Pocket Power: TMNT (GBA)

Handheld gaming is more than a compromise of power and portability. Whether it’s the ability to play anywhere, multitask or hold an entire console in your hands, it’s a special experience consoles have never replicated. In a world where high resolutions and teraflops reign supreme, we take a look at a portable relic every month and reflect on what makes it memorable. Be warned, spoilers may occasionally populate these articles.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a franchise that seems like it was created to eventually take over the video game world. The 1989 arcade game is considered one of the best arcade games of its time and still is fondly remembered today. After the ’90s there were a few different incarnations of the Turtles that spawned many video games that ran the full gamut of quality. Because of many of them getting terrible reviews and not being the version of the Turtles from my childhood, the games of the pizza-scarfing ninjas were generally ignored after playing the abomination that was Battle Nexus. But there are some newer TMNT games that are worth playing, one of which is the 2007 Game Boy Advance game simply titled TMNT.

Based on the CGI movie of the same name, this was a game I went into with low expectations. TMNT, the movie, was generally panned and games based on good movies tend to be terrible, so one can only assume games based on bad movies are even worse. TMNT for Xbox 360 basically existed as a means to get an 1000 points added to your gamer score in a short time that isn’t too terribly painful. Naturally the handheld little brother port of TMNT was clearly destined to be abysmal. Much to my surprise this wasn’t the case at all.

TMNT for GBA is actually good. We’re not talking Game of the Year contender or anything crazy like that, but this is a solid 2.5D beat ’em up. It’s a throwback and homage to the classic beat ’em ups of the ’80s and ’90s, and it would be foolish to deny this includes the 1989 original arcade and 1991 Turtles in Time. The gameplay feels more like Streets of Rage than classic Turtles due to the addition of common beat ’em up mechanics. Some of these are great, like being able to pick up a trash can or enemy to throw at other enemies. That kind of stuff never gets old. Sometimes enemies will drop weapons that the turtles can pick up and use themselves, which is a common beat ’em up mechanic. This is a little weird in this context because why would Leonardo who is a master of dual-wielding katanas want to switch to a baseball bat? I know if there was an intruder in my home I would go for one of the swords over sporting equipment.

With the oddness about some of the weapon swapping aside, there are some great old school inspired game mechanics here. It’s the same basic premise of the arcade titles but fleshed out to be more advanced. Destructible environments, both functional and cosmetic, are clearly a nod to the arcade games. Going beyond the basic gameplay, the turtles have advanced in their ninja training and can string together lengthy combos. The fighting mechanics make it feel like a modern brawler (at least modern by standards thirteen years ago) but still maintaining the charm of classic arcade games.

The game takes the turtles through six stages of beat ’em up action. Players have some say in which turtle they want to control but due to the narrative reasons there are some restrictions with this, like not having access to Leonardo for one level and forcing the player to be Raphael in a couple, but that’s fine since the sarcastic moody turtle is the best one. The levels themselves are straightforward: beat up everyone who gets in your way until the boss fight but some of the boss battles have tricks to them that make them more challenging. Like most TMNT games the gameplay isn’t the most complex and does have a certain mindless enjoyment quality to it, but this is one of the more enjoyable executions of it.

As good as TMNT is, it’s not without its flaws. One limitation of handheld titles is their games were either single player or required some sort of production to incorporate multiplayer. This game falls into the former category and one of the best things about classic Turtles games was the co-op feature. By their very nature games like this are built on repetitive gameplay and this is always more fun with a friend. There are levels where you can take a brother turtle who can be summoned but he’s completely AI. The health replenishing items include non-traditional turtle food such as apples and croissants. As any vet will tell you, turtles thrive on a steady diet of pizza and apples are more appropriate for pet pikachus.

To fully confess, I cannot confirm how well this port follows the story of the 2007 TMNT movie. The cutscenes use graphics from the film and certain parts of the story seem familiar from the very different Xbox 360 game of the same name based on the same movie, but I haven’t actually seen the film because the general consensus is that it’s just terrible. This game is surprisingly fun, however, with great old fashioned pixel art graphics during the gameplay and stills that look lifted from the film. The story wasn’t the main point of appeal with this title anyway, as it was mostly a nostalgia kick to play a modern incarnation of the turtles that was similar to the old arcade games.

TMNT is a surprisingly respectable beat ’em up, especially from an era when TMNT games weren’t exactly setting the world on fire. Whether a hardcore Ninja Turtles fan or just a fan of beat ’em ups in general, this is a game that should be any GBA collection. This title was reviewed well when it was released with a Metacritic score of 80 but still fell under this Turtle fan’s radar until recently, probably because of being jaded from other lackluster Turtles games. This title is a testament that franchises can fall into slumps that last many years across many titles, but that doesn’t mean a good game won’t ever come from it again.

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