First Sonic the Hedgehog and now this. That’s two games in a row that you have not only probably heard of but might well have even played yourself. I’m getting dangerously close to the mainstream. The mainstream from, erm, almost thirty years ago, anyway. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll get back to barely-remembered home computer games soon enough, but for today it’s Konami’s 1989 arcade superhit Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

A surprisingly bland title screen for such a well-loved game, but not to worry – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles makes up for it with the game’s attract mode, which is a recreation of the TMNT cartoon’s opening sequence, complete with a portion of the show’s theme tune. It’s the “teenage mutant ninja turtles, teenage mutant ninja turtles” bit you get to hear, with none of the parts of the song that explain the turtle’s personality quirks and that they will cut the evil Shredder no slack. They didn’t need those bits of the song, because Konami have included their own descriptions of each turtle to get you up to speed.

Not that you necessarily need a bio for each turtle. The TMNT franchise has been around for over thirty years now, and if you’re the kind of person who has sought out a TMNT arcade game then you’re probably already well aware that Leonardo leads and Michelangelo is a party dude. Back in 1989, though, the turtles were still getting big off the back of their first animated series – the series upon which this game is based – so there might have been some kids who didn’t know who the turtles were. In fact, I can imagine this game being a lot of kids’ gateway drug to full-blown turtlemania.

Turtle number one is Leonardo, the leader of the gang. We all know he’s the sensible, level-headed member of the team, but I think that description has been influenced by years of newer TMNT media, because from what I remember of the 80s cartoon Leonardo was just as much of a pizza-obsessed dork as the rest of the turtles. Nowadays he really is the leader of the turtles, but back then “leader” was a vanity title. Also, you’d think someone who has dedicated their life to the mastery of Japanese swordsmanship would baulk at the idea of using their treasured blades to slice pizza, but give Leo a break. He’s a hideous green mutant who lives in the sewers, it’s not like he can nip down to Wilko and buy a pizza cutter.

Next up is Michelangelo, the party dude, the turtle most likely to require an intervention at some point in the future. “I just like having fun, dude,” he says as his family and friends gather around him, “it’s not like I have a problem.

Then there’s Donatello, who nowadays is much more strongly presented as a “nerd,” but back in the day he just “did machines.” The bloke who fixed my tumble drier also “does machines” for a living, but that doesn’t make him a nerd. I will be playing as Donatello last time, because I played as Michelangelo last time I covered a TMNT game and because I’m hoping Donatello’s resentment at being equipped with a stick rather than a cool ninja weapon will translate into a ferocious fighting style.

Lastly there’s Raphael, and his character has changed even more than Leonardo’s over the years: now thought of as the surly, hot-headed rebel of the bunch, in the first cartoon series Raphael was merely a sarcastic, smart-mouthed type. You know the type, you’re always worried that they’re going to invite you to their open-mic stand-up show.
You’ll notice that the turtle’s bios are leaning very heavily on their relationship with pizza. This is hardly surprising, a love of pizza is one of the turtles’ defining traits – but I think it’s mentioned so often because the developers didn’t have much else to work with. Supposedly the game was designed around just the first five episodes of the cartoon, so there wasn’t as much material there as there would be later on: the TMNT cartoon ran for ten seasons, after all. This means that while TMNT does capture a lot of the spirit of the cartoon – in fact, that’s one of the game’s biggest strengths – there are some elements that are surprising in their absence.

The game begins with a fire. The turtles’ friend and confidante April O’Neil is in that building! Being the heroic amphibians they are, the turtles leap into action with no regard for their personal safety and, apparently, no plan for getting to the building beyond “we’ll jump off this building.” That’s either impressive or foolhardy, depending on how much of a turtle’s famous ability for long-jumps the heroes in a half-shell kept during their mutation.

It works out all right for them in the end. Well, mostly. Michelangelo falls on his arse, so it’s a good job I won’t be playing as him. It’d be difficult to fight the evil Foot Clan with a shattered coccyx.

