Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


If I had my own arcade, say in the basement of my house or a seperate room or my own dingy building with no windows, there's only a handful of arcade machines I would want to actually own. Well, moreneed, I suppose. Two I've already covered, Galaga and Street Fighter II. The third, and really only other one (Ok, that Terminator 2 light gun game might make it as well) would be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A four-player brawler, or beat-em-up as more commonly called, where all you do is go right, attack, jump and spend lots and lots of hard-earned quarters on bosses that kiill you before you can even get back up. Oh, it's repetitive as hell and your fingers might just start bending the other direction with as hard as you excessively push down on the attack button (because as we all know the harder you push the stronger your attack right?) but I would argue it's the perfect game. Well, at least the perfect beat-em-up. And in the era of beat-em-ups from which it hails, it stands above the rest.

Not because of quality, mind you. But simply because it was the Ninja Turtles. For pre-teens in 1989 like myself, everything else was irrelevant.

Beat-em-ups were cheap. Damn cheap. Their entire gameplay design was to suck as many quarters out of you as possible resulting in bosses that could kill you in a few hits, swarms of enemies on the screen with weapons that are designed to be unavoidable, you can't defend (there is no block button in these games usually) and even pulling off a special move resulted in deplenishing a few bars of health. But, the good ones balanced the fun factor with that frustration factor. Sure, that boss might kill you ten times in just a few seconds, equating to another $2.50 you're pumping into the slot, but it's so damn fun to play. You have to continue.


The first Ninja Turtles game wasn't the first beat-em-up, but it was the first that, I think, was tied into something that was so popular and was still able to make a great arcade game out of it. Countless others would follow, based on comic books (such as The Punisher, X-men and The Avengers), movies (such as Aliens versus Predator or Batman) and more television shows (such as The Simpsons). All followed the formula to find that balance, but really it was the Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles games, this first one and the sequel Turtles in Time, that really had the most impact. At least to my memory.

It looked like the cartoon. Sounded like the cartoon. The graphics were gorgeous. The controls sharp. The characters identifiable and well-animated. And, best of all, you could play up to four players at once - essentially recreating scenes from the show with all the Turtles beating the hell of the Foot Clan and mechanical mice. Yes, it was frustrating, but it was fun. 


Although this April O'Neil isn't nearly hot enough (seriously, click the image for 80s hair), this ad in the gaming magazines of the time caused kids like me to flock to our still-not-dead-yet arcades.


Despite the fact that there were advertisements in gaming magazines, like the one above, usually you didn't even know of the game's existence until you simply stumbled on it one day. This was kind of fun, I thought. You go to your usual spot, whether it be a movie theater, bowling alley or actual arcade that houses all these wonderful cabinets-of-joy and get that little bit of shock and amazement when you notice something new. So, imagine you're going into the same place regularly during the height of the Ninja Turtles popularity. You have their toys. You ate their awful Pizza Hut pizza. You watched religiously and taped episodes on the VCR you knew how to control better than your parents did. Then BAM, a giant, four-player, colorful videogame shines from the darkness like a beacon of awesomeness.

Oh, there were lines. A lot of lines. But more specifically there were crowds because Ninja Turtles wasn't just fun to play, it was fun to watch people play. Even when you weren't playing, it was exciting to see what would happen next, who the next boss would be and then you'd chat up your friends about that totally radical episode that said boss appeared in. "Oh, there's the Turtle Van!" or "Oh. My. God. Krang!" or "That's just like in the show when that guy did that thing that one time!"

The arcade Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wasn't just about the kicking butt and taking names, there were plenty of games that did that. It was successful due to the presentation and its perfect emulation of the television show that pulled at our impressionable child minds and easily-impressed child mentality.


In between levels brought 2D cutscenes as well. Not only were the bosses reasons to get to levels, the cutscenes were reasons to beat them.


Every arcade had this game, it seemed. Even non-arcades sometimes, like a pizza parlor or movie theater. For me, it was the same place that I mentioned in the Street Fighter II write up I did a month ago. This bowling alley seemed to always be the first place I discovered these new games, then again I went there far more often than I did the local mall or actual arcade (which had all these games as well). Ninja Turtles sat outside the actual arcade area, perhaps it was just too big and they needed the space in anticipation of four players, but it actually sat on its own near one of the entrances of the bowling alley. It would be replaced later on by the equally-impressive beat-em-up X-Men arcade game.

There were often debates on who would play who on this thing. However, it had nothing to do with everyone's personal-favorite Turtle. It was about who could kick the most ass. Well, sorry Raphael, but the best ass-kicker for this, and ANY Ninja Turtle game, ended up being Donatello. People would scramble to play as Donatello, with Leonardo being a good second choice. All the Turtles could hit the same, jump the same, run the same speed, but Don had the reach. Raphael only had his sais and in a game where hitting others while not getting hit is the point, the giant four-foot piece of wood wins every time. 

Oh, by the way, I learned how to spell "sais" from this game during the demo mode. The demo mode being as entertaining as playing the game itself. 


 Kids, when I was your age and when we didn't have any of those dang quarters, we watched this 15 second opening and level demos. Over and over again in hopes of finding out some secret and reading all the Turtle stats. And this is why retro gaming is better.


That brief moment of sheer awe I had when I walked through the doors and saw this game for the first time is something I would never feel again. You have to remember, this came out the same year as the sidescrolling Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles title also by Konami for the NES. Which I played first I can't recall, but when people talk about Ninja Turtles games the arcade version is pretty much the only one brought up. The NES game is left well into the faded memories of all the kids that begged their parents to buy it and all those kids becoming upset on what they ended up with - a game that wasn't like the cartoon.

The arcade game, though, was the cartoon. To kids, that's the only thing that mattered, and for me it was a merging of two iconic elements of my then-childhood, Ninja Turtles and videogames, all at once resulting in a big-bang of wonder and awe. I didn't need to sit back and watch others play to know what the arcade game was going to be like or how it played, like I did Street Fighter II, or play it to figure it out, like just about every other game. It hit me like a wrecking ball. I knew exactly what was going on, how to play and what to do well before I even played it. It went like this.

Enter front doors. BAM! Ninja Turtles game glowing and colorful. My eyes go wide. Sounds fade. Slowly walk forward, mouth agape, to the cabinet and just stare for about one minute, basking in the beauty of all those pixels and sprites, before finally even putting in a quarter and choosing a Leonardo (I always chose Leonardo first, I wasn't one of those that argued about Donatello).

That feeling - that hard-to-quite-describe sensation is what being a kid was all about. You don't' feel that way as an adult. Ever. Especially towards videogames. Seeing that cabinet at that time in my life was practically life-affirming for a ten year old. The world could have ended and I would have died happy just knowing such a thing existed and that I had a few moments with it. There's really no comparison to that sensation now in adulthood. You don't "discover" things anymore like that. Not without some sort of price, probably. The days of simple discovery like a child laying eyes on this Ninja Turtles arcade cabinet is, I suppose, best reminisced by 30-something-year-olds like me in blogs like this. Cowabunga, dudes.


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