Nostalgia can be a harsh mistress. Reeling out that sentiment in a review for yet another Live Arcade disappointment brings with it a certain Groundhog Day vibe, but never is it more true than when talking about arcade games from the cultural dead zone known as the Late Eighties.
With increasingly powerful home consoles eating into their market share, the cabinet makers supplying the world's arcades inevitably chose the Darkside path of least resistance and served up titles boasting attention-grabbing visuals and sound still beyond the reach of the fledgling SEGA Genesis, but often with precious little in the way of gameplay. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a typical example of this all-sizzle, no-steak era of arcade gaming. Served up on a next-gen platter, the result is singularly unappetising.
This honestly came as a surprise to me since, like many others, I had fond memories of the game. Admittedly, this is probably because it was one of the few working cabinets in the lobby of the Stalybridge Palace Theatre, my then-local cinema and an establishment later used as a location for The League of Gentlemen, a fact which should give you some idea of how inappropriate the name really was. Seeing screenshots from the game certainly took me back to a time when such thrills were the best a boy could aspire to but, viewed with adult eyes, its clear my taste had a lot of growing up to do.
Populated by garish and stiff sprites, it's fair to say that the once-amazing visuals have lost their appeal over the years. Unlike the very early arcade games, which still hold a certain minimalist grace, Turtles looks horrible - a muddled splurge of colours and noisy backgrounds cut, pasted and pixelated wholesale from the cartoon, devoid of any real artistry. Animation is rudimentary, while the scrolling is jerky.
Offering a mere five short levels of repetitive scrolling beat-'em-up, and a move set best described as anorexic, the fact that its sole function was to Hoover pocket money from children's hands is made horribly apparent once the Insert Coin mechanic is removed and replaced with infinite credits in single-player. If it weren't for the ludicrously unfair difficulty slowing you down, the whole game would be over in five minutes. As it is, it lasts for about twenty.
Old games were hard - we all know that, and it's even part of their charm. Those with retro tastes have developed a deep masochistic streak, learning to take pleasure from being savagely beaten. Infamously brutal titles such as Ghost n' Goblins and Defender made life impossibly hard for gamers yet remain well-loved because, beneath the constant death, the core gameplay was fun and improved performance was always tantalisingly within reach.
Turtles has none of that tough love. Once you needed a stack of pound coins, now patience and a cool temper are all that's needed to see it through. Success doesn't require you to get better at the game, just that you keep hitting continue. As you trudge through wave after wave of identical foes, the game changes not one iota from the first level to the last, and nor do the skills required to survive that far.
You can jump, and you can hit things. That's about it as far as instructions go. No high, low, strong or weak attacks. No blocking. The turtles themselves have no distinguishing features or abilities beyond their weapons and masks so there's no reason to favour one character over another. During a four-player game, it's easy to lose track of your turtle in amongst the morass of purple jumpsuits and green shells. Sadly, not being able to work out where you are doesn't even affect the gameplay all that much.
It's not just that the game repeatedly puts you in positions where health loss or death are unavoidable - you can hit the guy to your left, but only at the expense of the guy to your right shooting you in the back - it's that there's no joy in the process, no sense of discovery or excitement. You just keep plugging away through sheer stubbornness, gritting your teeth at each new combination of environmental death-traps and unavoidable attacks. As there's no risk of losing your bus fare home to the slotty maw of the arcade machine, the flatlining gameplay just dangles there, rendered pointless when taken out of context. The closest the game comes to penalising you is in the co-op mode, where you have limited credits. Run out, and you're unable to add any more. It's revealing that having to take an early bath from the game can actually feel like a reward.
The game doesn't even have the good grace to offer up a well thought out array of Achievements for your trouble. Most require near-superhuman feats such as navigating a stage without losing health or defeating a boss without being hit by their weapon, and a game designed solely to kill the player as frequently as possible just isn't suited for such tasks. On the other hand, there are completely pointless Achievements, such as the one that gives you zero gamerpoints for falling into a manhole five times. Is it a joke? Or an admission that in a game so lacking in depth or variety there simply weren't enough things to do to make up the required twelve Achievement Awards?
Turtles is about as shallow as gaming gets, with even less to offer than Renegade, a game already three years old by the time this hit the arcade. It's no surprise that not long after its release Capcom released the similar yet vastly superior Final Fight, forcing Konami to try that little bit harder with its later Simpsons and X-Men side-scrollers. Already outclassed by its peers in 1989, the shortcomings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are laid horribly bare in 2007. Within an hour of downloading the thing I'd completed it twice - once on my own, once in multiplayer co-op - and see no reason to ever go back to it again. Even at 400 points, that's pretty shoddy value.