Jimi Fletcher looks at his first true arcade love: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a game that proved to be the cherry on top of a childhood obsession.
The rush of an arcade game. There’s little that beats it. Far from the insulated, comfortable sanctuary of your own room with its own console, arcade games were out there in the public world: in leisure centre foyers, rental shops, takeaways and yes, even clubs.
The earliest video game I remember playing, in any format, was as a child in the social club where my mum and her friends would occasionally frequent and, presumably because she couldn’t find a babysitter on a Saturday night, where I found myself navigating a dark, smoky, neon-lit and loud maze of tables, bars and yep, a videogame table.
You don’t really see these around much anymore, but back in the 1980s there was a fad for tables where, in addition to being able to put your drinks and ashtrays on them, they also doubled as flat-surface arcade screens. This is where I tried and hilariously failed to get past the first level of Donkey Kong. Amidst the darkness of the club, this beacon of electronic eccentricity provided serious fascination between the boring adult conversations and what was probably a relentless run of Stock/Aitken/Waterman pop on the stereo. So that’s where it began. It’s not where it ended.
Down but not out
Even in the late 80s and early 90s, when consoles were stretching out into the 16-bit era with improved sound and vision which made their 8-bit older brothers look very old-fashioned, arcade machines were still a very big deal. The double impact of the Mega Drive and NES may have dazzled gamers at home (well, some homes – I didn’t get a console until 1992), but the fact remains that at that time, coin-op arcade machines were still the final word in sophisticated gaming, and perfect if your home couldn’t afford a console.
Beat ’em up
For just 20, 30 or maybe 50p, you could play a game right there and then. Providing you had the necessary change, arcades could be played by anyone. Of course, the cost of all those relatively cheap plays added up, and maybe they weren’t as cool an investment as an actual cartridge which, of course, you could sell afterwards, unlike the transient experience of the arcade. But there was an appeal in the latter – the fact you had continually spend money to play them, as opposed to the one-off payment of a home game, gave each turn extra importance. You wanted your money’s worth.
If you were like me, you probably only had a one or a couple of machines to choose from, and those few games became extra special. In my case it was Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Taito’s Chase HQ that stood proud and tall in the Chinese takeaway about five minutes away from my home, and where many an evening was whiled away, the sun setting outside, fully aware that I had to run back home before dark or in time for dinner, so I kept one eye on the clock and one on the screen.
Those two machines fascinated me. When you’re a child and cabinets like these literally towered over you, their presence and power can be daunting as much as they were thrilling. Away from adults, and during a time when parents worried over video games and their addictive, money-grabbing “evil” nature, the illicit thrill of these titles felt rebellious, if only mildly so. Plus, as it was in a Chinese takeaway, these games even smelled good, although in retrospect the Turtles game probably would have been better situated in a pizza parlour.
The tremendous, exciting Chase HQ felt like the more adult of the two, it being a driving game, not to mention because of its more mature action content (drug dealers, bank robbers, etc), and also because that steering wheel always felt so big and beyond my capabilities as an amateur gamer. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, on the other hand, was perfect, and another thing that suckered young me out of my (well, my mum’s) money.
Ah yes, money.
The insertion of money also felt exciting. There were few things that beat the access permitted whenever you put a 20p or a 50p piece into the coin-op slot. It wasn’t just games, either. As a child, I desperately wanted one of those red Dairy Milk dispensers that gave you a single wrapped segment of chocolate when you put in a penny. But arcade machines were where it was at. Hearing that sound after you put the money in, that little siren that varied from game to game but meant the same thing – that you were permitted to play – man, that can’t be beat. One of my most cherished sounds was that “Cowabunga!” call when you selected your character. For the following ten or 15 minutes, I was one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Before I delve into the game proper, it’s worth reiterating just how much of a cultural phenomenon the whole Turtles craze was back in the day. True, they’re still a viable commercial proposition even today, thanks to ongoing reboots on both the big and small screens, but it was back in the late 80s and early 90s that they were at their most successful, popular and unavoidable. The odds are if you were between five and 12 years old at the time, you loved all of this. I even remember reading in the newspaper about some kids who snuck into the sewers to try and relive their heroes’ lifestyle. I imagine the results were predictably smelly.
Bigger than Jesus
In the UK, I was instead a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle, as it was renamed in our market thanks to an uproar over the original word ‘ninja’ being used in a children’s cartoon. Regardless of the name, it was an absolute phenomenon. I fell hook, line and sinker for anything Turtles related: Turtles pizza, Turtles trading cards, that famous Turtles medal set. That said, if we’re talking favourites, I edged slightly more towards the spookier, scarier antics of The Real Ghostbusters, but that show didn’t dominate the playground like the newer, superficially hipper Turtles did.
