Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES has a bit of a reputation for being a terrible game that sold extremely well. I've been aware of this ever since I played it well over a quarter century ago. But the past is the past, and here we are (obviously) in the present. I decided to give Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a second chance, a new lease on life if you will. I sat down with the full intention of being nice with this game, of seeing its true colours, and of genuinely finding its inner beauty. And it turns out... this game is the unflattering backside of a mule.
Where do I begin with this murk heap? Right from the introduction, you know something's wrong. The Turtles theme song is nowhere to be found here or anywhere else for that matter. How can you deliver a licensed game without packaging in its theme song? So we get a brief intro highlighting each individual Turtle and his weapon of choice. Cut to a shot of Splinter and the Turtles together. Splinter points and the camera pans over to Shredder holding reporter April O'Neil hostage alongside members of the Foot Clan. Another error appears: April O'Neil is wearing a brown suit and has blonde hair. Since when did she ever look like this?! I'm guessing the designers of this game received one thing prior to beginning the speedy development: the name of the series, and that's all. So... I'm going to take a wild stab that this game isn't canon. Better not be, because I can't accept such a putrid lack of attention to detail to sully the good name of a fine, upstanding franchise about turtles that eat pizza, beat up men in purple and black tights, and speak with 1980s surfer slang. That kind of thing is sacred.
To top things off, and I guess I should shout "SPOILER ALERT" before I continue (and I just did, but you didn't hear it because you have Molly Hatchet playing in the background), at the end, the rat sensei Splinter is transformed back into his human self and everyone parties with a slice of delicious sewer pizza. We've learned from the various incarnations of Splinter that he now prefers his rodent body simply because of the negative nature of humans he now perceives. Why would this instance be any different? I realize the entire game's plot was about retrieving the Life Transformer Gun to change him back, but have a bit of consistency! I'm sure a Ninja Turtle fanatic will have a lengthy response for this, but as it stands now, this conclusion is likely not the one Splinter would have desired for himself.
Pressing Start at the title screen leads straight into the action, starting with an overworld. Yes, you can scoot around with your little cute adorable ragamuffin Turtle in search of passages, open sewers, and buildings to enter. At first, you have to do everything by foot, but later areas give you full access to the Turtlemobile—er, sorry, the "Party Wagon". That vehicle is useful in that it can fire weapons, but it's also a hindrance because it's big, clunky, and gets in the way of larger enemies also roaming the overworld, notably the Foot Clan roller cars. Though you start out on the mean streets of New York City, you'll eventually move on to the Technodrome (conveniently located in the South Bronx) during the latter half of the game and take on Shredder, the bad boy himself. That is, if you don't shut the game off and play something better instead.
Turtle soup in a half-shell: delicious. And it comes in its own bowl — economical!
The real meat and potatoes comes from when you enter a sewer or building and the game switches from the top-down overworld to the side-scrolling action sequences. And boy, are they... not as much fun as I'd prefer. Enemies often come in swarms and are quite the nuisance. Unless you have a long-range weapon like Donatello's bo, taking damage is highly likely. Okay, even with Donatello's bo, it can only jab in a straight line, so if you miss your target (perhaps it's too low or too high off the ground), that monster will slice off your skin. Thankfully you can switch between any of the four turtles at any time, so if you're low on health, swap out one for another to save your hide, then recharge their life bars later when you can. Thank goodness you can find random pizza slices hovering in the air here and there to restore your health or else this game would be dismal. Well, it is already, but it would be even MORE dismal. The bosses also shave off a huge chunk of your health, and that sure doesn't help. Heck, touching Shredder (the final boss) while not attacking takes off half of your health bar. That's amazingly unfair and helps to solidify the fact that this is one of those games you can only dream of finishing without actually doing so.
