The timing was almost too perfect.
As Nintendo was on the rise from effectively taking over the home console segment of the video game industry to becoming a nationwide phenomenon in the United States, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were riding a similar wave of success. With comic books, a hit cartoon show, action figures that were under nearly every boy’s (and some girls’) Christmas tree, and a major motion picture slated to hit theaters in early 1990, it only made sense that there would be a video game, too.
But there wasn’t just one video game, oh no; there were many. Four for the Nintendo Entertainment System, followed by three more for the Game Boy. When the Super NES came to town, another two were added to the mix, and when SEGA rose to break Nintendo’s stranglehold on third-parties, Konami shared the love with Genesis owners with two games of their own. (And this is without getting into all the releases of arcade, LCD, home computer, and other such games.)
From a gamer’s point of view, the Turtles were just as commonplace as Mario, Mega Man, or Castlevania. In fact, when Nintendo released their NES Game Atlas (a book of maps and tips) in 1991, the Turtles’ first two NES games were sitting right there alongside those luminaries.
Unfortunately, the good times weren’t to last, and eventually, the TMNT were on the wane, possibly due to oversaturation. Their cartoon had been shown in both syndication and on Saturday mornings, ultimately clocking in at 193 episodes when its last episode aired in 1996, just less than ten years following its premiere. The action figures were getting increasingly outlandish, with variants of the four stars ranging from farmers to Troll dolls to cosplaying as Star Trek characters (though that latter tend persists even today). And of course, the third movie was a flop — and not the sort that gains fans with time.
At this point, the powers that be seemed intent on revitalizing the franchise, changing it with the times. In 90’s lingo, that means making it “darker,” “edgier,” and “more mature” — to a point, anyway. This resulted in things like action figures with gimmicks that weren’t quite as goofy, the “red sky” seasons of the cartoon (which sought to capture some of that Batman: The Animated Series audience), and the three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Tournament Fighters games for the NES, Super NES, and Genesis, each a wholly unique title which sought to lean more towards the atmosphere of the comics and first movie, rather than the Saturday morning cartoon.
It worked, at least a little bit, for just a little while. The cartoon managed to get a three-season stay of execution until 1996, while the toys ran for about as long. Still, it wasn’t enough — not in the face of juggernauts like the Power Rangers, who had managed to eat away at the same demographic the Turtles had once owned.
But if you can’t beat them, why not join them?
Enter Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, a 1997 live-action show on Fox Kids which followed on loosely from the movies (and incorporating the name of a fourth movie that was cancelled) and was developed by Saban Entertainment — the same Saban who brought Toei’s hit Super Sentai series to the west in 1993 as Power Rangers, which has been going strong ever since. In fact, the “join them” part turned out to be rather literal, as these new Turtles would make an appearance in the third (as a teaser) and fourth episodes of Power Rangers in Space.
During this time, a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game was revealed to be in development — not by franchise steward Konami, but rather, Playmates Interactive Entertainment, the game publishing arm of the same company who’d found success by licensing the property for action figures all the way back in the 80’s. The publisher had already seen success in the business with the first two Earthworm Jim games (to say nothing of the associated toyline they also produced), so it made some sense they’d try their hand at it with their longstanding cash cow as well.
Originally titled “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3D,” little was revealed about the project except that it had its name changed to Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation and was being made for the PlayStation before it was cancelled. Incidentally, you won’t likely be finding any screens from the game online any time soon, though I’m certain I saw one showing a 3D model of Leonardo in a video game magazine from the mid-90’s. Unfortunately, spending way too much time searching has yielded no results — I thought it was in EGM, but perhaps not. (If you know the one I’m talking about, let me know in the comments! I’d love to include it here!)
So, why was it cancelled? Well, though it had some good ideas, it wasn’t all that good in execution. Ratings were reportedly good, but as buzz among TMNT fans has long had it, not good enough for Fox Kids to want to invest in a second season — especially since they didn’t own the property, and so didn’t stand to make as much of a profit from it as perhaps one of their own shows with similar ratings.
That isn’t to say there was no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game at all during the fifth generation; there just wasn’t one on consoles. For instance, courtesy of Turtlepedia, there’s the Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation LCD handheld by Tiger Electronics.
Nevertheless, the Fifth Generation of video game consoles effectively marked the first time the Turtles had sat out a video game console generation since arriving on the scene all the way back in 1989. As it would happen, it seems less that the Turtles needed a revitalization so much as they — and their fans — needed a break.
Five years later, in 2003, the Turtles would rise again. This time, a new Saturday morning cartoon series more closely based on the original Mirage Studios comic book stories would come to 4Kids TV (formerly 4Kids Entertainment’s “Fox Box”) block of Saturday morning programming. Playmates was back to make new toys, and Konami returned to the license, producing titles for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, and even Windows, as well as the Game Boy Advance.
While the license has changed hands several times since, the Turtles’ presence has remained something of a constant. The latest console release was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan, based on the IDW comics, by PlatinumGames and Activision for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Windows PCs back in 2016. Since then, they’ve also featured as guest characters in Netherrealm Studios and Warner Bros. Interactive’s Injustice 2, as well as part of the ensemble of characters from current intellectual property holder Viacom in Nickelodeon Kart Racers.
Since easing off the gas with their second coming, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brand hasn’t reached the dizzying heights of their first heyday, but have remained a strong and consistent presence in pop culture media. As a result, we can probably expect to see them as a part of the gaming landscape for many more years to come.