Originally a comic strip back in the early 80s, it wasn’t until it was adapted into animation in 1987 that it became a cultural titan, although I don’t think we got the show here in the UK until a couple of years later. Indeed, the first time I’d heard of the series was when season-two opener “Return of the Shredder” was broadcast on BBC1. I recorded every episode of that season onto Betamax (we really were behind the times) and watched/re-watched it countless times; how that incessant surfer-speak must have irritated my mum. I think the only thing that annoyed her more was the soundtrack to Thundercats, with its shrill, piercing orchestral score.
The concept of the show was pretty far out – four domestic turtles accidentally found themselves in the sewers of New York and then got covered in “mutagen”, which turned them into anthropomorphic teenage slackers who were trained into discipline from the equally transformed human-rat hybrid Splinter, who used to live in Japan before he was banished from his ninja clan when the scumbag Oroku Saki framed him for attempted murder.
This Saki bastard also moonlighted as Shredder, who corrupted the old clan and replaced all the humans with robots from Dimension X and – blimey, this sounds utterly mental now I’ve summarised it. But I and many others adored it – we loved the bright colours, interdimensional plotlines, goofy humour, fight scenes and colourful characters.
Even though the Turtles started out as a comic book, you could be forgiven for thinking they started off as a cartoon, or even a toy line, as with He-Man. It all just seemed too perfect from a commercial point of view. The whole martial arts/ninja fad was still corrupting our minds (and bruising our bodies), and this show was perfect for kids as there were four different characters to roleplay as in the playground, each one with a distinct personality, headband colour (seriously, that shit mattered) and weapon.
Even their names, taken from the unlikeliest source – Italian Renaissance painters – had unexpected cool appeal. There was de-facto leader Leonardo (blue headband, katana blade, earnest), scientific whizz-kid Donatello (purple headband, bo staff, smart), Raphael (red headband, Sai daggers, sarcastic) and Michelangelo (orange headband, nunchuks, party-loving stoner in all but name). Together, along with intrepid news reporter April O’ Neil, they dedicated themselves to protecting New York from the evil “tin-plated” Shredder and his various lackeys, as well as brain-in-a-suit supervillain Krang.
Losing the plot
Far-out storylines in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show involved them being shrunk to microscopic size, enormous mutant plants, dangerous machinery, “killer pizzas” (specifically monsters straight out of Alien which hatch from meatballs), and that’s just from a single season. The plot of the game? Non-existent.
April gets kidnapped (surprise, sur-bleedin-prise) and the Turtles must save her. Once they save her, they then have to save Master Splinter. After that, they just want to kick some additional arse, so it’s off to the Technodrome, which is the big spherical lair of the bad guys that’s currently deep underground.
Now beat ‘em ups do have the potential to get tiresomely repetitive, but the relentless, constant high-stakes approach lent itself thrillingly to the arcade approach, even if (or maybe because) there was no option to pause the game. No time to relax or enjoy the scenery: it’s do-or-die here, people. Put simply, a hell of a lot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles involved you beating the shit out of an endless parade of Foot Soldiers, who are colour-coded to signify their strength: purple were mindless drones, the orange, blue and white versions were trickier to kill, and many were armed with swords, daggers or massive hammers.
If it wasn’t Foot Soldiers, it was the pain-in-the-arse and hilariously named Roadkill Rodneys (robots with a tendency to electrocute) or bitey Mousers to contend with. As was the law in this kind of game, getting cornered by a couple of enemies meant you had to smash the hell out of the buttons to free yourself. If you saw a parking meter or traffic cone, you could use it as a weapon. If a stray pizza box was visible, grab it – it’d replenish your life and not, as a real pizza would in real life, make you bloated, sluggish and fall asleep in front of the telly.
End-of-level bosses would be instantly familiar to fans – what was weird was how ruthlessly evil erstwhile dunces and pathetic lackeys Rocksteady, Bebop and Baxter Stockman were in arcade form. I thought they would be easily vanquished like they always were in the cartoon but here, they appeared with goddamned laser cannons and were out to KILL. Bastards. Saying that, the Turtles were a million times tougher here too – when they weren’t falling down manholes, that is (cue the predictable “who turned out the lights?” gag), so both parties were well matched.
