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Shell shocked: Where modern Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games have gone wrong

The golden age of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games were in the 80s and 90s. Sadly, the 21st century has been far less kind to the heroes in a half-shell.

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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 A large part of the Turtles' sudden decline was because the arcade-style beat-em-up that originally made them such an acclaimed hit had not aged well.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.

Aging gracelessly

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.

Shell-shocked

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.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
  • reply
    August 4, 2014 1:00 PM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Shell shocked: Where modern Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games have gone wrong.

    The golden age of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games were in the 80s and 90s. Sadly, the 21st century has been far less kind to the heroes in a half-shell.

    • reply
      August 4, 2014 1:31 PM

      The best TMNT game was this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters followed by TMNT: Arcade

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        August 4, 2014 2:54 PM

        Got to play a whole bunch of TMNT: Arcade this past weekend at Barcade in Chelsea. So much fun. Kept feeding it quarters to get a bit further.

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      August 4, 2014 1:32 PM

      I wish someone would just steal Rocksteady's Batman combat and make a TNMT game out of that.

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        August 4, 2014 1:58 PM

        I think Activision or whoever ends up with the Turtles license needs to take a very close look at a game like Sunset Overdrive. An open-world parkour playground for four-players with hordes of Foot Clan ninjas would fit the Turtles' world perfectly.

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        August 4, 2014 2:09 PM

        If it was a dark and gritty TNMT like the BA series that would be so bad ass

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      August 4, 2014 1:34 PM

      I was right there with the doom and gloom, and then you brought up the Batman reference. Good point. Batman video games had also started going down the beat 'em up genre route, but the new combat style and well polished presentation (and casting!!!!) really nailed it for that entire series.

      So, I have to agree with your conclusion. It's still possible for TMNT to make a come back, but it's going to have to totally reinvent itself like Batman did. But, not try to do the same thing that Batman did so well. I've wondered if a game that focused a bit more on the Ninja aspects would work. I'm not talking a stealth game, as TMNT is about beating up the Foot, but they're supposed to keep their existence a secret - which ya part of the story line is that they get found out too. Although, even though I've said all that, I could see how that combat style would really work for a ninjutsu based game. Hmmm.

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      August 4, 2014 2:01 PM

      Cutting rose bushes in the front yard a few minutes ago, listening to two litle kids across the street talking about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one said, "Why is the blue one the leader?" The other kid responded, "Because he said he is!" Lol. 4 player Turtles in Time was the best.

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        August 4, 2014 10:21 PM

        Yes I loved TMNT:TiT!!! Both the Arcade and Home versions!!! I still think its the greatest 2D beat'em up of all time!

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      August 4, 2014 2:20 PM

      This is where we come in. *puts on sunglasses*

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      August 4, 2014 2:38 PM

      [deleted]

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        August 4, 2014 2:48 PM

        Hold that thought. We'll be talking about those games tomorrow.

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      August 4, 2014 10:35 PM

      Just give Rocksteady the TMNT license. Use the Arkham system and the current IDW run as a story line basis and BAM INSTANT SUCCESS!!

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      August 4, 2014 11:04 PM

      Recipe for good TMNT game:

      1.) Should have TMNT Turtles in Time look/80's animated series look
      2.) Should begin with mega battle against Krang's underground mobile base. Must have Foot Soldiers and mousers.
      3.) Krang should teleport with mobile base across the world, turtles in pursuit.
      4.) Turtles fight Krang outposts in the desert (boss Baxter and giant mechanical sand worm), snow (Krang's mobile base is boss), dark side of the moon (Leatherhead boss), Chicago (cus' they got good pizza too) (level leader Beebop), base in the future (nod to turtles in time) (Tatsu leader (nod to original movie trilogy)), undergound again but pop up in France (pizza), up the Eiffel Tower (leader Rocksteady), across Russian rooftops (like Strider) (boss Shredder), back to New York City (Rat King), and finally climb exploding lava rippling Mt. Fuji and final battle with Krang in robosuit at the top.

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