8-Bit Pizza, No Anchovies

Ninja Turtles on the NES—A Retrospective

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the evolution and development of graphics in media over time. Today we’ll be examining the motivations and consequences of down-scaling of arcade classics for home console ports, specifically regarding the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise.


There was an age in the United States when advertising toys to children via cartoons was, though not unheard of, very much frowned upon. Complaints were filed to the FCC in the late ’60s over a cartoon for the Hot Wheels toy franchise, saying that the cartoon was, in essence, a program-length commercial [ 1 ]. This kind of cartoon became more prominent in the ’80s, due to deregulation headed up by President Reagan. All this preamble ties into one of the biggest cartoon, toy, comic book, and merchandise successes of the time—Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There practically wasn’t a market that the TMNT brand couldn’t touch—clothes, bedsheets, snack foods, and of course, video games. If you’ve read some of my other articles, you already know that I enjoyed many of the TMNT franchise games. However, the glaring flaws in the games we will be discussing are too big to ignore, especially with such a powerful brand name attached to them.

Now you might think, “Hey, if the cartoon is already a commercial for the toys and merch, how could there be a ‘selling out’ point?” That is a fair question, and it begs yet another: at what point does art lose value? Every logo you’ve ever seen was designed by an artist. From Heinz to Pepsi, iconic images are very much a part of our commercialized world. Does that art have less value because it was brought on by a corporate directive? Do the classic, iconic designs of Transformers have less value because they were made to be “cool” for kids, and in turn drive toy sales? It’s difficult territory at best to suss out what art has an artist’s soul poured into it, and what is just corporate-mandated art dumps. That is the territory we’re going to tread here. This franchise is beloved by many, including me, but that of course does not put it above criticism. On the contrary, I think we have a duty to be somewhat critical of things we enjoy, lest we fall into the pattern of being a mindless consumer of products; to that end, we’ll be looking at the TMNT video games, in particular the first arcade title, its NES port, and another NES game that was published quite late. I have covered some of these titles before, but not in the same light, so I hope you enjoy this artistic- and salt-laden analysis.

From Arcade to Home Console: TMNT the Arcade Game

The original arcade game for TMNT was incredible fun. Up to four players got to select their favorite turtle—or at least whatever turtle was left if you weren’t quick enough—and cowabunga their way through several levels of Foot ninjas in classic beat-em-up style. The fast action, cartoon-style graphics, killer music, and simple but addicting gameplay mark this title as an instant classic for the franchise [ 2 ]. While I could complain that this game was a quarter-guzzling monster, with bosses that could knock out any of the four turtles in two or three hits and screens filled to the brim with foes, that same complaint could be leveled at any arcade game of the era. It’s a game that was built well from the ground up and, despite its difficulty, always remained enjoyable throughout its life cycle. For my part, whenever I had a chance, I played this arcade title with whatever quarters I could scrounge up, or get from my mother, who graciously waited for me to inevitably lose before we left the mall. It was disappointing to not beat the game, of course, but that never stopped me from trying.

Anyone of a certain age will remember this devourer of quarters, thanks to it appearing in every arcade and movie theater across the country and even the world. Cowabunga indeed.

The natural progression of the gaming marketplace increasingly made home consoles the ideal platform for any game. They had a bigger reach globally and weren’t limited to weekend outings with friends to the local arcade, which could over time be quite expensive for the average consumer compared to just owning a cartridge. This leads us to the NES port of TMNT: The Arcade Game.

The Port. Oh Lord, The Port.

So, what I will say about this port is that you can, in fact, enjoy the game. The porting process, for all its flaws in this iteration, does get the gameplay mostly correct. There are several changes made that were necessary as a natural part of porting to inferior technology, but the way it plays is about what you might expect from an NES Turtles game. Unfortunately, there is a large gray patch for this silver lining in that each of the four turtle brothers’ move sets are downgraded to one, singular move set and one set of standard animations, making them lose their unique edges from the arcade cabinet. For example, Donatello no longer has the most reach in the game, as all four turtles have the same reach [ 3 ][ 4 ].