It’s gameplay time, and yes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a side-scrolling beat-em-up. It works a little differently to what you might be expecting, what with it being developed at the same time as Final Fight (the game that really consolidated the genre’s “rules”). Still, it’s a familiar mix of walking around, jumping, jump-kicking and using your attacks to pummel the various members of the Foot Clan that get in your way. You can see some Foot Clan ninjas above, resplendent in their purple and white uniforms, with the turtles and the Foot Clan locked in a battle to determine which group are the least ninja-like ninjas of all time. It’s the usual “walk right and punch things” formula, then, except I’m hitting the bad guys with a stick rather than punching them.

It’s been quite a while since I played TMNT properly, and I’ve played a lot of other, more (let’s say) “traditional” brawlers in the interim, so some of the things TMNT does differently are really jumping out at me. One is that there’s no “desperation move,” a special attack activated by pressing both buttons together that knocks down all enemies near you at the cost of some of your health. The turtles do have a move executed by both buttons, but it’s more of a big, jumping swing (Raphael’s is slightly different) that doesn’t attack in 360 degrees, doesn’t make you invincible while it’s active and doesn’t reduce your health. That took some getting used to.

Then there’s the throwing mechanics. In most brawlers, if you walk right into an enemy you’ll grab them, and from there you can usually hit them a couple of time or throw them (or both). Not so in TMNT. There are throwing attacks – in Donatello’s case he picks his opponent up with his stick and flips them over – but I’m not entirely sure how they work. You attack the enemies and most times you’ll just whack them, but sometimes you’ll throw them. I never managed to figure out whether it’s completely arbitrary or it’s somehow related to the enemy’s remaining health, but my best guess is that there’s some kind of hidden “timer” or combo counter and when it’s full your next attack will be a throw. It’s unpredictable, and that might be a problem in other brawlers but TMNT is so fast-paced and hectic that it’s never much of an issue. Plus, if you throw an enemy into a wall, they slam into it and then slowly slide down to the ground, so any issues with the throwing system are redeemed by that graphical flourish alone.

Having reached the end of this (very short) first stage, the turtles have located April. Don’t look too closely at April’s face, it really brings down the otherwise excellent graphics. Instead, let’s enjoy the arrival of Rocksteady, Shredder’s mutated rhino-man minion. In particular, let’s take a moment to appreciate Rocksteady’s driving skills, because he’s arrived here by piloting an underground tunnelling machine with a massive drill on the front. Considering April’s apartment is at the top of a skyscraper, that is one hell of a drive to pop up through her living room floor.

Boss battle time, and I don’t really know what the best way to approach this fight is. “Not from the front” is a good bet, because Rocksteady has a machine gun and he’s not reluctant to use it. Even when I avoided the gun, however, I’d land a couple of hits from what I thought was a safe position, only for Rocksteady to boot me across the room. Hit-and-run tactics seem to be your best option, then, while keeping an eye out for the moments when Rocksteady goes bananas and starts wildly firing his gun in all directions. At least Donatello’s stick gives him some much-needed extra range, and it wasn’t long before I’d poked Rocksteady into submission. Wait a minute, that means I’ve rescued April. So… game over, then?

Nope, never mind: Shredder has appeared and grabbed April before jumping out of a window with her tucked under his arm. Makes you wonder why he bothered setting fire to April’s apartment in the first place, really. Unless the fire was a side effect of drilling though a block of flats with underground excavation machinery. Yeah, it’s probably that.

TMNT’s first stage is short enough to feel more like a prologue than anything, but now that the turtles – well, Donatello, anyway – have hit the city streets we’re into full-length stage territory. There are lots of Foot Soldiers about, so the turtles have been forced to abandon their efforts to remain hidden from the general populace, presumably enjoying the sunlight and air that smells significantly less like human effluent as they crack heads, perform many jumping kicks and repeatedly fall down an open manhole cover because they’re not paying enough attention. That last bit might be down to me, actually.
Helpfully, the Foot Clan have colour-coded their minions so you can tell at a glance what you’re dealing with: purple soldiers use their bare fists, yellow soldiers have boomerangs, white-clad ninjas wield swords. It’s good to be able to differentiate melee troops from their projectile-carrying brethren, at least, and the different colours mean it feels like there’s a little more enemy variation. Like I said, Konami didn’t have much material to draw on when designing TMNT, so there aren’t that many different types of goons: Foot Soldiers, Mouser robots and those uni-wheeled whip-armed robot things are about all you get.

