As a fan who may have dressed as Donatello for four Halloweens in a row, I’m always looking for an excuse to go back and replay the slew of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games I have. I won’t need much prodding this summer, as Platinum Games looks to release their new game, Mutants in Manhattan, in late May, and the new movie comes out in early June. I’m about to get a huge dose of the heroes in a half shell and I cannot wait to finally see Bebop and Rocksteady on the big screen, or get my hands on a new adventure to kick and punch my way through.
Until then though, there is no time like the present to revisit the other games that the brothers have been in—the gnarly and the radically uncool alike—to remind myself of the ones that are really worth playing, and which ones should have stayed in the sewers.
TMNT games have been published since 1989, mostly by Konami, but with Ubisoft and Activision getting in on the fun as well. There have been more licensed games featuring these pizza eating mutants than most realize, especially if I were to count all the standalone handheld electronic and mobile games, but for this nostalgia trip I’d rather stick to the main ones.
THE 8-BIT WORLD
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a game I played a ton as a kid and could never beat. It is notorious in its difficulty and cheap stage design, plus its assortment of enemies that don’t make a lot of sense.
The game actually gets a lot of hate—unfairly in my opinion—but it is only in the last few years that I have really come to appreciate its infuriating action. This game is definitely not for those who are against a challenge and some classic NES frustration. I still have nightmares about the driving sections and the dam mission.
Then there was the port of the amazing arcade game that had a “II” put after it to keep differentiate. This was a more straight-forward beat ‘em up that became an instant classic and was one of my childhood favorites. Though many will argue that the game has flaws, few who played it would disagree that this game was a huge step in the right direction. Later, The Manhattan Project made things better, designed specifically for the console, adding in special attacks and varied bosses, but this game was sadly overshadowed by its successor on Super Nintendo. I highly recommend each of these, but the third one wins on pure play experience. Don’t confuse that one with the Manhattan Missions game that was only for DOS though, which is not fun but was interesting and detailed for the time.
Striking while the franchise was hot, there were also three games on the Game Boy that gave some simple two-button action. These can unfortunately get old quickly, being repetitive, save for a couple of good boss fights. The third one, Radical Rescue, tried to change this up with a large confusing map and having the player start as Michelangelo to free the other turtles, each having their own abilities. It can be a bit confusing and easy to get lost in at times, inconvenient when you die, but I think it’s the one worth diving into the most for Game Boy owners.
THE 16-BIT ERA
The new generation helped bring the games closer to the ideal model at the time, the arcade. So when the second arcade game was released, it was ported to the SNES a year later as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. With vibrant colors, a collection of incredible music from different areas of the franchise, and tight satisfying gameplay, this is the definitive TMNT game for the generation. It is still considered by many to be the best licensed game done in their name, and for good reason. I can’t say how many times I have beaten it, hours I’ve put in, or friends I have made play the game with me, but I regard it as one of the best titles in my collection and the first game I would get any new fan to try. I also didn’t hate Re-Shelled, the updated 2009 version of the game, as much as most everyone else, not minding the new coat of paint.
The Sega Genesis received a slightly different version of the game in TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist, a similar game made with the same engine that reused many of the same visuals, animations, and even stages, but with a different story and slight tweaks to the gameplay—hello dedicated dash button! It isn’t as enjoyable for most—the sound quality certainly suffered, as well as background details—and fewer played it when the game was new, but I think this one still has a lot of merit and can be just as fun. I find myself playing both, but this is definitely one case where the SNES won out. The beat ‘em up avenue had certainly proved to work by this point and would return frequently.
Both consoles suffered at the hands of TMNT: Tournament Fighters, a game that wanted to be Street Fighter II with one of the weirdest rosters of Turtles characters and some wretched controls. This game was even on the NES—and is rare on that console—with a different mix of selectable characters on each system, but overall the game is regarded as a poor cash-in.
