Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ninja Turtles Mania

You would be hard pressed to find a boy who grew up in the 1980's who was not a fan of the green quartet known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.   Our interests at Nerdly Pleasures are very broad, and we certainly remain very fond of them today.  In this article, we will reflect on the major incarnations of the Turtles to-date.

My introduction to the Turtles was typical. I first saw them in the original cartoon series which was first broadcast at the end of 1987 and lasted until 1996. This series was so tremendously popular that it became cemented in pop-culture heritage.  As they did not aspire to the high artistic merits of series like Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies, Silly Symphonies or even Tom & Jerry, they tend not to earn serious attention from animation critics.

In 1988 only the first mini-series had been broadcast, so it was the earliest stages of TMNT mania.
 Playmates toys just landed on the store shelves, video games were in the works, and the live-action films were not yet on the horizon.  

The cartoon series lived up to its intent to be goofy fun.  The good guys were fun and funny, the bad guys inept but never truly vicious, and there was plenty of ninja action to go around.  Real effort was put into making the turtles unique from each other beyond the color of their bandanas:  Leonardo the leader, Donatello the nerd, Raphael the wise-cracker and Michaelangelo the wild and crazy dude.  There was even a small extent of character development over the series.

Not too long after I started watching the cartoon regularly, I was introduced to the Turtles' original media, the comic books.  I was never really a comic book junkie, but I quickly became a fan of the Mirage Comics series.

These Turtles were a revelation to me having watched their juvenile versions on TV.  They lived in a rather gritty world, they fought and argued with each other and actually killed their enemies!

The cartoon always had problems with Leonardo's Katanas and to a lesser extent Raphael's sais, as the sharp and pointy implements would cut and piece flesh instead of merely brusing it. Censors overseas had more problems with Michaelangelo's nunchucks, frequently editing them out of the broadcasts. Nunchucks are quite lethal in their own right, but Europe and Australia were in the midst of a moral panic over the concept of ninja in entertainment, believing children would copy the ninja moves they saw on TV.  However, katanas and sais remained in the program.  In contrast, in the comic book, Leo and Raph would not hesitate to use the business end of their weapons on any enemy.

As I mostly acquired the colorized graphic novels, I had difficulty appreciating that TMNT was a black and white comic.  When TMNT was first being published in the mid-1980s, the creators were essentially self-publishing the comic.   Self-publishing in those days was often something one did part-time, a status which would continue until if and when your book really began to sell.  Printing in color was simply beyond the resources of the TMNT creators, Eastman and Laird.  Even the comic book's cover did not gain full-color until #5 (after 1-4 and Raphael 1).  Like Cerebus, what began as a necessity continued as an artistic choice.

I really enjoyed Volume 1 of TMNT through issue 21, which concluded the Return to New York storyline.  After that, even I could tell that its creators were no longer seemingly involved in the stories and the style varied so wildly from issue to issue that I quickly became turned off.  I never did manage to read Volumes 2 or 4, and what little I read of Volume 3 did not encourage me to want to read more.  Officially it is treated as a red-headed stepchild.

Having acquired a love for all things Turtles, naturally my attention was drawn to the reports that there would be a TMNT game for the NES.  The NES was a constant companion in those days, and I eagerly awaited the release of the game with great anticipation.  I remember calling every toy shop and electronics place around to see whether they had the game in stock on opening day.  None did.  A week later my mom and I confirmed the existence of the game at a distant store and we traveled in the early morning to get there to get my copy before they ran out.

The game itself had been widely commented and criticized, but I will give you my impressions.  First, although based off the cartoon, the TMNT theme did not seem to be well-integrated into the gameplay.   No Krang, Baxter, theme music, mousers and foot soldiers that barely looked the part and somewhat of a grim atmosphere.  Second, the game was cruelly unforgiving.  Limited continues, poor hit detection, large hit area for your characters, nearly constantly respawning enemies, tricky jumps, lots of pits, limited health items.  Michaelangelo and Raphael were nearly useless due to their short attack ranges.  Donatello's bo was the most powerful weapon, so he had to be saved for bosses at all costs.  The graphics, although flickery, and non-traditional sound were very well done, a testament to the skills of Konami (published under its Ultra Games label).  However, the game really felt like it originally was not intended to be a TMNT game but the imagery was later tacked on.  On the other hand, back in 1989 when the game was first released, TMNT was still pretty new and the TV show concepts still somewhat under-defined.

