One of the most successful games of all time, and one of the most divisive, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, arrived in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System and flew off the shelves or retailers and rental stores across the United States. Turtle-mania had a strong grip on the nation’s adolescent and it would have been a huge embarrassment if the game actually failed. And while it was named as 1989’s Game of the Year by Nintendo Power, the first ever NES TMNT game is often regarded as a disappointment. Calling it divisive in the opening line may have been misleading, for the game is almost universally loathed for numerous reasons: too hard, not enough recognizable characters from the cartoon, no multi-player, and not the game fans wanted. In 1989, another game based on the TMNT was released, the equally successful arcade game. Based on the animated series, the arcade game boasted 2 to 4 player play allowing each kid to select his or her favorite turtle and wail away on an almost endless supply of Foot Soldiers, Bebop, Rocksteady, and of course, Shredder. When it was announced the Turtles were coming to the NES, many fans expected a port of the arcade game, but instead they got a solo side-scrolling adventure with few recognizable elements from the cartoon making an appearance.
The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game is best called infamous than famous. It was notably the subject of one of the earliest Angry Video Game Nerd videos in which The Nerd (James Rolfe) reminded many of us of the same frustrations we experienced as children playing this maddeningly frustrating game. As a kid, I never was able to beat the game without the near essential Game Genie peripheral, usually failing to make it beyond the battle with Slash/Mecha-Turtle/whatever the Hell that thing is at the end of act three. And like many, I preferred pretty much every other TMNT based game that followed over this one, which all took the form of arcade style beat-em-ups. I’ve since relived this game many times as a teen and adult but recently felt compelled to revisit it and see if the reputation this game had acquired was entirely justified. Just what is that reputation? Many Google searches will return this game on the list of hardest NES titles as well as worst or most disappointing NES games. The only way to answer my questions was to dust off the old NES and sit down in front of the TV.
For starters, the game was developed by Konami’s Ultra division, a secondary label created to circumvent Nintendo’s then policy of limiting publishers to how many games they could release in a year. Konami probably paid a boatload of cash for the TMNT franchise, and considering Konami was known to gamers for its Contra and Castlevania franchises, it seemed like the TMNT license was in good hands. Right from the start though, some things seem out of place. For one, the cover art depicts the four turtles all sporting red bandanas. For kids accustomed to the television show, this looked wrong while comic book readers would have recognized the cover to issue number 4. When the game boosts up, an unfamiliar tune plays as the four turtles are introduced. No player select screen is displayed once start is pressed, instead the game drops the player right onto a map-like screen with a tiny Leonardo in the center and some steam-roller like vehicle driving around. To summarize, there’s no licensed music, no option for 2-player, and no option to select which turtle to play as.
As the game unfolds, things start to become clearer. This overhead, Zelda-like perspective, leads into more traditional side-scrolling levels whenever the player enters an open manhole or building. A quick look at the pause screen is enough to clue the player in on the objective (rescue April, big surprise) and the ability to switch between turtles. The player is free to change-out a turtle on the fly. Each one has his own health bar, and since the game has no 1-up pickups, they function as extra lives. If a turtle loses all of his health, he’s out of action until the final level where a turtle can be rescued. Each turtle uses his own unique weapon and it will soon become obvious which turtle to use. Donatello, with his boring but long-reaching bo-staff, is easily the superior turtle in this game. When walking or standing still, Don thrusts his bo-staff out in front a great distance and even slightly behind him as well. He can thrust up and down as well with a press of the D-pad and take out multiple foes at once as a result. Because the animation for his attack lingers so long, he even seems to benefit from a double-hit, and as a result, does more damage per strike than the other turtles. If you lose Don, you’re in big trouble because the drop-off is huge to the next most useful turtle, which should be obvious for those familiar with the four heroes in a half-shell, Leonardo. Leo swings a lone katana in a downward arc when attacking and it’s useful for enemies at eye-level, but his reduced range and damage when compared with Donatello makes him far less suitable for the environments ahead. After Leo, Michelangelo is probably the next-best option as his nunchaku has slightly better reach than Raphael’s sai, which is pathetically useless. Raph and Mike are best treated like canon fodder and used only when attacking is not an option, such as when driving the turtle van or during the infamous swimming level. Each turtle can hold one secondary weapon, most of which appear as pickups randomly and range from throwing stars to boomerangs, to a weird energy wave that kicks a whole ton of ass (shell).
