Release date: 1991
Systems: Arcade, SNES
Most gamers of a certain age are familiar with the 4-player arcade title Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As the 80s rolled into the glorious technicolor 90s, pretty much every amusements in the UK had a Turtles machine. Contrasted to the dual screen, 6-player X-Men cabinet, Vendetta, or even The Simpsons, it’s rather bare bones – the four Turtles all play more or less the same, the boss battles feel cheap and one-note, and the levels start to get repetitive – but it’s by no means a bad game.
I think you’d have to be made of stone not to feel some stirring of childish excitement when Rocksteady drawls: ‘Say your pwayers, toitles’ or Krang’s drones snare you in an electrified lassoo, saying in their flat robo-voices: ‘Do not resist us.’ There are burning buildings, giant wrecking balls, and machines that burrow up out of the tarmac. Unlike The Simpsons beat em up (apparently made by someone who had never watched an episode) it stays true to the licence (admittedly easier to do with a series devoted to ninjas than a sitcom about a disfunctional American family, but still – Smithers, a baddy? C’mon guys).
This post is not about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m starting with the sequel, which saw a limited release in the arcades and a better one on the SNES, Turtles In Time. The plot – such as it is – sees Krang pinching the Statue of Liberty and the hapless Turtles flung back in time when they try to retrieve it. Yes, apparently Shredder and Krang have access to technology which can make them shrink and grow at will, and also time travel. Yet they only use it once then forget about it.
Like, was I the only kid who found the Turtles TV series agony to watch? Every week, Shredder would formulate some new scheme for establishing a foothold in New York – with a view to ultimately dominating the world – and he’d go to Krang only to be told he can’t be trusted with more than, say, four Foot Soldiers. Maybe a Rock Soldier if he’s lucky. When Krang has literally an entire army of both in Dimension X (later in the depths of the Earth). So, under-resourced, Shredder goes out and tries his best, only to get trounced, because the only helpers he has are the incompetent Bebop and Rocksteady. The whole thing was like a parable about the perils of middle-management. The Turtles were never called upon to triumph over anything but the most hobbled, emaciated of foes. There’s nothing heroic in that. It was like watching someone nonchalantly kick over a sick foal.
Turtles In Time is that rarest of things – a successful side-scrolling beat em up on a home system. The SNES version sweep-kicks the arcade one then guffs on its head. I’ll tell you for why: one, it has extra levels, including a Technodrome stage. Two, it takes advantage of the SNES pad to deliver a wider range of moves. You can use the L and R buttons to execute a throw where you grab your enemies and hurl them into the screen. Not only is this a really neat use of Mode 7, but it becomes an essential mechanic in the final battle against Shredder (see the screenshot at the top of this article) where we’re looking at the action through the windscreen of his pincered battle robot, and you must defeat him by hurling Foot Soldiers into the glass. It’s a cool, highly original twist on what, up until then, has been a novelty move – Chekov’s Gun Fu, if you will.
The Turtles all play more or less the same, with some minor variations in handling. Donatello has the best range, natch. Raphael is good for quick melee combat. And if it’s a party dude you’re after? Well, let’s just say Michaelangelo is something of a beast in that regard.
Unlike Final Fight, Captain Commando and The Punisher, you never really feel the solidity of the battles you’re thrust into. I’ve been playing Turtles In Time on and off for about 20 years now (Jesus Christ) and it still feels as much of a crap shoot as it was the first time I picked up a pad. There’s no learning curve, no skillset, just mash-mash-mash – insert credit – mash-mash-mash. And, for all that, it’s still kind of fun!
If you get a chance, I recommend grabbing a SNES copy and a friend and losing an hour or so pummelling robot ninjas. I’m biased – Turtles caught me at that crucial age when one’s critical defences are down – but after all these years, the aesthetic is undeniably awesome as all hell. Come on. Unbuckle your cynical armour for just an afternoon. It’s time to PAAAARTY!