Crammed laughs and long-range staffs
What felt unique at the time was the option to play with three other people. The debit of that option was that four player arcade cabinets always seemed somewhat crammed; players on the left and right had to view the screen from an askew angle, while those in the middle were subject to being crushed. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was no exception. Still, if you were playing solo, or with just one more player, then the two middle control spaces were preferable. It was a great cabinet too, with each control section appropriately colour-coded to match the colour of the Turtles’ headbands.
I often played as Donatello, because the far reach of the bo staff. This also probably said more about my lack of skills – I opted for the character with the safest defence strategy, because I couldn’t afford to spend cash on trial-and-error tactics. As soon as the game began you pretty much had to start fighting; no tutorial from Master Splinter here, kids.
The levels were visually in-keeping with the atmosphere of the show: burning buildings, streets, sewers, roads, the Technodrome. We weren’t in the era of Turtles in Time when they went back to prehistoric times or climbed aboard pirate ships; you felt like you’d stepped into an episode of the show. The mechanics were great, too – for example, some cool side-scrolling levels where you fought off airborne rifles on skateboards, and there was even a bit in the Technodrome where you moved at a diagonal level on a descending platform.
As for the soundtrack? Music in arcade games often has a specific sound: a timbre I still can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s because they had to compete with the rival soundtracks of nearby machines, but the sound always feels more immersive, three-dimensional and spacious. Together with the on-screen action, it added up to a rush of the senses, an addictive mix of lights, flash, sound and colour.
The soundtrack to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was slightly fever-pitch – plenty of the time it was sped-up variations on the main title theme, and to be honest, a lot of it whizzes past in a rush like the scores of lackeys you smash to bits with your weapons. Familiar, forgettable and yet pleasingly complementary to the on-screen action. I must say though that the outstanding first-level theme is ridiculously brilliant and super-exciting – like the original theme but on speed.
It instantly made you want to take on the Foot and kick their arses. You ever kicked a foot? It’s great. You also got some neat vocal samples (as well as on-screen speech bubbles) that brought smiles to fans – top marks for the spelling of “turtles” as “toitles” when Rocksteady said it – he really did pronounce it that way.
An old friend in Southend
Despite the local popularity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Chase HQ, those two cabinets were inevitably replaced by other titles I can’t remember. Maybe one of them was Street Fighter II, but I was so hopeless at that game that I didn’t really give it much of a chance until it was released for the SNES. Also, it attracted more of the harder, tougher local kids, which put me off it somewhat. So yes, the departure of TMNT from my local vicinity was quite distressing. The game was gone. Forever.
How I would ever be able to play it again? I felt like Tom Hanks in Big when he was trying to find that one Zoltar machine that could turn him back into a child, but unlike him I didn’t resort to the phone directory and call around to find it once it had gone. I just pined and whined until I happened to come across another one in an environment where not just one, not two, but hundreds of machines were available to play, and they wouldn’t be carted out of the door after a few months either. The only problem was I only got to visit this environment once a year, so it was still a cruel turn of events.
I’m talking about arcade halls.
I can’t remember the first time I stepped into one, but it was most likely in the Essex seaside resort of Southend, which is where I was taken to as a child back in the late 80s and early 90s and was the place where I rediscovered Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’ve been to Southend a fair few times in recent years, and whatever magic it swayed over me all those years ago has dulled somewhat, but not entirely.
It helps that, while much of it has changed, some of it has stayed exactly the same, and I still get an uncanny buzz of nostalgia for those one-off days where I get on the train at Southbury in Enfield, change at Liverpool Street and then go all the way back out of London again to Southend Victoria: the end of the line, and the start of a great day. While the high street offers much of the same shopping attractions that I’m used to back home, the sea front itself was unique for obvious reasons, and not just because of the beach, the pier and, er… the sea.
Arcades were a rush of noise, lights and excitement as a child. At the time, I couldn’t understand why my mum and nan thought they were a total headache, but that’s how intoxicated I was with the promise of all this entertainment. You stepped in it and it was like walking into a club, except I had no idea what that was supposed to be like. I just knew it was a club where no-one was dancing, not even on one of those dance games, not least because they hadn’t been invented yet.
But there was music, and music on top of music, with game after game blasting out their soundtracks, fighting for audio space. It wasn’t just video games; there was the cordoned off bits for fruit machines, where only over-18s could go in because it was gambling. However, as an alternative for junior punters there were those crazy machines where you placed a mini-bet on a plastic horse and screamed at the rickety miniature equine git to reach the end first. That way you could win a voucher, and a dozen vouchers could win you a water pistol from the prize wall. Yes, you could spend (and waste) a lot of money in a place like this.
