Once, long ago, a man wearing a metal mask glared down at a teenage boy wearing a tie-dyed shirt. Extending a gauntleted hand, he proceeded to trace the boy's outline -- slowly -- searching for the item that the boy had attempted to conceal from him just as he entered the box-filled warehouse room. Pausing for dramatic effect, he reached forward and retrieved a folded piece of paper, which, upon further examination, he discovered to be a colored-pencil sketch of a humanoid terrapin wearing a blue mask. Then, narrowing his eyes, the man in the metal mask hissed aloud the truth that, deep in his evil heart, he had already known. "They're back!"
In 2007, the late Shredder's proclamation has been true for the past few years. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles returned in full force in 2003 with a new animated series, which, like the Turtles' initial run in the 1990s, has naturally resulted in the release of a lot of new toys and video game tie-ins to capitalize upon the license. While the cartoon has been largely well-received by fans, however, the merchandise has generally failed to capture their Turtle-loving hearts in the same way that the older products did -- particularly with respect to the video games. Until now, Konami has continued to handle the Turtles license, producing three-dimensional brawlers largely in keeping with the tradition of the two-dimensional side-scrolling classics that they released over ten years ago. Yet with the release of the new movie, the powers that be have seen fit to furnish us with yet another video game tie-in... but this time, Konami employees were not at the helm of the project.
Enter TMNT -- Ubisoft's inaugural go with the Turtles license. Given that Konami has handled the Turtles' virtual adventures for as long as I can remember, it's kind of sad to see the release of a new Ninja Turtles game without their stamp... but given that the most recent games have decidedly failed to match the greatness of the classic titles from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, I suppose it was time for a change. At any rate, while I'm not sure that I can call Ubisoft's TMNT a definite step in the right direction -- for instance, the game doesn't even have a two-player cooperative mode, let alone support for four -- it's a decent (if short) game that allows players to guide the Turtles through a simplified retelling of their latest big-screen adventure. It's certainly worth playing if you're a fan of the Turtles, but whether you decide to buy it will naturally depend upon how you feel about the various aspects of the game that we'll be discussing below. Our review covers the PC version, though apparently all of the stationary console versions (Wii, GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox 360) are virtually identical to it.
Kicking things off, the graphics are easily the best part of TMNT. Though they're not particularly groundbreaking or impressive when compared to some of the top titles nowadays, they nevertheless look great and match the film's visuals fairly well. Observant players will notice that a lot of the environments that the Turtles explore are taken directly from the film (or look very similar to them), including the layout of the rooftops, the diner in which Raph battled the Jersey Devil in the flick, and certain areas of Winters Tower. A handful of people in online forums have balked at the "ugliness" of the game -- which is understandable, as it generally retains the dark and gritty look of the film, whereas previous Turtles games have featured lots of bright colors and graphics that more/less mimic the animated shows -- but while the Turtles naturally travel some pretty dank sewers, they'll also get to check out cool locales like the jungles of South America and NYC's Chinatown (though I've been there a fair amount of times and I've never come across any areas that look like this). The Turtles and their enemies all look great as well, and some of the visual effects that occur throughout the game are very nice. I particularly like the yeti's animations and the visible damage to the stone generals during the game's boss battles.
