Friday, June 3, 2016

A Tribute to TMNT on the Game Boy

A look back at the trilogy of monochrome Turtles titles on Nintendo's iconic handheld. And yeah, there is a lot of awesomeness to go around here. 

By: Jimbo X

When people hear the terms "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "video game" used in tandem, the two Konami-produced coin-ops from the early 1990s - the former ported to the NES and the latter ported to the SNES and Genesis - usually spring to mind. Lost amid all of the belly-aching about the underwater stage in the first TMNT Nintendo game and the still-perplexing obscurity of The Manhattan Project (easily the best 8-bit Turtles game ever), however, people tend to overlook the trifecta of TMNT games released on the original Game Boy in the early 1990s. 

And that is a real shame, because all three titles can rightfully lay claim to being among the best licensed games on the monochrome portable. Furthermore, each game encompasses an entirely different genre, providing handheld players with a tremendous action-platformer, a magnificent micro-sized beat 'me up and, if you can believe it, one of the most underrated MetroidVania-style titles ever. 

With the next Michael Bay Turtles' flick opening at cineplexes (you can check out our review of the first outing right here, if you are so inclined) how's about we find ourselves a quartet of Double-A batteries, locate a reasonably well-lit corner and revisit some of the best shell-raising action to grace ANY video game platform? Grab your AC adapter and get ready to swing it around like Nintendo-branded nunchaku, folks - this is going to be a trip down the sewers of yesteryear you definitely do not want to miss. 

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

Up first - reasonably enough - we have the first TMNT game to make its way to Nintendo's beloved portable unit. Fall of the Foot Clan was developed and published by Konami, the same fine folks who gave us the more well-known Turtles titles on the home consoles. Indeed, gameplay-wise, the title bears a pretty close resemblance to the first TMNT game on the NES. You get to choose one of four characters - each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses - and wallop skulls across five stages. Raphael and Michelangelo are faster, but their attacks have shorter ranges than Leonardo or Donatello - who, as a trade off, move at a snail's pace. All four characters, however, have the same "B-set" moves, including a jumping attack and, when kneeling, the ability to fire off shurikens, Shinobi-style. And perhaps picking up on one of the biggest fan criticisms of its NES forerunner, yes, your Turtles can indeed survive cannonballs into water hazards now. 

Am I the only one just kinda' freaked out that you control a character smiling like a doped-up dental patient heading into battle with a machine gun-lugging rhinoceros monster?

The levels are pretty straightforward, incorporating a little bit of light platforming alongside all the ass kicking. The first stage, rather appropriately, is in the sewers, the second is in a construction site, the third is a battle atop a moving convoy of trucks (kinda like in Bad Dudes, only with controls worth a shit) the fourth in a cavern and the fifth and final inside the Technodrome itself. Along the way, you'll tangle with your usual assortment of cannon fodder foes - ninjas and Mousers and Roadkill Rodneys - before going toe-to-toe with bosses like Rocksteady, Bebop, Baxter Stockman (who I always referred to as Bastard Stockman as a kid), Shredder and, in the game's concluding donnybrook, Krang, who attacks you using what can only be described as the iconic Hulk Hogan big boot. 

Yeah ... guns that shoot bubble rings have never been the most imposing of weapons, really. 

For a first go-at-it on the hardware, this is actually pretty impressive. The controls are very smooth and responsive and the levels, although short, are very well-designed. The boss fights are hard as fuck but manageable, and overall, the music - despite looping the same tunes over and over again - is pretty good (and as an aside, after listening to the iconic TMNT theme song in chiptune form for an entire weekend, I can now remark on its astonishing compositional similarities to Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage.")  The action is rock-solid and there are a few surprises here and there, namely, a couple of secret warp portals that take you to a Master Splinter mini-game where you can shoot targets for extra health. It's a bit on the short side - it took me less than an hour to finish it, once I got all the trial and error stuff out of the way - but by and large? Yeah, this is a damned good platformer, and you should probably wedge it into your Game Boy's cartridge hole at least once before you call it a career as a gamer. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Back from the Sewers (1991)

In some respects, Back from the Sewers is the beefed-up, super-high-definition Criterion version of Fall of the Foot Clan. Structurally, it is more or less the same game, except way, way better in every category. The sprites and backgrounds are much more detailed and the animations have improved tremendously. The music, while for the most part unchanged, sounds far less muddy and tinny. The controls are just as smooth, and the core gameplay has been altered to create more diverse stages, including a few segments that allow for four-directional beat-em-up fun a'la Streets of Rage and even a few Battletoads-inspired vehicular combat sequences. 

...and a year later, these motherfuckers are still smiling walking into automatic weapon and animal-human chimera certain death. Uh, what kind of mushrooms ARE they putting in those pizzas, exactly?

