Turtles in Time: A look back at TMNT's early games

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are getting ready for their fifth big-screen production, in a sort of reboot. Time will tell how it turns out, but chances are it won't live up in our minds to the TMNT heyday of the late 80s and 90s, when the franchise first broke out into mainstream popular culture. As a result of its wild popularity, we got plenty of games to go with it--both hits and misses, naturally.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES, 1989)

This game benefitted from the youth of the collective audience that would go for a game about anthropomorphic turtles. There is a fine line between a bad game and a hard game, and if a developer aims at a player base that is young enough they won't be able to discern the difference. Somewhere we have memories tucked away of playing this, and not getting very far, and probably assuming we just weren't good enough at it.

Stuck in an uncanny valley between Shinobi and Zelda 2, this game had you explore the map from a top-down perspective, and occasionally enter self-contained dungeons crawling with members of the Foot Clan, Mousers, and traps. In all honesty, though, the controls were stiff and unforgiving, hardly appropriate for a game about acrobatic ninjas. In hindsight, TMNT could have starred Splinter so that we could blame its problems on his Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game (Arcade, NES, 1989)

If any game should have clued us in to the relative mediocrity of the NES TMNT, it was the near-simultaneous release of the arcade game. This set a standard that several Turtles games (and arguably) several beat-em-ups, would follow after. The controls were more fluid and the stage design let the heroes positioning make a real difference in combat. The visuals were above-average for the time, giving a sharp cartoon aesthetic that was reminiscent of the popular cartoon show. It also made a point of invoking characters as they were represented on that show, including Baxter Stockman and fellow mutants Bebop and Rocksteady.

It was replicated with near-arcade accuracy on the NES, but had to be renamed "Turtles 2: The Arcade Game" to reduce confusion. Though it wasn't as graphically impressive, this was arguably the best version of the game since it included extra areas and bosses not included in the arcade version. Plus, it's just more fun to beat down the Foot Clan when you know your financial well-being isn't slipping away one quarter at a time.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan (Gameboy, 1990)

Something of a midpoint between the first two games, Fall of the Foot Clan was a severely simplified beat-em-up. It took place on a flat plane, and Foot members were mere obstacles to be shredded through. It was only five stages long, but the Turtles themselves were large and expressive sprites that invoked the cartoon even better than the Arcade version.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Manhattan Missions (PC, 1991)

A far cry from the trajectory of the other Turtles games, Manhattan Missions strayed from the kid-friendly cartoons and took its inspiration far more from the dark and brooding comics and the somewhat self-serious film. It has a ticking clock in which to find the Shredder, and the underground settings look more similar to the first NES game. The combat was more complex, with a block key and set number of shurikens to deploy. It never caught fire like its NES counterparts, though, most likely because they were modeled more after the cartoon where the bulk of its popularity rested.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: The Manhattan Project (NES, 1992)

Despite being named after our own atomic bomb testing, this is another happy-go-lucky turtles beat-em-up. It was modeled mostly after the second Turtles game, which had gained critical acclaim and wide sales. It added more combat options, along with the ability to borrow lives from the other Turtles. It made for an early example of co-op that was friendly to parents playing with young children, since a more experienced player could let their younger counterpart borrow lives if necessary. 

The story, revolving around Shredder flooding New York while the Turtles were off on vacation for some reason, was a loose conceit to get them back to New York to shred some Foot goons. It also made way for a references to the second film, including "Super Shredder"--the menacing mutated version of the Turtles arch-nemesis.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (Arcade, 1991; SNES, 1992)

The arcade once again set the standard for highly-polished beat-em-ups, but it didn't quite carry the same revolutionary magic as the original TMNT Arcade. The premise was similar to the third Turtles movie, but it was definitely steeped more in the cartoon version. The lush, colorful visuals and expressive character work could have almost been pulled right off of Saturday mornings. 

Though the premise was extremely similar to the third Turtles movie, the game used it to explore several different eras and settings instead of merely ancient Japan. Like the Arcade-to-NES port, the SNES version included a number "4" to mark it as part of the series, and added several new bosses not found in the original. Super Shredder once again made an appearance as the final boss.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist (Genesis, 1992)

The wild popularity of TMNT couldn't ignore the Genesis forever. Released almost simultaneously with Turtles in Time for SNES, Hyperstone Heist was the Genesis' own arcade beat-em-up. It was comparable in most respects, though the premise differed greatly. Instead of sending the Turtles careening through time, Hyperstone Heist revolved around them banding together to stop the Shredder's latest plot, which kicked off with shrinking New York City using the power of the Hyperstone from Dimension X.

Though the visual fidelity suffered a bit from the Genesis' relatively limited range, the core design was almost identical. The fewer stages were longer, and the gameplay featured faster, smoother animations. Like most games from the era of Nintendo vs. Sega, stalwarts in both camps still swear by their own version of the Turtles.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (NES, Genesis, Super NES, 1993)

Just as the Turtles helped define beat-em-ups, they couldn't escape the creeping influence of other popular genres. Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat had helped put fighting games on the map, and Konami responded with Tournament Fighters. Since it developed the game for three wildly different platforms, the differences between each are extremely noticeable. The four core Turtles were playable in all three versions, but the similarities essentially stop there.

The NES was bare-bones and simple, having your chosen hero run through his brothers and then a few end-bosses. The two 16-bit versions had more complex stories and far more playable characters from both the cartoon and comics series, but the rosters were different. The SNES version included Wingnut, Chrome Dome, Armageddon, War, Rat King, and Karai, alongside original character Aska. The Genesis sported April O'Neil herself, Casey Jones, Ray Fillet, and the original character Sisyphus. Though the 16-bit versions were competent fighting games themselves, they were mostly awash in a sea of Street Fighter clones.