We weren’t made of money though, so I was never one to move from machine to machine – in fact, I probably spent more time looking at other people playing arcades. But whatever money I did have I made sure I spent it on the rediscovered Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, and maybe The Simpsons game too, which was also produced by Konami and essentially the same game: no bad thing at all.
Both TMNT and The Simpsons were perfect examples of candy-coloured, intoxicating, surface-level gaming entertainment – topping-stacked pizza or hot, sugar-coated doughnuts in videogame form, full of humour, action and fan-pleasing content. In both cases, I never played another game based on either of these shows that wowed me nearly as much as these two, although I do have soft spots for the Game Boy titles from around the same time – Fall of the Foot Clan and Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly respectively.
Pushed away from greatness
While I did manage to complete The Simpsons in arcade form, albeit years later, I never managed to complete Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was so close to doing so one time, but – and it makes me shudder to recall this – I was about two-thirds into the game but clearly had been hogging the machine for too long as some absolute twat-bastard shoved me off the game before I had the chance to put some more money in during the continue countdown.
I was so upset (tears were indeed shed); I was doing better than I ever had. So much for the world of The Last Starfighter, where everybody circled around the hero as he reached the final screen. No such camaraderie in Waltham Cross, let me tell you. Honestly, what an absolute fucker. I hope someone dropped an original After Burner arcade cabinet on his head shortly afterwards. Victory was postponed, but it would be achieved, albeit via different means.
I was aware that TMNT had been adapted for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), but given there’d already been a Turtles game for that console, this conversion was rebranded Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. The first NES game was a curious platformer, often brutally difficult, but fun enough for me to try again and again to complete it.
This quasi-sequel was never going to be able to replicate the look of the original arcade though, and it was certainly a lot less exciting; the sheer volume and speed of the original was painfully lacking. From smooth 16-bit to flickering 8-bit, from receptive joystick to clunky D-pad, from immersive stereo to chintzy mono, meant it really was a downgrade in almost every respect.
Other differences included the double-team of Bebop and Rocksteady in level two being replaced with Baxter Stockman in his Baxterfly incarnation. But this version did add an extra couple of levels as compensation for its crummier look, one of which saw New York unexpectedly covered in snow and another one where the only interesting elements were that the mid-level boss was a tiger and the main boss was a samurai, whose head had the tendency to fly independently of his body.
The arcade version of Turtles was a short game, and not the sort of thing you could take your time over. You really had to keep pushing on from start to finish without pausing for breath, so all run-throughs clocked in at around half an hour. The NES version, given the extra levels and the slower pacing, took around double that time, although less is more in this game’s case.
The extra levels don’t really add too much, and monotony set in after a while. After its appearance on the NES, the game slipped away into the sewers until the arcade game was made temporarily available on Xbox Live and also as an unlockable extra in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Battle Nexus, although I’ve read the music has been changed for this version, which makes me less tempted to fork out the money to buy it second hand. You can’t change the music! What were they thinking?
The past is in the past
I must admit, it was somewhat unusual writing about this game because unlike the other titles I’ve written about for GameTripper, I have no means to replay the arcade game, and relied on walkthroughs on YouTube, of both the arcade and NES versions, to stir up those faded memories. I can see why these walkthrough videos are so popular – obviously they’re not the same as the interactive, real thing, but if you don’t use an emulator and/or can’t afford to go retro, then these provide massive nostalgia and entertainment, not to mention envy at just how brilliant these uploaders are at the games themselves.
It’s been a very long time since I played an arcade game, barring a single multiplayer spot on a recent incarnation of Mario Kart at Butlin’s, but I like to think that the arcade halls at Southend still have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game somewhere in the back, waiting for me to get the train down with a pocket full of 10 and 20p pieces. I should go back there. Cowabunga!
- Beautifully faithful to the original cartoon
- Non-stop excitement
- Still looks and sounds fantastic
- Not currently available in original form – sort it out, people!
- Admittedly superficial, it’s strictly all about surface thrills (but what thrills!)
- Some may find the game too short
Some games just arrive at the right place at the right time. Turtles Fever was at its height between 87-91, and of all the merchandising and spin-offs and cash-ins to emerge from this phenomenon, this game was one of the very best things to boast the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles name. It’s a great four-player game, beat ‘em up and overall arcade experience; it’s the perfect distillation of everything thrilling about late 80s, early 90s gaming.