One of the things I loved from the eighties were the cartoons. Anime, Western ‘toons like Johnny Quest re-runs, Galaxy Rangers, the Mighty Orbots, G.I. Joe, you name it. Then there was TMNT – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Turtles became a mega-huge phenomenon taking a comic that was initially meant as a parody into the heady mainstream of merchandising and movies. It exploded into a titanic empire turning TMNT into a household name generating everything from toys to stories of kids sneaking away into sewers in the hopes of finding their favorite ninja heroes.
The cartoon, produced by Murakami-Wolf-Swenson, had a hip theme, great action, villains, and four heroes that were unlike many of the characters seen in other series at the time. They were mutants, they had different personalities playing into the narratives of each episode, and they loved to party while saving the world. It was also starkly different from the actual comic.
The comic itself was gritty, harsh, and its Famous Four took to being ninja with the kind of seriousness that the cartoon never had. They joked around, got along, but they were also trained as skilled assassins who were very good at what they did. The owner of the comic book store I purchased a TMNT compilation from warned me that it was nothing like the cartoon — that what I was getting was the ‘real’ TMNT. But I liked both, though I do have a preference for the hard, steel tinged taste of the original series. And for those that wanted something more along the lines of the cartoon series, there was one for that, too.
Then there was the arcade game from Konami in 1989! It was a perfect partner for pizza places with a few stand-ups of their own. Or for players carrying their own pizzas in much to the chagrin of arcade owners with a roll of paper towels at the ready.
I spent countless tokens feeding Konami’s arcade shrine to these heroes in a half-shell (every time one dropped in, the machine would cheerily yell out “Cowabunga!”). It had everything I wanted in a side scrolling beat ’em up — simple controls, fast action, cartoon-close pixels, voices, special effects, speaker volume turned up to max, and the feel of being an episode that I controlled. I usually went with Donatello, but any Turtle would do. It was just so fun to play at the time, especially if three more friends joined in to blast their way on through to the end to rescue the Statue of Liberty from Krang’s malicious tentacles.
It also could also get a bit repetitive — it threw armies of Foot Soldier cannon fodder at the player before they would meet up with bosses made famous by the cartoon series such as Bebop and Rocksteady, Baxter Stockman, and the Shredder. Going at it solo was alright, but jumping into the fracas with a band of buddies was definitely a lot more enjoyable.
It was later ported over to the NES in 1990 which, like many ports at the time, took this opportunity to add in a few extras such as two new levels, bosses, and extensions of the original stages. Playing that was just as much fun as the arcade game. The original arcade game eventually made it to Xbox Live Arcade almost twenty years later in 2007 and then was removed when the license expired, much like the adventure-version of the TMNT game which was also on the NES.
Years later, the Turtle phenomenon still lives on with a new CG series on Nickelodeon, a few games that have appeared on services like Xbox Live, Sony’s PSN, and Wii’s Virtual Console (and then disappeared as licenses evaporated). Even today, there’s still a lot of love for these heroes and a hope that the old classics will somehow find their way back from the twilight realm of emulation and into digital distribution once more.
Today, TMNT still stands out as one of my favorite Konami beat ’em ups of all time. It was just an amazing synergy of everything cool in the late 80s, capitalizing on the TMNT cartoon license with the power of Konami’s engineers and their experience in the arcades at the time — lessons that they would carry into other fun beat ’em ups like their adaptation of Bucky O’ Hare in 1992. And it was all that the fans needed to ask for.