After first hearing about Review A Great Game Day from the wonderful folks at 1MoreCastle.com I thought it would be difficult choosing a game. There were no restrictions for modern or retro, Nintendo or any other platform, just simply review a great game. But when I think of great games I'm quickly led to the NES library, a system with simple controls issuing challenging commands, game plots told through landscape and architecture, colorful sprites dashing and jumping and attacking, a special gray box that was my entry into the world of video gaming. I was sure I'd have to make a tough decision selecting The Legend of Zelda over Metroid or Super Mario Bros. 3 or Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! or Contra. These are my top 5 games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. But the first game that popped in my head was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, a game I play through every year, and as recently as last Christmas.
Unlike the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game on the NES, a challenging platformer and 1989 Nintendo Power Game of the Year winner, TMNT II is a Foot Clan bashing beat 'em up. As the title suggests, it was ported from the immensely popular arcade game. While the arcade version had crisper graphics, a boss fight against Rocksteady and Bebop, and allowed for four-player co-op, the NES version was limited to two-player co-op, but benefited from expanded levels and two levels were added with new bosses (Tora and Shogun).
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were one of the hottest properties of the late 80's and early 90's. From their humble beginnings as red bandana ninjas in the comics to the shell kicking cartoon and movie series, we were fortunate enough for Konami to acquire the license and develop some of the best video games during the 8 and 16-bit era. I first experienced the arcade version at a video rental store that had a small niche loaded with arcade consoles. I met one of my oldest friends playing this game there, and allowed him to share his birthday money with me to play co-op. I was so excited when I read in Nintendo Power the arcade version was being ported to the NES, I eagerly awaited each new issue for any tidbit or screenshot, and nearly died waiting for the game to arrive in my stocking Christmas morning.
I love beat 'em ups. You get to mindlessly kick ass and face off against larger than life bosses. TMNT II: The Arcade Game exceeded all expectations in every category. Plus, Pizza Hut offered a coupon for a free pizza inside the game box. Needless to say I took a short break from playing the next day to eat my free pizza. My turtle of choice is Michelangelo, because nunchucks are awesome and he was the party dude and lover of pizza. There is really no strategy in turtle selection in the game, since each character has the same attack range with their specific weapon, unlike TMNT III where it is advantageous to choose Donatello or Leonardo because of their long-range attacks. After turtle selection, it is up to you to save April O'Neil in her hot yellow jumpsuit and that dope Splinter (he seems to be more of a liability than an aid in the Turtles adventures) from the vile clutches of the Shredder and the Foot Clan. Along the way, you'll battle it out with Foot Soldiers, Mousers, Missile firing Snow-Men, and a impressive boss list: Bebop, Rocksteady, Baxter Stockman (twice), Tora, Shogun, Granitor, Krang, and Shredder. If you fail the Shredder will dine on turtle soup.
The controls in TMNT II are smoother than Stephon Urquelle, and supply three methods of attack with only two buttons--regular attack, jump kick, and jump-and-slash. The jump-and-slash is performed by pressing B and A nearly simultaneously (press the B button less than half a second after holding A), and eliminates enemies in one hit instead of the two that are needed with the regular attack or jump kick. One way TMNT II separated itself from other beat 'em ups on the NES was how enemies came out of nowhere. The Foot Soldiers weren't just waiting to fight in fixed positions until Michelangelo side-scrolled to the right screen or only came out of nowhere at random from the left or right. The Foot Soldiers burst from background objects like windows and doors, from behind Pizza Hut billboards and sewer manholes, and the back doors of creepy-guy vans. Before TMNT II, backgrounds mostly served the purpose of conveying atmosphere, whether it was a dark or light-hearted game. They were there to be pretty, not interact with gameplay. There was nothing cooler than walking through April's fire-blazing apartment building the first time and be shocked how the Foot Soldiers broke through doors to attack you. One cool note about the first level is if you pause the game the fire will still blaze in the foreground.
There's a great assortment of enemies to fight, most of which are six variants of Foot Soldiers. Each color Foot Soldier has his own unique attack and weapon. My favorites are the ghost-like white and gray ones that jump as high as NBA Jam players and try to strike you down with their katana. The boss battles are a bit repetitive, since the best method to defeat most of them is the jump kick, but there are different strategies on when and where to attack each boss. The only thing I will say about fighting Shredder at the end of the game is it's one of the best end boss battles on the NES.
TMNT II is one of the best looking games on the NES. It may not be as crisp as a Capcom Mega Man game, but Konami did an excellent job capturing the look and spirit of the cartoon series. The Turtles and Foot Soldier sprites are quite large compared to other NES beat 'em ups like Double Dragon and River City Ransom, the bosses are a huge intimidating presence, and very well detailed. Shredder just looks like a straight up bad ass. Each level is unique with its own theme and the cut-scenes between levels was a impressive bonus of animation that I had never believed possible on the NES. The music is borrowed from the cartoon series intro and remixed throughout the game. It never gets stale and helps pace the frenetic action of the game. Catchy upbeat tunes that make you believe you should be eating cereal while kicking ass.
It was easy to select TMNT II: The Arcade Game for the first annual Review A Great Game Day, based purely on the fun factor. There's no grinding or suffering through dull moments to get to the heart and fun of the game. That's why I love beat 'em ups, there's no waiting, you need to start slashing now before Splinter is kidnapped again for being a lazy master ninja or April is taken hostage by Rocksteady because of her awesome yellow jumpsuit. TMNT II plays extremely solid, is visually impressive, an amazing experience for not just fans of beat 'em ups, pizza, and yellow jumpsuits, but all video games.