Back in the early 90s, you couldn't move for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - the sanitised Saturday morning cartoon "cowabunga", Hero Turtles version, that is. There were lunchboxes, sticker books, hilarious "pop records", movies based around scary-looking animatronics, snack foods and pizza branding, and even videogames. Well, now that the franchise is undergoing something of a forced revival in living rooms up and down the land (whether we like it or not), Konami is keen to saddle the bandwagon (or bandsurfboard) and bring our vintage "heroes in a half-shell" well and truly up to date. Or not.
Slow and steady
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was stationed at a quiet little Xbox pod on the outskirts of a Konami stand overrun by MGS3 onlookers, and as they all crowded round to see and hear Solid Snake munch on the jungle, we were busy playing what is effectively a very derivative scrolling beat 'em up [much like the original Arcade version then - Ed], starring Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo.
The game will eventually be split into Story, Versus, Challenge and Data Base modes, although only Story was on show at E3. In it, you and up to one friend (hey, it was only a demo) get to pick a turtle and punch, kick and carve your way left to right (or into and out of the screen) through an array of gang members and Shredder's metallic minions. As you move on, invisible barriers lock you in battle with a few different enemies, and once they've been felled with enough conviction, an arrow pops up prompting you to continue and the barriers fall. And so you repeat.
Each turtle has an array of basic moves - light and heavy attacks (X and B), a dash move (left trigger), double-jump and jump attack moves, the ability to throw shurikens (Y) and the ability to cycle to other throwing weapons (that will probably make it to Europe, using right trigger). Each can also perform individual special attacks by double-tapping a button - Michelangelo, for example, spins on his shell and does a sort of Chun Li-inspired spinning bird kick which clouts nearby nasties.
Boss encounters seem to occur at the end of a stage or in self-contained chapters, and in the three-level demo we played at the show, there were two distinct adversaries - both screen-filling metal monsters with all sorts of nasty spinning and stomping attacks. Each has a massive energy bar to drain by smacking nearby explosive barrels in their general direction and laying into them direct with each turtle's respective arsenal.
Unlucky for some
Visually the game has a lot in common with early scrolling beat 'em ups. Levels are full of barrels and crates that shatter quickly and disappear into the ether, leaving health and shuriken pick-ups in their wake. Enemies are thrown to the ground by flailing mutated limbs, where they lie motionless, occasionally popping back up for a bit more; and the whole game has an XIII-style cel-shaded look to it, with THWOKs and KA-BLOOMs popping up in jagged-edged speech bubbles to emphasize the action. Each level is quite nicely designed, with background detail heaped on - quite literally in the case of the junkyard boss level.
However it's clear from the demo that several camera issues have yet to be resolved. The game seems to function on the basis that characters remain on screen together, so if you're engaged in battles at opposing ends, or one of you is heading back to a barely visible power-up crate, a tug of war ensues that can be quite damaging. After all, it's not much use thrashing at the edge of the screen only to have an enemy appear from nowhere between blows to clout you back. Given the simplicity of the gameplay, perhaps Konami would be better off allowing the camera to zoom out a little.
We also found (particularly on the junkyard level) that layers of foreground scenery and massive boss characters can be very confusing. In the demo, the junkyard robot stomps around clattering you with his feet, and with a huge scaffold mesh between you and your turtle (which you're meant to climb onto to knock barrels down), you can often get caught in an annoying health-sapping cycle of footfall as you try to double-jump to safety.
Even if these camera troubles are overcome though, it's difficult to see TMNT becoming anything particularly exciting - unless Konami has significantly more than the Story mode underway. But then if it did, wouldn't it have shown that off instead? We can't sling around the benefit of the doubt all day - based on this E3 demo, TMNT is going to be a nice-looking, basic and repetitive scrolling beat 'em up, better suited to the last period of Turtles' dominance over a decade ago. We'll have to see how it looks when it turns up towards the end of the year on PS2, Xbox and Cube...