Well well, look at this. Some kind soul has spray-painted the word “Caution” on the floor – either that, or they’ve spend a long time painstakingly arranging a puddle into those letters – to warn me of upcoming danger. But where is the threat lurking? Is it that crumbling corner of the pavement? It does look like a sprained ankle waiting to happen, but I’ve already safely negotiated that particular hazard. Maybe there’s a Foot Soldier with a high-powered sniper rifle waiting off-screen? But then you take a closer look at the billboard in the background and notice it says “Trapcorp” on it.

Yep, the billboard is a trap: walk underneath it and a couple of Foot Soldiers will push it onto your head. How wonderful is it that the billboard literally told you it was a trap? That’s one of my favourite little flourishes I’ve seen in a game for a while. And, even though I knew there was a trap there, the billboard still hit me. Trapcorp do good work. Wile E. Coyote might want to look into switching suppliers.

Waiting at the end of the street is Bebop, the warthog half of the Bebop and Rocksteady tag-team. That’s Donatello insulting Bebop’s appearance in that speech bubble, by the way. Getting socked right in the jaw may be more justified than usual. Also, glass houses and all that, Donny. I don’t think you’re ever going to be appearing on the cover of GQ, are you?
Given that they’re both muscular mutants carrying guns, it’s no surprise that this fight is similar to the one against Rocksteady. Bebop’s got a little more space to move around in, though, and he uses this to try to shoulder-charge you once you get too far away. The basics remain the same, however; wait until he’s finished shooting or shoulder charging, whack him a couple of times, move up or down to avoid his counter attacks and don’t get too greedy – if you try to unload a full combo on Bebop, half-way through he’ll just thump you across the stage.

After dealing with Bebop, it’s back to the sewers. Not back from the sewers, that’s one of the Game Boy TMNT games. Anyway, there’s not much new to see and do here- bad guys attack, you whack ‘em with your ninja weaponry, so on and so forth. There are a few traps, like these spiked gates, and some of the Foot Soldiers enter the fray by climbing hand-over-hand along the pipes in the foreground in a manner that’s about as stealthy and discreet as wearing a big neon sign on their head that flashes “I AM A NINJA” whenever they move. Overall it’s a pretty bland stage, though. If videogames have taught us nothing else over the years, it’s that it’s very difficult to make an interesting sewer level.

I hope you got lots of practise fighting those Mousers, because Baxter Stockman has arrived for the boss battle and he’s brought hundreds of the bloody things with him. In the most egregious example of this game not having enough TMNT material to work with, Stockman shows up in his far-less-interesting “deranged inventor” incarnation. I know, I know, a mad scientist is usually a very welcome character to include but later in the show Baxter Stockman is transformed into a half-mad-scientist / half fly monster abomination and we can all agree that would be a much better boss fight. Instead what we get is Stockman flying around in a robot capsule thing – after bellowing “Yippee-I-ay!” at you, the weirdo – and throwing Mousers into the fray. You can attack the Mousers but they’ll just keep coming, so you might as well focus on Stockman. The problem with that approach, and this might just be me, but I had trouble lining up my attacks. It’s because he’s flying, I never seemed to be on the right horizontal plane even with Stockman’s shadow working as a guide. Oh well, it’s not an especially fun battle but neither is it terrible. It’s just kinda… there. And now I’ve finished it. Onwards!

The villains pop up between stages to let me know they’re still holding April hostage. Thanks for that, chaps. I might have forgotten what I was doing otherwise. I notice that Baxter Stockman isn’t with you. I assume he was killed during the previous battle. You have my condolences.

