This article is part of my ongoing “Indie Fighting Game Thursday” review/retrospective series, now on! This week we talk about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles X Justice League Turbo (TMNT X JL Turbo) a 2D game that combines two different narrative universes in one and represents what I consider the absolute golden standard in terms of making a fan fighting game.

Welcome back, folks! Time for a new episode of Indie Fighting Game Thursday! Today, we go back to traditional fighting games (after, you know, my deep dive in learning the noble art of CARate and in investigating certain indescribable cursed knock-offs), but with a little twist: we will talk about a fan game that combines character from the DC Comics Justice League and the NES/SNES classic TMNT: Tournament Fighters: the bold, daring and technically impressive “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles X Justice League Turbo” (TMNT X JL Turbo from now on)!

TMNT x JL features characters from both the TMNT and Justice League franchises. Here we see Superman and Leonardo fighting in a diner.

Teenage mutant ninja turtles and caped super heroes. The show can begin!

Wait, Andrea, a M.U.G.E.N. fan game?!

For those who thought I had lost my mind already last week, this might look like another sign of a declining mental health, but there are several good reasons behind this article:

  • First, it’s not just any M.U.G.E.N. game. TMNT X JL Turbo was built in Ikemen GO engine, an open source engine that is 95% compatible with the M.U.G.E.N. resource files and has both native online multiplayer (albeit of the delay sort);
  • second, this fan game is balanced for both casual and competitive play alike, unlike the gigantic broken compilations M.U.G.E.N has become notorious for;
  • third, this game saw the contribution of not one, not two, but several former SNK employees that created original art or music for the game itself, including Nona (The King of Fighters), Tate Norio (Art of Fighting, Fatal Fury, The King of Fighters), Yamapy-1 (Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown), and HIYA! (Metal Slug);
  • fourth, it was programmed by Kamekaze, a name that is still well known in the M.U.G.E.N. circles and synonymous of quality work (among which, we can cite the excellent Fighter History’s Dynasties crossover fan game).

Reading through these simple facts increased my interest in the game, and convinced me to give it a try… which was actually VERY worth it.

TMNT x JL Turbo's character selection screen

The game boasts a total of twenty-five characters, including an original version of Shredder (Omega Shredder) and a scrapped TMNT character that was supposed to appear in the original show, but never made the cut (Kirby).

Cowabunga, Batman!

TMNT X JL Turbo offers twenty-five different playable characters out of two narrative universes, further including Kirby, a fifth turtle scrapped during the development of the fourth (canceled) TMNT movie and whose name was a tribute to comic book artist Jack Kirby, and an original version of Shredder, resurrected by Darkseid as Omega Shredder after his fictional death.

The control system is fairly easy to grasp: there are four buttons (Light Punch, Heavy Punch, Light Kick, Heavy Kick) and two Super buttons (Super 1 and Super 2). Each character has access to a fairly far-reaching back dash and forward dash, performed by double tapping backwards or forward respectively.

Special moves are usually performed via the familiar use of motions (quarter circle, half circle, dragon punch, charge inputs and similar) plus one punch or kick button. Super moves have two variants, that usually differ in the starting attack, and are accessed by pressing the Super 1 or Super 2 button with a full Super bar.

There is also a sort of target combo system inherited from TMNT Tournament Fighters: by pressing both punches or both kicks after a weak attack, a character can chain a strong attack. It’s the only way to chain attacks of increasing strength into one another: pressing e.g. Heavy Punch after Light Punch will not cancel the animation of the light attack.

One interesting tidbit is that, in addition to the standard grab (forward/backward plus Hard Punch/Hard Kick while near the opponent) every character has a command grab performed by inputting half circle backwards followed by a kick button.

Character portraits in the versus screen

The character portraits in the VS screen were drawn by artist Tana-Taka and convey a charming 2D, hand-drawn effect

Omega Force

There is a second resource built into the game, called Omega. In contrast with normal super bar, Omega can be gained by either hitting the opponent first during a round, keeping on the offensive against the opponent, and/or getting severely damaged (but not by a counter hit). Omega has three distinct levels (red, orange, yellow) and can be used to perform Omega Specials, this game’s equivalent of EX moves.

Omega Specials are performed by inputting a special motion with both kick or punch buttons pressed and consume one stock of Omega.

If certain conditions are satisfied, each character has also access to a so called Omega Super, performed by pressing both Super buttons together while the words “Omega Super OK!” appear on the super bar. These supers deal significant amount of damage, but deplete both super bar and Omega stacks completely.

Since the conditions for Omega Super weren’t very clear, not even after plying the tutorial and browsing the titanic, 48 pages, full color PDF manual that comes with the game, I directly asked Kamekaze about it. He kindly replied to my inquiry, explaining that

[To trigger “Omega Super OK”] you need an orange Omega [symbol] or the max amount of flashing health. If your life is full you just need the default Omega factor [and a full super bar].

This means that to be able to perform an Omega Super, a player must be exceptionally good at defending or at attacking, since the game rewards you for both by netting more Omega stocks.

