"Part of the problem is that the turtles are mostly fighting the same enemies, no matter what twist the story may take. You see the same guys in just about every stage, with only the occasional difference that is likely to be the same guy with a palette swap and a slightly different AI routine. You'll learn to anticipate what moves you should make not by shape, but by color."
There was a time when every male child in America secretly pretended he was a mutant turtle with a craving for pizza, a sword, and a talking rat for a sensai. Those who didn't feel that way just hadn't given it enough thought. Somehow, the comics spawned a television series, a set of toys, and most importantly of all, a video game franchise. Konami did the honors. The NES and SNES saw several releases based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The last of the great ones, arguably, was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. But just how good was it, really? Was it perfect, horrible, or something in the middle? The answer you get when you ask that question is going to vary according to who you ask. Ultimately, the most accurate answer is probably the last one. Despite some stellar strengths, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time is neither caviar nor lima beans, but rather the dish of macaroni and cheese that rests between.
Perhaps the most obvious place to start this review is with some comments on the graphics. The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles title for the 'new' 16-bit generation had a lot going for it in this department, though perhaps nothing so helpful as a lack of real competition. Its only serious competitor was the visually pleasing Final Fight, which left Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV in a nice place. Though the game's graphics would later be thrown into a mud puddle and danced over until they looked like feces, the visuals here were once quite serviceable. From the first rush when the camera swoops down from a moon to the dark alley below, it's clear someone realized how far good graphics can go.
From a distance, the turtles generally look good. Unless one's zooming toward you in a cinema, its basic appearance isn't all that blocky. There's good color variation that keeps with the license, there are more animations than you might expect (such as when the turtle hops about after its feet catch on fire from an enemy attack, or when it performs a special move), and the characters in general look a lot more like mutant turtles than they do guys with turtle heads.
Enemies benefit from this same careful design, though it feels like the effort that went into animations varies by the level. On the one hand there are some really cool bosses, but there are also a few that will have you yawning. For every gator there is a generic turtle with spikes. If the bosses and enemies throughout some stages can sometimes disappoint, though, the artistic direction in general is this game's saving grace. There are some neat ideas, executed as nicely as the system hardware will allow. Grab a foe and toss him toward the screen. Sure, he looks blocky at the last, but it's pulled off with enough finesse that most of you won't really have much reason to complain. This is even incorporated into what is arguably the game's most spectacular boss fight, where in order to win you must chuck your opponents toward the screen.
Besides pushing what was currently the envelope for graphics, the game's developers also gave special attention to the audio department. Though it doesn't sound particularly stunning compared to the crisp voice acting we can enjoy in many of today's finer titles, the variety of voice samples in this title is quite impressive just the same. It's neat to hear a voice spouting little bits of nonsense. And the music is good, too, exactly what you would expect of the series if you ever watched the television show and tried to imagine what a midi-fied sound clip might produce. None of the instruments sound like the real thing as the music pipes out of your television's speakers, but everything is a close enough approximation that a rush of nostalgia is likely to flow through your veins when you give it a listen. Besides the standard music, there's also a good variety of other noise to enjoy. Sadly, aside from the voice work, the sound effects fail to impress. They're just the typical fare. There must have been sound libraries for this stuff back in the day.
If sound effects are disappointing, though, they're nothing to the gameplay. At one point, this was the best action a guy could hope for. What really could be better than two turtles parading through the streets, knocking ninjas about and saving the world? Quite a bit, apparently. This is one genre that simply hasn't aged well. Part of the problem is that the turtles are mostly fighting the same enemies, no matter what twist the story may take. You see the same guys in just about every stage, with only the occasional difference that is likely to be the same guy with a palette swap and a slightly different AI routine. You'll learn to anticipate what moves you should make not by shape, but by color. The white ninjas are bad news, for example, while the ones wearing red aren't a threat, and the yellow ones are only a nuisance if you turn your back and let one throw a star at you. At times, it feels like there are maybe only 6 or 7 different enemies in the game, aside from the bosses. And most of these enemies are just morons, relying not on brains but instead on brute force.
As a single-player game, then, this is one of the most tedious 'classic' games on the market. As a two-player experience, it fares slightly better. Playing through with a friend makes things about twice as good. Suddenly, you can be chivalrous and give the pizza to your buddy. Or fight your way to the box and snag it first. It's a slight variation on the 'that spread gun is mine' theme that worked in another Konami franchise, Contra. If you play this for long, though, it will quickly become apparent that other franchise is better (or at least that it ages better). The variety here exists only when you find yourself rushing along a wakeboard or whatever in a futuristic city, riding a surfboard through the sewers in the present, or hopping from car to car on a train in the old west.
Yes, you travel through time. The title suggested that, but again the game suffers from a shortcoming. Only around halfway through the title--say 15 minutes of play--do you actually get to warp through time. Then you play around 4 stages and you're back to the present for a final battle. Considering the whole notion of warping through time appears in the game's title, one might reasonably have thought it would have more impact on the game and levels and such. Not so. This one could just as easily have been called 'Say No to Variety.' The only reason the idea of hurtling through time even exists, I would argue, is to give the gamer the false sense that he's watching a story unfold. Konami's developers really should have put more attention into making the concept work. It's cool, just not properly executed.
Which is perhaps the problem with the whole game. On paper, it looks good. You have the turtles. You have a two-player option. You have the ability to adjust the number of lives a player has, the difficulty level, and various other tiny details. These are all just little bits of icing on the cake, though. And sadly, that cake is a tiny little one that has grown stale over time. Plumbers age well. Hedgehogs, too. Apparently, turtles do not.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (January 30, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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