Rafael, who previously had a sliding kick as his special move, now has the same swatting jump that all the other turtles have. Incidentally, this change significantly alters the strategies of speed runners, who in the original arcade game almost exclusively used Donatello for his increased range [ 5 ]. Since the NES port gives all the turtles the same range on their attacks and the special move, it allowed for those speedsters to use Raphael or Leonardo to accomplish the same goals [ 6 ]. One might think that speed running is hardly a place to judge changes in overall gameplay, but speed runners are notorious for finding bugs and exploits that allow them to finish the game faster, all in their quest for the best time. Even this seemingly small change in how the basic moves and attacks function has a cascading effect on how the overall game is played and that is well reflected in these speed runners’ attempts. While keeping in mind that the port to the NES is going to be a downgrade, this fundamental change to how the game is played would absolutely influence even the most casual gamer.

Another obvious point is that the NES title is going to be graphically inferior to its arcade cabinet sibling. Lowered graphical fidelity can be forgiven, as there are far more important factors into making a game enjoyable to play. Given what there is to work with on the NES, the porting team did quite a good job here. Still, we run into issues. Part and parcel with a graphics downgrade is an overall loss in the number of foes on screen at any time [ 3 ][ 4 ]. This would drastically change the difficulty of the game, which by modern standards you could blow through in about 45 minutes of play; faster if you are a practiced runner. The difficulty curve is brought back into alignment by lowering the number of times foes are staggered after a hit, which makes combination attacks all but impossible to pull off safely. This means, for the NES version, that you need to attack and move constantly to combat the various foes that appear on screen, rather than button mash your way through them. It influences the overall tone of the game, as any given foe is more dangerous. By comparison, the turtles themselves feel less powerful.

Perhaps the biggest change to the NES port is the addition of more stages. While the port retains all the same areas from the arcade title, there is now another section taking place in, presumably, Central Park, where a polar bear foe named Tora has brought an early winter. This stage is inserted between the sewer and parking lot stages. The obstacles are simple, consisting of falling balls of giant hail and the addition of henchmen dressed up as snowmen that shoot rockets at your turtle (because why not?). There is also a new stage taking place inside a Dojo, immediately following the Granitor boss where you rescue Master Splinter. It looks very much like a traditional Japanese dojo, with the sliding doors and hanging wall scrolls that adorn it. The Shogun boss here is a robot dressed in samurai armor, wielding a halberd, and it looks much more imposing than the last additional stage boss. With its beak-like mouth, red robotic eye, and wispy cord hair, it seems like a nightmare killing machine made real, or perhaps a caricature of an Oni. I can’t really speculate as to why additional stages were added, and I would say this change doesn’t really harm the game; it only makes it longer. It might confuse those who have memorized the stages of the arcade title, but it’s hardly of enough significance difficulty-wise to be a big deal. Alongside this, there is a change of boss encounter, wherein the original game you fought Rocksteady and Bebop together in the parking lot, you now fight Baxter Stockman in his insect form—a change that was probably unnecessary.

Ending on a good note, the NES version does have a very good interpretation of the game soundtrack. It’s become something of a fad lately to take modern music and tune it to 8- or 16-bit track styles of retro game consoles, a fad that this video game preceded by several decades. Fans of the classic NES-style sounds will find plenty to enjoy here.

So, to try and answer our original question, does this game qualify as a “sellout” title among a franchise that is pretty much dedicated to selling out? I would say, at least partially yes. It is the normal goal of any capitalist venture to get as much profit out of a product as you can. Taking a game that was very popular in the arcades and porting it to a home console would be a natural extension of those methods. I only give it partial greed scores here because the port does indeed add more to the game experience, even though it also brings significant changes to the base game that it might have been better without. Still, it doesn’t change its artistic values, as it remains true to what the franchise is supposed to be—a story of four mutant ninja turtles who battle evil forces.

TMNT 3: The Manhattan Project

Now here is a game I look at and say “WHY?!” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project for the NES is a somehow worse version of a beat-em-up that tries to be a sequel to the port of the arcade game and just stinks out loud [ 7 ].

The first and most glaring problem with this game is that it is an NES release after the Super NES had already been in circulation for a year [ 8 ]. The Super Famicom in Japan launched in November 1990, and The Manhattan Project came out in December 1991 in Japan [ 9 ]. Now I do understand that game development cycles can take longer than a year, but I very much must question this particular move by Konami. At the time, they were among the very best of video game publishers and absolutely could have changed direction from the NES to the Super NES within a year, maybe pushing development back a few months. Why is it, that when superior home console technology is available, that they decided to complete this game for the previous generation console? I can’t fathom a good reason. I can fathom some bad reasons, such as not wanting to take that time, not wanting to spend more money to shift the game from one console to another.

