Been too long since the last post again. Haven’t really had time for a proper post, so I dug into the draft bin to see what I could see. This was to be the second article for Clockwork Bard, but got scrapped at the finish-line for reasons I’ve since forgotten. With the Turtles seeing yet another rebirth a few weeks back, I thought I’d toss it up. Enjoy.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan (hereby known as FotFC, because that title is a mouth full) is a guilty pleasure of mine. Please don’t confuse that with an endorsement of quality. There are far better games you could be playing. But it meant something to me as a child, something deeper than the TMNT branding that I so voraciously consumed.
FotFC was the first of three GameBoy games in the franchise. It was released in 1990 by Konami (under their Ultra Games brand), immediately following the first Nintendo Entertainment System’s TMNT title, the extremely popular Konami arcade beat ‘em up, and the first Turtles movie. Turtle fever was in its prime. It was a good year for Turtle lovers.
It’s a rather simple action platformer/brawler in which the player takes control of one of the four titular turtles as they trek across 5 enemy-filled stages in their quest to defeat the evil Shredder and Krang and save their friend April O’Neil. Yes, it’s the rubber-stamped plot of every TMNT adventure ever, and we expected no less. Turtle Power!
All three of the TMNT GameBoy releases had strikingly different visual styles. The second took strongly after the cartoon. Though it had its own look, to a degree, the goofy aesthetic was distinctively Saturday Morning. The third game kept to the grittier look of the comic books. The first took its cue from… well, everything. The TMNT brand around the time this was in development was still in a bit of an identity crisis, as perhaps can best be seen in the toy line. The original series of toys took their inspiration entirely from the Mirage comic books, with darker themes and a high level of quirky detail. The second series, called “Wacky Action” figures, attempted to cater more to the cartoon audience, using a simpler, more vibrant and animated look. The look didn’t quite match either source, and was dropped in favor of returning to the comic look.
Why am I rambling on about toys in a video game review? Well, this was an awkward period for the mutant teenagers, as they made the very jolting transition from violent and surreal comic to the tame, mainstream, children’s cartoon. The cartoon and comic both had well established styles starkly different from each other. Yet much of the Turtle media that followed felt obligated to derive from both sources, both in look and narrative. The movies, the reboot cartoons and many video games all feel like alchemical experiments, trying to hit a sweet spot by mixing aspects of those two base ingredients. But where as these are smooth blends of traits mixed to create something new, FotFC feels more like a heterogeneous mishmash of elements lacking a coherent theme to bring them together.
The characters here are larger and more detailed than the later games (and most GameBoy games in general) but lack the stylized charm of either. The turtle’s faces and deformed weapons look more like the doodles from my elementary school notebook. Some characters seem to come from the first series toys, others from the second and a few show a strong Saturday morning cartoon influence. For example, the mouser robots look more like their wobbly, wind-up toy variant from the Wacky Action figures than the crouched, intimidating, raptor-like predators they are better known for being.
The stages aesthetics tend towards the dystopian feel of the comics. Each of the 5 levels brings something different, some even having multiple segments with different looks and feels to them. Not all are the same quality, however. The mountain cave, for example, is especially dull, with little to no defining features or terrain. The streets and sewers of the first stage, however, look absolutely stunning, with parallax scrolling effects and a gritty detail that impresses but doesn’t intrude. At first, the Technodrome successfully captures that alien look of organically-grown technology you would expect, but then switches to a mostly barren hall almost devoid of detail for the second half of the stage.
Between each of the levels are cutscenes, which simply pull stills straight out of the first few episodes of the animated cartoon. These look great, but don’t fit most of the other material in the game. They also sport some hilariously cheesy snippets of dialog.
All in all, the quality of the visuals on show here are well above average. It’s the inconsistencies in both quality and theme that hurts the total package. A more unified aesthetic and quality could have explored some of that lost potential.
The audio brings it together much better. The music tracks are catchy, energetic and feel like they fit the environments and action. The old factory and sewer themes are appropriately slow and eerie, without losing their drive. The third stage ramps up the tension and pace as you jump between moving trucks on the highway. The recognizable intro theme to the TMNT cartoon is used multiple times, but kept spaced apart by other tracks to both emphasize it and keep it from overstaying its welcome.
The sound effects are also appropriately more than just bleeps and bloops. Clangs, crashes, swooshes and explosions add character to the comic/cartoon feel of the actions taking place. Sound cues are well placed. Many hazards announce themselves before attacking, such as some enemy projectiles or the rev of a motorcycle engine just before a group of foot soldiers try to run you down. An obvious chime announces when a strike knocks your turtle low on health, but does not keep chirping annoyingly. Konami has always been known for their very high quality audio work, and that dedication makes this a better game for it.