Gameplay wise, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is fairly straight-forward. The turtles can attack and jump as they move left to right, right to left, and across gaps and platforms. The pace is fairly slow and reminiscent of Castlevania, including the ever annoying jump-backwards animation after being struck. If you’re not familiar with Castlevania, when the character takes damage they always jump backwards. This is ever annoying when trying to negotiate a series of platforms as enemies frequently appear in mid-jump leaving the player helpless to defend. The turtles handle kind of like trucks as they’re heavy and clunky. Pressing fully on the jump button will cause them to go into a ninja flip of sorts that has a floaty affect on the character, which sometimes helps to re-align a jump but mostly just seems to cause panic in the player leading them to miss a platform. Enemies are numerous, and for the most part, unrecognizable from the show. There’s foot soldiers and mousers here and there, as well as boss encounters with Bebop and Rocksteady early on, but aside from that there’s a lot of just weird enemies. There’s some chainsaw-wielding maniac, a guy composed entirely of fire, and weird butterfly enemies that dive-bomb the turtles, among others. The obstacles are pretty standard for the era and take on the form of conveyor belts, water, and spiked floors/walls. The game gets bogged down frequently when too many enemies are on screen and slowdown is a frequent annoyance. Enemies on the map scenarios tend to flicker in and out which harms the presentation elements of an otherwise underwhelming looking game.
So what makes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so difficult? Well, for one, three out of the four turtles are borderline useless. As I mentioned earlier, Donatello is by far the best suited to overcome the various obstacles placed in the turtles’ path. The other three are so bad that you might as well quit if Don falls in battle. Enemies who can be felled in one strike are manageable, but the ones that require multiple hits pose a challenge as they do not react to taking damage. The game also loves having the player enter a new screen with an enemy literally right on top of you, forcing the player to take at least some damage. The pizza power-ups, which restore health, become scarce the deeper into the game you go and are sometimes intentionally placed in impossible to reach locations. Platforms are often placed above turtles, making some jumps particularly challenging as if the turtle hits his head on a platform above, his forward progress is stunted and the jump falls short. There’s one really annoying jump in a sewer scenario that’s actually impossible in the PC port. There’s also no password feature, but unlimited continues, so this is one that has to be completed in one sitting which adds to the challenge. And if the game wasn’t annoying enough, Ultra did include a beeping alarm for when the selected turtle is low on health.
All of that said, this game does do some things well and some of the things it has become known for (negatively speaking) aren’t as bad as they’ve been made out. For one, the ability to swap the turtles into and out of battle is pretty cool. Yeah, it sucks that there’s no two-player and it really sucks that three of the four turtles are horrible to play as, but the thought was a good one and one I’d like to see revisited in a new game. The under water level that has become so reviled and is the part of the game often cited as being hard, unfair, and noteworthy, isn’t as bad as its reputation. If you get to it with little health on each turtle, then it’s pretty damn hard. As a kid, I failed many times. As an adult, I just save Raph for it and have no problem making it out with minimal damage taken. It, like just about every swimming level in recorded existence, is not a fun stage by any means, but it’s far from being among the hardest sequences in gaming history (and is among the easier parts of this game). And aside from the turtles not really handling like ninjas, the control is satisfactory and the ability to drive the turtle van is pretty cool (though why it doesn’t have its own health bar is a mystery still to this day). The soundtrack is actually enjoyable, even if it doesn’t contain any music from the TV show, and isn’t something I’d change about the game.
In conclusion, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was destined for commercial success just because of the license alone, but doomed to disappoint gamers for not being the game they truly wanted. Unfortunately, the game was not able to make-up for not being the arcade game by offering a lesser experience. The good news is that gamers didn’t have to wait long as a port of the arcade game arrived on NES consoles in 1990 as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. Yes, it wasn’t a perfect port due to the system limitations of the NES, but it was suitably fun and is often remembered fondly by gamers from that era. The one that arrived first though is not, and it’s hard to defend the title even today. While it’s far from being the worst NES game, and certainly not the most difficult, it’s definitely not good and just another example of a licensed game gone wrong, but at least it’s not as bad as E.T.