Black backdrop, purple silhouette, no music. Breaking the silence: a battle cry: “Big Apple, 3 A.M.” Donatello bursts into the frame. And then the music starts.
There are lines that have etched into the collective consciousness of gamers. “Do a barrel roll!” “The cake is a lie.” “M-M-M-M-Monster Kill!”. It’s not always apparent to me what caused these particular lines to endure. Sometimes they’re resurrected as memes, or they appear at particularly pivotal moments in the game. In the first Zelda game, “It’s dangerous to go alone!” is the first line of text. Link receives his sword and sets off into an open and gigantic adventure. And the relief when, after a tough fight in Mortal Kombat, “Finish Him!” finally rings out and your fingers slowly uncramp is sure to get your hippocampus’ attention as well.
On top, voice acting was a rarity in the ’90s. “The last Metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace.” This is how the cult classic Super Metroid begins, and from then on, not another word is spoken. Moments like that stand out more the scarcer they are. And just like in Super Metroid this phrase is followed by an iconic bass line kicking off the main theme, in Turtles in Time it’s also anticipation of what happens next.
Turtles in Time begins like many games of that era with a brief picture-text sequence. Shredder steals the Statue of Liberty (because he can) and the four Ninja Turtles are going to stop him (because they can). It’s rather unspectacular. In other licensed titles, an intro that captures the mood of the respective show is often followed by disillusionment: slow gameplay, ugly graphics, awkward controls, and monotonous colors. Turtles in Time goes in the opposite direction. It’s not the artwork or the intro that radiates the most flair. It’s the transition into gameplay that blows everything up. That’s why the game is referenced as a benchmark for good licensed games to this day. And with its gameplay duration of about 45 minutes, you’ll find yourself coming back to this starting point over and over again. It’s like the first notes of a very special music album that spreads warmth throughout your living room: Big Apple, 3 A.M.
Seconds into the game, Donatello punches, kicks and throws half the Foot Clan across and even into the screen. Intense colors, fluid gameplay, expressive animations. That would be enough on its own, but it’s the music that makes me so happy. My leg bounces, I grin, and I chase the minions of the bastard who had the audacity to steal the Statue of Liberty. The Turtles theme is woven into the music tracks, all of which only ever move forward at high speed and this first track sets the tone for the whole game. It’s such a banger. Donatello is like the doom slayer. Only more likeable.
And this may be the reason why “Big Apple, 3 A.M.” has been regularly echoing through my head since the mid-90s. It’s that little pause just before the inferno of good feelings and euphoric frenzy. This snippet of language has trained me like a Skinner Box. Whenever I hear it, my brain releases endorphins. Black backdrop, purple silhouette. Anticipation. I am Donatello. Donatello, who else? And this is my soundtrack.
I replayed the indisputably best Turtles game Turtles in Time (1991 Arcade, 1992 SNES) not too long ago in two-player mode and it lost none of its fun and appeal. All the little announcements before the levels were still in my ears. And I couldn’t be more delighted with the recent announcement of Shredder’s Revenge, which, after numerous botched Turtles games (including the atrocious TiT remake from 2009), is obviously inspired by Turtles in Time. I’m the target audience for this game, and it’s OK to sometimes want nothing more from a new game than for it to be like an old game.
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