Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

This one’s a pretty legendary disappointment. I was one of a generation of kids, eagerly snapping up a rental at the Blockbuster and expecting to act out the battles I had with the Kenner action figures in digital form. What you get instead is a kind of labyrinthine adventure game, totally off from kids’ expectations, and one that’s pointlessly hard because that’s just how games Were Supposed To Be. I remember wasting more rentals thinking I had a shot at beating it, but even going back to play today, that seems a fool’s errand.

I wouldn’t count on that.

To its credit, this game doesn’t seem to be obviously lifted from any previous titles. Call me jaded, but I half expect every licensed game I pop in to be Mega Man with new artwork. Likewise, it’s too early for the game to try and ape the popular arcade version, as every subsequent game (even today!) does. Concepts from the show are also pulled in, beyond the obvious “eat pizza and fight bad ninjas.” Shredder and the Foot Clan appear, as do the four Turtles and some of their distinguishing characteristics. There’s even some mild strategy on which Turtle to use when. Yet the game still feels like another game with a slapdash coat of green paint.

The entire game is broken into six missions. Levels start in an overhead overworld, as the Turtles make their way through the mean streets of New York. Open doors or manholes can be entered, and these send you to side-scrolling sewer/building levels. Sewers are primarily used to access areas blocked off in the overworld. Buildings can be entered to find pizza and powerups. There’s usually a main building at the end of each level that holds the boss or goal, and occasional items you’ll need to collect along the way to get there, but the basic idea of making it from one end of the map to the other remains constant. Enemies rarely appear on the streets, with the most common variety being a large steamroller that shows up to drive you into the sewers.

Enemies are plentiful in the side-scrolling zones, and consist of the walking, charging, flying, and shooting varieties. While bosses all seem from the series, you’ll note that only a handful of basic enemies have any roots in the Turtles mythos; really just the purple guys who I assume are supposed to be Foot Soldiers, and the Mousers. The rest come from that strange place game artists draw from to put a new spin on the same AI behavior. Here, you’ll get flame guys, some kind of statue man, some flying things, and two legs joined together to create a sort of hopping guy. All of it shining examples of NES Logic, and nothing that fits the design of the cartoon.

At least the Turtles' Party Wagon is here.
At least the Turtles’ Party Wagon is here.

Playing the side-scrolling sections, which really is the meat of the game, is fairly simple. You have a button to jump and a button to attack, with the distance and speed of your attack dependent on your selected Turtle(‘s weapon). After killing an enemy, you may randomly get a secondary weapon you can switch to with Select. These include ninja stars that shoot in a straight line, boomerangs that do the same but don’t run out if you catch them, and a magical scroll that shoots an insta-kill wave out in the direction you’re facing – very useful, but very limited.

These special attacks, plus the ability to aim your normal weapons up, down, or jump and attack, make it easy to hit most of your enemies. You’ll have trouble if they come at you in groups, which they always do, or if they take more than one hit, which many do. Enemies also respawn when you leave the screen and come back, and sometimes even respawn a harder selection of enemies than what you just beat. It’s easy to take damage, which burns off at twice the normal rate for as long as enemies are touching you. Every enemy, especially the bosses, naturally are programmed to charge right at you.

As said, all four Turtles are present and playable. You switch between them from a menu on the Start key, and can do so at any time. If your current Turtle is almost out of life, you can instantly switch to a Turtle with more health and keep going. Turtles don’t die if they run out of life, they just “get captured” and you have a chance of randomly running across them later. Touch them to rescue them, and they’re back in your roster – but it’s important to note that finding them seems rare, and you’re more likely to get the other Turtles killed by looking for them. In that sense, the four Turtles become four lives with which to beat the game, and it becomes a very good idea to try and spread damage out among the four.

Go on. Jump down there. I dare ya.

But here’s where you get ripped off – some Turtles are waaay better than others. Some attempt has been made to characterize them through their weapons and give them unique attributes, which is thoughtful. The problem is that only certain attributes have practical use in the game. Raphael’s sais attack a little faster and do a little more damage, but big whoop when you have to get in deadly touching distance to use them. Michaelangelo’s nunchuks have a little longer reach, but not as much as your two best Turtles.

Leonardo’s kitanas slice in an arc, efficiently killing any creatures above, in front, or below him – making for the only situation in Turtles canon where Leo is actually bad-ass. He’s the number one guy you want to use. Donatello’s staff has the longest reach, even through floors, so he’s useful to pull out and remove awaiting enemies before climbing ladders. He’s also key to cheesing a lot of bosses. But Raph and Mikey, although unique, aren’t unique in a useful way. Their weapons feature no desirable stats like the other two, and their short range can actually get you killed faster. They’re best sent into harm’s way, or in areas like driving or swimming where all Turtles are identical. God help you if your other three Turtles are captured and you only have Raphael left.

This is part of what makes it such a difficult game, especially if you don’t spread your damage. Of course, it’s hard to predict when you’re going to get hit, so most frequently you’ll have a run of bad luck with Leo and quickly switch to a lesser Turtle before you die. Ideally, you roam around until you find a pizza, switch back to collect the health for Leo, and move on. But if your “secondary Turtle” starts taking heavy damage, well now you’re really in trouble. The game further gives you a beeping alarm, like the one on someone’s digital watch, that plays every time your current Turtle is low on health. You still have a perfectly understandable health bar, so this incessant beeping is really pointless – doubly so if ALL your Turtles are low on health. They might as well have gotten Gilbert Gottfried to shout repeatedly into a microphone: “Hey! You’re gonna die! Hey fuckhead, your Turtle’s gonna die!”

The level that will live in infamy.

I do think it’s interesting to note that the game does not play the Ninja Turtles theme anywhere. Unless this is an authentic version for another country (which I highly doubt) there’s no Turtles theme. Seriously, did you only get half the license? Or did they let you pay a la carte, and you figured you wouldn’t need silly old things like the theme music?

The graphics don’t attempt to replicate the look of the show, though what’s here is pretty good. They went a little nuts with the shading, so they take on that “realistic for 8-bit” look like Sunsoft did with Batman. Sewers and buildings look appropriate, enemies – well, most enemies – look dark and menacing. The rooftops of New York aren’t bad either. They did a fairly good job, except that so little of it looks like the style of the show. The Arcade Game at least looks properly cartoony and takes the same basic look of enemies and characters from the series as if it were the design bible. Here you get an attempt at a new style, or Konami’s artists doing whatever the hell they want to. It looks nice, but not what I would expect for a Turtles game.

That’s pretty much where I’ll leave this off. This isn’t a terrible game, but it’s not a great Turtles game. We were expecting more when this one came out. Perhaps this is unfair. To the suits, this was a product with a licensed IP stamped on it, same as lunchboxes and bedsheets, so who cares as long as recognizable characters are present? There’s definitely none of the care of the later arcade titles, suggesting this was just another of a long list coming off the assembly line. I’m not saying it was a total cash-in, just that they didn’t seem to understand the monumental expectations for the game. Or maybe they really wouldn’t have cared either way.


The Good

First in a long line of Turtles games, does well at being its own title and not a simple rip-off.

The Bad

Only two particularly useful Turtles, the bare minimum of references/material from the show.


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