Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game – NES
Release Date (NA): December 1990
Genre: Beat ’em up
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
If you were fortunate enough to own an original Nintendo back during the years when it was popular, it’s almost a given that you either owned or wanted to own this game. This is “the Turtles game” that most NES veterans remember, and a welcome breath of fresh air after the bizarre and insanely difficult platformer released the year before. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game is a classic beat ’em up of the highest order, and although it may not be the most original or groundbreaking game to hit the NES, it is by far one of the most fun.
When it comes right down to it, there isn’t a whole lot to say about the gameplay. Shredder ends up capturing both April and Splinter at some point, and as usual, the Turtles must fight their way through hordes and hordes of baddies. Players choose one of the four Turtles to play as and use simple attacks to dispatch foot soldiers. With only 2 buttons, attack and jump, TMNT II keeps it light and entertaining. For such a straightforward game, it’s actually sort of surprising that (and I’m not sure that I fully grasped this when I was younger) each Turtle is more or less of an individual. Each character plays to the strengths and weaknesses of his weapon; range is compensated for by speed. The Turtles fall along a sliding scale with Raphael having the quickest but shortest attack and Donnie possessing the furthest but slowest. Does it end up making that much difference? Not really, but co-op can be made a little more comfortable by choosing opposing types of Turtles.
Co-op mode is a lot of fun as well. It’s essentially the same as single player only 2 people are controlling 2 Turtles at once, but the enemies, bosses, levels, etc. are all unchanged. There’s a modest increase of enemies to account for the extra player, though in the end having an extra mutant onscreen makes the game substantially less difficult.
Besides the scores of enemies, a few environmental hazards add variety to the game such as the beams of electricity near the end and the giant bowling balls rolling down stairs. Players can move around in a 2 dimensional plane as well as jump, which gives it a much less monotonous feel than other beat ’em ups where the character moves only in a straight line. In-game physics and controls don’t exactly stand out, but for the most part it’s because they’re doing their job flawlessly in the background. For such an old game, moving and attacking are quite fluid without the choppiness that sometimes comes standard. Simultaneously jumping and attacking (across multiple genres) is something of a clumsy affair in the 8-bit days; TMNT II is one shining example of where the concept is pulled of quite nicely.
As one moves forward in TMNT II, the difficulty tapers up nicely and strikes a great balance between just how many enemies must be disposed of before progressing. The bosses can be tough, but with a little patience their patterns can be recognized and exploited. What I really love about games like this is being able to respawn at the exact location of death, nullifying the need to play over the same areas again and again.
There’s a good bit of visual diversity throughout the game in which each level has a specific motif. At first we’re on the streets, and eventually the Turtles end up trekking through snow, something that looks like feudal Japan, and even the Technodrome itself. I especially enjoy the freeway ride with the Turtles on their “cheapskates.” Decidedly cartoonish, the graphics are still full of detail and color, and the changing environments keep the rather repetitive gameplay from entering into monotony. There are an incredible number of different enemies in TMNT II and while we may end up fighting lots and lots of foot soldiers, even they undergo periodic color changes. Beat ’em ups can get very tiring when simplistic gameplay combines with visual predictability, yet TMNT II eschews this common problem by throwing out a wide array of locales and evil-doer sprites for the player to contend with. Let’s not forget about the Pizza Hut logos!
Konami decided to throw in some extra bells and whistles here and there, making TMNT II look ahead of its time in several respects. Fires burn and flicker in the background (and in the foreground at times). Items like traffic cones and parking meters can be punched and subsequently launched at enemies. Foot soldiers (being of the robot variety in this iteration of Ninja Turtles) explode once defeated as do several other autonomous machines. Most bosses have their own unique “death animations.” In the stage reminiscent of feudal Japan, shadows of upcoming enemies can be seen lurking behind the movable shades. Mousers chew through a wall. There is so much cool stuff crammed in here and though it may not immediately jump out as notable, these finer details define TMNT II as an NES classic. The music is still limited by the NES’ primitive sound chip, though I’m of the opinion that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song is one of those melodies that translated perfectly as an 8-bit chiptune.
I’ve got very little to complain about when it comes to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, though if anything, I’d cite its moderate lack of replayability as its only real failing. There isn’t anything new to see or do your second time through the game, though it is fun enough to pop in any old time that you’re in the mood for lighter gaming fare. On the other hand, beat ’em ups aren’t known for their wealth of secrets or exploratory nature. Besides, like I said, it’s worth way more raw enjoyment than many beat ’em ups that would come years and years later.
I’m also unsure as to why the game manufactured so many exclusive grunts and other enemies when the Turtles series was already so rich with characters at the time. We had an extremely popular TV show and a wildly successful toy line, both bursting at the seams with all sorts of different bad guys. (I would know; I had like every single Ninja Turtle toy from 87/88 up through the early, maybe even mid 90’s.) Still, despite the liberties taken, it doesn’t take anything way from the game, and we’ve still got plenty of familiar faces like Bebop, Rocksteady, and Baxter Stockman.
Is TMNT II the perfect beat ’em up? It might just be, but I’d need to do some serious brushing up on the style before I’d be comfortable making such a decisive declaration. (Arguably these old school beat ’em ups are an artifact and have mostly evolved into modern day hack-and-slash games.) Either way, it’s an amazing game, only slightly hindered by the limitations of its genre. Any “retro gaming” fans owe it to themselves to play and own this title. It had a few things working against it, including being based on a TV show and succeeding a very confusing and polarizing release (the first TMNT for the NES), but ultimately it turned out to be not only an instant classic, but also a game that could weather the industry’s changing technology by retaining simple and effective gameplay.
What a fantastic example of an 8-bit masterpiece.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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