THE DISC AGE
After a few years’ break—minus some electronic handheld games—there would come a fresh wave of new TMNT titles to go along with the new show, bringing the franchise into the 3D realm and setting a framework design-wise for the next several installments. These games were similar in architecture to the past ones, standard beat ‘em ups with a different perspective. The visual presentation was good, but there was just something missing from the experience overall. I think it has something to do with these installments being longer and the fighting feeling less crisp as they tried to incorporate more special attacks, or in the case of TMNT 3: Mutant Nightmare, a weak upgrade system.
Some fans may have been lost because of the focus on the new version of the Turtles as well, but they lured older fans back in by including the arcade game as a bonus on TMNT 2: Battle Nexus and Turtles in Time in the third one.
It turned worse with TMNT: Mutant Melee. This is a game that tried to go the Tournament Fighters route and somehow managed to be a bit worse—a button mashing snorefest. The 2007 CGI movie meant another new game was needed, one that attempted to add more jumping and maneuvering to improve gameplay, but that fell into some of the same traps as the previously mentioned entries, as well as having lackluster environment design and some abysmal writing.
2009 saw another attempt at a fighter, this time mimicking another great franchise. Ubisoft’s TMNT: Smash-Up did not try to hide the success it sought to copy, saying it in the name and even acquiring members of the team that worked on Nintendo’s hit Super Smash Bros. franchise.
There were glitches though, a small lack of direction, and a bigger budget was most likely needed, but overall the time I spent with it just made me want to go play Smash Bros, and cemented the idea that the franchise can’t do fighting games, even if the licensed material lends itself well.
The Game Boy Advance had some of the best additions to the TMNT library. These are all simple but well-thought-out, taking the heroes back to 2D and some fun good looking portable experiences. I think the standout here is TMNT (2007) which was based off of the CGI movie and reminded me why I like the series so much. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003) and its sequel were good and tried to be inventive by giving each turtle their own stages and different modes, but they are short and the combat isn’t as engaging. It is still good though and worth checking out.
Just stay away from the Mutant Nightmare DS version. The DS also had TMNT: Arcade Attack, a better looking game with a bit more story and some cool comic book style cutscenes that unfortunately loses its luster quickly and didn’t keep my interest, but was not necessarily bad.
THE MODERN UNIVERSE
New consoles brought more games, some that tried to break the mold and push the multiplayer. I remember being excited for TMNT: Out of the Shadows, the first game with the license by Activision, and sadly, a genuine disappointment. The new combat system tried to be better by taking notes from the Arkham series but failed, and the camera made the experience hard to enjoy, especially in multiplayer. The follow-up later that year was a little bit better, but not by much, suffering from similar flaws. The ideas were there, being completely based off of the Nickelodeon cartoon, but the charm was not enough to make this one worth playing. I hear the 3DS version of it was a tad better though.
Meanwhile Microsoft’s Kinect, the failed Xbox motion control camera the company tried to push for several year, is a thing that is known for underwhelming attempts at games, so of course TMNT: Training Lair happened, but it was really a free app that simply promoted the upcoming movie at the time and had little to offer. It is one of the only games on this list that I have not played, and I probably never will.
The movie did give fans a decent 3DS game with the same name. It’s a repetitive dungeon crawler type, but one that can be fun. The most recent Turtles game though, TMNT: Danger of the Ooze, is a 2D game for the consoles and 3DS that lets the player explore and fight in generic backgrounds.
The game isn’t bad and honestly had me wanting to finish it, but the game gets a bit hard at points and requires some backtracking. This one worried me because it had good people behind it, was somewhat true to the source material, and had solid ideas, but still wasn’t doing it for me. This is when I started wondering if the good games for the ninja teens were a thing of the past, never to be repeated again.
Thankfully, the trailers for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan hit. The new game from Platinum Games pushed that doubt right back out again when I saw the art style, familiar character designs, and the flow of combat. I want to play it. I want to get back into the role of my favorite heroes and see the turtle boys succeed again. Will it be fun? Can the music still be as amazing as the older games? Are Donatello and Raphael still going to be the best turtles to play?
I don’t know, but if it fails, I know which games I’ll be going back to.
Writing in the dirty South, recovering internet addict Stephen Wilds wakes up every night wrestling with nightmares of Silent Hill and stray commas. You may follow his exploits on Twitter @StephenWilds.
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