To be clear, shifting from the NES to the SNES would have been a complete rebuild, and not an easy task by any means, but with a framework already in place, you can, and with the resources Konami had, you definitively can. One might be tempted to say that Konami might not have wanted to overwork its staff by shifting the development of the game from one console to another, which would require hiring additional developers who could work with the new system and training up the original devs to get up to speed. However, given what we know about the game development crunch in modern times, I seriously doubt that this was a factor. Likely Konami decided that launching as originally intended was the least expensive course of action. They could still sell copies because the newest console had only been out a year, so the older NES wouldn’t be filling up landfills, people would still have them, and anyone out buying new video games would still come across this title.

So, Manhattan Project, as mentioned, isn’t very good. It’s worse than the previous title in several ways. First, it tries to complicate the graphics more than its predecessor. Now there is a tendency to do this kind of thing at the end of a console’s life cycle, to push the boundaries of it as far as can be pushed, to bring up graphic fidelity and performance. Unfortunately, the increase in graphic quality here means the game chugs its frame rate quite often, especially in two-player mode. Even when there is nothing else on screen but the players’ avatars, the game still has a worse frame rate than its predecessor overall [ 10 ].

While the turtle brothers do have unique special moves this time around, making each one slightly more fun to try out, there isn’t anything thing else to be found in terms of improvements to play. As far as music goes, most of the game uses original tracks that sound fine for the NES, but it also re-uses the Krang theme from the previous game, which is a nice throwback for fans of that game. For the final confrontation with Super Shredder, this game borrows the track from the, at the time, newest arcade game, Turtles in Time [ 11 ][ 12 ]. As much as I love this track, it’s probably best not to remind fans that a superior game exists when you pump out something this subpar.

The idea of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” led to several follow-ups to the TMNT beat-’em-up, with Turtles in Time being one of the more notable entries in the series.

Coming to our original question again, I would have to say that this game is absolutely a sellout title. While I can say that it does capture the essence of the franchise and that it, or at least the developers, did their best to create an authentic Turtles experience for the NES, its billing as a “sequel” to a port of an arcade title is just too suspect. Why wouldn’t there be a sequel on an arcade cabinet first? Why would you release this game on an inferior system for the time, when you had at least a year to adjust your production? I would suspect that a higher-up fell into the sunken-cost fallacy and, as mentioned, rather than spend some additional money to switch over to the Super NES, they wanted to save as much money as they possibly could in production costs, even though they could have made a far superior product if they had switched. Even if you accept my speculation (because that’s all this line of reasoning is), none of this makes it a bad game, per se, but it does mean this game fell victim to the poorest practices of business culture.

TMNT Tournament Fighters—the NES Port

Now, if you thought that I was being too harsh on the last game, or even if you agreed with me fully, there’s another, far more egregious example we can look to for this sort of video game cash grab. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters for the Super NES is quite a fun game to play (I did a review of that earlier in this series), but there is a dark secret looming ominously around this title (okay not really secret, but I didn’t know about this until this year) [ 13 ]. This game was ported to the NES. 

The success of the Street Fighter series meant that dozens of other IPs sought to jump on the tournament fighter bandwagon. TMNT were not immune to this siren call.

Now, if we’re feeling generous, we can possibly excuse the Manhattan Project as a game too far into its development cycle to be changed to accommodate a superior gaming console, but this? This game? This game was already out for the Super NES, in the previous year [ 13 ]. There isn’t a conceivable reason for this to have happened, outside Konami trying to make as much money as it could from this one title. Not only this, but the title was only ported to the NES in the United States [ 14 ]. Now, I’ll tell you that, despite being an NES port, this game plays very well. It’s incredibly fluid compared to almost any other NES title. However, it cannot match its Super NES predecessor in any other respect. Fewer inputs mean less variety in moves, worse graphics means less detail in characters, their special moves, and the stages. This game even has a smaller roster than the Super NES title—with the four turtle brothers, Casey, a humanoid dragon named Hothead, and Shredder. One might pick up this game just to say they’ve played it, but there’s not much reason to revisit it (apart from speed running) after one playthrough.

Now, I’m not going to say there was absolutely no audience for this game on the NES. Not every family in the United States would have had the latest and greatest console, either because of the lack of disposable income or because of a desire to be frugal. So, having a port of a Super NES game on the NES would certainly serve this demographic. There aren’t terribly many games that have both an NES and SNES version, so this would also be a demo that had been underserved. It’s not a bad thing to create more access to a product or service, and Konami certainly did that, as this game was also ported to the Sega Genesis.

