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After 25 years of success, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise has seen better days. The television series has fallen out of relevancy, the 2007 CG movie didn’t do much in terms of critical acclaim, and the past few video games have been anything but impressive. However, none of those missteps have gotten in the way of gamers’ love for Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, and Donatello. Fond memories of the 80s cartoon seem to override any failures, meaning that there was a fair bit of excitement over Game Arts and Ubisoft’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash-Up, a Super Smash Bros.-inspired beat-em-up featuring the characters from the television show, films, and comics. Does the fighter live up to the Turtles name? Or should Smash-Up best be lumped together with the past few years of turtles history?
As proven earlier in the year with Arkham Asylum, licensed video games are best when not attached to any specific product. When a game is launched alongside a movie, odds are the limitations will cripple it, which is why Smash-Up showed so much promise. Instead of focusing on one element in TMNT history, it covers the entire franchise, from its comic book roots up to the recent film. This means a mixture of styles that spans the Turtles’ entire career, and should provide enough Easter Eggs and nods to impress any fan. Anyone who grew up in the 90s will likely be grinning ear to ear while collecting action figure parts to assemble, putting a new spin on the idea of viewing 3D models of the characters.
Also sure to make any fanboy giddy are the animated cutscenes that appear during the Arcade mode, which were handled by Mirage Studios, creators of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. After Smash Bros. Brawl’s Subspace Emissary proved exactly how much storytelling was possible in a 2D brawler, the chance for Smash-Up to take the idea even further seemed unavoidable. If Nintendo could mesh together the storylines of 30 seemingly unrelated characters (including Mario, Fox, Sonic, and Solid Snake) into something entertaining and surprisingly cohesive, surely Mirage Studios and Ubisoft, with their knowledge of the franchise, could do much, much better.
Apparently, this just wasn't the case.
The Arcade mode follows a story involving a tournament organized by Master Splinter, in which the four turtles, Casey Jones, April, and himself will compete for training purposes. The winner is rewarded not only with pride, but with an object off of the master’s trophy shelf, which catches the Turtles' attention immediately. After a series of fights, the plot thickens ever so slightly after the intrusion of Shredder, though it’s never any more than an excuse to watch motion comics and fight in a gauntlet to unlock a few more characters. With such a long history of stories, one would think that Ubisoft would have been able to at least push out a few hours of entertaining narrative, but instead they’ve delivered less than three minutes of story, which is more than a bit disappointing. A simple three or four hour campaign following the same pattern of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade game doesn't seem like it would have been too much to ask for, and would have drastically improved the singleplayer presentation.
And yes, there are going to be a lot of comparisons to Smash Bros. in this review. It's unavoidable. It's the only other game in the genre, really, so it's the best basis for comparison there is. Not only that, but it's worth mentioning that even Ubisoft is dropping the name, and they simply cannot have it both ways. While demonstrating the game at a recent Ubisoft event, one of Smash-Up’s producers mentioned that many Super Smash Bros. fans who had played the game said that it felt like it had the potential to be much more balanced than Brawl. The developers at Game Arts had their hands in Nintendo’s last Smash Bros., so it’s no wonder that there are some similarities between the games. Fans should already be interested thanks to the controls alone, since being able to use either the Wii remote, the remote with the nunchuk, the classic controller, and the Gamecube controller instantly raises the accessibility.
In reality, TMNT Smash-Up plays a lot like Super Smash Bros. Brawl if Sheik was the only character. In the beginning, only a handful of characters are unlocked, four of which are the Ninja Turtles themselves. While they each have their own weapons, their combat styles are very similar, and differ in only the smallest of ways. The other three characters, Casey Jones, April, and Splinter, feel a little bit different, but they all still play like the acrobatic characters from Brawl. With 16 playable characters, it might seem like there are plenty to choose from. However, so many of them have such similar play styles that the number could really be cut in half. Besides the previously mentioned characters, the 2007 film’s Nightwatcher is thrown into the mix, as is the Utrominator, Shredder, and a few others. Three of Ubisoft’s mascots top off the list, showing exactly how far they needed to go to fill out a roster. Then again, it can't be said that they scraped the bottom of the TMNT barrel, since fan-favorites like Bebop and Rocksteady are left out entirely. They're just two of the many characters fans would have loved to see in the game that were left out, and the variety would have provided some drastically different play styles, which would have helped spice things up dramatically.
The core mechanics of the genre, being simplistic, easy to learn and hard to master controls, are maintained in Smash-Up, with a few more folds added to the mix to deepen the experience. Some aspects aren't all that appealing, like the inclusion of unnecessary waggle, which replaces the timing of Smash Bros., while others are more welcome, like the addition of being able to press up to leap out of a never-ending beat down. Either way, both the good and the bad help distance the turtles from Mario’s gang. Besides those seemingly small changes, Smash-Up also has a more traditional fighting game feel thanks to the inclusion of a health bar. Being knocked off the side of a level still results in the player’s death, but it’s nearly impossible to do so, since every character can wall jump and stick to nearly any surface. Because of that, and because most levels don’t even have places to fall off, beating an enemy to death is the only way to knock him out. That, or knocking him into an alligator’s mouth.
