Konami’s arcade adaptation of TMNT in 1989 was a huge hit.
Not only did it capitalize on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phenomenon streaking across television and toy stores like wildfire, but it gave fans a chance to play through their own action packed episode with their four favorite heroes in a half-shell in co-op goodness. It went on to spawn an expanded port for the NES in 1990 under their Ultra label following an adventure game version the year before providing Konami an easy-in to the home console market.
It also proved to Konami that cartoon licenses could become big opportunities or at the very least, provided plenty of design fodder to build titles around. Whatever the case might have been, it paved the way for Konami to gobble up more cartoon licenses over the next few years ranging from the relatively obscure to the obscenely popular.
The year 1991 was a big year for arcade beat ’em ups between Capcom and Konami. Capcom arrived on the scene with three original titles — Captain Commando, The King of Dragons, and Knights of the Round. Konami also arrived with three games of its own. Vendetta followed the urban blight trope as a safe bet, but it would be the next two that would wow crowds: The Simpsons Arcade Game and TMNT: Turtles in Time. It was a one-two punch of licensed action showcasing Konami’s technical chops.
Turtles in Time ran on hardware that was part of Konami’s spaghetti mix of arcade parts. Unlike rival Capcom’s CPS, Konami didn’t put any real effort into creating a kind of standard platform to run its games on. Turtles in Time didn’t run on the same hardware setup that The Simpsons did despite both coming out in the same year, for example, while all three of Capcom’s 1991 beat ’em up titles mentioned earlier ran on the CPS.
As System 16 puts it, their strategy seems to have been based on “what CPU have we got a lot of today.” Konami would build a board, use the design for maybe two games, and then move on to another type to fulfill whatever design requirements were needed for the next product and seemingly grab whatever was in their hardware inventory at the time to do it with.
As confusing as that sounds, it had was typical arcade manufacturing behavior for many years across developers. Capcom and others such as SNK, on the other hand, eventually tried to buck the system by making life simpler for everyone else with a standard set of parts (the CPS and the Neo Geo MVS respectively, for example). Not everyone followed the same philosophy despite these bold efforts, however, sticking firmly to the custom hardware approach.
On the other hand, the hardware did included the usual staples everyone else played with including Capcom: Motorola’s 68000 formed the 16-bit heart of the system and Zilog’s Z80 CPU coupled with a pair of Yamaha YM2151 chips handled the sound (powering “Let’s get shelled!” every time a coin was dropped in the machine, a change from “Cowabunga!” from its predecessor).
Turtles in Time’s gameplay mechanics were a close carbon copy from the first game right down the four-player co-op and health indicators along the top of the screen. Additional coins bought extra “lives” which were more like health bars.
Like its predecessor, it was a side-scrolling beat ’em up controlled with an eight-way joystick and two buttons, one for attack and the other jump. Pressing both did a special attack and Pizza scattered throughout each level provided additional health. This time around, the game allowed running, but instead of double tapping the eight-way stick to trigger the move like in many other beat ’em ups, you just had to hold down in the direction you wanted to run in for a second or so before it kicked in. Continues dropped you right back into the action and didn’t reset your score.
Where the new hardware came in handy was in terms of presentation. The teaser mode of the game featured a dramatic title sequence with part of the ‘Pizza Power’ song from the “Coming Out of Their Shells” live music tour in 1990 sponsored by Pizza Hut.
The graphics also received a massive overhaul with softer edges, colors, scaling effects (enemies could be thrown towards the screen), and plenty of animated reaction shots to environmental hazards and enemy specials. Voice samples, a feature of the 1989 game and a number of other Konami cartoon adaptations, were sprinkled everywhere in the production. Pop-flavored tracks by Mutsuhiko Izumi complemented the action.
This time around, plot-wise, Krang has stolen the Statue of Liberty right in front of April O’Neil’s television audience and Shredder challenges the Turtles to stop them. Like the previous game, this one takes its cue directly from the television cartoon series with a few new bosses such as Tokka and Rahzar who made their first appearance in the film, TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze, which came out a few months earlier in 1991.
While in pursuit of Shredder, the Turtles are somehow sent back in time (Shredder just appears at the end of the second stage and banishes them like some kind of time traveling sorceror which is kind of strange) and travel through different periods to finally catch up with their nemesis at the Technodrome. Their journey takes them across nine stages starting in New York, heading millions of years into the past, then hopping over to a pirate ship, the Wild West, two futuristic stages, and the present day in the Technodrome. Two of those stages are ‘racing’ ones where the Turtles are either on a hoverboard in the sewers or a flying platform in the future.
Each of the Turtles has their own fighting style, though I liked to play either as Donatello armed with his bo staff or Leonardo for his dual wielding katanas. Both Leo and Donatello had decent range with their weapons with Don being a bit slower. Michaelangelo was quick but you had to get in relatively close to the enemy. The same with Rafael who was probably the fastest of the bunch but also had to hug the enemy to do any damage. Each Turtle also had a custom ‘special’ such as Donatello’s bo staff attack where he leans on it to pick himself up for a devastating kick.
The game’s ending was pretty brief, but unlike a number of its peers, it didn’t spell the end of its life in being an arcade-only hit.
It was eventually ported over to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time in order to give it some continuity with the previous Turtle games on consoles like the NES. It arrived in 1992 and turned out to be a respectable translation of the arcade game embellished with a few new bosses and stages while tweaking a few others. It also supported two player co-op and added in Time Trial and Versus modes.
Likely due to limitations with the hardware, the intro didn’t feature the song “Pizza Time” from the arcade version and the number of voice samples were replaced with text instead. If you took too long to move, instead of Splinter running across the bottom of the screen to prompt you to go, April would appear out of nowhere to do his job instead. At the same time, it did add a missing Technodrome level that was supposed to be in the arcade version as an earlier encounter but never made it in. The game was also enhanced for a 2009 downloadable release as “Turtles in Time: Re-Shelled” on Xbox Live and the Playstation Network but was pulled in 2011 after the TMNT license expired.
Konami’s bet on Turtles in Time paid off as an arcade sequel and as an exciting, then-exclusive port, for the SNES ensuring a place for itself on many beat ’em up lists everywhere. Even though the combat system didn’t feel quite as snappy as Capcom’s formula in the arcades, the home version seemed to make up for that when it took out those extra animation frames making it a strange case of where taking out something actually made the game kind of better — at least for me. It also didn’t look as bad as one might think and the extra modes added even more incentive to enjoy the game.
Hopefully it will return in some form, perhaps as part of a Konami collection or as a re-issue of “Re-Shelled” in celebration of the upcoming film. After all, if there’s anything that Konami and every other game licensee have learned about the Turtles, it’s that they’re always spoiling for a fight.