It’s amazing how much of a pop-culture sensation the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have become. Their entire concept almost feels like the product of an insane fever dream. You have one of the slowest animals on Earth combined with a Japanese fighting style well-known for inhuman speed, taught by a giant talking rat no less, the names of four highly influential Renaissance artists, and an unstoppable love for pizza. With this in mind, is it really too much of a surprise that the turtles were initially a joke by comic artist Kevin Eastman? The joke eventually became a comic created by Eastman and Peter Laird which spawned a multi-million dollar franchise that rivals Transformers and G.I. Joe in merchandizing power. Now practically everyone has their favorite Ninja Turtle and their favorite rendition.
There are plenty of versions that people consider important not just to the brand itself but to pop-culture as a whole. In television, a high point for many is the original series from 1987. It’s what made TMNT a household brand popular with kids of all ages. The first film in 1990 was beloved by fans and made a ton of money, despite being lambasted by critics. For video games, our editor Logan J. Fowler is especially fond of 1991’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, a sentiment shared by many longtime fans. But of course, with every up there is an equally significant down. Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation is a great example for television, and there are some fears that the new Michael Bay film can also clump into this category. Few low-points are as popular, however, as the 1989 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES/Famicom.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the very first game for the still growing franchise, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The show had rapidly grown in popularity which caused toys to fly off the shelves and the comics were a huge hit. Everybody wanted in on the Ninja Turtles craze. Video games had bounced back significantly from the huge crash in 1983 as well, so creating a TMNT game was a must. That’s where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came in. By controlling any of the main four Turtles, you combat the evil Foot Clan with the ultimate goal of beating Shredder. Each Turtle came with their own strengths and weaknesses, and pizza is collected as a means to restore health. Even April O’Neil and Splinter occasionally came in to provide advice.It was basically everything a budding fanbase could have wanted. By the power of pure marketing alone, the game become a massive commercial hit.
Impressive sales doesn’t mean an impressive game though. Even absolute sacks of garbage can sell or make millions. In the eyes of many, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was that exact sack of garbage. A recurring complaint was the game’s unreasonable difficulty. The controls were a shoddy and some of the Turtles were clearly disadvantaged with their short range, like Raphael and Michelangelo. Donatello was by far the cheapest character with his lengthy bo staff, which could glitch the game by allowing the player to attack from the ceiling if they strike the ground. The original NES version was completely devoid of any continues or save points either so you had to beat the game in one sitting. If you got a game over, you instantly lost your progress. While the PC port fixed this issue, it contained a bug that prevented you from progressing past a certain level. You actually needed cheats to continue the game.
The back half of Mission 2 is especially notable. In this portion, your controlled Turtle climbs into the Hudson River and must disarm a series of bombs. There’s a short time limit so speed is key, but the level is filled with electrified seaweed which punishes people who get a little careless. Of course, by a little careless, I mean simply trying. This infamous level required absurd levels of precision and patience that many people just can’t match. It was a stopping point primarily because gamers could never actually disarm the bombs without dying from seaweed electrocution. Now, 25 years after the game’s release, it’s this level that is remembered the most. It’s on every single “Hardest Levels Ever” list in existence.
I have never known a life without TMNT. By the time I was born, the franchise was immensely popular. I watched the original cartoon on TV and loved it. I had TMNT merchandise and distinctly remember going to Ninja Turtles themed parties. Michelangelo was (and still is) my favorite character by far. So obviously this game was a part of that fandom. I don’t know when exactly my family bought it. I just remember having the game and wanting to play it as much as possible. Despite my repeated attempts, I honestly never made it passed the infuriating second mission. The first level and the first half of the second one were down to a science for me, but disarming the bombs was impossible. It wasn’t long before my attention was diverted elsewhere and I stopped trying entirely. I’ve heard that there is an excellent game following the second mission, yet I never got a chance to experience it.
The good news is that the rocky start produced by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has long since been diminished. The video game brand has flourished with a whole series worth of popular titles to complement the Ninja Turtles’ many changes. But of course, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will never die. Despite starting off as a completely pointless joke, the immense success of this brand is anything but humorous. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello, Splinter, April, and Shredder are pop-culture icons that will live on until the end of time. Even if the new Michael Bay film is absolute trash (early reviews already paint it as such), the Turtles will continue thriving. Cowabunga dude!
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.