Where the badness comes in is having the dev team take up a game that was completed for the latest generation of consoles and adding additional work to their load to port the game to the earlier generation console in the name of profit. As I mentioned before, porting work is not easy, and reverse porting—what I’m going to call porting a game backward into the previous console—is doubly so. You may have a team that is very familiar with both console technologies and knows how to translate from one format to another, but even having a team such as this does not make the porting easier, just possible. Can you imagine trying to make a modern iPhone iOS work on an old-style flip phone? This is kind of like that, but not as extreme. The consoles do all have different operating systems and different technical specs, so code must be changed, graphics need to be redone to accommodate the less powerful system, and fun extra features have to be cut for the lack of memory on the game cartridge. In the case of this game, cutting the character roster for the memory size has the unfortunate effect of changing the story mode of the game.

In the original SNES and Genesis titles, the primary villain is Karai [ 15 ], a woman who comes to New York with “the forces of the Shredder Elite” so that she can avenge the Shredder. In the NES title, the four turtle brothers are participating in a tournament against themselves to see who can take up the Shredder’s challenge [ 14 ]. Shredder is present in both games, and he probably should be since he is the primary villain in the Turtles’ story, but we are getting a far shallower storyline in the NES version. Instead of a new and powerful female protagonist, we get the Shredder, again. It probably isn’t a stretch to say that a decision to exclude the primary villain who is the only strong woman in the game, and completely change the story, might have some misogynistic fuel behind it. It also means the audience that played this game on the NES did not actually play the original story mode as it was intended to be, so they would have missed out on something much cooler than just another story featuring Shredder. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Shredder as a villain, as do many others, but taking this much away from the story mode seems unintentionally problematic at best.

So, coming back to the question again, is this a sellout? In case you hadn’t figured that out, all signs for this game point to yes. Porting in and of itself isn’t a bad thing to do, but porting like this, where you cut out central parts of the story, forcing it to completely change for no real reason, you basically out yourself as not caring about storytelling continuity or integrity in your product. On top of this, the game port coming out a full year after the primary game was out heavily implies that there was some shoddy work done, given what was cut for this game’s release. I’m not sure if Konami just thought no one would notice, or that it didn’t matter, but it’s bad form regardless.

Selling out?

So, with these games in mind, could we qualify one or all of them as a cash grab, rather than a sincere effort to deliver a quality product to fans? The original iteration of the arcade game, as quarter hungry as it may be, was, in my opinion, an example of good faith efforts to create something that fans would enjoy, and not just mindlessly consume as part of their favorite franchise. I would say that the NES port of the arcade classic falls somewhere in the middle of the road here. There is clear evidence that a lot of effort was put into making the port as functional and as enjoyable as the arcade cabinet original was. It is certainly not a perfect conversion, and really it couldn’t be, but it does appear that the porting team did their best not to sacrifice too much in terms of playability and the artistic integrity of the original.

It’s a rare but welcome sight to see a “retro”-styled game seeking to do more than just trade on nostalgia but create a solid gameplay experience, such as the new TMNT game released recently.

That third game though, yikes. It was a sequel that no one was asking or looking for. It was done worse than its predecessors by a wide margin, with its graphics reaching too hard to improvements that weren’t necessary and cost it in performance, and gameplay that is a pale copy of the previous game with slight variations. This game was (in my opinion) very much intended as a cash grab, as much as the development team might have wanted it to be otherwise. Likewise, with the downgraded port of Tournament Fighters, which is such a poignant and terrible example of what happens when some guy in a suit decides that a video game should be playable on an older machine that is totally incompatible with the original designs for it. Such things have never been up to the actual game developers until very recently, with the swell of crowd-funded indie games that now grace our favorite platforms, but even now the largest “Triple-A” titles still fall under corporate whims. While corporate directives hold much of the power in gaming, there are still opportunities for game developers to create things that have full, rich stories, fun gameplay, and great graphics. While we might cynically think that working for the biggest names in game development is a sure-fire way to crush artistic spirit into a fine, marketable powder, it’s often that game devs pour their hearts into their work. It’s a tough job, often done under ridiculous time constraints, but these people love the work so much that they will go that extra mile to deliver a great product. Even so, we as consumers will still have to watch out for the occasional cash grab, as there is no satiating the corporate machine.

