It looks like the Turtles' big screen revival effort didn't go as planned. The movie was quickly forgotten after its first few weeks in theaters. With the exception of the GBA version, the various incarnations of the movie game received average and/or abysmal scores and, once beaten, were promptly shelved by players. But while the Turtles' latest public outing wasn't as successful as some of us had hoped it would be, it has nevertheless generated a slight wave of nostalgia for more than a few people -- nostalgia that gamers can further indulge at home by reacquainting themselves with some of the classic TMNT titles. Using the Nintendo Wii's Virtual Console, gamers can download and play the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game that was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System way back in 1989, and Xbox360 owners can play Ubisoft's rerelease of the first arcade game via the Xbox Live Arcade service. Granted, reviewers haven't been especially kind to these games in their most recent analyses, but it's kind of unfair to expect 18-year-old games to be able to compete with even Super Nintendo and PlayStation 1 titles, let alone current and next-gen offerings. Nostalgia is the primary reason to play these oldies, and for less than a ten spot the Turtles bring it in spades.
Admittedly, despite my love of the Turtles, my experience with these games is a bit different from that of most fans. I played the arcade game a fair amount in bowling alleys and was able to see the end during one trip to a remote arcade that offered generous token deals and literally quadrupled the amount of lives one got from a single coin (that was a great day; I was able to play through X-Men and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs as well!), but my lack of a NES means that I didn't get to experience the games at home in the same way. In fact, until the advent of NESticle and MAME in later years, I only got to play the arcade game without the smell of smoke in the air and the chatter of sundry adolescents in the background when I visited NES-owning friends. It was released for home computers, and I did once happen upon a copy of it on the shelf at the local Babbage's, but -- if I recall correctly -- my plans to own it were thwarted because the store only carried the Amiga version. (Luckily, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Manhattan Missions was released around the same time, so I was able to acquire that superior title instead.) I did, however, own the DOS version of the first game. It's been years since I've played it, but with the resurgence of Turtle Power I had to pull it up and give it another go as part of my unstated (well, until now) mission to review every Turtles game ever released for the PC. And to that end, we're going to look at not only the DOS version of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in this article, but also the DOS incarnation of the arcade game. Read on for the full reviews, but suffice it to say that PC ports of console and arcade titles have come a very long way since the early 90s.
We'll start with the DOS version of TMNT I. For the most part, the game looks and plays more or less like the NES version, but there are definitely some marked differences that distinguish the DOS incarnation from its console counterpart. For one, the graphics appear to have been completely redrawn. Taking advantage of the more vivid EGA color palette, the artists have recreated the Turtles' fledgling adventure with brighter colors and additional details, such that you can actually see things like the pupils and whites of the Turtles' eyes and Bebop's turtle shell shoulderpads. (Owing to the limitations of the CGA palette, those graphics aren't quite so pretty.) However, the revamped graphics also contain more than a few oddities. While the PC Mousers look much more like the cartoon versions than the NES chompers, Rocksteady is brick red and looks more like a fire-breathing reptile than a rhinoceros. The Turtles themselves sport yellow markings on their shells that make them look sort of like eastern box turtles. And unlike the pixelated hotness that was April O'Neil on the NES, here the reporter looks like a freakish alien ghoul thing. If the task of saving that fell to me, I think I'd pass on fighting the Foot Clan and just have another slice of whipped cream and cornflake pizza... especially since Shredder and his band of ninjas have apparently mutated into horrible demon spirits. Yikes.
Quirky differences carry over into the gameplay as well. You're still walking back and forth and climbing up and down while hacking away at numerous out-of-place enemies in your quest to defeat the evil Shredder, but the feel of the game is somewhat different from the NES version. Part of this has to do with the in-game music. You get midi renditions of the same songs that play on the overhead map, in the various sewers, and in the buildings above ground, but the tension-heightening tunes for the bosses and minibosses are nowhere to be found. Whereas in the NES title you knew when you would have to face a "special" Foot Soldier or chainsaw-wielding maniac because the music changed, here you simply find yourself unable to ascend an otherwise unassuming ladder until you kill all of the enemies on the screen and the miniboss materializes. The oddly appropriate underwater music that plays during the Hudson River level on the NES is similarly absent in the PC version -- instead, the tune from the previous building is recycled. It's just not the same.
