Why the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Games Were an Essential Part of ’90s Gaming

If the reveal of Shredder's Revenge has you feeling nostalgic for the TMNT games of the past, you're not alone. After all, they were a vital part of a beloved time...

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4 Turtles in Time
Photo: Konami

Recently, Dotemu and Tribute Games shocked the gaming world by revealing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge; a tribute to the TMNT beat ’em up classics of the late ’80s and early ’90s. As you can tell by the project’s debut trailer, Shredder’s Revenge looks to emulate the sights, sounds, and gameplay of what are generally remembered as some of the best arcade action games of their era.

Given the resumes of the teams working on this project (which include some of the talent responsible for Streets of Rage 4 and the brilliant Scott Pilgrim game), it’s surprisingly easy to be confident in their ability to craft a modern TMNT beat ’em up that feels worthy of the surprisingly enduring TMNT franchise and the best TMNT video games.

Yet, no matter how good the game could be, it may be unfair to judge it on the basis of how it recaptures that exact feeling many of us conjure whenever we think about those original titles. After all, they were more than just good TMNT video games expertly delivered at a time when so many of us were obsessed with an admittedly strange pop culture phenomenon. They were, in their own ways, an essential part of the ’90s gaming experience defined by these features and moments that will live on forever.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 Arcade Game NES Port

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game Helped Us Believe in Adaptations

The original TMNT game for NES wasn’t necessarily awful (even if it was absurdly difficult), but its generally uninspired design, strange omissions and additions, and generally lacking gameplay represented so many of the lesser adaptations gamers of that era came to know and dread.

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The 1990 port of the TMNT arcade game for the NES was different. It removed the platforming, puzzles, and bizarre design concepts of the previous game and replaced them with simple side-scrolling action and more of the characters, levels, and sounds of the cartoon we all loved.

The TMNT NES port was so good that it likely inspired many of us to take a chance on years worth of lesser adaptations. It was the arcade game that so many of us loved delivered to our living rooms. Actually, it proved to be even more than that…

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4: Turtles in Time SNES

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Console Games Weren’t Arcade Perfect…They Were Better

The concept of an “arcade perfect” title was a pretty big deal in the ’80s and ’90s. Simply put, gamers back then were obsessed with the idea that we’d one day have console games that looked and played as good as the best arcade titles. Unfortunately, that dream was often denied by the technological limitations of early gaming consoles.

That’s why the NES port of the TMNT arcade game and the SNES port of Turtles in Time stood out. Yes, they were the most accurate ports of the original arcade games that technology at the time would allow for, but more importantly, each featured exclusive content not seen in the original arcade games. Actually, the SNES version of Turtles in Time is considered by many to be the “definitive” way to play the game by virtue of its added content and even some of its technological improvements.

The best TMNT games raised the bar of arcade ports at a time when we wondered whether arcade games would come to consoles at all and what would be left of them after the transition.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Hut coupon

The fact that the TMNT gang was borderline addicted to pizza has proven to be one of their most endearing and relatable qualities. It’s also the reason why the Pizza Hut ads in TMNT 2: The Arcade Game were actually kind of amazing.

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Granted, the fact that each copy of TMNT 2: The Arcade Game came with a coupon for a free pizza helped ease the sponsorship blow quite a bit, but the idea that the turtles ate Pizza Hut rather than generic pizza was actually pretty cool at a time when going to a Pizza Hut in the first place already felt like an adventure.

In that spirit, few moments capture a specific period so clearly as the time we opened our new copy of TMNT 2 and found out that we suddenly had a pretty great excuse to ask to go to Pizza Hut.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4 Turtles in Time SNES character screen

The TMNT Games Were Vital Evidence In Our Debates Over The Best Turtle

Even though we all know that Donatello is the best turtle, it was still fun to argue with friends over which member of the group was most powerful or simply the coolest.

The TMNT games were a big part of that debate. Because each turtle offered their own weapons and skillsets, we could suddenly point to tangible evidence that supported our argument for which turtle was truly the best of them all.

Even better than the arguments were the battles over who got to be which turtle when you were playing with friends or siblings. It may have led to more than a few fights at the time, but those moments are one of those things that are so easy to look back on fondly at a time when the concept of couch co-op play isn’t nearly the juggernaut it once was.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4 Turtles in Time throwing enemies animation

Throwing Enemies at the Screen in Turtles in Time Was a Definitive SNES Experience

Among the many improvements that the SNES version of Turtles in Time made to the original game was the ability to throw enemies directly at the screen at will so that it looked like they hit your television. More than just a gimmick, this mechanic proved to be a vital part of some of the game’s new and remixed boss fights.

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Even as a gimmick, though, this was a pretty great one. The SNES’ “Mode 7” capabilities could have been a cheap 3D tease at a time when the industry was riddled with them, but a legion of developers found ways to utilize the technology to enhance certain experiences and create entirely new opportunities.

Figuring out how to consistently throw enemies in Turtles in Time was the kind of satisfying retro gaming moment that you’d actually call people into the room to witness.

The Turtles in Time Soundtrack Captured the Best of 16-Bit Era Music

While many of us would have been fine (at least as kids) hearing 8 and 16-bit renditions of the TMNT theme song looped endlessly in-game, the TMNT titles always went beyond in terms of offering music that felt both appropriate to the level you were playing and the spirit of the franchise.

Even still, the Turtles in Time SNES soundtrack is on another level. Nearly every track in the game maximizes the SNES’ capabilities while utilizing the best elements of that “chiptune” sound you only get when you’re forced to work within the “limits” of this style. The result is a collection of themes that would certainly sound great if played by a live orchestra but always sound the best when they’re blaring from your tube TV speakers on a Saturday night.

These songs are indicative of the above and beyond creativity that went into these games.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 The Manhattan Project NES

The TMNT Games Could Be Beaten In Under an Hour…but We Played Them For Years

At a time when the value of an open-world game is sometimes measured by how many hundreds of hours of gameplay it offers, it’s fascinating to look back at a time when so many of the games we played could have been beaten in an hour or less. Granted, the reason we didn’t know how short they were is that many of them were impossibly difficult, but the point stands.

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Besides, even if we had all beaten the TMNT games growing up, we still would have returned to them time and time again. The best arcade-style TMNT games featured that brand of pick-up-and-play action that offered a fundamentally satisfying experience that kept you coming back simply because every punch, every screen transition, and every boss battle simply felt right.

These games are the perfect representation of a time when you could return to a handful of games over and over and never really be bored with them. The fact we still return to the TMNT games so enthusiastically after all these years speaks to their quality rather than the idea that they were simply all that we had.