The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have had a long and storied history of videogame adaptations. They range from a nearly impossible NES action game to a series of decent brawlers and mediocre fighting games, finally petering out in the mid-90s along with the rest of the franchise. TMNT: Mutant Melee is a four-person brawler in the Power Stone mold, and in addition to being a solid game, it provides an exhaustive look at the history and current state of the Turtles, which made it especially satisfying for this one-time fan.
The game's continuity, which is presumably from a new cartoon I'm not aware of, hews surprisingly closely to the source material. The original comic's heart-attack-serious tone has been replaced by a recognition of the deranged premise with a little bit of irony tossed in, but the relatively solid storyline is a welcome change from the ridiculousness of the Terrordrome, Rocksteady and Beebop.
The gameplay is fairly simple—there are only two attack buttons, and each character has the exact same four combos. They differ only in appearance and special attacks. Blocking, countering, and a power-up bar add a little bit of depth to the fights, but it's really more of a party game—good for a few rounds with the friends, but little else.
While the central fighting mechanics are fine, the game types they're put to use in seem slightly underdeveloped. There are only four distinct game modes, and two of them are just different varieties of free-for-all fighting. The wide variety of levels to do the fighting in helps with the game's longevity, as most of them feature entertaining and inventive opportunities for environmental damage. Unfortunately, those environmental dangers aren't always well-designed and implemented as they ought to be. For example, getting hit by a car does considerably more damage than being picked up by a giant pincer and dropped in a pit of molten slag. This counterintuitivity keeps these dangers from fulfilling their potential as a great gameplay element.
The single-player game has even less to recommend it. While it does have a good premise—a series of brief objective-based levels for ten of the game's twenty-odd characters—repetitive objectives and slightly shoddy AI keeps it from being a satisfying experience. Sometimes the bad guys will just hang back and avoid conflict for no good reason, and other times they'll fight far too effectively, making the whole thing pretty uneven.
It's too bad the single-player section is so iffy, because it acts as the barrier keeping people away from the game's extensive collection of supplemental material. Points earned by playing the single player game can be used to unlock a wealth of concept art, character bios, and comic books—which, sadly, are too low-res to be read on a conventional television set. What makes this point system so inconvenient is that levels can either be passed (by meeting a minimum requirement within the level) or completed (by meeting a special objective). Completed levels offer more points, and passed levels can be replayed to obtain that coveted completion. Unfortunately, the game neglects to inform players how to achieve these goals, making the whole point collection thing even more tedious. It's too bad, because a lot of the supplemental material if worth taking a look at, especially for Turtles fans.
While there aren't a whole lot of intricacies to plumb the depths of, TMNT: Mutant Melee is a fun way for four players to spend a couple of hours beating each other up. It's not going to be winning any awards, but it's an entertaining gameplay experience packaged alongside a virtual vault of nostalgia, and worth at least a glance for fans of the genre or the characters.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the GameCube version of the game.