In addition to the occasional movie clip, there are also comic-book style segments that serve to introduce each level, with portraits in the same style that accompany dialogue that occurs within the game. Again, I have seen a lot of folks complaining in forums about the lack of CGI or even in-game cutscenes, but I really like the look of these comic panels. There's something about the angular quality of the art and the simplified shading that almost makes them look like cel-shaded polygons, and I honestly wouldn't have minded playing through an entire game that looked like this. (Only Splinter suffers in this form, as the drawings of him look more like some kind of kangaroo than a mutated rat.) The story that these panels serve to tell, on the other hand, is pretty lacking -- even moreso than that of the movie. Things that were rightly regarded as unimportant in the film (for example, what Michelangelo did just after finishing his most recent Cowabunga Carl stint) and side adventures that do nothing to advance the plot get full levels, whereas elements that would have been pretty cool to include here are nowhere to be found. (More on that towards the end of the piece.) Additionally, just as in the film the "main" plot thread involving the monsters really played second fiddle to the drama with Raphael and Leonardo, its inclusion here merely seems like an excuse to give players an opportunity to explore Raph and Leo's issues and solo adventures through the gameplay. While one does get to play as all four Turtles (albeit one at a time) in six of the 16 levels, eight of them are solo campaigns that cast the player in the role of Raph or Leo (or both, either with you assuming control of both of them or playing as Leo for part of the level and Raph for the rest). Fans who disliked the underuse of Donatello and Mikey in the film will find themselves similarly disappointed here, as these oft-neglected heroes in a half-shell only get one solo level each.
Now for the gameplay. It's fitting that the Turtles are named after prominent Italians, because they do so much running and platform jumping and even coin-collecting in this game that you'll start to wonder if NYC and the Mushroom Kingdom were designed by the same architect. There's actually a stat that tracks the amount of time that the Turtles spend in the air -- and I kid you not, hangtime accounted for roughly one-third of my total playtime, which doesn't even count the time that I spent running on the platforms or shimmying along crevices in between jumps. In fact, if the developers had had a sense of humor about it (and the okay to use some of the classic characters from the cartoon), one of the unlockable features would have enabled players to replay the game as the Punk Frogs. There are some neat little gimmicks in this portion of the game -- for example, the brothers can assist each other while jumping to clear greater distances -- but the Turtles ultimately spend most of their latest adventure hopping around like their toes are on fire.
But while you can probably tell that I'm not a huge fan of platform jumping in my Turtles games, the platforming elements are handled decently enough. In fact, there are some pretty cool (if infrequent; as far as I've seen you can only do this in one level) instances in which players can use the environment to maneuver above enemy camps, thereby avoiding detection and skipping battles. That said, the gameplay could have worked even better if not for a couple of significant flaws. For one -- as in most 3D platforming games -- the camera has a tendency to get in the way, causing players to misjudge distances and fall to their deaths (or, conversely, puzzle over jumps that are actually quite easy to make) as a result of bad angles or obscured background details. This becomes an even bigger problem in light of the the game's wall-running mechanics. See, in addition to jumping, the Turtles can run on walls in the game by pressing against a wall while in the air. However, given that our heroes spend most of the time jumping about on narrow platforms that are anchored to walls and that the game's camera generally has them moving at a slight angle anyway, it's fairly easy to wall-run accidentally. 88% of the time, this resulted in me overshooting platforms and falling to my death. Also, given that the Turtles can run both along the wall and straight up the wall depending upon the angle of their jump, it's not difficult to end up running up (and then sliding down) a wall when one means to run forward along it -- which, again, often leads to death. The frequent checkpoints keep it from becoming too frustrating, but the inclusion of a separate button for wall-running would have been a big improvement. In fact, considering the relative ease of the game, I wonder if Ubisoft intentionally did away with the wall-running button from the Prince of Persia games in order to make TMNT more artificially challenging. As it stands, the touchy wall-running mechanics just make the game less fun to play -- especially when certain areas require players to use it extensively.