Still, the game sold millions and Konami made up for it in its other TMNT games.  The Arcade Game was awesome.  One of the best beat-em-ups ever, it allowed for four player simultaneous action, which may not have ever been done in the beat-em-up before.  It had very colorful graphics, upbeat and catchy tunes and followed the cartoon to a T.   It sucked many a quarter or two out of me back in the day.  Its NES port may not have been anywhere as graphically impressive, but it was a superb port.  Konami tightened the control scheme in the NES port and even added additional levels not found in the Arcade version.  Konami followed it up on the NES with The Manhattan Project and the Arcade with Turtles in Time.  Ports of the latter game to the SNES and (more loosely) to the Genesis were also top notch.  Most ports of hot media properties to video games tend to be (especially back then) to be crap.  Not so with the Turtles, thanks to the talented designers at Konami.

Following our rough chronology, I soon learned that the Turtles were coming to the big screen.  The first TMNT movie is pure corn, and the sequels even more juvenile.  The movies did not seem to take themselves any more seriously than the cartoon.  But this was live-action, and the silliness that the cartoon could get away with looked foolish at the multiplex.  The guys in green looked exactly like what they were, actors and stuntmen in costume.  The costumes were pretty good looking, and the face masks did a nice job of lip-syncing, but the facial expressions were rather limited.  At least the Shredder had an air of menace until he stupidly tried to run Splinter through with his spear.  And I know Splinter has always been depicted as old, but in this movie he seems positively arthritic and you could almost see his wires or motors being manipulated.  The Turtles were born in comics and found a home in cartoons, but just cannot fit within the confines of live action film.  I have yet to see the computer-animated film, but it is in my Netflix queue.

Like many childhood interests, my interest in TMNT faded as I grew older.  Lately, feeling the need to recapture some of my youth, I have reawakened my interest in the franchise.  I had known that there was a new cartoon series, closer to the darker, more mature (non-Archie) comics.  But being on the 4kids channel and often on Saturday mornings, I never got around to watching them.  However, when they did a countdown of the 10 greatest episodes recently, I used my DVR to examine this series.

Upon watching several episodes, I was struck how closely the series hewed to some of the old Mirage storylines.  Being a more maturer version than the '87, series, it is incredibly violent for a kids' show.  The Shredder is a vicious creature indeed.  A fair comparison between the old cartoon Shredder and the new would be Cesar Romero to Heath Ledger's respective Jokers in Batman.  Characters die and even get maimed in the show.  The foot soldiers, while still not much more than the Turtles' practice dummies, are human beings, not robots as in the original show.

There are many positive things about the new show.  It takes itself seriously and treats the Turtles with respect.  Raphael is his true bad-tempered self, Leonardo practically embodies the concepts of honor and fidelity.  Donatello is more sensitive and Michelangelo (preferred spelling), is good-natured without constantly spouting dated one-liners or looking for a pizza.  Having read the comics, it is fun to watch how the episodes deviate from the printed stories.  There is a strong sense of continuity throughout the series with returning allies and villains.  Eventually, the series started to progress to season-long storylines, which people tend to love or hate.  (My view tends to be closer to hate, unless the whole series is on DVD or demand.)

A digression before I conclude.  TMNT and Other Strangeness by Palladium Books was my first experience with a pencil and paper RPG.   This book was awesome, but it took me a while to really appreciate it. It had artwork from Eastman and Laird, even an original story or two.  It gave the stats for all the major characters that had appeared in the TMNT Mirage comic up to that point.  As the point was issue #4 (after Raphael #1).  It had pages of equipment, multiple adventure scenarios, and an excellent animal character creation system.  However, it was not the ideal game to bring a brand new player into RPGs.  Also, unless the RPG was AD&D, it was difficult to find other players.

This week I watched the TV movie TMNT Forever.  This is a movie-length episode of the new series where the current Turtles meet up with the Turtles from the old cartoon.   The modern Turtles and characters were the same as always, but the older cartoon characters seemed to suffer by comparion.  The modern characters always remark on how silly the behavior, ideas and technology of the old characters by comparison.  The movie shows that the old cartoon Turtles are seemingly unequipped to deal with the challenges faced by the modern Turtles.  Still, it was an entertaining hour-and-a-half and nice to see the old characters return to the screen after nearly fifteen years,  Shame they couldn't get the old voice talent.

To conclude this epic post, I would  point to the title.  I always used to hear non-fans refer to the franchise referred to as "Ninja Turtles".  No Teenage, Mutant and often not even a "the".  That pretty much summed it up for those who could not appreciate it.  Appreciation of the franchise requires a love of the ridiculous, which is appropriate for an idea that began as a parody of serious comic books like Daredevil and Ronin.  The franchise has been accused of being the epitome of banal commercialism.  Yet it appealed to a generation of young boys, for a while.  Not too long after it became popular, it seemed  you were a dork for admitting to liking the Turtles.  Each one of my elementary/middle school associates was quicker to distance himself than the last.

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