Saturday, November 29, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Shredding Me Slowly
The evil Shredder's plan was foolproof, and I was just the fool to prove it.

If you were to tell me that there exists a video-game version of Stockholm Syndrome, I wouldn't have to think long before singling out the NES' own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as the candidate most likely to induce the associated symptoms. Really, I'm sure that none of us who played it with any consistency can come up with a clear rationale as to why we gave so much of our time and energy to a game that actively hated us and wanted us dead. And yet we couldn't abandon it for long--we couldn't escape from its rage-powered gravitational field that only found further nourishment in our tears.

Try as I might, I can't come up with a single satisfactory explanation as to why I so earnestly continued playing a game that never provided me any sense of fun, elation, or the gratification usually resultant from the act of making progress after putting in so much effort. In fact, all of my memories of TMNT are drenched in nothing but emotional anguish. "So what gives?" I've asked myself many times over the years. "What about the game made it so alluring?"

Well, the correct answers probably lay somewhere deep within the subconscious of an impressionable 10-year-old me. That is, I'd recently become a pretty big Ninja Turtles fan and not surprisingly found myself very much invested in the property's heavily marketed toy line and cartoon show--so much so that my great enthusiasm for the brand was likely overwhelming my ability to properly judge its sadistically conceived foray into the world of home consoles. It makes sense: The Turtles were the hot thing, and I wanted to continue absorbing as much of their world as I could, no matter the cost to my emotional well-being.

Prior to then, I hadn't been a TMNT fan for all that long, so I was still out of the loop in regard to news surrounding my new favorite cartoon heroes; I still didn't know much about the their comic-book origins or their expanded cast of friends, for instance, nor was I even aware that the foursome was going to be imminently starring in their very own NES adventure. I became aware of the game only because my friend Mike decided to inform me about it maybe a month before its release; when it finally reached his hands, he waited for me to arrive at my aunt's house so he could excitedly rush me across the street and into his basement (his TV and consoles set up at the base of its bar, which I recall stretching far back into the darkness), where he could formally introduce me to the Turtles in all their 8-bit glory.

I don't remember what type of first impression it made, but such a triviality wouldn't at all have influenced my predictable decision-making pattern: Mike had the game, so I had to have it. I made certain to put it down on my birthday list for that year.

At least for the first few months, I never played TMNT alone. If it wasn't Mike hovering by my side, guiding me along, then it was Dominick or any of those more-temporary local-neighborhood friends I'd recently made (most of them turning out to be jerks). Their assistance was appreciated, because, as it did during even my first sampling of the game, the game's overworld felt somewhat intimidating to me with all of its open manholes and accessible building entrances, like a multi-branched maze filled with many in the way of paths whose traversal I wasn't sure was necessary. Its design felt like a mix of tortuous and tangled, the best example of which being that first building where I was put through a rigorous trial just to reach a pizza slice that seemed to exist only for the purpose of replenishing the energy I'd lose just getting to it. "Why would they go to the trouble of creating this elaborate gauntlet," I'd wonder, "if there wasn't more to this building?"

More concerning was the appearance of so many swift, aggressive enemies, all of which were haphazardly stuffed into every narrow passage, sometimes forming impenetrable walls. I soon learned to fear the game's randomly spawning enemy assortments--particularly the one that included the chainsaw-armed guy, the wall-hopping creatures, and the "meditating, scroll-throwing shapeshifters," as I interpreted them. Their unfair placement and tightly packed groupings almost demanded the use of cheap tactics like selecting Donatello and extending his bo upward to strike them through the floor. 

As I pushed on, it began feeling as though the Turtles weren't made for any type of combat other than long-range. The only problem: Three-fourths of them lacked the equipment for such. Taking out smaller enemies, which usually attacked in groups, wasn't much of an issue, since they could be killed in one hit; but the more persistent theme was having to find ways to keep our distance from the larger, tougher-looking enemies, which were capable of dishing out a large amount of pain while doubling, more troublingly, as damage-sponges. I never became comfortable with the idea of assaulting them from up-close and preferred to employ evasion tactics, which wasn't always the best approach considering their resilience and rate of materialization.

Furthermore, I had no clue what some of them were supposed to be or how, if at all, they were related to the cartoon. Hell--I didn't even know that those "purple anteater heads" were supposed to be Foot Soldiers, who I otherwise thought were strangely missing. Now, the omission of recognizable characters (outside of bosses) wasn't as big a deal to me as it was for longtime fans, but it suggested that the game's creators might not have had a good grasp on the subject-matter.