The adjustments to the music, however, are the least of the changes that affect the actual playing experience. In addition to the redrawn graphics -- which effectively change the way that certain attacks connect, though this isn't too distracting -- enemies' behavior differs in notable ways. For example, when you attack certain enemies in the NES game, they react to being hit. Foot Soldiers jump into the air; chainsaw-wielding maniacs reel; Stone Warriors momentarily assume their dormant pose. But on the PC? They just keep coming like there's no tomorrow and take way more hits to defeat. Enemies also have a tendency to fill entire areas of the screen and materialize directly in front of you, making it virtually impossible to avoid getting hit by them. Foot Soldiers on the overhead map will ride your ass, and (unless you're using Donatello) you'll have to run around like mad while jamming on the attack button to shake them. Instead of having a pattern that involves jumping and occasionally charging back and forth, Bebop just fucking punches and kicks you relentlessly. Assuming you ever get there, you can't even stand directly beneath the giant Mouser to avoid its eyebeams. And so it goes. Combine these and other such changes with the fact that the random appearances of powerups and weapons never happen on the PC -- pizzas and items with fixed locations are there, but I have never seen an item materialize unexpectedly -- and you have a game that is even harder than it was on the NES... which, as you probably know, is generally regarded as one of the most challenging games of its day.
Actually, scratch that. This game isn't just hard to beat -- it's impossible. Seriously. Back when I used to play this game on the old 286, I never even got to Rocksteady, let alone the dreaded underwater level. But now that I've been able to cheat (pressing Q, W, E, R, T, Y, U, and P at the same time will render you invincible, or you can hack the game exe to similar effect using the DOS debug utility), I've been able to get all the way to the last building that you can reach via the Turtle Van before making your way to the building where you face Mechaturtle on the roof. The sewer that you have to traverse to reach said building, however, is impossible to cross. Literally. Compare the screens above. On the left, the PC version; on the right, the NES one. (I've slightly cropped the NES cap in order to match it with the heights of the images on this page, but you can see a larger comparison image here.) On the NES, this is a simple jump -- you just tap the button and you're across. This particular sewer as a whole is a bit more difficult to cross because of all of the enemies that swoop down and try to hit you as you complete the jumps, but it's certainly possible to make it to the other side without falling into the water. Now look at the PC version. The scene has been faithfully redrawn in terms of the basic screen layout, but the ceiling is much lower. The gap is significantly wider. And until someone proves otherwise, I maintain that it is impossible to cross. No matter how lightly you tap the jump button here -- which alone is far more difficult to do reliably on the PC than it is on the NES -- you will always bump your head on the ceiling directly above and you will always fall right the fuck into that water. It's maddening.
So, expert gamers of the world, you want a challenge? Beat this game without cheating. Hell, I'll be impressed if you can even make that jump, seeing as how I am convinced that it cannot be done. In fact, if you need some help getting to that point, here is a zip file that not only contains hacked .exe files for the EGA and CGA versions of the game to keep you from sustaining lasting damage from enemies (simply rename or overwrite the original files, or you could just use the code above to walk through enemies without even registering a hit), but also has a save file that will bring you to this precise point in the game (as the internal structure of the zip suggests, the save should go in the DATA folder). I double-dog dare you to prove me wrong and make that jump. DOSBox -- which you'll probably need to play -- even has an avi recording feature for you to document your triumph (just press Ctrl+Alt+F5 together to start recording and again to stop). There actually is a code that will let you walk across the grass (or the buildings themselves, or even the water that separates areas of the stage) in order to reach the correct structure, eventually face Mechaturtle, and go from there (press A, S, D, F, G, and H at the same time; unlike the other one, it is activated when "OFF" flashes at the bottom of the screen), but a game that can't be beaten at all without the use of a cheat is still kinda lame. >:(
Eager to prove yourself the ultimate gamer? Swing by the Home of the Underdogs and download the MS-DOS incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I totally bet you can't make that jump, let alone beat the game without cheating.
And now for the MS-DOS version of the title that really kicked off the Turtles' success in the console gaming world: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. Unlike the PC incarnation of its predecessor, the game can be beaten without the use of cheat codes, but I wonder how many players would actually want to suffer through this broken port of the classic coin-muncher. Whereas Konami attempted to make up for the shortcomings of the NES console version by adding new levels and enemies, the PC version has none of those unique perks to recommend it. It does, however, introduce a number of new and frustrating problems.
But before we delve into those, let's get the good parts out of the way. The redrawn graphics are much more colorful than those of the NES version. Even ignoring the slightly grainy look of them, though, they're not quite arcade perfect. Instead of scrolling fluidly through the levels, the screen pans over a bit when you reach the rightmost edge. The Foot Soldiers' colors are slightly off, and some of the bosses look particularly diminutive. Certain in-game animations didn't make the cut -- for example, instead of Shredder stepping out of the portal following Krang's defeat, three Shredders magically appear immediately after Krang's robot body explodes. The Turtles themselves are curiously absent from cutscenes in which they normally appear. And no matter who you pick, April always kisses Donatello (lucky bloke). That said, I'm still pretty sure that I would have been wowed by the graphics if they'd flashed across my old 286 monitor back in the early 1990s -- and for arcade purists who weren't pleased with the NES additions, the game sticks fairly closely to the coin-op version as well. You don't have to trek through a frozen Central Park or take on mystical tigers in the Shredder's dojo, but you do get to face the combined might of Bebop and Rocksteady at the end of Scene 2 (as opposed to Baxter Stockman on the NES). Unfortunately, the popular skateboarding sequence is nowhere to be found.