Still, you can't have a game about mutant ninjas without some fighting, so occasionally you encounter a break in the platforming action to battle a group of baddies. Combat is simple enough -- the Turtles get one weapon attack (hit the button multiple times for a combo), a spinning kick, and a jumping ground punch. More advanced combat techniques include a warp slash, which, once charged by holding the attack for a second, lets a Turtle dash about and tag every enemy in a given area in rapid succession. The problem here is that while the weapon attack combo is mildly effective and the spin kick and ground punch are all but useless, the warp slash is so powerful that I found myself using it almost exclusively for the duration of the game -- I'd just do it once, run away to give myself some room to charge the attack, and do it again. The attack also negates the variety provided by the Turtles' range differences, as this doesn't matter when your Turtle dashes into enemies... and seeing as how most of them die in just two warps from Raph and Don, I didn't have a whole lot of incentive to fight as Mike and Leo during the levels in which all four Turtles were available. (One generally has to play as everyone at some point during the stages, however, as they all have a unique skill that is needed to clear various obstacles. Leo can phase through certain barriers, Raph can climb certain walls, Don can vault over gaps with his bo, and Mike has that nunchaku helicopter technique that honestly becomes kind of useless during the team levels in light of the brother throw.) With the exception of boss battles, in which he becomes the character of choice, Mike's lack of precision makes him exceptionally lame in combat. He can get in a lot of hits in on a single enemy in relatively little time, but each individual hit is pretty weak... and when Raph and Don can kill every enemy onscreen in just two moves, Mike's weakness makes him a definite bench-warmer.
Or it would, anyway, if the game didn't essentially penalize you for not calling upon the Turtles in combat and while jumping in an effort to "strengthen their family bond." In addition to the combat techniques mentioned above, there are also family attacks that, once charged by holding a button for a couple of seconds, allow your Turtle of choice to call in a brother for a drawn-out and flashy attack. However, there are several major problems with this. Unless you're using Raphael, the attack isn't even as strong as the warp slash -- and given that it takes a fair amount of time to finish once it's been initiated and isn't guaranteed to hit every enemy on the screen, it's also slower and decidedly less effective than the warp slash. Considering that the game grades players on how quickly they can complete a level (and that, in several cases, you have to be pretty goddamned fast to get an A+), I found myself rarely wanting to use team attacks... except that the game also gives grades for teamwork. And while I understand that one might have to take more time doing various tasks in order to incorporate everyone and work together in a real family (and admittedly it isn't that difficult to obtain an A+ ranking in most levels), for Ubisoft to pit categories against one another like this is kind of irritating. The game also annoys if one fails to receive an A grade for a given level, as one of the characters will then proceed to say something snarky about the player's lack of skill. So not only does the player not get the bonus; he/she also has to listen to Master Splinter spew some bull about the family bond or hear Leo condescendingly preach about the importance of speed. <spoiler>No wonder Raph broke Leo's swords and kicked the crap out of him in the movie.</spoiler>
And you know what else is irritating? The ten-star system. During combat sequences, the Turtles have a star meter at the top of the screen that increases with each enemy killed. When they've accumulated ten, they go into a bullet-time "mega attack" mode in which they can kill any enemy with a single hit. It's a neat effect, but the problem here is that taking any damage during battle causes the meter to reset -- and while the lacking enemy intelligence means that it's generally not that difficult to keep from getting hit, the fact that enemies with projectiles can shoot at you from offscreen and that some of these can be tough to avoid can cause a modicum of frustration. Granted, you won't get hit all that often, and you'll hardly ever be in danger of dying (and even if you do lose all of your health in combat, all you have to do is repeatedly tap the jump button to revive yourself at full power), but imagine the feeling of getting nailed by a shuriken thrown from offscreen when you've got nine stars in your bank. It's pretty much akin to almost having your Z-gauge three levels full in Street Fighter Alpha 3, only to have it wholly depleted by a single jab! Making matters worse, once full, the star meter begins to count down fairly rapidly. Killing enemies can keep it going, but you still have to wait for them to appear... and while they're taking their sweet time rushing onto the field or jumping down from the tops of boxes and whatnot, you're losing precious stars. It's analogous to picking up a starman in the Super Mario Bros. games, only to find yourself boxed in by invisible walls until the game decides that it's okay for you to move on.