More street fighting now, except all of the player characters are musclebound green freaks and not just Blanka. It’s all motoring along at a fair old clip, and both the turtles and the Foot Soldiers are speedy and agile. Still, the combat itself doesn’t feel quite right. It’s definitely fun, and maybe it’s because it’s impossible to play TMNT without viewing it through the prism of all the other side-scrolling beat-em-ups I’ve played, but there’s something a little off about it. For one thing, it doesn’t feel very solid. It’s a difficult concept to explain, but there’s little sensation of weight behind your blows, perhaps due to the game’s sometimes tinny sound effects. Then there’s your standard combos – in most beat-em-ups, once you hit an enemy with the start of your combo they’re stuck there while you unleash your entire combo on them. In TMNT, however, the enemies can interrupt your combo sometimes, and this seems to be especially true when you’re playing as Donatello because of his slightly slower attacks. You can also move while you’re comboing, so if you’re holding the joystick when attacking your turtle will slide around a bit in between each attack. It adds up to gameplay that feels a touch loose, a hair floaty, but because it’s such an all-action, high-impact spectacle you’re left with very little chance for it to become a problem.

Bebop and Rocksteady are back. I’m happy enough with that, I like Bebop and Rocksteady. They were good in Turtles Forever, anyway. It’s a bit of a pain having to fight them both at the same time, especially as they both have guns, but on the plus side they’ve got a move where they both charge at the same time and smash into each other face-first. Being a rhino, I reckon Rocksteady will have come out of that collision better than Bebop.

April has been rescued! You could see her in the background of the previous fight, actually. Bebop and Rocksteady probably should have left her back at the Technodrome, really, but she’s free now and she rewards Donatello with a kiss on the head. Donny doesn’t look much like he’s into it, does he? Then again, why would be? Not many people would want to kiss a mutant turtle, and presumably it works the other way around. If you’re about to send me links to certain website with pictorial evidence that some people do want to make out with the ninja turtles, please keep it to yourself. We both know it’s out there, let’s just leave it at that.

Ah yes, the secret factory. So secret, in fact, that this is the first I’m hearing about it.

The Foot Clan Air Force is suffering from cutbacks, I see. I wonder what transgressions these poor ninjas made to be ordered into battle carrying bombs over their heads? It can’t be “being completely ineffectual in stopping the turtles,” because then the entire Foot Clan from Shredder down would be up for court-martial.
So, the turtles make their way to the secret factory by walking right down the middle of the highway, despite the previous stage showing that they own a van. Okay, sure, whatever, but that does leave them prone to being run over.

Say what you will about the Foot Clan, but they know how to ride in style.

Now we know where the Ninja Air Force’s budget went, they’ve spent it all on these one-man attack helicopters that are unsuited to carrying large ordnance. Donatello is riding a skateboard now, because of course he is. I wonder when the skateboard went from being shorthand for cool to shorthand for trying to be cool but failing? About five nanoseconds after the first advertising exec signed off on a skateboard-riding mascot, I suppose. That won’t bother the turtles, mind you: they love skateboarding, especially rocket skateboarding, because slapping a jet engine on a wheeled plank of wood is the best way to get through the sewers quickly.
It might look like this stage is trying to do something new and exciting, and I guess it is trying, but it doesn’t really work. The skateboard’s always directly under your two-toed feet so it’s not like you have to worry about falling off – all it means is that you have to spend the entire stage doing jumping attacks. It’s all a bit of a pain, really.

Oh, now the Turtle Wagon shows up. Coulda saved me a lot of time and frustration there, lads.

You know what? I’m just going to come out and say it - turtles shouldn’t be allowed to drive. Think about it, there’s no way they’ve got licenses. I’m sure the DVLA would agree that they’re a menace to themselves and others.

While the turtles were busy causing major delays on the city’s roads, Splinter has managed to get himself kidnapped. “We gotta save Splinter,” says Donatello, before standing still and letting the Mousers carry his master away. Good ninja reflexes there, Donny. Very sharp. It’s odd, because it’s not like the turtles need a rescue mission to motivate them, the desire to slap Shredder around should be more than enough to get them moving.

This’ll be the secret factory, then. It features the same Foot-fighting action as the other stages, and it’s particularly notable for featuring a bunch of these spear-carrying Foot Soldiers. They are a colossal pain in the backside, because not only do the spears give their melee attacks far greater range than even Donatello’s whackin’ stick, but they can also throw their spears at you for a projectile attack. I think I lost more health to these pricks than I did to the swarm of gun-toting attack helicopters. Oh, and there are more traps than ever in this stage, notably the mechanical-looking things on the platform below Donatello’s feet. Those are laser beam emitters that damage you if you stand in front of them, so in this case the machines did Donatello.