It’s admirable that they would try and distance the game from Nintendo’s brawler series, since most people simply dismissed the title as a Smash Bros. clone. That said, it doesn’t play as well, and the addition of the health bar is part of the reason. Nintendo knew what they were doing when they got rid of traditional health in favor of knocking players off of the screen. The 2D brawled mechanic is simply too hectic to be worrying about a health bar, and it’s not well suited for the gameplay style. Other additions, like swinging from objects and being able to point at the screen to use the motion controls to change items, don’t add much, and simply complicate the game in unnecessary ways. Instead of adding gimmicks, Ubisoft should have focused on giving a more solid fighting experience, since the one here is a little bit shallow. After enough time with the title, the intricacies of combat become known, but even then they’re simply not as deep as they need to be to pull anyone in. The timing of everything just feels slightly off. Players stay on the ground a little bit longer than they should, attacks aren’t as response as they should be. It feels as though something is missing at the core of the game, and that's never a good thing.
As is the case with any fighting game, TMNT shines brightest while playing with friends. With up to four people playing at once, the game feels much better when the cheap AI is replaced with actual people. Be it in teams, in a free for all, or in the tag-team mode, Smash-Up allows for all sorts of combinations of play, and being able to set up a tournament with up to eight players should help anyone who finds the game entertaining enough to try and create some sort of competitive scene. Then again, limiting it to eight players seems like it might be selling the game short, since most fighters that support any sort of tournament play has options for at least 16 players, if not 32 or 64.
All of the multiplayer modes are available online as well, and matches over Nintendo Wifi connect have proven to be relatively lag free, which is a huge improvement over the slide-show that was Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Friend Codes are present, and as unnecessary as ever. Luckily Ubisoft also thought to include a matchmaking system, which makes finding someone to play with a breeze. Matchmaking’s gameplay options might be limited to simple skirmishes, but the ability to play just about any mode with friends online is a leap forward in online for the Wii. It's worth mentioning that none of the online modes supports the Wii Speak Microphone, meaing it will sit idly next to the television like it has for months.
Visuals aren’t the game’s high point, which is a shame considering how important design is in a 2D brawler. The actual graphics and style is fairly appealing, and up close, the models are well done. While it isn't actually based on the film, all of the characters share resemblances to the characters from the 2007 film above any other era in Turtles history. When it comes to the design, however, TMNT: Smash-Up falters. At many times, the camera is pulled out wide in order to show all of the characters on screen at once. Since so many of the characters look and move the same, it’s easy to lose track of who is who, something Valve has brought up on many different occasions when discussing the character design in their titles. Silhouettes are important, especially in a game like this, and the blatant disregard for this rule of design hurts the title. Backgrounds and levels, too, lack any sense of style, and fail to really capture the essence of what is needed in a fighting game. The music, too, fails to impress, and I doubt anyone would have been upset if the soundtrack was simply a dozen remixed versions of the classic theme.
Time spent not playing multiplayer will likely be used to unlock levels, characters, and alternate costumes in Arcade and Mission Mode. Missions are generally the same as they were in Smash Bros., meaning anyone looking to unlock everything should expect to have to survive a pile of different scenarios and levels. Needing to beat all of the turtles at once or having to kick enemies off of the side of a moving train might not sound like a huge departure from the rest of Smash-Up, but setting limits on how to beat levels works better than the practice mode at training players. If nothing else, it should provide anyone looking for more singleplayer time a few more hours of gameplay. Notice I used "gameplay" there instead of fun. It's not that they're never entertaining, it's just that the later missions become extremely difficult, and the game's somewhat cheap AI isn't really fun to fight against, especially when it means unlocking new characters.
It’s pretty obvious what happened here. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ubisoft wanted to make good on their ownership of the game license, and thought grabbing Game Arts to create a brawler would do the trick. Sadly, it proved slightly trickier than expected, and the result isn’t nearly as good as it sounded like it could be. Granted, there’s only so much that can be done with mutated turtles. While some minor changes might have made the game better on the whole, like a well fleshed out singleplayer campaign, the issue is deeper than a missing feature or two.
TMNT Smash-Up isn’t the Brawl-killer it had the potential to be. It's an alright fighter, and better than the last few TMNT titles, but that's not really saying too much. It simply isn't as fun as Super Smash Bros., and it's too similar to pull in anyone who isn't already a fan of Nintendo's fighting game. All in all, it should be reserved for only those who still sleep in Michelangelo pajamas and play with their the Ninja Turtle Pizza Shooter. No, not people who want to play with the Ninja Turtle Pizza Shooter, people who still have it, and didn't lose all of the little plastic pizzas under the fridge twelve years ago.