However, while this latter problem also appears in the levels in which you play as the Nightwatcher, the good thing about these levels is that the star meter is replaced by a rage meter that doesn't deplete whenever Raph takes damage. Additionally, when the rage meter fills up, the player has the option of manually triggering Raph's "Bloodlust" mode -- in which he glows red, kills all enemies onscreen with an explosion of energy not unlike something out of Dragon Ball Z, and then, a la the mega attack mode, can kill all enemies with a single hit until the meter dies down. This is ideal, as one can wait until a good number of baddies are onscreen before initiating the attack. By comparison, the mega attack mode automatically starts after you've killed the tenth guy -- which, if he was the last guy on the screen, means that you've likely already lost two or three stars before more enemies appear. Killing enemies doesn't help to keep the bloodlust going, but the fact that it doesn't take a significant amount of effort (or luck) to get the meter full again hardly makes the countdown and time that enemies take to arrive in the arena as annoying as it can be the other levels. In addition to the relative lack of tricky, extended platforming sequences, the fun and more forgiving combat in the Nightwatcher stages easily makes them my favorites in the game. If only he fought with that manriki-style weapon that he used in the film...
Of course, TMNT also has boss fights. They're fairly short and easy, so even though six of the 16 levels end with boss encounters, it feels like there are far fewer, especially considering that the final level requires you to face three of the bosses again. Still, while they last, these battles can be quite fun. The bosses follow fairly simplistic patterns, which, once players figure them out, makes defeating them a snap -- though some (particularly General Mono) can be tough until one discovers the best way to win. In any case, despite the lack of challenge, these fights provide a welcome break from the tedium of platform jumping and the admittedly repetitive battles against handfuls of goons and Foot Clan ninjas. As noted, the bosses look especially good, and the fact that SHREDDER is one of them helps (though not much) to make up for the absence of too many other characters from the TMNT universe, including even April and Casey. We'll return to that point towards the conclusion of the review, but suffice it to say that -- at least for me -- the boss fights were a definite highlight of the game.
So while this adventure is kept on the short and comparatively easy side by its brief platforming levels, frequent checkpoints, and largely simplistic combat in which dying is an impossibility, there are a few unlockable bonuses and such that help to extend the replay value just a bit. I've mentioned the scoring system, which awards players with additional bonuses for receiving high marks. Now, the scoring isn't always consistent. For instance, sometimes you'll see two A+ grades inexplicably average to an A; other times you'll get two A grades for fighting (yes, the game grades you on your fighting prowess, which is even more reason not to use Leo or Mike) and speed, multiple missed coins, and a full teamwork meter that combine to give you an A+. Considering that you need at least an A grade to unlock challenge maps and an A+ to earn a turtle shell for purchasing goodies from the extras menu -- and that players can also locate up to five turtle shells in the levels during subsequent runs -- completists will have to play through the adventure at least twice in order to see all that there is to see.
The challenge maps, which are little VR-style obstacle courses in which the Turtles have to reach a goal or kill a certain number of enemies within unspecified time limits to earn extra turtle shells, also add a bit more play time to TMNT. These levels can be pretty cheap and frustrating -- especially since all of the aforementioned camera and wall-running problems with the platforming segments resurface in full force -- but several of them are well-designed and fun additions to the game. The unlockable bonuses include alternate, oversized heads for the Turtles, goofy weapon replacements (for example, Don's bo staff becomes a broom and Raph's sai become spatulas), Halloween costumes for the bad guys, and a number of production sketches from the game and screenshots/clips taken from the actual film. None of these bonuses are really all that cool -- the sketches and such aren't even worth the scant amount of effort it takes to earn them, and the novelty of the big heads and such wears off pretty quickly -- but some players may find them to be more amusing than others. I thought that the bonus that causes the Turtles to rip farts during gameplay (seriously; they even trail little stink clouds) was incredibly stupid, but I could see that option leaving young kids in stitches. Personally, I'd rather have been able to unlock a special menu that lets players skip to boss fights, flip through the comic cutscenes without entering levels, or view the ending without having to play through the final stage in its entirety.