Halfway through the stage, Shredder sends up one of his drill machines packed with laser-spraying, insectoid drones. I’m sure Shredder doesn’t think they’ll actually stop the turtles – they certainly don’t pose much of a challenge and to call it a boss fight would rather devalue the rest of the game’s bosses. I think he just sent them up to annoy the turtles, then. Well, it didn’t work. Now I’m not on a skateboard I’m having too much fun to get annoyed.

The stage’s real boss is this curiously bird-faced rock soldier. One of Metroid’s Chozo statues gone rogue? Maybe. All I know is that being made of granite doesn’t prevent him from taking damage when I bash him with my stick, which you’d think would be entry number one on the “reasons why being a stone soldier is awesome” list. Anyway, the stone soldier fights very similarly to Bebop and Rocksteady: he’s got a gun (a flamethrower, in this case) and he’ll hit you with a powerful strike if you get greedy with combos or have the temerity to jump towards him. The same tactics for defeating him apply, you just have to be a bit more careful. Before he’s reduced to decorative aquarium gravel, however, take a good look at his flamethrower. That is definitely the Pulse Rifle from Aliens mixed with, erm, the flamethrower from Aliens. Maybe Konami knew they were going to be starting work on an Aliens arcade game right after TMNT came out so they figured they’d get in some practise drawing the movie’s weapons.

Oh, I get it – it’s called the “secret factory” because it makes secrets. Secrets like the Technodrome, the mobile fortress belonging to Shredder’s boss, Krang. That’ll be the final stage, then. I wish more final stages took place in enormous spherical death-tanks with robots eyeballs sticking out of the top.

Well, this shouldn’t take long.

The inside of the Technodrome is about what you’d expect: lots of vaguely sci-fi-looking scenery and dozens of Foot Soldiers. Here, you can see a Foot Soldier is about to harm Donatello by throwing a spear into his back. You’d think the one thing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would be safe from is spears in the back, but the ways of ninjitsu truly are mysterious.
There are also a lot of traps in this stage. Electricity blasters, gun turrets, freeze rays, it’s like a Bond villain’s jumble sale. I’m happy for all these deathtraps to be here, because it certainly enlivens proceedings. Some of the earlier stages were a little bland, especially the sewer, so more stuff to avoid is fun. I had enough chances to use the environment against the Foot Clan – by kicking traffic cones at them or detonating exploding oil drums or opening fire hydrants – that a bit of turnabout actually does feel like fair play.

TMNT even mixes up the standard beat-em-up “ride an elevator while enemies jump in” section by replacing the goons with big steel balls. That made a nice change, mostly because I didn’t have to worry about getting a spear in the back. Plus the turtles can jump really high in this game, so it’s not much of a challenge to avoid the balls.

Here comes another boss, and in fact the game is all bosses from here on out. This one’s another rock bloke – General Traag, to be precise. The fight got off to a bad start, because I was standing next to the door when Traag kicked it open at the start of the battle. Then it got worse when I tried to circle around him and accidentally touched the laser grid covering the now-open doorway. The look of sheer misery on Donatello’s skull is going to haunt me for a while.
So, another day, another rock man. This one also has a gun. I honestly can’t remember if there’s any differences between Traag and the last rock man I fought, other than Traag wearing kicky purple boots. They’re both got the prominent rocky codpieces, I know that much. As with the other rock man, and most of the bosses in the game, it’s more hit-and-run fighting only with more running than hitting. If you’re trying to get through the fight safely, it can take quite a long time, which makes sense when you’re trying to destroy a walking boulder by hitting it with a wooden stick. It doesn’t make for the most thrilling gameplay, though.

