RIP in Pepperoni to the Platinum Games X Ninja Turtles Dream

By Rich Stanton on at

With little warning, Platinum Games’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan has been pulled from digital storefronts. Published by Activision, the game was anticipated by many for the combination of developer and subject matter. Platinum Games is probably the best action game developer in the world. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a sepia-tinged franchise with an unusually decent videogame heritage, the most famous part of which is Konami’s 1989 arcade machine. A dream pairing.

Or so it seemed. At launch the game was panned, the PS4 Metacritic currently standing at 44, with many scores of 2 or 3/10. The reception wasn’t helped by its online-focused design, which only starts to shine with other players involved, but there are genuine problems too: the boss health meters seem enormous, mechanics aren’t explained well, and the environments are repetitive.

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The great shame is that TMNT: MIM is not, in fact, an unambitious game. But almost everything it does was missed by the first wave of reaction, because it depends on replay. This is designed as a modern incarnation of a certain arcade spirit, trying to catch something of that Konami machine, and comes out as a co-op brawler with short but semi-randomised levels that are built for rinsing through with a team of turtles.

The combat system gives each turtle access to different combos over a light and heavy attack, but by far its most noticeable quirk is the ability to dodge-cancel almost anything. This basically makes each turtle super-zippy and capable of easily switching focus in fights - which become great brawls when everyone’s piling in, and not a little spectacular when special moves get involved. Don’t take my word for it, here’s a one minute video of the game’s opening fight.

Each of the level’s environments are fixed, but on each runthrough the missions are randomly selected until a ‘boss bar’ has been filled - at which point you fight something huge and nasty. While most missions, of course, ultimately boil down to fighting things, it’s a great touch that can produce surprising and very turtle-esque outcomes: on one runthrough of the residential district, Michelangelo ended up balancing atop some giant ball we had to deliver. We turned the corner into an army of saucer-bound Krangs who immediately pinged Mikey with a gravity beam, so the ball started boinging up and down between the buildings, then he got hit with another shot that reversed his controls. Meanwhile a foot soldier army lands, so the other three turtles go mad with special moves as Mikey pinballs through the destruction in the wrong direction.

Here’s one of the modern twists: a meta-structure around the arcade repetition. To encourage replay the game’s 8 stages are all selectable in the online menu, with the big question being difficulty (for charm hunting) and loadout. As you play with each turtle they individually level, allowing you to unlock more special moves and customise their style, and on top of this increasing the difficulty allows you to equip more charms - which have randomised effects like turning your shuriken into bombs, health regen, or damage boosts. The charms are earned in stages and by beating bosses, with better ones dropping at higher difficulties. If you want Mikey to be a speedy nuisance with recovery and rally potential, go for it, while with Raphael you’re maybe looking more to maximise damage.

Point is that as you get better, the turtles get better - and the hidden depths start to show themselves. I’m not going to pretend this is a Bayonetta-beater but nor is it some shoddy patchwork - there’s real thought gone into how best to make a team brawler, as opposed to a solo one, and keep that arcade feel atop complex systems. Things big and small tie the turtles together: when the four are close, their bandanas and weapons glow, indicating a damage boost; when one is KO-ed, the others have 3 seconds to revive them; certain special moves can be comboed into super special moves; other specials set up room for follow-up attacks; perfect dodges let a turtle piggyback a boss temporarily while the rest get their licks in.

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Even Game Over is a function of this. The only way to lose is for all four turtles to be knocked out simultaneously - which you’d think would be quite hard. But when a turtle is KO-ed they’re dumped into the pizza room, where players have to mash a button to get out faster - something I see, in this context, as akin to fumbling in your pocket to Insert Coin - and as the numbers go down you realise this is a great team system. Because the greatest strength the turtles have is in being four targets: trying to survive for ten seconds against two bosses as just Mikey, no matter how slick you are, is seriously intense.

