Friday, March 4, 2016

Electric Seaweed: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES, 1989)

Ah! The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES 'trilogy' (not really a trilogy, but whatever). These are the kind of games parents would buy for their children, and so that child might feel loved, or something. It's the late '80s and Turtle Fever is in full swing; what started as a simple black and white parody comic somehow morphed into something with even less creative integrity that managed to become the focal point of obsession for kids like, well, me, and probably you too. There's a reason we like to say that Michael Bay ruined our childhood or whatever; I bet the fans of the original felt that way when it became a Saturday morning cartoon or a comic published by Archie Comics. But I guess when you're busy starting comic grant foundations or marrying would-be porn stars (which is pretty much how creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird spent their time after getting some of that Hollywood money), you're bound to lose sight of your baby. Or just cease to give a shit.

What I'm trying to say is that you might recall the first TMNT game on NES with some fondness, and that you'd be a fool to do so. It is, simply, an abomination, only a few steps removed from The Uncanny X-Men. That game was such a heinous crime against games and comics and humanity that we can easily joke about it; even our younger selves were aware of just how truly awful The Uncanny X-Men was, and so our opinions are not tainted by nostalgia.

Not so TMNT! Even I have fond memories of this game, and I loathe it. The kid who could make it past the water level? A schoolyard legend. The one who could make it past the rooftop levels? A man among boys (or maybe just a liar). Did you even know anyone who could make it to the military base, let alone successfully navigate that large series of sewers and warehouses? Playing this game years later, when I discovered the magic of emulation and save states (and porn-ridden ROM sites; ah, to be young), I was astounded how much more game there was that I wasn't even aware of. Not that it throws anything interesting at you later on, but it's still a surprisingly lengthy adventure.

I give Konami credit for two things: the game's ambition, and its audio-visual faithfulness to the source material (mostly the cartoon, in this case). But ambition also means the game throws so many enemies on screen at once it can cause absurd amounts of flicker and slowdown - so the game's 'ambition' causes its presentation to suffer quite a bit. In which case, revision: I give credit to Konami for thing: the game's ambition.

The game starts in an overhead map style. I guess I'll go to that sewer - christ, I just got run over by a monster truck. I vaguely remember disliking Zelda II, you say to yourself, and this vaguely reminds me of that. Strike one. You can switch between the four turtles at any time, which is nice, but the differences (reach, speed, power) are fairly negligible, so it basically amounts to having four life bars. The controls feel responsive, but the physics are so wonky - which is a problem when the game demands some exacting platforming later on, and not in the good Batman kind of way either. I'm talking about walking to the edge of a building ledge so that only the minimal amount of heel pixels are touching the ground, and even then it might not be enough. Or having to tap the jump button just so, or else you'll hit your head on the ceiling and fall through the gap below. Which might kill you, or it might just drop you down below, forcing you to work your way through the entire level again, with Ninja Gaiden-style respawning enemies and cheap, downright cruel enemy placement. Or you might enter a building, fight your way through cramped corridors with enemies coming at you every which way, make your way to the dead-end, only to find - a single slice of health-restoring pizza. Did I mention you have to fight your way out of the building again? Or that there is no save or password function? Or that I'm merely describing the game's first few levels?!

Of course, not many people have seen beyond that point, because of this:

Electric seaweed. I remember beating it on occasion, but after that my turtles would be so depleted that I wouldn't last long. Mostly, though, I remember getting to the dam stage, then recalling that the water stage came next... and deciding to turn the game off before allowing these bastards to demoralize me again like that. Here the controls are unresponsive, the obstacles are punishing, and to disarm these six bombs, you have to beat it in under 2 1/2 minutes.

People call this game "very difficult," which is nostalgia's way of saying "$%#@$%# impossible and frustrating." It's sort of amusing that we look back at such "difficult" and view them through the rose-tinted spectacles of our glorious youth and we call it "old-school challenge," as if we've somehow forgotten what obsessive little brats we were, with the time and dedication necessary to memorize these layouts and develop absurd reflexes, and that most of us, with meager allowances, didn't have access to a huge game library, or maybe we just didn't give a shit because HEY IT'S A TURTLES GAME. You've lost your Metroid saves, you've worn out your traffic-cone-orange light gun, your brother has a girlfriend now (gross!) and doesn't want to play Contra with you anymore, and you just can't seem to get that dust out of your copy of Blaster Master no matter how you blow into it. Hell, what else am I going to play? What, like I'm going to visit that kid down the street? That weird kid whose parents don't let him eat peanuts or drink milk or ride a bike, who owns a Sega Master System and is gonna make watch him struggle through Zillion again?

And so these are the circumstances in which I imagine no less than four million suckers bought this game. That puts it in the top 10 of NES games sold. And it doesn't get much better after that water level, either - the platforming gets more tricky, and it would be hard even with perfect controls and physics that weren't so wonky. The game keeps throwing more and more enemies at you, and half the time it gets bogged down in technical issues and image cut-out. The enemies get stronger, and you don't. Levels get longer, your options open up, but what's the use? Half the time, beating a level means backtracking to the entrance. I played with Game Genie codes on, and I still had to the map the quick save/load functions to my actual controller, and it was still one of the most frustrating games I've ever played. The final walk to Shredder is a long, narrow corridor, with no room to jump, and fast enemies requiring at least two hits to kill. Except there is not nearly enough time for that before they hit you first. If someone could make it there, and survive it (perhaps with the use of the Ninja Gaiden-style projectile pick-ups), Shredder gives you the final middle finger - an instant death attack that shrinks you down to a little turtle.

A bad game is a bad game, but I would only harp on it if showed some promise. Like I said, the game is ambitious. You progress between levels on an overhead map, where eventually you'll gain access to the Turtle Van. Roadblocks will impede your progress, and so you must seek out missiles inside a warehouse to progress. Or hunt down some rope to make it past the impossibly large rooftop gap. Hey! There's some merit in this. It's not a proper Metroidvania, but it's not entirely linear, either. The final stretch presents a massive maze of sewers and underground passages that must be navigated in the correct order. All of which would be great if this game was actually fun and not controller-throwing cheap! Instead, TMNT is something closer to misery. Don't let your memory tell you any differently; you can't trust it.

All screenshots are my own; box art from GameFAQs.

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