Nevertheless, despite its flaws, brevity, and overall simplicity, TMNT is a fun little game that's at least worth a rental, assuming we're talking about a console version. Considering that the PC version is much cheaper -- whereas the PS2 and GC versions retail for $40 and the Xbox360 and Wii versions go $50, the PC version is only $30 (I picked it up on sale for $25 at Best Buy) -- it's much easier to justify purchasing it. The slightly different environment also works well for the game. I couldn't see parking myself in front of the television and hooking up the PS2 for a quick playthrough of a single five-minute level, but since getting the game I've found that replaying certain stages has taken the place of some of those quick gaming breaks that I would otherwise have used for a few trials in Spider Solitaire or Freecell. The fact that it's a single-player title also makes the PC version a bit easier to swallow, as, with the exception of first-person shooters and role-playing games with online play options, the vast majority of PC games are solo affairs. That said, while the comparatively low price, the shortness of the levels, and the less offensive nature of the single-player limitations make the PC version a slightly more ideal purchase (assuming that you've got the two gigs of hard drive space to spare), there are some minor annoyances that, as far as I know, are unique to it.
For one, the game assumes that you're playing with the keyboard and gives you keyboard commands during the in-game tutorials. This is fine if you're actually using the keyboard (which I personally can't imagine doing; the game is hard enough to control with a PS2 pad), but otherwise it makes them pretty useless. In fact, since I didn't read the manual until I had already beaten TMNT, there were moves that -- even though Splinter and Raphael "told" me how to do them in the early levels -- I didn't figure out until halfway through the game. The manual has the same problem. Rather than giving you the initial controls and then telling you how to do moves based on the relative control scheme (for example, while the Street Fighter II documentation might initially tell you that X, Y, and Z are punches, it later notes that pressing down, down-toward, and toward plus any punch will allow you to do a fireball), the manual reports moves based on an absolute control scheme (in keeping with the example, the SFII manual in this case would tell you to press down, down-toward, and toward plus X, Y, or Z to execute the move). As a result, players using joypads have to translate all of the advanced techniques to their relative setup by using the documentation for the one-button moves as a key, which is decidedly less than ideal. It's not a problem once you've got the moves down, of course, but if you don't do this in the very beginning you will die an awful lot, especially since the in-game tutorials don't even mention certain techniques that are pretty vital to completing the game. (During my first playthrough, I literally died for 11 minutes straight in the same area in Don's stage because I didn't know that I could drop down from ledges by pressing the attack button. Argh.)
Another problem with the PC version -- which again doesn't really affect the core gameplay, but is nevertheless pretty annoying -- is that whenever you save the game (or the game saves itself, assuming that you've enabled the autosave setting), there's a little message that tells you not to reset or switch off the PC while the game is saving. Um, hello? Maybe I'm unique among computer users, but I generally exit all of my programs and use the shutdown option in Windows before I turn off my PC. In fact, it powers down automatically when I do that, so I never manually turn off the machine unless something is frozen. Admittedly, I do know people who just switch off their computers when they finish using them (and then they wonder why Windows wants to check the disk for errors every time it boots up), but was there really a need to include this message? Sure, I recognize that this warning is likely a holdover from this game's being a port of one of the console versions, but that Ubisoft didn't see fit to remove it (or at least change it to something more fitting) just reeks of laziness.
At the end of the day, my thoughts regarding Ubisoft's TMNT are a lot like my feelings towards the movie. It's decent enough, but it fails to match the greatness of the older titles because it doesn't take into account what made them so great. Just as the movie focused on visual style and failed to include very much in the way of characterization or a relatively compelling story to round out the family drama, this game goes the route of a single-player platforming adventure instead of remembering that the older games were great because of their multiplayer capabilities and emphasis on arcade-style fighting action. Another thing that made the old games memorable -- and something that's been lacking in the recent Konami titles as well -- is that they pulled in elements from all of the various TMNT universes to make games that really appealed to Turtles fans. The games were ostensibly based on the cartoon, but also included characters from the movies and comics. For instance, Tokka, Rahzar, and Super Shredder appeared in TMNT III: The Manhattan Project on the NES and in TMNT IV: Turtles in Time on the SNES, whereas Armaggon, War, and Karai appeared in the SNES version of TMNT: Tournament Fighters. Sure, obvious liberties were taken, but it was still great to see these characters again.