Once you’ve beaten Traag, it’s time to face Krang! You know, Krang, the alien brain-creature riding around inside the belly of a bald robot wearing underpants and suspenders? Krang is Shredder’s boss, so it’s a little odd that we haven’t seen him in the game before now and he wanders out of the teleporter screen with very little fanfare. Maybe Konami were trying to keep his appearance a surprise. By the way, Shredder built Krang’s robot body, which tells you a lot about how highly Shredder regards Krang.
As for the fight, at the risk of repeating myself it’s yet another cautious affair where getting a single hit in then running away is your best strategy. Krang attacks with eye beams and a hefty kick, but because he’s bigger and consequently slower than the other bosses he’s probably the easiest one in the game to beat. It’s something of a disappointment, and he was much cooler when he appeared in his giant mode in TMNT IV: Turtles in Time, but just look at his joyous, squishy little face in the screenshot above. Krang’s having such a good time that it’s impossible to be too disappointed.

With nary a moment to draw your breath, once Krang’s been dealt with Shredder appears for the final confrontation. And when I say Shredder, I mean two Shredders. He’s used his ninja magic to create a doppelganger, and I never did figure out if one of them is the “true” Shredder that you should be focussing on or if they both take damage, so I pummelled both of them just about equally. It’s a much more enjoyable fight than the last two, as well – for starters, you can actually get a combo off against Shredder without having to leg it after each successful hit, and as he slashes at you with his sword and you dodge out of the way while trying to keep the other Shredder at bay, it all gels into a fun, fast and slick battle that’s definitely suitable for the game’s final set piece.

It’s a real shame, then, that Shredder also has a wide-range special move that’s an instant kill if it hits you: he whips out his retro-muto-thingamabob and fires it in a three-way spread, turning any Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle back into a regular, non-mutant, non-ninja (though presumably still teenaged) turtle. It is avoidable and if you’re quick you can knock Shredder out of the attack while he’s pulling his gun out, but it still feels ever so slightly like bullshit. Does it help that if it does hit you, you’re replaced by a special sprite of a tiny, adorable turtle? Yes, yes it does.

Eventually, though, Shredder was defeated and the Technodrome exploded. Of course it did, this is a Konami arcade game. If the enemy base didn’t blow up at the end I’d ask for my money back. There’s not much to the game’s ending, with it basically telling you what you already know: you won. It is frankly astonishing that there’s not a single mention of pizza in here – instead we’re left to wonder about the mechanics of vaporising something into milkshake. Surely that would be liquidising, not vaporising.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the most widely-loved arcade games of all time, but in some ways it’s probably not as great as you remember it being. It’s core gameplay is still fun, in concept and mostly in execution, but it has problems like some not-very interesting boss battle and a light, slippery feel to some of the combat. On a purely mechanical level it’s not as good as something like Final Fight or Streets of Rage, then, but here’s the thing – that doesn’t really matter in this instance. Whatever its flaws, TMNT makes up for them with the pure joy of its presentation. Just look at it – it’s so colourful, so vibrant, so charming in its spritework and animation, and best of all it absolutely, one hundred percent nails the look and feel of the TMNT cartoon. This is the closest you can get to being a mutant ninja turtle yourself without strapping a load of terrapins to your naked body and running through the Chernobyl exclusion zone. As well as the graphics, there’s the excellent soundtrack:

It combines the cartoon’s soundtrack with Konami’s arcade music sensibilities to create a thoroughly danceable set of tracks, if you don’t mind being caught dancing to old videogame music. You won’t be able to help dancing, I assure you. This game probably has the weakest of all Konami’s classic TMNT game soundtracks, but that’s only because they’re all deeply excellent, and TMNT IV: Turtles in Time has one of the best arcade soundtracks ever.
On top of that, there’s one other thing that gives TMNT a push towards greatness…

The four-player mode! Grab three of your friends, neighbours, randos off the street, whoever, and let them play as a turtle each for the true half-shell experience. As you can see, the action reaches a level you could safely describe as “fairly mental” and it’s so much more fun as a result. I’d say it’s about 400% more fun than in single-player, appropriately enough.
Well, that was fun. Enough fun to make me say “cowabunga!” out loud? Maybe if I wasn’t alone in a very quiet house while writing this. There’s something quite dismal about saying “cowabunga” in that setting. Still, y'know, it was fun.

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