That was the nature of TMNT.

Thankfully, I had friends by my side to provide me knowledge of useful strategies and point me toward the relevant path. Mike, for instance, taught me how to cheese Rocksteady by standing high atop the box pile and thrusting Donatello's bo downward, which could somehow successfully make contact despite the lack of visual evidence. The idea, alone, seemed strange to us, since you could clearly see Rocksteady's height decreasing during a charge attack. Wouldn't you stand a better chance of making contact when he was standing fully upright? I perceived it as a glaring design oversight--more proof that the game was a bit rough around the edges. Oh, it did forevermore become my standard method for defeating Rocksteady, but I didn't necessarily like taking advantage of such an exploit. Though, what else could I do in a brutally tough game where conserving energy was such a high priority?

Leonardo, by virtue of having mere "solid" range, was our default choice and saw the majority of our play-time. Though Donatello's weapon had superior reach and dealt the most damage, we realized that his talents were too precious to waste in normal combat scenarios, where he was likely to pointlessly suffer injury; he was better slotted as our specialist, momentarily tossed into action to deal with the tougher minor enemies and bosses--his aptitudes otherwise abused for the sake of safely eliminating any miscreants lurking on the adjacent levels. Raphael, with his severely limited range, was pure cannon fodder, tossed out there for the sake of absorbing high quantities of damage when we couldn't afford to lose Leo or Don. Michelangelo didn't fare much better and wound up being relegated to our fourth option, seeing action only when times were desperate.

I almost never used special items like shurikens and boomerangs, because, uh ... I felt that a true hero should, like, be a master of his own weapon and have no need for accessories! Well, that or I just didn't see them there. 

It's up for interpretation, really.

Another element of the game I really disliked were those close-quarter jumps I'd often encounter near the tail ends of lengthy platforming sequences. One such offender was positioned near the end of the dam area's opening side-scrolling portion, which had a two-block gap up against the ceiling; to clear it required pixel-perfect precision and specifically hitting the jump button at the last possible millisecond--not to mention those suddenly-appearing wall-hoppers that were purposely placed to further disrupt the player's rhythm. For one reason or another, I must have come up short at least a dozen times, forced to repeatedly circle back up and around through the storm of respawning enemies (the "brown helicopter helmets" among my least-favorite) of which I'd seen enough during the first trip.

Though, Mike and I discovered another helpful glitch: If we could arc a Turtle's jump a certain way and brush up against the left platform edge during the specific frame of animation, the game would give us credit for making the jump without having to work our way up and around. It was entirely finicky--sometimes to the point where we'd quit trying after a few minutes and simply take the long route--but it was a literal life-saving measure when successfully executed.

Everyone who talks about TMNT's bomb-disposing water stage seems to regard it as one of 8-bit gaming's greatest challenges, but I never really had that much trouble with it past my first few attempts. Sure--it was always going to be an energy-drain to some degree and always unnerving due to the heavy-feeling controls and strict time-limit, but Balloon Fight had effectively trained me for button-mashy exercises, and I just had a knack for timing-based puzzles, be they the disappearing-reappearing blocks or the dam's simple electrical currents; I rarely fell prey to the energy-sapping seaweed, able to maneuver around that infamously infested tunnel with minimal injury (if things got hairy, I'd just switch to Raph and soak up the successive hits). 

I only took issue with those parts where the currents wouldn't activate until the screen was locked into a certain position, which worked to create the illusion that no actual dangers were present. You know--until it was too late to react. With this game, though, I couldn't tell when its nastiest was intentional or not.

The Party Wagon area had another of those jumps we could never make with any consistency; its gap was only one block in length, but it was so close in proximity to the ceiling that the likely result of a jump was smacking our head and limply fall back down to the ground floor. For the longest time, our approach was to simply attempt the jump as many times as necessary until the gap was cleared; we were just as stunned as anyone when we learned later on that you could simply walk over it, though we weren't sure whether this was a glitch or an intended mechanic as dreamed up by some jackass designer who was having a laugh at our expense. Of course, our repeated failures and resultant round trips gave us plenty of time to became intimately familiar with the crop of newly introduced terrors like the fire men (called "Fire Freaks" in the manual), the missile-dropping balloons, and those flame-spewing ... robo-insect-headed knights?

