny I suspect he's stolen it from the most radical and gnarly Prince of the Elf-Folk, and this stage is a nice change of pace from the one-note combat of the first level. It's sometimes a little difficult to tell where you'll be safe from the Foot Soldiers' gunfire, especially the ones in the flying machines, and that's a common theme throughout the game, but mostly it's enjoyable enough.
Bebop is waiting at the end of the highway to challenge you to a boss fight, which is to be expected. You can't have Rocksteady without Bebop. It'd be like Laurel without Hardy, Shaggy without Scooby, Donald Trump without the tiny alien that pilots him from inside in an attempt to undermine the credibility of Earth's governmental systems. There are two things I love about this fight with Bebop, which is otherwise fairly similar to the fight against Rocksteady: one is that his sprite is fantastic, immediately recognisible and nicely animated. The other is that one of his favoured moves is putting his boot right up your turtle's arse. I admire the simplicity of it.
But wait, what's this? After beating Bebop but before moving on to the next stage, I was thrown into the "Rescue Game," in which I faced off against a giant robot policeman. The policebot's name is REX-1. If you've read the Robo Army article, you may remember me mentioning REX-1 in there. I don't know why he's fighting on the side of evil now, although I suppose from his perspective he isn't: the turtles must have committed some crimes for which they must be punished by the law. At the very least, I can't imagine they pay any taxes. So, you have to fight REX-1, and it's quite a challenge. He has a plethora of projectile attacks and the ability to jump on you, plus if you get close enough to hit him, fifty percent of the time he'll just hit you right back. Things are complicated by the fact you don't have a life bar in this fight but rather a timer, and each hit from REX-1 reduces your remaining time. The best way to go about this is to patiently wait at the left-hand side of the screen, avoid the boss' projectiles until he moves a little closer and then get him with the very tip of a jumping kick, which should keep you out of harm's way due to its increased range. If you can do that consistently without ever getting hit you should have just enough time to beat him.
If you win, you can rescue a captured turtle and return them to playable status, making this the game's "lives" system. Once all the turtles are captured it's game over, and freeing one is like finding an extra life. As I'm here and I've already beaten the boss, I should probably let Leonardo out of his cell. He's lucky this isn't The Crystal Maze, I don't think I'd bother spending a crystal to set him free.
Onward to stage three, which takes place in a construction site packed with Foot Soldiers and Mousers, small bipedal robots developed with the sole aim of biting things. Science advanced enough to build a mechanical chomping machine but didn't stop to consider whether it should. The stage is also enlivened by having certain ceiling beams that you can grab hold of and hang from, or use to propel yourself upwards to the platform above. If doesn't change the gameplay all that much - it still has a very stop-start feeling as you inch forwards trying to activate as few enemies as possible at once - but after the first stage was almost entirely flat, level planes it's nice to have even a little freedom of movement. I'm less impressed with these oil drums. They're included because it is Videogame Law that every beat-em-up must include oil drums, but they block your path and you can't kick them out of the way or throw them at the Foot Clan. What kind of self-respecting beat-em-up hero can't smash an oil barrel? There might be pizza hiding under there! On the other hand, given how the turtles got mutated in the first place they're probably wary of unlabelled chemical containers. Okay, you get a pass on this one.
The boss of the construction yard - no, not, like, the foreman or whatever, but the villain waiting at the end - is Krang, the hideous pink brain-blob and Shredder's boss. Krang has done what all disembodied brains, as well as those of us with perfectly functional bodies, longs to do and has built a bipedal mechanized death-suit for eliminating his foes. Good for you, Krang. Raphael regards the mecha-Krang with smug contempt, because that is Raphael's default setting, although his smugness was quickly wiped away once Krang started shooting him. Yes, Krang is another boss that attacks by firing a gun and jumping around. You might be thinking that maybe the Foot Clan should try some different tactics because these ones clearly aren't working, but it's perfectly in keeping with the show. Shredder keeps sending Bebop and Rocksteady after the turtles, after all.
Because there are no turtles currently in captivity, between stages I get to try another bonus game. It works the same as the other bonus game, except in this instance half of the available platforms are covered in painful spikes. At this point, you have to accept that you've gone beyond merely liking pizza and into full-blown pizza addiction.
Stage four sees your chosen turtle chasing Shredder's underground drill-machine through the tunnels it has created, with Shredder apparently kicking Foot Soldiers and flamethrower out the back of his ride every half a yard in order to cover his escape with a blanket of awkward, dull combat. Konami have increased the difficulty level by means of cramming more enemies into each area and having traps designed to activate just as the rhythm of your movements takes you into their path. On paper that's fine, overconfidence should be punished and forcing players to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings is a perfectly valid design decision... but the rest of Back From the Sewers was already a juddery, tippy-toe kind of experience and the addition of having to wait for time flame-jets is not making it any more dynamic.