Images

  1. “Anyone of a certain age will remember this devourer of quarters, thanks to it appearing in every arcade and movie theater across the country and even the world. Cowabunga indeed.” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1989 Classic Arcade.” Eurogamer, www.eurogamer.net/teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-1989-classic-arcade-review
  2. “The idea of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ led to several follow-ups to the TMNT beat-’em-up, with Turtles in Time being one of the more notable entries in the series.”
    arronmunroe. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Arcade 4 Player Netplay 60fps.” YouTube, 13 Aug. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9UY0Q76Gs0
  3. “The success of the Street Fighter series meant that dozens of other IPs sought to jump on the tournament fighter bandwagon. TMNT were not immune to this siren call.” Themancalledscott, View All Posts By. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES) Review.” Wizard Dojo, 29 Sept. 2021, wizarddojo.com/2021/09/28/teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-tournament-fighters-snes-review
  4. “It’s a rare but welcome sight to see a ‘retro’-styled game seeking to do more than just trade on nostalgia but create a solid gameplay experience, such as the new TMNT game released recently.” Kahn, Justin. “Dotemu Unveils New Old-school Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Time-style Game.” 9to5Toys, 11 Mar. 2021, 9to5toys.com/2021/03/10/mutant-ninja-new-turtles-in-time

Resources

  1. Mancini, Mark. “11 Collectible Facts About Hot Wheels.” Mental Floss, Minute Media, 1 Oct. 2016. mentalfloss.com/article/86634/11-collectible-facts-about-hot-wheels.
  2. Basement Brothers. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TMNT playthrough Konami 4-players arcade game -Not MAME-.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Feb. 2011. youtube.com/watch?v=pjZ0OHIcJpc&.
  3. World-of-Longplays. “NES Longplay [369] Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II The Arcade Game (a).” YouTube, YouTube, 30 Nov. 2012. youtube.com/watch?v=QMm6NIhJFJ4.
  4. The Mike Factor. “TMNT 1989 Arcade Game.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Feb. 2013. youtube.com/watch?v=Bv1M5SSk7f8.
  5. “TMNT Arcade 1989 Speed Runs Solo Any %.” Speedrun.com, Elo Entertainment, Inc. speedrun.com/tmnt1989arcade#Solo_Any. Accessed 7 February, 2020.
  6. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game.” Speedrun.com, Elo Entertainment, Inc. speedrun.com/tmnt2. Accessed 7 February, 2020.
  7. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project.” TMNTPedia, FANDOM, turtlepedia.fandom.com/wiki/Teenage_Mutant_Ninja_Turtles_III:_The_Manhattan_Project. Accessed 7 February, 2020.
  8. Mumm-Ra. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project for NES (1991).” MobyGames, Blue Flame Labs, 9 Mar. 2003. mobygames.com/game/teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-iii-the-manhattan-project.
  9. Kalata, Kurt. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project.” Hardcore Gaming 101, Hardcore Gaming 101, 7 Oct. 2011. hardcoregaming101.net/teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-iii-the-manhattan-project/.
  10. World-of-Longplays. “NES Longplay [008] Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Dec. 2014. youtube.com/watch?v=QYJfkduIqwg.
  11. SilentWeaponIII. “Let’s Listen: Turtles In Time (Arcade) – Shredder Boss Battle (Extended).” YouTube, YouTube 4 Oct. 2011. youtube.com/watch?v=0j9fWczb8Oo.
  12. 8SilentWeaponIII. “Let’s Listen: TMNT III (NES) – Super Shredder, The Final Battle (Extended).” YouTube, YouTube, 18 January, 2012. youtube.com/watch?v=wARtBF6_KWQ.
  13. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (Super NES Game).” TMNTPedia, FANDOM. turtlepedia.fandom.com/wiki/Teenage_Mutant_Ninja_Turtles:_Tournament_Fighters_(Super_NES_game). Accessed 7 February, 2020.
  14. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (NES Game).” TMNTPedia, FANDOM. turtlepedia.fandom.com/wiki/Teenage_Mutant_Ninja_Turtles:_Tournament_Fighters_(NES_game). Accessed 7 February, 2020.
  15. “Karai (1987 Video Games).” TMNTPedia, FANDOM. turtlepedia.fandom.com/wiki/Karai_(1987_video_games). Accessed 31 May, 2020