This time around, there are six stages, all of which are much larger than the levels in the first Game Boy offering. As in the first game, navigating the stages requires quite a bit of platforming savvy,and lightning quick reflexes are a must as well. The enemy A.I. in this game is much better than it was in the first go-around, and all in all, this is a significantly more challenging sequel in every way. The ability to chuck ninja stars has been excised, but the trade off is slightly faster attacks and greater range for all four playable characters. As before, you'll get to trade blows with scores and scores of Klan-looking ninjas en route to boss battles against the usual assortment of TMNT baddies; newcomers for this one include that pizza monster thing that somehow avoided a lawsuit from H.R. Giger and General Traag - you know, that rocky motherfucker from Dimension X. Oh, and all of the returning boss enemies have received major graphical and attack upgrades, with the final boss fight against Krang in Back from the Sewers making the final boss fight in the first game look like a Game Genie-assisted run against Bowser from the first Super Mario game. 

"Sure is a nice day to be skateboarding backwards down the highway at 90 miles per hour. Boy, I sure hope I don't bump into any Ku Klux Klan members while I admire the scenery..."

On the whole, this is a tremendous little brawler/platformer hybrid.  At the end of the day, Back from the Sewers is a lot more than just a solid TMNT-branded game, it is actually a really nice amalgamation of several early 1990s video game franchises. You get the hard-as-fuck speed-your-way-through-object-littered-terrain moments from Battletoads, the platforming goodness of the Super Mario games, the ability to whoop everything's ass however you want to like in Double Dragon and with all the explosions and projectiles going on everywhere and enemies coming at you from every angle, one can't help but pick up on a decisive Mega Man vibe as well. And for those seeking an old school Game Boy title packing heaps of challenge?  Don't let the kid-friendly license fool you, this game will kick the shit out of your ass in a hurry if you don't take it seriously.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue (1993)

By the time Radical Rescue was released, the TMNT cash cow had all been milked dry. Usurped by the Power Rangers and X-Men, kids had gotten pretty bored with all of the painfully passe "tubular" talk, so it's not really surprising that this third Ninja Turtles offering on the Game Boy didn't receive that much fanfare when it was released. And that's a crying shame, because the Turtles third go-at-it on the handheld was definitely their best - and most interesting. 

...and on top of that, they finally figured out how to stop grinning at mortal peril!

Whereas the first two games could be described as fairly standard action platformers with beat-em-up elements, Radical Rescue takes a very different approach. Very much inspired by Metroid and Castlevania, the game takes place in a huge, labyrinthine map with areas that are completely impassable without certain items or the idiosyncratic skills of particular characters. You see, when you begin the game, only Michelangelo - who can helicopter across long-stretches of terrain with his nunchucks - is playable. However, as you bump off boss enemies - including such super-obscure foes as Scale Tail and Dirtbag - you gain access to the other Turtles, whose individual abilities (Donatello can climb walls, Raphael can morph ball into his shell a'la Samus, Leonardo can turn into a tornado and drill through walls) are needed to progress your way through the game. 

Maybe I missed an episode or two, but I don't recall the Turtles ever doing battle with any pickax-wielding maniacs with oblong-shaped heads. Maybe it was the same story arc featuring those dudes with the chainsaws in the first TMNT game on the NES?

I've played a lot of MetroidVania games in my day, and Radical Rescue is certainly one of the best I've ever experienced that doesn't feature a blonde in a space suit with a giant, goofy red helmet and/or some dude with a whip trying to kill Dracula as the primary protagonist. The general level layout is very, very reminiscent of Return of Samus, albeit it with a far more interesting backdrop. The enemies come at you fast and furious just like in Castlevania, and the boss fights certainly have a strong Mega Man vibe. Indeed, perhaps the best way to describe the core gameplay in Radical Rescue is a jambalaya of Capcom's venerable Blue Bomber series with some healthy Ninja Gaiden-esque action thrown in the mix. All in all, this is a damned impressive game with great visuals, really good music, nearly perfect controls, expertly designed levels, tons of replayability and quite a bit of challenge, too. If you are looking for a supremely under-appreciated Game Boy gem, you won't find that many licensed games with as much value as this one - and even in a pantheon of beloved side scrolling beat-em-ups like Turtles in Time, I reckon this criminally unsung offering remains the best pound-for-pound, dollar-for-dollar TMNT game ever released. 

Sure, he's not as obscure a supporting cast member as, say, Monty Moose or Antrax, but you've got to be pretty impressed with the inclusion of old Dirtbag here. Sigh ... had there been a fourth Game Boy title, maybe we would've been doing battle with the likes of Muckman and Mutagen Man!

So there you have it, folks. No matter how you get your Ninja Turtles on, you're guaranteed a rousing handheld experience whichever Game Boy offering you wedge into your cartridge slot. Come to think of it, there were a ton of criminally underrated licensed and franchise games from Konami on the portable, including some that we will definitely be revisiting come Halloween-time. Alas, if you are looking for something to get you in the mood for Out of the Shadows, you certainly can't go wrong with these three stellar titles. And hey, if the movie itself sucks, you can always fire up your old four-battery-unit and make the best of a bad situation ... pending you still have one of those huge-ass screen light magnifying apparatuses. And the other filmgoers won't try to beat your ass for flicking on a device that produces about as much light as a medium-sized lamp. And the ushers don't see you. Or the Turtles themselves don't show and knock the crap out of you for your inconsiderate ways ... which is something we all know the old school black and white Turtles would probably do, and hard

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