From the silver screen to the small screen to the even smaller screen on your Game Boy, the world’s favourite comic book pizza-lovers have featured on displays of all dimensions. But, while the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles originated in pen and ink, many people remember them primarily as the stars of classic arcade games.
1989 saw Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael make their console debut in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the Nintendo Entertainment System, an 8-bit title that served as many a fan's first exposure to playable turtles. Heading into the early ‘90s, Turtles beat-em-ups came thick and fast, reaching its undisputed pinnacle in 1991’s arcade classic Turtles in Time. However, this only really cemented its iconic place in Turtles culture when it was ported to the SNES.
Merso X is a dedicated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan with fond memories of battling the Foot Clan in Turtles in Time. The side-scrolling beat-em-up remains hugely popular to this day, but it can be hard to find it nearly 30 years after its release (just take a look at eBay if you don't believe us), so he set about remaking it as a ROM.
"This project started as a remake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 (AKA: The Manhattan Project) for the NES, then became a remake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 (the NES port of the original arcade game)," he explains on his website. But this was more than just a port; Merso X wanted to update it, like he had seen when Super Mario All-Stars got a SNES update back in the day.
"That was the first time I saw an 8-bit videogame get a re-release with music and graphic updates," he tells Nintendo Life. "Since then, I’ve wanted to see every NES and Game Boy game get a SNES do-over." But updating the classic arcade games himself took a lot more work than he’d initially expected.
"For characters that appeared in the original NES games, like the turtles themselves, I took the original sprites and recoloured and edited them in Photoshop," explains Merso X. The updates were meticulous, as he was keen to maintain accuracy to his beloved TV show.
But, when he was looking into the details of these games with such intense scrutiny, Merso X started to take issue with small discrepancies between the game and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lore. So, he decided to take it in a different direction, pivoting his game from a faithful remaster to a brand new title.
"I wanted to have some flexibility in terms of enemy placement and behaviour," he explains. "But, I knew that if I were to take these liberties, the game would stop being a faithful adaptation of the originals. So, to make it more fun for myself, development-wise, I decided to use the original games just as a template, while creating essentially a new game."
If his workload was a lot when he was remastering the game, it increased tenfold with the new direction. For the story, he took inspiration from the classic TV show. He sent his draft script to some of the biggest Turtleheads he knew, including the owner of the world’s biggest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles collection known as “The Sewer Den” Jon Zelenak, and retro toy blogger Eric Setzke. The resulting story took inspiration from old-school Turtles lore to give the game that classic Turtles feel, and makes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Rescue-Palooza! feel just like an official game.
As well as coming up with a story to accompany his edited and updated sprites, Merso X wanted new characters – and lots of them. However, for many of his favourite cartoon villains, there were no suitable sprites available because they had never appeared in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game before. Undeterred, he assembled a team of volunteers to edit completely unrelated sprites, such as the Joker’s goons from Sunsoft’s Batman game, which became Ace Duck after significant alterations.
However, the team soon realised it would be quicker to design some of the characters from scratch. "For characters like Irma, Burne, Mona Lisa, Miyamoto Usagi, and others, I created all-new sprites by taking screenshots of the show, resizing them, and placing pixels on top, one by one, using an already defined colour palette," he explains. "It was very time consuming, but somehow less tedious than adapting the sprites of Tournament Fighters characters."
Thanks to the time and effort of Merso X and his volunteers, Turtle-Palooza! is a faithful replica of the iconic '90s NES Turtles style. Fans are able to play a game that feels like a genuine '90s throwback with a fresh story and a full complement of brand new characters.
Rescue-Palooza! was downloaded an unprecedented 100,000 times in its first month, played by everyone from die-hard turtleheads to SNES enthusiasts who needed some much-needed 'cowabunga' in their life. Fans couldn’t wait to play a brand new SNES port for free on their own computer, especially when they saw the quality of the game and the effort that Merso X had put into it.
Merso X’s ROM hack evolved into so much more than a faithful recreation, and it has more than earned its place alongside the official titles – even if it's not designed to turn a profit, and is unlikely to ever see release on any home console. The popularity of the Nintendo Switch’s NES and SNES libraries shows that gamers still have an appetite for retro games, but it takes a lot of work to make a brand new game that is good enough to get noticed.
"I spent a lot of time and effort ensuring that this game felt more special than the typical fangame," Merso X explains. "This hasn’t gone unnoticed."