Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game – setting the blueprint for years to come

To say Konami put The Simpsons license to good use would be an understatement. Their 1991 scrolling brawler is often referred to as the greatest Simpsons game of all time, even if it did take a few odd liberties with the license. A perfect example of this was Moe’s Tavern being relocated underneath Springfield cemetery, of all places.

It was 1989’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game that set the blueprint not just for 1991’s The Simpsons and the handful of other classic Konami scrolling brawlers that followed, but also the majority of TMNT games since – forever typecasting the ninja teens to star in scrolling beat ‘em ups. 

Exceptions can be counted on one hand. Konami took on Street Fighter II with the one-on-one TMNT Tournament Fighters while years later Ubisoft released the Super Smash Bros. inspired TMNT Smash-Up on Wii and PS2. More recent was TMNT: Danger of the Ooze – a Metroidvania from WayForward – although this did still feature scrolling beat’em up action.

Rewinding back to the beginning, Konami’s original NES Turtles game from 1989 is perhaps the most fondly remembered console-only tie-in. Pop culture has been very kind to it, even though it left a lot to be desired. The difficulty level was tough with the underwater sections being nothing more than an exercise in frustration, while the enemy roster was incredibly random. Eccentric, even. Krang was absent altogether, while the enemies the ninja teens faced included chainsaw-wielding maniacs and insect-like creatures that crawled across ceilings. These irregularities weren’t without reason – Konami was taking inspiration from the comic books, with the classic cartoon series still in production at the time.

TMNT: The Arcade Game did an immeasurably better job at matching fan’s expectations, using the cartoon series as its source of inspiration. All the key characters from the show were present, each retaining their distinct personalities. No liberties were taken. It began with a short intro lifted from the cartoon series, complete with sampled speech – if this didn’t entice TMNT-obsessed fans to slot coins into the machine, nothing would. Back in 1989, this was an experience home consoles couldn’t match.

Providing the arcade owner didn’t skimp on cash and buy the two-player only cabinet, all four turtles were playable at once. Leader Leonardo was the good all-rounder, while Donatello’s staff gave him a wide reach but a slow attack speed. Michelangelo and Raphael meanwhile had faster attacks but a shorter range. A simple two-button control system was in place – jump and attack. Pressing both at once performed a strong attack. There wasn’t much in the way of nuances, minus the ability to smash street signs, explosive barrels, and fire hydrants to damage nearby enemies. Bosses, however, could be defeated easily by exploiting their weaknesses. Completing the game with just a handful of credits is entirely possible.

The first cut-scene saw the turtles leaping into a burning building to rescue April O’Neil. Hardly the most complex of storyline set-ups, but that was all that was needed, making the quest clear from the outset. Like most good arcade games, the opening stage is a breeze – arcade design philosophy dictates that gamers should receive a couple of minutes play before the difficulty level rises. The first boss was Rocksteady who appears out of the ground in a ‘Mutant Module’ – a circular vehicle resembling a drill. Our minds must be failing as we had to rely on Google to find out the vehicle’s name. The key to beating Rocksteady was to simply avoid using jump attacks to prevent being shot out of the air.

Downtown, the second stage, was a lot more interactive in comparison to the first, featuring fire hydrants to smash open and manholes with missing covers to avoid. Amusingly, taking a tumble resulted in the turtles yelling “Who switched the lights out?” The boss for this stage was Bebop, armed with a sci-fi style laser weapon. Again, he wasn’t too tricky to beat.

The third stage saw the Turtles taking to their home turf. This sewer setting introduced the robotic Mousers. Although vast in number they could be easily defeated by simply standing next to the holes they emerged from and bashing the attack button. Baxter Stockman showed up at the end, but not in giant mutant fly form – he merely floats around in a small craft as a human. This stage didn’t end here – the turtles leaped out of the sewer straight into a parking garage. The enemies step up their game slightly, clutching spears, swords, and the occasional hammer. Getting caught at the side of the screen with a bunch of these guys around could drain a health bar in seconds.

This stage’s boss battle involved both Bebop and Rocksteady. The dim-witted duo now had a charge attack, causing them to bump heads. Upon defeat, April was freed from Shredder’s grasp, but the heroes now had to come to Splinter’s aid.

From a nondescript car park to the longest highway in existence. This stage featured a vehicular section during its second half – the turtles leaped onto skateboards to battle bright purple helicopters and Foot Soldiers clutching rifles. The stage ended with the turtles jumping into their Party Wagon which ended up crashing conveniently outside Shredder’s “secret” factory. Hazards here included laser beams and flying enemies resembling mosquitoes. A battle with ‘Granitor the Stone Warrior’ resulted in Splinter being freed.

The final stage was, predictably, the Technodrome, and it’s here that Shredder’s plans came to an end. Before that, there were two bosses to defeat. General Traag can be a pain on the grounds that he carries a flame thrower. Krang put up a good fight too, using swift kicks and firing lasers. As well as being able to create a clone at will, Shredder came packing laser beams that cost players a whole credit!

The ending saw the Technodrome explode, followed by a screen of text speculating what happened to Shredder and Krang. “Burned to toast? Vaporised to milkshake? Or… escaped to Dimension X? Until we know, none of us can sleep safely in our beds.

Although a tad simplistic due to the two-button control scheme, TMNT: The Arcade Game delivered the perfect experience for fans – familiar faces and locations, a four-player option, a sprinkling of humour, bright and vibrant graphics, and a faster pace to arcade stalwarts such as Double Dragon.

It proved to be a huge success for Konami, who even struggled with production initially due to the high demand. It went on to become Konami’s highest-grossing arcade game ever in North America, and the biggest arcade hit since 1987’s Double Dragon. Its success wasn’t short-lived either – it caught a second wind once the TMNT movie was released in 1990, meaning it didn’t suffer the same six-month drop-off as most arcade games.

With the Turtles hot property at the time, the arcade game was soon converted to the majority of home formats. Probe Software brought it to a host of computers – ZX Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, Atari ST, and Amiga – under the guise of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: The Coin Op, just in time for Christmas 1991. This made it a rather late release for the 8-bit cassette-based micros.

It received a minor name change for the NES, becoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. This version was incredibly popular and was rated highly, featuring two new levels – a snow-covered New York and a Japanese dojo. Baxter Stockman now appears in fly mutation form, replacing the Bebop and Rocksteady tag-team battle.

Incidentally, the now-delisted XBLA version from 2007 – published by then-current license holder Ubisoft – was a hit too, selling close to one million copies over its lifespan.  

The success of TMNT: The Arcade Game led to the 1991 NES exclusive TMNT III: The Manhattan Project and 1992’s TMNT: Turtles in Time for SNES and arcade, which boasted brighter visuals, more elaborate boss battles, and the ability to throw Foot Soldiers into the screen. While a better game than the 1989 original, it doesn’t maintain the same legacy – strolling into a sticky-floored arcade and seeing TMNT: The Arcade Game in action for the first time, with all the sights and sounds from the cartoon series, left a lasting impression on many ‘90s Turtles fans.

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