Enemies that appear in the side-scrolling stages are often randomized between different sets of baddies. Even within one room, I could walk all the way to the right, fending off one group of enemies, and then walk back only to discover they're completely different! I can't think of another platforming game of this nature that decides at random who you'll battle next! Even the mid-bosses in some levels change if you leave and come back! Just in the first area alone, one building first contained a giant frog man as a mid-boss (ah, the everlasting feud between frogs and turtles), but upon my return the second time, it was some guy on fire! Nobody was aiming for consistency here.
There was a movie in 1993 called "White Men Can't Jump". I'm waiting for the sequel called "Damn Green Mutated Turtles Can't Jump Either". I swear, their jumping ability is highly questionable. I'm going to ignore the fact that the turtles can curl up into a ball when they jump and leap several times their own height. Crossing larger pits is the biggest issue. If you're not right at the very edge when you give it your leap of faith, you'll plummet below. Konami was also pleasant enough to include low ceilings where you least desire them, so your turtle will bonk his noggin and you'll end up falling to your doom. Some parts are set in the sewers, and falling off a platform will drop you into the water below, which will send you right back to the overworld and force you to replay that entire section again. Maybe if the jumps weren't so purposefully hard and I didn't suffer knockback from cheap enemy placement, I'd survive this stuff.
And now we get to the part of the game every player remembers and shall never forget as long as they live: the dam. The damn dam, to be more precise. This is noted as one of the great unfair levels of classic gaming. You have to dive into the nearby Hudson River and swim through its waters, deactivating bombs while avoiding electrical currents, electrified seaweed, and coral reefs that want nothing more than to suck you in and ensconce your body. The swimming controls are gross; trying to avoid the obstacles will be fruitless as your turtles are more like rocks trying desperately to sink unless you hammer at the A button with the fury of a thousand gamer suns. Fried turtles are on the menu here, oh yes! Have 'em with tartar sauce, oh yes, oh yes! Trying to defuse all of the bombs on one life is nigh impossible, but luckily you can switch between the turtles at any time and keep going with whatever health they had left. (No, the game doesn't automatically refill your health meters. Ever.) And did I mention the time limit of the dam level is 2:20? This is the only place where there is a time limit, and it's the part of the game that requires the most grace and patience so as to NOT DIE. Running out of time results in a turtle getting "captured" (somehow)
Heck, this game couldn't even give us a decent manual. Look at some of the goofy issues found within (ignoring all the lame 80s slang):
1. Have you ever heard someone with little knowledge of video games refer to the cartridges as "cassettes"? Well, if you have, don't blame them: blame Konami!
2. I do remember Bebop & Rocksteady pretty well from the show, but when did Bebop become a punk rat?
3. When talking about the various items you can obtain, the manual refers to everything collectively as "Pizza and Other Life Sustaining Goodies". Oh yeah, I suppose shuriken, boomerangs, and katanas are all life-sustaining goodies indeed. Well, they might help sustain your own life, but if you're on the receiving end of a nunchuk, you'd probably not think of things this way.
4. Did they misspell Michelangelo's name in the manual? *gasp* They DID! And I'm not even going to try and understand why Michelangelo is making that particular face or what the joke in Donatello's description means.
While the cartoons were fairly light-hearted when it came to activating all that Turtle Power, the game's graphical style comes off as gritty more than anything else. The cartoons didn't look this abrasive. The sprites give the Turtles a more rock-hard appearance, and the side-scrolling environs are quite serious, tempered only when you see them filled with walking eyeballs, tongue-slinging frogmen, or a gym personal trainer with a mean boomerang. And as I mentioned earlier, the Turtles' theme song is nowhere to be found. The remaining soundtrack, however, is pretty impressive for its time, showing off some excellent use of the NES's limited sound chip.
This game sold on the back of the Ninja Turtles cartoon's popularity alone and not on the merits of this cash-in game. While not quite as heinous a crime to the gaming community as anything LJN produced during the same timeframe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES remains a splash of sewer water on the console's library. One would probably be better off hunting down one of the sequels, which are far superior in quality and gameplay. Let's put this one in the Shredder.