The controls in FotFC are extremely simple but solid. You can walk side to side, jump, and attack. Attacks consist of jump kicks in air, strikes with your weapon when standing or walking, and a throwing star while crouching. Everything is responsive and open to input and all three moves have their advantages. Throwing stars are great for defeating those clusters of tiny enemies from a distance, before they can close in, but take multiple hits to take down stronger foes and bounce harmlessly off of stage end boss enemies. Your weapon attack is versatile and quick, and even allows you to turn around mid-swing, taking out enemies on either side of you in one stroke. Jump kicks take slightly more care to connect, but effectively eliminate airborne threats as well as decimate the few enemies which take two weapon strikes to kill in a single blow.
I have to make a quick head-nod to usability here. While the throwing stars are normally less powerful than your other assaults, if you use them at close range, they strike with the force of your normal, standing weapon strike. This means, if an enemy was close enough that you could have used your weapon, but had to duck to avoid something flying at your skull, you aren’t penalized for using the weaker throwing stars. I absolutely love little accessibility concessions like these.
The trouble you’ll hear from a lot of reviews has to do with the pace at which your character walks. The turtles move at what I can best describe as a brisk stroll, a leisurely jaunt or a lively saunter. Their attacks are not lacking urgency, but walking and jumping have a lazy float about them that shows no immediate need to be anywhere anytime soon. This doesn’t hamper core game play, except maybe during boss fights. The excessive hang-time on jumping actually works well for placing jump kicks and evading threats. The plodding pace fits the desired effect for which the mechanics seem to aim. But, I’ll get to all of that more in just a bit. For the moment, it’s worth simply accepting those critiques on their original merit. Your turtle’s stolid gait is not exactly pulse-pounding feedback. We do expect reactions with a bit more passion for our button presses in modern action gaming. Even the twirl of the turtles’ weapons as they promenade, while nice visual touches, give an atmosphere of apathy.
Your life bar and score are placed in a thin strip along the bottom of the play area. Given what a premium screen space goes for in this zoomed perspective, their conservative size is appreciated. The life bar, which is the more important of the two status updates, takes the majority of the space with 8 large boxes, each representing a discrete hit the turtle can take before failing and being captured. In platforming games like this, I typically prefer this sort of information on the bottom like this, since the player’s character spends the majority of their time down near the ground. It’s less important for things like score and stage number, which don’t need periodic referencing. In the case of my character’s health, which is the defining meter of success and failure, I prefer to not need to draw my eyes from the play area to check up on it.
This game follows an action game formula that was far more common in early computer gaming. While an attempt to pidgeon-hole FotFC would set it loosely in the “Action Beat ‘em up” category, it doesn’t share the play conventions we typically associate in that area. Typical beat ‘em ups place importance on careful positioning of your character while you strategically bob in and out of range of attacks by fairly durable enemies. FotFC is much more about quick reactions to encounters that, for the most part, come to you. As you progress, enemies and obstacles quickly leap on screen, calling upon your reflexes to either destroy or evade the threat. While terrain changes to mix up these encounters and keep them interesting, terrain hazards are rare. This mutes the platforming aspect of the game. If there are encounters which require leaping, it is because something like a spiked column or boulder suddenly flew on screen. Perhaps the best comparison I can give to a popular title is that of Kung-Fu (1985) for the NES.
For this sort of design, that plodding pace I talked about earlier is particularly common. Evasion isn’t meant to be the immediate answer to any threat. Rather, you need to decide within a moment’s time whether you need to strike at the threat or move. In some levels, you might find that progressing too quickly puts more on the screen than you can handle. The motorcycles in the third part of stage one must be jumped with careful timing. There is little room for error. If other enemies are still roaming the ground, you may corner yourself into taking a few unavoidable hits.
This changes up when it comes time for boss fights, since bosses are not so easily dispatched. Around six or seven hits are needed to put one down. Since they get a brief invulnerability period after each hit, the same as you, a rapid assault will not be very effective. In these fights, placement means everything, as your stiff joints simply cannot react fast enough. For example, Shredder will decimate you in a frontal assault. His sword can kill you in 4 hits and has better reach than your attacks. Getting in, striking, and getting out is possible; but will more likely get you shredded. Instead, leaping over and striking from behind is far more effective. Other bosses are significantly easier, and most can be defeated without even moving, should you find the right spot. The end fight with Krang is even kind of disappointing this way. You could potentially wait at the left side of the screen and simply attack him whenever he wanders near for an easy win.
Unfortunately for the mean green fighting machines, this plodding style of action game was already on its way out, even in 1990. Games were becoming more complex and hardware was becoming more capable. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive was out and only a year from releasing Sonic the Hedgehog, along with the “blast processing” craze. The NES was in the sweet spot of its lifespan, with games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man 3, River City Ransom, Super C and Castlevania III bringing in the new decade.
TMNT:FotFC is a great little game, for what it is (a toy franchise cash-in). With an identity as muddled as its franchise, it still manages to supply its young audience with an approachable challenge, some appealing presentation and solid gameplay. But as time goes on, it will probably be remembered more for its gentler pacing that turned off so many action gamers.