Or maybe that's not so unfortunate after all: the less of this horrible adaptation the better. What makes it so bad? Well, for one, all of the nifty arcade and NES tunes have been replaced by one single annoying song that starts playing during the opening cutscene and continues on through the epilogue. You can disable the music by pressing Ctrl+M, but the game is oddly quiet with only the aural stylings of hacking and slashing. Would it have been so difficult to include multiple tunes, even if they weren't from the arcade version? It's even worse with the PC speaker music and sound effects -- they almost sound like the chattering of some robotic alien race with vocal cords cobbled together from broken electronic keyboards and Tiger LCD handheld games.
As with the previous title, however, the sound is the least of its problems -- and the biggest problem here is that despite looking more or less like the arcade game, this title plays absolutely nothing like it. Instead of the traditional jump and attack buttons, players only get one button here. Jumping straight up is accomplished by pressing up and the action key (Shift, in the keyboard controls) at the same time; jumping kicks are performed by pressing up, the action key, and the horizontal direction in which the player wants to perform the attack. However, given the weird arc of the kick and the fact that you can't actually time it as in the other versions, it's all but useless against the Foot Clan. A little more helpful is the "special move," which is accomplished by holding down and pressing the action button. In most cases, by simply holding both down and the action key, you can kill every enemy onscreen while taking minimal damage -- most of their attacks will go right through you, but you'll keep whacking them until they die. Using this method, it's possible to beat most of the bosses (including Granitor, General Traag, and Krang) completely unscathed! And even without it, you can stand next to Baxter Stockman's shadow, hold the action/attack button, and literally kill him in less than two seconds.
But don't think for a second that the game's cheapness only works to your advantage. For example, enemy hits tend not to register any visual response from your Turtle in the game. You'll generally know when a Foot Soldier smacks you or nails you with a distance weapon, but Mousers don't latch onto your arm or otherwise indicate that you've been bitten -- they just keep doing their walking animation as your health drains away. If you happen to get knocked down, you can also be attacked while you lie on the ground. Again, the only visual indication of this is your diminishing lifebar -- and if you get floored while surrounded by a group of enemies, you're likely to lose an entire life just like that. It's worse when you consider that several of the bosses have attacks that knock you down, as they can continue their super-powered assault without even waiting for you to stand back up. I wouldn't say that the game is impossible, though. Considering that you get three lives, five continues, and that pizzas both refill your health and give you an extra life (unless you already have three, in which case you just get the health boost), it's not even really all that difficult. I mean, I'm certainly not an expert gamer, but I just managed to "freak the Foots, mangle the Mousers, and total the Technodrome" without even using any continues. The game is, however, pretty tough to beat unless you use techniques that are just as cheap as the broken mechanics the CPU is using against you -- and that being the case (unless you're playing out of curiosity, for review purposes, or happen to have a Turtle-loving comrade on hand to make the experience a little more bearable and/or amusing), you'd really be better off playing something else.
Still curious about how Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game translates to DOS? Download it from XTC Abandonware! It's filed under 'T'.
Well, that about does it for this review of the MS-DOS versions of these "classic" TMNT titles of old. Naturally, players interested in a more authentic or even remotely enjoyable experience of these games would do well to purchase the Wii Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade versions, but I can't help but acknowledge the appeal of playing a licensed port of a well-known game that somehow manages to be freakier and feel more hacked than most of the actual hacks and fan remakes floating around on the web. Games like this raise a multitude of questions. Why did the staff at Konami/Ultra feel compelled to completely redraw TMNT from scratch for the DOS version? Surely it wouldn't have been that difficult to mimic the NES graphics -- and thereby not turn April into a ghoul or introduce impossible jumps -- even if they did use brighter and/or different colors in some places. Why the musical monotony and changes to the control scheme of TMNT II, when even the first game had multiple action buttons and different songs to accompany the various stages? I'd really be curious to hear any theories (or definite reasons, assuming that you once worked for Konami/Ultra or handled MS-DOS ports in the past) regarding these and other such changes, as they just don't seem to make sense. I mean, I can understand not getting a port exactly right or even taking steps to improve upon the original in various ways, but introducing all-new and completely unnecessary changes that both detract from a game and make it feel almost entirely different? In fact, given the radical departure that Manhattan Missions represents regarding TMNT PC games, I wonder if the programmers decided that making a faithful port was too difficult to do and instead focused on bringing computer gamers a unique experience that was tailored to the limitations of PC hardware at the time. We may never know why these DOS versions turned out so poorly, but we do know this: if you can actually beat the first game on the PC without cheating, you will have bragging rights for life.