Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project is one of the best, if not the best example, of a well-made beat ’em up, or belt scrolling action game. Dare I say, and even argue, that it is superior to the game that got more money and more attention that was in development at the same time, Turtles in Time. This is an opinion against the grain though, as the fourth game (or third if you’re Japanese) is considered to be at the top. Why then would I argue for TMNTIII to be the superior title? Mostly because the game offers more.
TMNTIII was built for the NES from the grounds up, it had no arcade original counterpart to be compared to. This is the opposite of TMNTII: The Arcade Game and Turtles in Time. It’s a title that takes what was in the previous game and goes to
town with it all, expanding and exploring all the little intricacies the previous had and how to improve upon them. Most things play wise were left untouched but polished up, and each Turtle gained their own unique Special move. On top of that, something simple as throwing an enemy was added and surprisingly makes approaching enemies in certain situations a whole lot different. Turtles in Time would have the horsepower under it to make things more cinematic for sure, but its throwing mechanism, despite being full of flurry and flash, is not as satisfying. TMNTIII uses it in a very tactical manner, and though the end result is something that is common with most other games in the genre, the fact that it is instantly in your command like normal attacking makes it a far more viable option rather than needing to first grab the enemy and then throw. The reason I make such a big thing about straightforward throwing is that all the other things are like that; there is an honest directness to TMNTIII that is somehow lacking in the other games in the series.
The game is also stupidly long. While officially TMNTIII has eight levels, there are sub-sections that in some games could be their own levels. These levels also get longer at points, making the game a challenge and then some to beat in one proper sitting. You have a variety of Konami codes under your belt to change the difficulty and amount of Lives the players have, as well as the usual Stage Select and such. Even on Normal difficulty, the game provides a tough nut to crack, but this shows the last thing the game holds over to this day; its abrilliant design. All the stages feel their own entity with their own stage hazards. From falling advertising panels in the Miami Beach to the broken sections of the Brooklyn Bridge, none of the stages turn into muck. There’s only one gimmick stage, or half a stage, where the Turtles have to surf to a submarine. All these are supported by an equally well-designed cadre of enemies that, at their base, don’t have anything special over the player. There are few enemies that can chuck spears and the like, yet these weapon using Foot soldiers are well balanced for the player to approach. Beat-em-ups sometimes introduce enemies that aim to keep distance from the player only to execute an attack that can cover most of the screen, if not all of it. With no real long-range weaponry, the player can’t really do much to counter outside stepping to the side. TMNTIII has balanced this perfectly by allowing players to counter most of these longer-range attacks in a manner or another. Best of all, the game has no gimmicks to rely on, no one kind of play mechanic that defines its existence and separates from the rest of its kind. All this makes an extremely balanced experience that gets overshadowed for being the third (second) game in the series at a time when Turtles in Time was already in the horizon, and never saw release in the PAL region. It’s just such a damn fine piece of gaming. Not only that, as one of the late NES/Famicom games, everything it does is at full blast, from the terrific soundtrack to impressive visuals. I have to admit that when I think of NES, this is one of the games that come to mind and what the system is. Oh, woe is me whenever I venture into the earlier days of the Famicom library.
For a B-Team of developers, named Kuu Neru Asobu (Eat Sleep Play), with less budget to turn out a massive game with high polish and quality like this, only to be pushed aside in favour of the original classic, The Arcade Game, and supplanted by its flashier younger brother when the 16-bit consoles were taking to the market, TMNTIII fell between the cracks. Sadly, the team wasn’t utilised much more outside this one title and The Lone Ranger, with the team unofficially still being around to make other licensed games like Batman and Zen: The Intergalactic Ninja. That’s a goddamn travesty, as TMNTIII went largely untested before going out due to shorter development time, which really shows the skill and talent the team had.
Why the hell am I singing high praises for TMNTIII here like it just gave me a blowjob and served me ice cream? Because I have been playing Streets of Rage 4 and I am being eclectic about the game. While playing the game I expect to be able to do something and then I remember that this is Streets of Rage, it doesn’t allow me to do so. It’s been twenty years since the pinnacle of the beat-em-up games, and yet I’m feeling like I’m playing a throwback game that hasn’t even tried to evolve outside graphics and cutscenes. The game feels like I’m playing the old SoR titles all over again without any improvements and not in a good way. As things are, I can take any entry in SoR and change between them. We can argue that’s not the case with the first game, but let’s not quibble too much about. Being able to pick up three out of four games and have the exact same overall game being played in front of you with mostly graphical differences could be called consistent game series design, but I’d call it not even trying to go outside the box and push things forward. The people who worked on Streets of Rage 4 understand how methodical the series play is, what the series is all about, what are its 50s and 80s rock fantasy influences while trying to update things a bit here and there, but ultimately they don’t try to push things forwards. Then again, they never intended to so. They wanted a bonafide a Streets of Rage experience and they replicated it perfectly and now their game has no personality of its own. Streets of Rage 2 is still the best entry in the series with the most iconic music. This isn’t the review of the game (that’s for Sunday) but rather me venting out personal frustrations so I can get back to the game and not allow my expectations of a better Streets of Rage game influence what the game is.
The whole rant how food TMNTIII is should reflect my personal philosophy about game sequels; they don’t need to try to do anything wildly different per se but aim to perfect everything possible all the while introducing all these little things that can be grown out into something new and special later own. Look at Final Fantasy and how its evolution has gone from a mere Dragon Quest clone to whatever fuck it wants to be, spinning off to the SaGa series and whatnot. Then look at how the Golden Days of Super Mario Bros. changed the games’ play from entry to entry, making classics after classics, then began to slouch around and produce bottom mud with the New SMB sub-series. You can’t just stay put and do nothing new. You’re going to be replaced with the competition that takes the same base idea and improves on it. You can only coaster on name recognition and nostalgia only so many times, and if others have done the same already, you’re out of luck. Customers get burned out from being introduced the same shit over and over again. I guess what I’m saying is that the game industry needs to find ways to evolve their games’ design and play at a constant pace to ultimately make all the older games obsolete.