Omega Shredder and Kirby are two of the most notable additions to TMNT x JL

Omega Shredder and Kirby are two of the most notable additions to the roster. Fun fact about the Diner ~ After Hours stage: the developer coded food and NPCs to appear with a certain random chance, with around 50 million possible combinations. No two screenshots of the same stage from two different matches will be the same.

I’m seeing red!

One moment, though… Flashing health? What is that? Well… if your character is hit or blocks a move, they will build a small quantity of red health, which can be increased up to a certain level and can be recovered when said character is tagged out (yes, there is also a tag mode, more on this later).

All the accumulated red health, however, is lost in case the character is damaged by a counter hit, thus forcing players to tread carefully around when they have built significant amounts of red health, to avoid losing it all because of a stray jab.

When a sufficient amount of red health is built, it will start flashing, thus fulfilling one of the conditions required for an Omega Super and/or allowing for performing one Omega Special without needing Omega stocks. In the words of Kamekaze

When [the red health] is flashing, you can use an Omega special. It’s the alternative to the Omega symbol. If you get counter hit you lose it all, so it’s a defensive reward.

Tag me in!

The game also offers a 2v2 tag mode with an interesting twist: a raw tag will cause the second character to enter the stage with a non-cancelable taunt, thus being completely open for the opponent to hit for a significant amount of frames.

To avoid this, one could tag after a hard knockdown or use half the super meter tag to during a combo, since the second character will jump in and perform a tag attack instead. One can also tag while being comboed, with the second character performing an attack that interrupts the opponent’s offense, but this will cost the full super bar instead.

Contrary to similar modes in other games, to win a match in tag mode it is necessary to defeat only one of the opponent characters, much like in Street Fighter x Tekken or Tekken Tag Tournament.

Tagging is performed by pressing Heavy Punch plus Heavy Kick together or — alternatively — by using the dedicated tag macro button.

Tag mode, with HIYA! chilling in the background as a Metal Slug tribute

HIYA! — the composer of Metal Slug — chilling in the background is something I didn’t know I wanted to see. Notice how much information is actually displayed in training mode. This might be more than a field day for lab monsters.

A staggering amount of content

TMNT X JL Turbo comes with a wealth of single player modes and 45 (!) different stages, some of which drawn completely from scratch by the pixel artists hired for this game. As far as game modes go, you have:

  • a standard Arcade Mode, with endings drawn by Nona himself— an artist of SNK fame;
  • a serviceable Story Mode divided into seven chapters (five main chapters plus two sub-chapters) with slightly different paths depending on the characters chosen during certain fights;
  • a Tutorial Mode that goes through the basic systems of the game;
  • a fully functional tag system for versus fights that also allows for co-op for up to four players;
  • a very complete training mode, with frame advantage, all kinds of dummy settings, and even hitbox display;
  • combo trials for each character;
  • Card Quest, that is a survival mode with some crazy modifiers, like random bonus stages and cards that you can buy after winning enough matches that significantly alter the way the game is played (giving e.g. immunity against special moves, or filling your super meter faster)
  • Escape from Dimension X, a hardcore, boss rush mode that is only for the most skilled players — and might be very frustrating for those trying this game for the first time, but at least the manual warns players about it well in advance.
Card Quest mode internal shop

Card Quest mode gives the player the chance to buy cards after a certain amount of wins, using their hardly-earned points to obtain a boon for the ensuing survival craze.

The game offers also some very well appreciated quality-of-life features, including the possibility to remap controls during a match, the fact that story mode progress is saved automatically and allows one to resume from any chapter, and separate AI settings for arcade and story mode

One word of caution about story mode, though: the developers wanted the story fights to reflect the power levels of the characters involved, which means that playing it with Default settings won’t be a merciful experience for casual players. My suggestion is to stick to Default if you want to experience story mode as it was intended, but not to be afraid of lowering down the difficulty if you want a more relaxed experience and you want to use this mode to learn how to play certain characters.

An incredible collaboration

Okay, all fine and dandy. The game is mechanically solid, well crafted, with a lot of passion and Easter eggs. But how, one can ask, did this remarkable fan game got the attention of former SNK developers on? The answer is thanks to the amazing connection efforts of one person: the graphics producer of the game, Aywhatsgoingon (or, simply, Ay). I had the pleasure of having a talk with him via Twitter, where he explained me how he approached people of the caliber of Tate Norio, the composer of the iconic Arashi no Saxophone, a.k.a. Iori’s theme from The King of Fighters.

Ay contacted Tate Norio, Yasumasa Yamada and HIYA! separately, putting together a custom pitch for each of them and offering the composers a place in the stage backgrounds, with custom pixel art models made to represent each musician. Yasumasa Yamada appears in the background of the Zoom’s stage, playing an SNK arcade machine, Tate Norio appears in the Spirits Boulevard stage playing (guess what?) the saxophone, and HIYA! has a Metal Slug tribute, where he sits on his ROCKET LAWNCHAIR! in an amusement park in Bizarro’s world.

