Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - You Have My Support

Jake Spencer
14 March 2012

Seaweed, seaweed, seaweed.

Great. Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about why Ultra's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES kicks serious shell.

Don't let the Ultra name fool you - Ninja Turtles and all other games that fell under this branding (such as Metal Gear) were actually developed by Konami. It's not necessary to understand the convoluted NES publishing rules which led to Konami forming a puppet company, but the connection between Ninja Turtles and Castlevania is absolutely germane.

Why were Frankenstein's monster, the mummy, and Death all minions of Dracula? Why did packs of disembodied Medusa heads fly in sinusoidal waves? For the same reason that giant purple steamrollers patrolled the streets of New York and crazed chainsaw killers guarded the sewers below. Both Castlevania and Ninja Turtles were decidedly Japanese takes on beloved Western characters, and I would argue that it's this developmental mismatch - this flagrant mishandling of the source material, if you prefer - that lends each game its identity. They're cultural amalgams, and better for it.

In an interview with 1UP, Konami's Hidenori Maezawa said that Ninja Turtles didn't sell well Japan, contributing the lack of popularity to confusion amongst Japanese consumers. As he put it, "Why turtles? Why ninjas?"

For me, the moment I knew that I would be a Turtles fan for life - that I would never outgrow the series, no matter how many terrible spin-offs and reboots are released - was the first time I really listened to the series theme song. I was probably ten-years-old, it was the late nineties, and I was living in a world where garbage like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation was still finding its way onto national TV. I thought I was so far past my Ninja Turtles phase that nothing would ever bring me back.

One day I woke up with a fever. Nothing serious, but it was that kind of sick where all you can do is stay home from school and pop old VHS tapes in the VCR, and that's the reason I happened upon an early episode of the Ninja Turtles cartoon. That's when I heard the theme song for the first time in years:

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
 Teen-age Mu-tant Ninja Turrrrrrtles!
Heroes in a half-shell - Turtle Power!"

There's an absurdity to the juxtaposition of those four words that was lost on my three-year-old ears, but at ten, all the magic came swirling back in an instant.

It's impossible to ignore how amateurish most of the level design in Ninja Turtles is, but everything else is just so weird that I don't care. Look at the image above. Donatello is in some kind of Tiki-themed warehouse with a wave of three-foot mosquitoes above, that Animatronic robot that fell down the stairs in Robocop below, and a pair of precariously placed neon conveyor belts on either side. Also, Donatello is a giant turtle-boy who learned Ninjitsu from a New York City sewer rat and has come to the warehouse to save a news reporter in a banana-yellow jumpsuit from a rhinoceros man with a machine gun.

The music is totally tubular, the satisfying way enemies explode when you hit them is bodacious, the dual enemy sets are righteous, and the non-linear exploration is...bosa nova. (Chevy Nova?) So many elements of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles deserve high-fives and pizzas, but it's the singular gestalt that makes me shout, "Cowabunga!" It may be sparing in its direct connections to the movies, comics, cartoons, and toys, but the sheer weirdness makes this one worthy of the Turtles name.