Seriously--what were any of these enemies supposed to be? "Did the game's creators even watch the cartoon?" we'd wonder anytime some freakish, unidentifiable cretin would unexpectedly pop up onscreen. Whatever the hell they were, we always tasked Don with assailing their type, since he was the only one capable of killing them before they could reproduce or break apart.

The right side of this room had a second tricky jump--another two-block gap placed within a narrow passage; if we missed this one, though (as we did plenty of times), it would send us back down to the screen below, requiring two round trips. All of this retracing of steps was incredibly irritating, but it did teach us a valuable lesson--mainly that it was beneficial to us to scroll the screen up and down if we wanted to switch the enemy assortment to our preference (that is, we'd rather take our chances with the merely annoying fire men rather than those wretched flame-spewing knights).

We spent enough time in this building to develop a solid strategy for acquiring the missiles we'd need to destroy the barriers; since weapons and items would respawn whenever you'd exit and re-enter a locale, we'd just load up here! I mean, it didn't make any sense for us to trek through the increasingly difficult complexes found beyond--a lot of which were either diversionary or home to only pizza slices and superfluous special weapons (well, "superfluous" if you were me).  

Truly, I can't recall many other games that were so monstrously difficult that continued "enjoyment" of them required frequent use of avoidance-based tactics (as in "avoiding half the game"). We didn't know much about the people behind this "Ultra Games" company, but we were starting to come to the conclusion that they were kinda cruel. 

Otherwise, I recall having a lot of trouble differentiating between the Party Wagon's bullet and missile input. Dominick in particular would get mad at me whenever I'd carelessly waste our finite stock of missiles, since he knew that doing so would only result in more fun times back at that hellhouse near the area's starting point.

The area's final building led into the sewers, which had one of the most nightmarish series of jumps I'd ever faced in a game. It was a repeating sequence where you had to first traverse across a few single-block platforms; these jumps were always scary due to the out-of-control motion of the Turtle's flips, which made the landings extra shaky (we of course didn't yet know that you could simply walk over single-block gaps). Even when I'd land solidly, I had the tendency to overcompensate and walk right off the platform, into the water. My bigger bugaboo was the jump in following, which tasked me with having to lightly tap the button in order to pull off a short hop across a gap with a low ceiling--this while fending off the balloon enemies that would suddenly appear.

Too many factors, too much calculation--the 10-year-old me wasn't yet equipped with the patience and skills necessary to handle as much; it'd be a long time before I was able to reliably complete either type of jump, and I'd always lose at least one Turtle here. In our earliest attempts, this was a prime spot to lose all four Turtles in succession, in which case we'd find ourselves faced with the prospect of having to restart the entire adventure. We would have quit on any other game in less than a week.

If we were to stand any chance against Mecaturtle, though, we had to make it to him with our team intact. He had two considerably tough forms--neither of which struck us as having any discernible pattern--so we treated it as a battle of attrition. Our strategy was to accost and destroy Mecaturtle's first form with Raph and Michelangelo, who if successful could then continue the sacrificial effort against the second form, nicking away as much health as possible. Then it was a matter of bringing in the big guns to finish him off. It didn't work out so well in our early encounters, Mecaturtle and this area in general serving as the first true stopping point. Many a play-through was needed before we could make it to Mecaturtle with enough firepower to test for weaknesses and slowly craft our strategy.

The "Find the Blimp" area took unforgiving design to a new level by stuffing one cramped complex after the next with enemies, traps (conveyor belts and cross-shaped turrets), and one-shot-kill flame pits, essentially forgoing any sense of combat and turning the whole thing into a desperate battle of endurance. It introduced yet more obnoxious enemy types like laser-firing mechs and what I assumed were hopping, boomerang-tossing samurai. And, worse yet, the area was completely labyrinthine, with instances of multiple choices of manhole, a lot of which led absolutely nowhere; it was never fun to take a long detour through a spike-laden corridor whose only purpose was to wear you down over the course of both the initial trip and the inevitable backtrack. 

The designers were well aware of their programming flaws and enjoyed using them against us. Take that series of rooms with the compacting spike walls: They knew that the Turtles had the propensity to walk over single-block gaps when in a hurried state--or at least become stuck on platform edges--which is why they designed these rooms in such a way. It wasn't a coincidence that the hit-detection for the spiked walls, which could wipe you out with mere contact, was so unfavorable. They simply hated us. We just didn't want to take the hint.