The craziest part is, that the composers appearance in the game are completely canon and each video clip, released with the song on YouTube by Ay himself, details how they ended up in the TMNT X JL world or how they are related to the story. Yamada ended up in a prison through a portal created by Zoom; Tate Norio was playing the sax in the alleys while Casey Jones was dunking on the Purple Dragon goons; HIYA! saw Bizarro’s world appearing in the sky and decided to explore it with his underlings, only to build an amusement park there.

Each of the pitches were built by including the original English text and Japanese text, translated using Google Translate or DeepL, in order to try and improve the mutual understanding. The language barrier was a hurdle, but Ay pushed through it and managed to secure the collaboration of all three legendary composers.

Pitch sent by Ay to Tate Norio

Sometimes, one just needs to be bold and ask politely. Legendary figures in the industry are still people and human being like us. Only those who don’t ask have lost. This is the pitch Ay sent to Tate Norio, a pitch that was later accepted and resulted in Jikei-Dan no Saxophone to be composed for the game.

The amount of care, custom assets and excellent collaborations TMNT x JL got is stellar, and I think has very few precedents in the fan-game space. The feat of having some SNK legends join the team alone is remarkable, but also creating new stages from scratch and even custom character sprites for some characters is something that truly needs to be commended. To give you a glimpse of the amount of design work behind this endeavor, here’s the notes for the Iron Heights stage, featuring Yasumasa Yamada in the background, dressed as Ryuhaku Todoh — a character for which he composed the main theme:

Closing thoughts from the developers

This game was an immense passion project that involved several people, some of which spent incredible amounts of time, money and effort in it. I have reached to Kamekaze and Ay for some closing thoughts, which I will report in the following (emphasis mine):

Kamekaze (programmer)

It was a rollercoaster. Many highs and very many lows with engine things I had to conquer or wait out for it to be fixed. 
Making my own ranking screen cause it stopped working when I updated [Ikemen] to [version] 0.98. A lot of crazy stuff.
I’d like to do a debriefing stream one day where I talk about the whole thing. All I really can say is, never ever do something like that unless you have more than one programmer. In retrospect it was very much too heavy to carry on just my shoulders and there were things we had to drop to make the release date, because it was the anniversary of TMNT Tournament Fighters for the SNES. I went from knowing very little Lua to writing so much of it (note: Lua is a scripting language that is used also inside Ikemen).

I had Icarus level aspirations of showing what this engine was capable of hoping to set the tone of what people perceive this engine to be. Also, being both the director and programmer meant that I was pretty much doing whatever I wanted unchecked with the game outside of asking the public discord feedback toward my plans. I think having someone to ground your scope is hugely important. The only reason I didn’t burn in the sun is because my day job is also management of programming teams.

The amount of things that had to line up and then also go right for this game makes me feel like I should have played the lottery just for fun as I’d probably would have won that too. It gives me great pride and also a very weird feeling to know that I worked on something that contained works from industry legends in all areas including but not limited to, one of the original artists of TMNT, big wigs at SNK, one of the biggest Capcom artists of our time and many many many others who had no business remotely entertaining a single thing we wanted to do.

I often joke about my place with MUGEN/IKEMEN but there were times where I felt it was true as I was pioneering so many things on both engines that people either never tried or never could do properly. Doing so added a huge burden to my shoulders because I had to then do it in a way that people who had no idea how either engine worked would see it working properly, and people who did would see how it could be done.

There were many days and nights where I wanted to just call it and quits but I pushed through that with sheer spite and force of will to deliver something that TMNT fans and DC fans would at the very least get a chuckle out of. The people I’ve worked with to make this happen are first class and I couldn’t have asked for a more skilled group of individuals. Everyone fired on all cylinders to keep me at my sharpest and I will never forget our time together.

I don’t think this game would have been possible if even one of us were missing from News Team 6

Aywhatsgoingon (graphics producer)

How to play it?

The game is available for download, free of charge, on the developer’s website and runs on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. There is a Discord server for the game and news about the game are shared by Kamekaze and Ay on Twitter. The game has both delay netcode with direct IP address, but can be played online using Parsec, in case of need.

Game summary

Name of the game: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles X Justice League Turbo (TMNT X JL Turbo)
Developer: News Team 6
Available on: PC (official website)
Price: Free
Year of release: 2021
Engine: Ikemen GO
Netcode: Native delay netcode, using direct IP connection, or Parsec
Status: Complete, with some bug fixing on the way (version tested: 1.0.1, 6 December 2021)
In one sentence: A golden standard in terms of fan games, gathering characters from different franchises together, with some premium collaborations and a lot of content for both casual and more competitive players.

Special thanks to Charles (tobemorecrazy, former community manager), Kamekaze (programmer) and aywhatsgoingon (graphics producer) for answering my questions and providing me with very interesting tidbits of information. 

If you are interested in more coverage about indie fighting games, you can find me on Twitter at @AndreaDProjects

EDIT 18.02.2024 – The article was updated following a restructuring of the community links, under request of the developers

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