"In early stages, the game likes to present you with common ‘purple dragon’ street thugs. They’re every bit as foolish as their name implies. Many times, they’ll dawdle at the entrance to alleys, lined up like bowling pins and waiting for you to roll in for the strike. If they counter at all (and they do as you ratchet up the game’s selectable difficulty levels), you can usually just zip out of the way with a dash, or be sure that your sword is sticking out when they charge with pieces of pipe brandished like clubs."
I asked myself plenty of questions as I played through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the Xbox (mostly ones pertaining to plot points), but the most important one didn’t occur to me until I was halfway through the game: why am I still playing this thing? The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games were a blast. You and a friend could get lost in mayhem as you beat the crap out of an army of robotic ninjas. After your buddy left, you’d play the game a few minutes more before shutting it off in disgust because it just wasn’t the same. In those days, that extra player made all the difference, made the game the rewarding experience many older gamers remember to this day. Fifteen years later, almost nothing has changed.
Just like its predecessors, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles starts with a close approximation of the actual cartoon’s opening. With the Xbox technology, that means you can almost imagine you’re actually watching the new cartoon (Fox’s version differs noticeably from the original, with a sexed-down April O’Neil and a wimpy Shredder) before you choose your turtle from the four available heroes and start cracking skulls. Once you make your choice, the game adds another minute or so of animation that depicts the turtles training with their feral sensei. Suddenly, mechanical Mousers bust through the walls and cause an avalanche of rubble to separate the turtles from their master. Just like that, you’re plopped into the action as you start roaming the sewers.
The first stage is a good introduction to how the game works. Your chosen turtle (in my case, the staff-wielding Donatello) sloshes through ankle-deep water as Mousers burst out from the brick walls lining the narrow corridor. Their activity also causes stone formations to crash down from above, and those can damage anyone in the vicinity. Unless you’ve changed the controls in the ‘Options’ menu, you’ll find that the ‘A’ button is good for a quick attack, while the ‘X’ generates a slower but more powerful strike. Additionally, you can dash with the left trigger and jump with ‘B.’ These are the main moves you need to know as you move your turtle around the screen, and every button you need to press is within easy reach.
Because no one turtle reacts exactly the same when you input your commands, there’s likely a particular blend of speed and strength that fits your playing style. Though he’s extremely slow, Donatello’s long range made him perfect for my first play through the game, for example, while Michelangelo’s rapid steps and versatile nunchaku attack clears out many smaller enemies before they even know what hit them. The buttons are also context-sensitive. If you’re in front of a fire hydrant, you’ll bust it open and send a geyser of water spewing toward the nearest ninja. If you’re in the middle of a dash, you might manage a dash attack that increases the damage you do while decreasing your vulnerability.
The dash is actually quite important. Many of the game’s boss characters tend to counter you with severe prejudice if you just stroll over and hit them. You’ll soon find that jumping to the attack (once you’ve learned such moves following the game’s first stage) or dashing in quickly with your weapon ready is the most successful strategy. While your turtle is dashing, enemy projectiles are unable to do any damage.
As you progress, you’ll find the dash becomes increasingly significant. In early stages, the game likes to present you with common ‘purple dragon’ street thugs. They’re every bit as foolish as their name implies. Many times, they’ll dawdle at the entrance to alleys, lined up like bowling pins and waiting for you to roll in for the strike. If they counter at all (and they do as you ratchet up the game’s selectable difficulty levels), you can usually just zip out of the way with a dash, or be sure that your sword is sticking out when they charge with pieces of pipe brandished like clubs. These buffoons soon give way to more difficult ninja types, who circle you and fire projectiles the minute you get busy with a handful of their compatriots. Still, it’s easy to win these rounds without taking much damage simply by dashing toward the biggest threats, whacking them a few times, then turning to take care of the others who are lazily meandering toward your new location.
Later, you’re fighting the same ninjas armed with cloaking devices to turn invisible. Then you finally see new enemies in the form of mutated monsters (Shredder’s doing) before it’s on to the end of the game and a series of encounters with a few more robots and ninjas. If you’re looking for variety in this game, you’re looking in the wrong place. There are only a few different enemies scattered throughout, and there’s hardly a one that shows half the intelligence of a lemming.