By comparison, the next-gen Konami games have all been based on the 2003 cartoon -- and even though this latest TMNT game boasts appearances from additional characters from the Mirage universe, the only ones it really has are the Purple Dragons and the Shredder. Seriously, with all of the characters that could have been included in this game -- even if they only had access to the Mirage ones, that still would have included the Rat King, Leatherhead (II), and the Triceratons (among others) -- Ubisoft felt compelled to make up a new gang called the Black Gators for the game. (By the way, I'm totally starting my own group called the Blue Anoles.) Why -- why?! -- when April and Casey are absent? They were actually in the movie! Additional boss fights against, say, the remaining 12 monsters would also have been cool. And aside from her appearance as an alternate big head for Don, even Karai only surfaces during some overheard dialogue in one of the Nightwatcher levels. The inclusion of a boss fight against Karai or the ability to unlock other playable characters would really have helped. Heck, instead of the silly big head mode, even alternate character skins for the Turtles (Karai as Leo, Casey as Raph, April as Don, etc.) would have been acceptable. And seeing as how the fight between Leo and Raph was pretty much the highlight of the film, it's kind of disappointing that there's no analogous combat sequence in the game. There's a level in which you have to chase Raph as Leo, but that's not quite the same.
In light of its flaws and shortcomings, it's kind of odd that I like TMNT as much as I do. Granted, I don't love it, and I'd probably like it a lot less if I had paid more for it or were playing it on a console, but the PC version kind of grew on me even as I kept replaying the demo to get faster times and make it farther into the level. (Incidentally, when I played through the full level for the first time, I got a pretty low score because utilizing all of the speed shortcuts requires a player to skip lots of coins and rely upon the warp slash in combat, which earns one low marks for the coin and teamwork categories. Meh.) It's not fantastic, mind you, and gamers have rightly criticized the problematic wall-running mechanics, camera issues, and general lack of gameplay innovations. But the prevailing criticism against TMNT -- that it's too easy -- is pretty weak. Yes, one can't get a "game over" (which is fitting, since the story is presented as a flashback and dying would entail changing the past), but is the ability to lose completely the measure of a game? Maybe I just like easy games, and admittedly I haven't played all that many next-gen titles, but I'm having a hard time thinking of a recent game in which I had a set number of lives or couldn't simply continue from a nearby checkpoint. And while the checkpoints are exceedingly frequent in TMNT, considering the amount of times that I died because of the wonky wall-running I probably would have thrown my controller in frustration without them. I can't imagine how I would have felt about these parts as a kid!
But more importantly, a Turtles game doesn't need to be hard. Turtles in Time, which is generally regarded as the best Turtles game, was not difficult. Slash could be a bitch, but on the whole the game was pretty easy even on the highest difficulty setting. Hell, the entire game could be beaten within a half hour. The first NES game was fairly lengthy and pretty hard, but that's why you have angry nerds giving it expletive-laden video reviews and claiming they'd rather ingest steaming bags of dog diarrhea (which is pretty goddamned sick, because I'd rather commit seppuku than willingly ingest dog feces) than play it again. Turtles games don't need to be difficult -- they just need to be fun. Ubisoft's attempt partly succeeds in this department (particularly with the Nightwatcher levels), but more intuitive controls, a multiplayer option (accompanied by less platforming and more fighting), and a lot more fanservice would have made the game even cooler. Still, for a $25-30 purchase, TMNT is a nice little diversion for fans of the Turtles or platforming game aficionados. I wouldn't pay $40-50 for it, though.