Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #38

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade)

Their cartoon was a staple of our Saturday mornings. Their weekly adventures were the perennial topic of conversation in every school and playground across the entire country. The toys that lined our rooms' dressers were a symbol of our devotion to their righteous cause. Their first video game coming to our equally beloved NESes was the biggest deal ever, regardless of whether or not it could meet our expectations. Those four radical dudes sliced and diced their way into the mainstream consciousness and permeated every fabric of society, from our cereal boxes to our comic books to our Happy Meals.

They were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and they ruled our tiny little worlds.

Yet for all of the excitement and enthusiasm we expressed for the animated series and the gobs of related Turtles merchandise, there was nothing that could match the level of elation we felt when news hit that our half-shelled heroes would soon be coming to the silver screen! Back then, an intellectual property was understood to have reached the height of its popularity--and therefore its creative zenith--when Hollywood would take notice and commission a movie adaptation. That's how my friends and I saw it, anyway.

Now, we didn't know much about the movie's production, aside from the fact that it would feature live-action performances, so we were left to wonder how the cartoon's subject-matter would translate to the big screen. How would the  Turtles look? Would the script be faithful to the cartoon? Would it incorporate darker elements from the comic books? Would the cast expand to include characters like Mechaturtle, Baxter Stockman and Usagi Yojimbo? Would we see the Technodrome? There were so many possibilities for us to explore, and we never wasted an opportunity to discuss our theories; as the months went on, our anticipation grew beyond measure.

Indeed, we treated the 1990 theater release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as nothing short of a monumental event.

You could imagine how excited my friend Mike and I were when Friday, March 30th, finally arrived. Here was a day that couldn't get any better (or so we thought). We pestered my father to drive us over to the Fortway Theater on Fort Hamilton Parkway, which was always our default choice (since it was right next door to D&L Pizza Royale, whose delicious lasagna pizza was the perfect capper to any movie experience). Unfortunately, the line to get in stretched all the way around the block, which guaranteed that we'd miss the desired showing and have to wait until after dark, so my father instead drove us over to Loew's Oriental on 86th Street, where a similar-sized mob was waiting; however, since the Oriental theater was so much larger than Fortway, it could thankfully accommodate crowds of that size. Even then, we were still lucky to get tickets for that first showing.

Honestly, there were so many people packed into that lobby that I didn't even see it standing there at first. I did notice that there was a large amount of activity concentrated around the lobby's northwest corner, where there were always two or three arcade machines situated, but I didn't think much of it--it was probably, I thought, just a bunch of kids killing some time, playing some Bad Dudes, before the start of Turtles; I was on top of the arcade scene, after all, so I figured there couldn't have been any games I hadn't seen before. So Mike and I got on line at the concession area and chatted away about what size popcorn we were going to get, and that's when we heard it.

Suddenly, the familiar Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme, as ripped directly from the cartoon, started thundering throughout that noisy theater lobby, its mighty reverberations overpowering the cacophony of sound and attacking our ears with purpose; instantly, everyone's attention was drawn over to that corner, where enough separation had formed to allow us a tantalizing glimpse of the music's generator. It was an arcade machine whose marquee read "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and the action being displayed on its monitor bore a remarkable resemblance to the animation from the cartoon!

Neither Mike nor I could believe what we were seeing. "Wait a minute," we collectively uttered. "There's another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game?! Why haven't we heard of this?!"

The game looked incredible, but we didn't have much time to survey its action or wonder about how it came into being, because the movie would be starting any minute!

If thoughts of the game somehow escaped our minds for a few hours in following, then it was only because we absolutely loved the movie, which managed to exceed our lofty expectations. Sadly, there was no Krang, Rocksteady or Beebop, and the Technodrome was a no-show, but it still featured everything that we were looking for in a Turtles movie: The Turtles' sarcastic, jocular interactions; long, involved fighting sequences; and plenty of silly humor. Oh, and the moment that practically made the movie for all of us: The surprise appearance of Casey Jones, which made every kid in the theater gasp and then immediately turn to his or her friend and shout "Casey!" I remember how the theater continued to buzz for minutes in following as everyone continued to wonder how the movie studio managed to keep Casey's appearance secret (nothing in the trailers suggested his participation).

We must've watched that movie four or five additional times in the following two weeks, I tell you.