To be honest, the most difficult of the standard enemies is probably the cloaking ninja I mentioned. This is because of one of the game’s flaws in presentation, its perspective. Though I usually didn’t have much trouble with the fixed camera, goons sometimes are approaching from off-screen and you simply have no idea they are there. Instead of looking to the action, you’ll find yourself instead monitoring a radar in the screen’s lower right corner. This shows your location and white dots circling around you that represent your inept opponents. Naturally, the cloaked enemies tend to stay just out of the camera’s line of sight until they’re ready to attack and don’t even show up on the radar. If this sounds cheap, though, don’t worry; the damage they deal is negligible.
In general, then, the only real challenge you have comes from a few of the boss encounters later in the game, and even these are quite simple (just corner them and mash buttons). Between bosses, it seems like there’s always a pizza waiting to replenish your life the minute the meter starts to drop into the danger zone. And if you lose all the life in your meter, you still have six more turtles to utilize before facing the dreaded ‘Game Over’ screen.
By the way, that screen is even less welcome here than you may suppose. This is because even though you do have a decent bounty of lives, you have to spread them over several levels. The game is broken into six stages, with a total of around 36 levels divided not so evenly amongst them. Your stock of lives must last through each of what typically amounts to six levels. You might play most of twenty minutes or even a half-hour to get through a stage, then die just before defeating the boss. Guess what? You get to start over on that stage!
Fortunately, your progress is saved to the hard drive. That, and your best times for a given area. Desperate to increase its longevity (a single play through will last you only three or four hours), the game tallies your performance at each of the numerous junctions so you can press yourself to improve your skills if so inclined. At first I thought that was cool, and I also liked the idea of playing through as each of the different turtles to unlock the game’s ‘challenge’ mode (it lets you face one boss after another with only a few power-ups between and no stock of lives). By the time I finished the game as Donatello and started through again as the next turtle, though, I found that the whole experience was more a chore than the pleasure it should have been.
This certainly isn’t due to a total lack of effort on Konami’s part. There are several ways in which the game actually excels. Seldom has cel-shading felt so appropriate as it does here. The line dividing pre-rendered animation and in-game scenes is razor-thin. Each turtle looks great as it flows through its range of moves, and even the enemies have enough frames that they look like they popped over from the set of the cartoon. Likewise, there’s a decent assortment of locales that includes a museum, the top of some skyscrapers, a mysterious laboratory, the top of a truck and even a junkyard.
The game’s sound category is similarly successful. Each turtle has several voice clips he’ll use throughout the adventure as he manages combo strikes (another thing the game tallies) against his numerous opponents. I did get tired of hearing the same phrases repeatedly, but it’s possible to tone them down in the ‘Options’ screen. Meanwhile, there’s a rocking soundtrack playing in the background that feels remarkably at home in a brawler such as this one. There are only a few different tunes in all, but each fits the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles motif perfectly. A lesser soundtrack would have made the game much less enjoyable (even for someone like me who typically doesn't care one way or the other what a game's music is like), so it’s good to see Konami’s composers had the competence to make things right in this regard.
However, they didn’t show the same competence with the plot. I don’t play fighting games for their story, but Konami crams this one down your throat so it’s hard not to pay attention. At the start of the game, it’s all about the Mousers that broke into your home, and by the end of the game there are several other plot points jockeying for position as you start to question what in the world is supposed to motivate you. This may be the fault of the localization team and not the original writers, though, as evidenced by numerous typos throughout the subtitles that accompany spoken dialogue.
Plot is definitely the one place where the developers got the sloppiest, and I honestly couldn’t care less. What bothers me more is that this game gets so redundant so quickly. My copy came from the bargain bin, so I didn’t get burned so bad. But if you see this game drifting around for more than ten or fifteen bucks, avoid it. The turtles will forgive you. They’re honorable like that.
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 29, 2004)
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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