Oh, and about that pizza placed on the right side of the second room: I really have to question the intelligence of those from the 20-something crowd who still seriously wonder why it's there ("How do they expect me to get that?" they wonder). They don't, dinky boy. In the words of Auric Goldfinger: They expect you to die! It's just more of that Shadowgate-style fool's gold.

It was always a relief to make it to the area's endpoint because we knew that the boss, Big Mouser, was a pushover in comparison, utterly cheesable with Donatello's bo. We considered the developers' restraint to be an apology for all of the hell they'd put us through (unless the bo being able to reach the orb was just another design oversight, which would seem more in character).

When my friends and I played together, we didn't often make it to the final area, the Foot Clan's stronghold, so it was always nerve-wracking when we did. Though it was never any comfort, I always loved the music here; it had a mysterious, stealth-like flavor to it, and it would have fit perfectly in a Metal Gear game (not a reach when you consider the true identity of TMNT's creators). I thought it was great augmentation to the overworld's blue-tinted nighttime setting. More than anything, I just liked exploring the map and soaking in the atmosphere, since I didn't really want to go inside and deal with its challenges. The strange part is that this area felt impossibly large to me at the time even though it was maybe nine screens in total; its perceived enormity was probably a psychological aftereffect of the painstaking effort it took to get here. I mean, you didn't want to come this far to screw up, so every inch felt like a mile.

The area's indoor music was also among my favorite tracks (really, the game had a great soundtrack in general even if it didn't recall the spirit of the cartoon), but I came to most associate it with tribulation. Namely, I'd remember why I so feared these side-scrolling sections anytime I'd catch sight of their nasty enemy assortment, which included exploding jellyfish and two types of super-agile armadillo-type creatures--one resembling an alien, the other a monster from the movie Critter; it was suicide to engage them directly, so we had to rely on every trick in the Turtles' book (attacking through floors with Don, scrolling them off the screen, and bull-rushing our way past them while hoping for a favorable result) if we wanted to survive. It's scenarios like these that most contributed to my earlier-stated opinion that the Turtles' weapons weren't designed with this enemy cast in mind.

The area's gimmick was that you were looking for the Technodrome, which could appear in any in of three random locations; this created the potential for two entirely pointless, energy-crippling treks when we were already sick of how this game had been jerking us around. In theory, there was some shelter in the form of a nearby building that housed both a desirable pizza and the highly coveted Scroll weapon, but its torrid climbing section combined with a number of annoying enemies (large, persistent spiders and birds) made it too risky to even consider entering the place.

Our strategy for fighting the Technodrome was to stand beneath the turrets with Raph and twirl his sai upward; if we were lucky, he'd survive with a sliver of health and spare us the use of Michelangelo, who we'd need at full strength if he were to serve as effective cannon fodder. If we didn't get nervous and crash into the Technodrome's electrically charged forked protrusions, we'd have little trouble finishing off the eye with Donatello.

One observation we couldn't help but make was that this Technodrome seemed to be much bigger than it looked from outside (maybe the game's flat rendering hid an unseen mile-long width, which I imagine would make turning the vehicle particularly troublesome). 

Its opening screens were normally as far as we'd get before throwing in the towel; even if ours was a healthy line-up of Turtles, we stood little chance against the Technodrome's endless labyrinth of wall-mounted turrets, spinning duck-head contraptions, tail-whipping dino bots, and those hideously awful jetpack soldiers, the image of whom makes me quiver even today. And this absolute onslaught would commence before we could even complete our first few steps; thereafter it would never cease. Even if we were lucky enough to reach the area's final set of rooms (or what we'd believe to be the area's final set of rooms), our efforts would still be in vain, since our resources would simply be too depleted; we'd invariably conclude that our only chance was to bear down and tank our way through the last line of defense. Sadly, this strategy never bore fruit; we were never able to endure long enough to infiltrate Shredder's chamber.