The collision detection isn't helping, either. I seem to have been complaining about hit detection in a lot of games I've written about recently, so I'm sorry to bore you with repetition but it does hamper a game when there's no consistency in what will or won't harm you, especially a game like Back From the Sewer where there are a surprising amount of very accurate movements needed to avoid projectiles and enemies. For example, see the screenshot above. This rolling boulder will hurt Raphael...
...while this boulder will not, despite it clearly touching our amphibious hero. Part of the problem stems from the game's large sprites. They may look very nice, but being so big leave you very little room to manoeuvre and you end up feeling like a regular, non-ninjitsu-trained turtle. My solution, one which I feel would have improved the entire game, would have been to make everything a little smaller. You'd have more space to move around, and more of the screen being visible would have made planning your attacks an option, rather than having to respond to enemies that can appear right next to you at the edge of the screen without warning.
There's a miniboss half-way through the tunnel, an alien being that resembles the alien from that movie franchise about aliens, you know, what's it called? Oh, never mind, let's just enjoy a boss that doesn't have the same attack pattern as all the others - instead, it hides underwater before bursting out and trying to slice your face off with its claws. Not a bad strategy, all things considered, and I did struggle to get its patterns committed to memory. This monster does appear in the cartoon, and it represents Shredder's attempts at psychological warfare: starting out as an egg that resembles a meatball, Shredder tries to place them on the turtles' pizza knowing that when reheated in a microwave the eggs will hatch into huge, slavering star-beasts. That's right, he tries to turn pizza against the turtles, an act of shocking mental cruelty that cements Shredder's place as one of the all-time most deranged cartoon villains. Of course, Shredder is also a whining, incompetent idiot, so his plan doesn't work.
Oh, hello Shredder. I was just talking about you. Using the jumping kicks, are you? I see you've read my other beat-em-up articles. It doesn't seem to be doing you much good, though, you keep missing me with your kicks but landing right next to me, where I easily stab you with my sai. Turtle Power!
With Shredder being soundly defeated, you might think Back From the Sewers is over, but you'd be wrong. Shredder runs away, but not before shaking his fist at me in a manner that manages to be both curmudgeonly and really camp at the same time.
The next stage begins with Splinter flying the Turtle Blimp towards the Foot Clan's arrangement of hovering platforms while you cling to the underside, so I take back anything negative I've said about this game. Well, I've got one criticism left - why can't I play as Splinter? Is he too much of a radical rat for me to handle? He clearly knows what he's doing, let him get out there and clobber some villains with his stick.
A much more open and expansive stage, this one has you climbing between small platforms while avoiding gun turrets and aerial bombardments. It's good to be out of the cramped sewer tunnels, and interestingly the platforms seem to form an infinite vertical loop: you can fall, but you can't fall off the bottom of the stage and die or anything, and if you keep climbing upwards the platforms you pass will start to repeat themselves. I'm not sure if it's purely moving to the right that triggers progress or if there's some other factor that determines whether you can escape from this gravity-defying labyrinth, but it seemed to take a very long time to get where I was going.
Where I was going turned out to be this rooftop, the arena for a battle with half-man-half-fly mutant Baxter Stockman. Good old Baxter Stockman, source of much childhood anxiety after I watched the episode where Krang gets fed up of him and decides to put him in the disintegrator. I was not expecting to see a TMNT villain flippantly murder someone by erasing them from existence in what looked like a giant microwave. Obviously it didn't work out like that, and Stockman was fused with a fly that followed him into the disintegrator. That's kind of a shitty disintegrator you've got there, Krang. I hope all your equipment on the Technodrome isn't so unfit for purpose, or I'd hate to see what happens when you flush your toilet.
Oh right, the fight. I just stood on top of the doorway in the background and clobbered Baxter when he came near. Ironically, it was actually easier than swatting a fly.
Inside the building is a stone man with a flamethrower and, weirdly, a beaky face. He reminds me of the bird people from Yume Nikki but, you know, made of rocks and not strangely unnerving. I hit him with my stick a few times, that seemed to calm him down.
April O'Neil had been kidnapped? What a shocker! I wonder who kidnapped her. The stone guy? Shredder? You'd think Shredder would have made more of a big deal out of it. I suspect the turtles faked her kidnapping to keep her out of the way, they don't have time to be protecting a journalist while they save New York. My evidence for this theory is that "cowabunga" graffiti on the wall behind here. The turtles must have been here before, who else would go around writing "cowabunga" on the walls of derelict buildings? Whatever the case, April is free now - in a nice touch she has a speech sample of her saying "thank you, turtles!" - and with the damsel un-distressed you might think that Back From the Sewers is over, but you'd be wrong, again.
