The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are one of the most recognizable properties across TV, movies, comic books, and a slew of other mediums, making billions worldwide since their creation back in the 1980s. They're also one of the few properties to have received faithful video game adaptations. Where properties like Transformers, X-Men, and Star Trek were bogged down by uninspired adaptations, the Turtles were graced with games that fully enthralled their fanbase. At least that was the case early on, anyway.
Around the turn of the century, the heroes in a half-shell suddenly began striking out in the video game world. The Turtles had met their greatest foe: the law of diminishing returns. A large part of the Turtles' sudden decline was because the arcade-style beat-em-up that originally made them such an acclaimed hit had not aged well. And later years have not been kind to these beloved characters.
After the 16-bit era passed, the TMNT franchise discovered that it could not turn in the same old side-scrolling button masher and expect the same past success. A prime example of this is 2003's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox. Though it was based on the animated reboot of that same year, it was firmly rooted in its arcade past.
Sadly, the execution didn't pan out. Konami made the mistake of adding useless weaponry and an ill-fated progression system that didn't quite hit the mark. It was a brainless button-masher and monotonous to its core, missing all the heart and originality of the original arcade efforts.
Subsequent efforts wouldn't get any better, with Konami desperately trying to add to the formula with 2004's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Battle Nexus and 2005's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: Mutant Nightmare. While these games attempted to push the series forward by shifting to 3D brawling, they would get dragged down by terrible puzzles, frustrating platforming sections, abysmal AI, and clunky controls. It eventually reached a point where Konami threw in the towel and opted to cut the franchise loose.
Aiming for originality and missing the target
After Konami cut the TMNT license loose, Ubisoft scooped it up and attempted to revive it with some new ideas. Some of these ideas had good intentions, but didn't work out so well in practice. Worse yet, instead of attempting to sharpen their ideas, Ubisoft simply jumped around from genre to genre in hopes that something would stick.
Take the 2007 TMNT movie tie-in, for instance. The publisher tried to blend the Turtles' world with the parkour platforming of the beloved Prince of Persia series. It was a fine idea, attempting to emphasize the "ninja" aspect of the Ninja Turtles. However, the terrible camera and frustrating platforming quickly doomed this single-player effort.
There's no telling if a second game like TMNT would have resonated better, but a follow-up was not meant to be. Instead, Ubisoft had been playing a whole lot of Super Smash Bros. and decided that the Turtles would be wonderfully suited to that style of fighting game. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash-Up was a fairly competent effort, but attempting to take on the Smash Bros. franchise proved foolhardy, since the Turtles failed to bring anything original to the table. Not to mention that the Turtles' roster is significantly smaller than Nintendo's vast library of characters.
It was another game for the scrap heap, but Ubisoft had one last ace in the hole. Unfortunately, it was one that would go so wrong that not only were Turtles fans not happy, but it actually wound up putting people's nostalgia in the cross-hairs.
Going back in 'Time'
In 2009, Ubisoft collaborated with Konami to bring fans a remake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, the beloved early 90s classic arcade game. The result was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled, a game that proved that sometimes you just can't go home again.
Though the game was presented as a full restoration, with modernized graphics to go along with the classic four-player action, it largely fell flat. The original game was a product of its time (no pun intended) with an art style and soundtrack that fit best in that time period. The re-release was missing the intangible heart of the original game, only containing an arcade beat-em-up that felt boring and repetitive. It was such an ill-conceived product that it had some fans (like myself) even questioning whether the original game was ever that good to begin with.
The Activision years and beyond
Ubisoft stepped out of the sewers and publisher Activision has since decided to take a stab at the Turtles license. Like many 21st century TMNT games, the result was not pretty. In fact, their first effort was downright ugly.
Last year's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was brutally panned by critics and fans alike. Not only was the combo-based beat-em-up combat dull, but it was barely playable. Out of the Shadows was plagued by bugs like unfinished textures, choppy animation, dumb AI, and unresponsive controls that left the final product a complete mess. It was an inauspicious debut for Activision.
So what do many of the above Turtles games have in common? Unfortunately, they're victims of the modern video game production cycle. Konami's 21st century efforts were rush jobs that sought to take advantage of a television series tie-in. Ubisoft's first Turtles game was likewise a rushed effort, trying to release around the time of the CGI reboot film from 2007. The rest of the games mentioned were either poorly conceived ideas or filled with bugs and glitches that resulted from having to have the product on shelves as soon as possible, quality be damned.
On the upside, that means the Turtles franchise can still be saved. Look at how Rocksteady was able to take a practically-dead Batman license and bring it up to prosperity. They were able to do it because they had a fresh idea and the patience to implement it. The Arkham series could have easily gone the way of the Turtles if it had been rushed, but a refined product and top-notch presentation led to a modern classic.
TMNT can experience a similar renaissance. However, rush jobs aren't the answer and neither is blind nostalgia. Like Nickelodeon did with the animated television license, the answer is to take a step back and start fresh. The Turtles can be relevant again, but like the best pizzas, the next big idea needs some time in the oven first.