Inevitably my friends grew bored of the game and moved on to newer releases. From that point forward, if I was playing TMNT, I was doing so by myself. Mike and the crew may have given up on it, but I hadn't. No--I was still obsessed with the idea of beating it, even though I had serious doubts about my ability to replicate previous performances without their assistance. After a few weeks of aggressive training, though, I could manage to reach the final area and do so quite efficiently. Still, the Technodrome's innards remained an insurmountable roadblock; I could get so close to the end, but that final stretch--that harrowing sprint down a narrow passage filled with jetpack soldiers and spinning ducks--was too much to endure. It soon became apparent that the ultimate victory I sought just wasn't in the cards.

I didn't want to resort to as much, but I went back after about two years or so and completed the game using a Game Genie. This was the first time I'd caught so much as a glimpse of Shredder, who turned out to be laughably easy (you could crowd him into the corner and pound on him with Donatello's bo or any throwing weapon). But I was only interested in seeing the ending--in finding out what elusive reward had been just out of my grasp for so long. Really, it was a big fat nothing--a simple pair of still images wherein Splinter reverted back to human form (and what, exactly, was stopping him from doing this at any time?) and April O'Neil congratulated me. It was an ending so entirely mundane that it wouldn't have come close to justifying the monumental effort that would be required to skillfully earn it. It was like a final kick in the teeth.

In the years that followed, the Turtles slowly disappeared from my life, as did this game. One had brought me much joy, and the other caused me nothing but pain.

And yet I still couldn't get away from it. That is, I actually took the time to go back and finish TMNT legitimately sometime in the year 2000, after I figured out that most of the game's rough stretches, like the Technodrome's final passage, could be easily cleared by charging forward and spamming boomerangs, whose counter would replenish whenever the weapon was caught on the rebound
(and who could have guessed that these special weapons were actually useful?! I mean, besides anyone who was actually paying attention?). Somehow, I didn't feel at all fulfilled by the experience.

Relationships built on years of abuse, it appeared, didn't culminate in happy endings.

It's been more than a decade since, and still I can't adequately explain why this game was worth more than 100 hours of my time. I don't know where it came from--from what fiery depths it was plucked--or why Konami, its creator, thought it was a good idea to market an enormously difficult action-based platformer to kids who were only looking for good times with their favorite cartoon heroes. If the company's intention was to instead create one of the most feared video games in existence and use it as the means to forever damage the psyche of an entire generation, it succeeded masterfully. And what does it say about the game when I can posit as much and almost sound serious?

Like Darth Vader, TMNT was indeed twisted and evil, yet there was some good in it. There had to be. Why else would we have continued subjecting ourselves to it? I mean, yeah--it was glitchy, often poorly plotted, and misguided in many respects, but I was never prepared to call it a "bad" game. Rather, it was an OK game that showed flashes of greatness. We came back to it for those, its best parts, and merely endured the rough stretches in between; we knew that when TMNT was good, it was really good. And that was our impetus to persevere--to fight through the pain and explore the next peak.

Honestly, if you study the game closer, you could even imagine how its shattered fragments could be reconstructed to form the framework for a potentially amazing game! The potential is there.

Or maybe the deep emotional trauma it's inflicted upon me has warped my way of thinking. 

I don't know. I'll let you decide!

As it stands, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a game I appreciate in memory, but it's not one to which I desire to return.

Personally, I give it about six months.


  1. I really loved your article. You described my experiences with the game almost perfectly to the point that it was like reading something I could have written myself. The detail of how you used the turtles strategically, etc. was spot on. I will say that I took my obsession with the turtles a bit further and as Raph was my favorite, I often tried to take on the game using him 90% of the time. I eventually got the point that, with the exception of the last 2 levels, I found the game thoroughly enjoyable until that point. Even today I will pop in the game, breeze through most of it, just to relax and then when I get to the underground area... "Welp, that's enough for today, no need to ruin a relaxing gaming session with the rest of this crap."

    Kudos on a great article.

    1. Well, thanks for reading, Mr. U. I appreciate the feedback.

      TMNT, I'd say, is one of those games through which we're all bound by our experience. I imagine that most of our stories are similar, which is to say that I immediately understand where you're coming from when you talk about having only a certain level of tolerance for the game. Still we agree that there's something there--that it's worth playing, if only for a bit.

      But I'll tell you, man: Going back to read this piece was tough. Most of it is poorly written. So I hope you don't mind that I've made some edits and slight revisions (textually but not factually, of course) to some of the later paragraphs. I think it flows a little better now.

      So double thanks for bringing the piece's sad state of being to my attention! Now I have to hurry up and fix about, oh, 100 other pieces before someone else reads them!