And on the bosses… those health bars aren’t what they seem. Each boss has 9 health bars stacked up and when you first go in, it takes ages to whittle them down. But as repeat players know, the secret is parries and efficient combinations of special moves. This guy downs Karai in 20 seconds.

Even when you’re not quite that efficient, there’s still magic here. When I was a boy, the turtles were my thing. I watched the cartoons, I collected the figures, I knew everything there was to know about the heroes-in-a-half-shell. And you better believe I played the games, every one I could get my hands on, over and over. Naturally the Konami arcade cabinet was an object of lust. Now I’m the audience this was aiming for: I’m in my thirties, I’ve got TMNT nostalgia, and I love videogame brawlers.

The kind of Rocksteady and Bebop fight that Platinum deliver feels tailor-made to these interests. It also shows how unusual this combat system is - how the turtles work as a four against bigger enemies, how they’re each relatively fragile but can split attention effectively and use special moves for breathing space. How shell-shocks require a quick response, and how KOs take a turtle out for much longer - and the knock-on effect this has on the fight’s rhythm. This game is all about realising the turtles as a team of four, rather than four turtles. And these kind of fights, to my time-addled mind, feel like the ones I always dreamed of.

Turtles nostalgia among my age group is common, but TMNT: MiM’s terrible reception and an indifferent-seeming Activision saw it sent out to die. I knew the game had done poorly, because even at launch there were few other players online. I could scrape together a team relatively easily in the first month but then most disappeared. It ended up with myself and a random noble soul called Obsidian Black Forever as the hardcore, forever teaming up and always hoping for more players - who never arrived. In recent months, even that player has moved on. Ahhh, shell shock.

Many of the game’s strengths come at the expense of the singleplayer experience. Playing solo sees you accompanied by three AI turtles and, while you have some rudimentary control over their tactics and can switch characters at will, it’s a lonely haul - I played two stages just to get to grips with the controls, and then it was all multiplayer. Single player matters, of course it does. At the same time the design is optimising towards four player co-op and is doing so in the context of a series with four main characters. Platinum gambled that the strengths of online multiplayer would outweigh singleplayer feeling a little empty, and for me that worked - while it lasted.

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This makes TMNT: MiM something of a brave game, which I never expected to say about a licensed brawler - or maybe it’s just a mad one. Platinum could have made a solid 7/10 here by just copy-pasting the formula of their well-received Transformers. Indeed the real tragedy with TMNT: MiM is that a much simpler game would probably have been much more successful. But instead the developer looked at what the TMNT license is and built a co-op focused system that excels with four players, at the same time creating a structure to accommodate and reward replay. It made one giant mistake: drop-in and drop-out online play would have been the dream, as well as an appropriate arcade homage, rather than the lobby play system it has.

But Platinum's team were ambitious with what was no doubt a shoestring budget. For all the fair criticisms that can be thrown, TMNT: MiM does not deserve to be labelled as some thoughtless product, as a simple cash-in pushed out the door. On the contrary it did not take the easy route. If it is a misfire then at least it was aiming in a new direction, trying to re-engineer some of that arcade magic in a modern form, and at times succeeding. At its best this is my favourite turtles game ever, with the combat system’s options leading to great cartoony brawls that are nevertheless dependent on precision, teamwork, and timing. Feeling part of a unit that wins through because you worked together fits the turtles beautifully, but maybe I’m a sucker for everything about this game - I even enjoy the fight chatter.

Farewell then, sweet prince. The history of TMNT games is so much richer because of Platinum Games, no matter the circumstances in which they had to develop it, and in years to come this may be appreciated for the flawed gem it is. Quite apart from the systems, the visuals on the turtles themselves are gorgeous, and touches like how the OG turtles theme runs through the battle theme, the victory chime, and even the ultimate boss music show this is a game that its makers cared about. Their work deserved a little more respect than it got. Tonight, sadly, we dine on turtle soup.

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