And if the movie wasn't a big enough treat on its own, we were also lucky enough to get a crack at the arcade game once activity in the lobby died down a bit. Playing it was pure bliss. I couldn't remember a time when a video game had done so well to capture the spirit of the work that inspired it, the game's eye-popping character design, sleek animation, jazzy music, and conveyance of comic mischief highly reminiscent of the cartoon we'd watch every Saturday on Channel 2. More than that, Turtles was designed to accommodate four players at once, allowing for all four of the Turtles to be present on the screen at the same time! "Woah!" I thought. "Even Double Dragon and its ilk can't handle this amount of action!"

It was a hugely important part of the experience to be able to team up with both friends and complete strangers as you plowed your way through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was just so compelling that it was almost a requisite for any improvised group to play it to completion after those first quarters were pumped in. 

I was a big fan of beat-'em-ups, many of which I counted among the best arcade games ever, and Konami's newest take on the genre was so much fun to play--so beautifully put together--that it instantly earned itself a top spot among my all-time favorites. It looked amazing, it sounded terrific, it controlled brilliantly, it moved at a brisk pace (though with an occasional hint of slowdown, which was forgivable considering how ambitious the game was), it had great enemy variety, it was never too unfair, and, most importantly, it played like a dream. Also, that we'd gotten to the point where an arcade game could replicate the music from a TV show, with that level of sound quality, was simply mind-blowing to me; there were times when I'd hang around the machine just to listen to the Turtles theme, since no one in the 90s thought to create Youtube.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was, quite simply, the most perfectly crafted quarter-muncher around, its action sequences so finely paced and its feedback so instantly gratifying. It was irresistible, its reverberance able to reach across even the largest, noisiest arcade and entrance the establishment's wandering patrons. And if you located it, you had to play it. That's the way it was for my friends and I, who continued to play it regularly until the middle of the decade, long after the Turtles' relevance had faded; and we would have continued to enjoy it had life not conspired to split us up.

For whatever reason, I can't reconcile the idea of the NES original and the arcade game coming out around the same time. My memories tell be that I'd been playing the NES game for at least a few years before the arcade version arrived, but that's obviously not the case. Maybe it's commentary on my younger self's perception of time, or perhaps it's that the arcade game so totally blew away the NES original in every conceivable category that I can't imagine the two existing within the same time-frame. Well, whatever.

The only certainty was that my friend Dominick and I had been eagerly anticipating the NES version of the arcade game, titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, ever since Nintendo Power Volume 16 announced that it would be coming to the console sometime during the latter months of 1990. We had our reservations about it, considering the NES' poor history with arcade ports, but we were still excited by the notion of being able to play the arcade game, in some form, from the comfort of our own homes. That it would only support two players was disappointing but expected.

Dominick and I of course procured ourselves copies of Turtles II in our usual manner: We sent our poor mothers out on a cold, snowy December afternoon to scour all of Brooklyn and find a store that had the game in stock.

It was kind of surreal at first to be playing a reasonable reproduction of one of our favorite arcade games, but the magic didn't last too long, and our excitement soon waned. It's not that we didn't find it to be enjoyable; it was more a matter of the game lacking too much of what made the arcade game great, including the aesthetic energy, the chaotic fighting sequences, and few of the Turtle's offensive maneuvers. Also, the game was too damn difficult; naturally, we understood that Konami had to alter the difficulty in light of the console's disparate sensibilities, but there was no reason to shoot for "NES hard."

We appreciated the addition of two newly added stages and exclusive boss characters, but there wasn't enough here to keep us coming back. If it was reliably fun multiplayer action we were seeking, we were better off sticking to favorites like Gauntlet II, WWF Wrestlemania Challenge and Contra. Or we could, you know, run down to the local arcade and pop a few characters into that glorious Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles machine, which never surrendered its ability to guarantee our satisfaction.

For how they stormed their way into my life that day, the arcade game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the movie of the same name will forever be intrinsically linked in my memories. I don't play the game much anymore, since it's just not the same, and I haven't seen the movie in quite a few years, but the two continue to resonate with me as strongly as they did back then; I'm confident in saying that their indelible markings won't soon fade. And that's not me clinging to more of that hopeless romanticism.

That's Turtle power.

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