There's one more stage, a mish-mash of all the other elements we've seen throughout the rest of the game, beginning with a surfing section that's almost identical to the skateboarding part but with a hugely increased chance of losing a life due to extreme toe stubbing. Just walk around! There's a perfectly suitable pathway visible in the background, and it's not like this surfboard is that much faster than running. Or, I dunno, swim. Actually, no, I just remembered the NES TMNT game, forget I mentioned swimming.
Eventually you'll make it into the Technodrome, where there's a battle against another stone man waiting for you. I believe he's called General Traag. I'm flabbergasted that his name is not a rock-based pun of some kind. I like that he's wearing boots. You'd think one of the perks of having granite feet would be not having to go shoe shopping, but here we are.
I'm not sure what's going on with Michelangelo in this screenshot, but it can't end well. It looks like his mutation is running out of control, and Michelangelo's sheepish expression seems to say "sorry, folks, but I will have to feast on your livegiving blood to sustain my transformation. I know it is neither radical nor bodacious, but I must feed, and feed soon."
Awkwardly-captured screenshots of a turtle in mid-jump aside, this final stage is a long, drawn-out episode in a game that hasn't exactly been thrilling even at its highest points. There's a little bit of everything included: mousers jumping from holes in a tunnel, an elevator ride with the usual flood of enemies pouring in, a section of platforming with dead-ends included that you could call a maze in the same way that standing a puddle could be considered swimming. The thing is, it feels like there's no reason to be doing any of these. We've already beaten Krang and Shredder and rescued April, so why are we here?
We're here to fight Shredder again, obviously. It took one hell of a swing to chop him in half with nunchuks, but Mikey has apparently been working on his upper body strength. Not really, what's happening is that Shredder can now disappear and reappear, Dracula from Castlevania-style, ready to hit you with the sword he also picked up somewhere along the way. Unfortunately for him, the screen is so small that wherever he appears he's close enough to get clobbered, so it's not as effective as you might think. However, there's a twist. Back From the Sewers has three difficulty settings - easy, normal and hard - and rather doing the usual thing of giving enemies more health and harder-hitting attacks on the higher difficulties, bosses in Back From the Sewers actually gain whole new attacks when you're playing on Hard mode. For example, Shredder can teleport directly behind you for an easy hit. It's an approach to raising the level of challenge that you rarely see in any game, let alone Game Boy games from 1991, and Konami must be applauded for not taking the easy route.
We're still in the Technodrome. Still. I know it's a big place but I don't think it was necessary to make the player see every single room.
And finally, Big Krang. Krang in his giant robot body, a body that was designed by Shredder as a cruel jab at his partner in crime / alien overlord. Why else would he build Krang a robot body that looks like an extremely stupid bald man who doesn't own clothes aside from underpants if not as a "screw you" to Krang? It could have looked like anything, but no, Shredder built it to look like a middle-aged British man sleeping on a sunlounger in Tenerife, sunglasses and all, and that was a decision that could only have come from malice.
After the latter stages of the game had been fairly difficult, the final encounter with Krang is remarkably straightforward. All Krang wants to do is jump around, filled with glee at having a working pair of legs. This works to your advantage, because he's not focussed on killing you and you can hit him as he bounces as long as you remember to watch out for when he jumps all the way over to the left of the screen. Keep that up for a minute or so and you'll achieve victory, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back From the Sewers is over.
There goes the Technodrome. It jiggles around a bit, which I think is meant to imply that it's exploding. Well, this is the end of a Konami game, it'd be weird if it didn't blow up.
The game ends, as I should have expected, with pizza. What I didn't expect was that I'd be so glad it's over. A classic-era Konami TMNT brawler is something I would have expected to get much more pleasure from than this. It's just missing something, that vital spark that could lift it out of the tedious sludge it inhabits. It's not a terrible game, but it does drag on rather, in a herky-jerky fashion that just rubbed me the wrong way. I guess I just like my ninjas to be more agile. The wonky collision detection doesn't help, either. Still, there's a lot to praise about the game: the graphics are great, as is the soundtrack, the "rescue your captured turtles" mechanic is neat, the gameplay changes on higher difficulty settings are impressive and the look and feel of the cartoon is captured really well. I suspect there are a lot of people out there that played Back From the Sewers in their youth and remember it as a great game, so if you want to tell me I'm wrong then go ahead. There's a chance I am wrong, and it just wasn't quite clicking with me. I'm definitely right about Shredder designing Krang's body as a dick move, though.