Released: 30 August 2022
Originally Released: 11 October 1989 (Arcade) / 7 December 1990 (NES)
Developer: Digital Eclipse
Original Developer: Konami
Also Available For: Amiga, Amstrad, Arcade, Atari, Commodore 64, GameCube, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, and ZX Spectrum
If you were a kid in the eighties or nineties, you were probably really into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT). If, like me, you lived in the United Kingdom, you were probably just as enthusiastic as the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles but, either way, before Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (1993 to 1996) and Pokémon (1997 to present) dominated playgrounds, Christmases, and birthdays alike, kids were transfixed by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987 to 1996) animated series. A toned down version of the original Mirage Comics characters, Ninja Turtles was incredibly popular, spawning not just three live-action movies (of varying quality), comic books, and a fantastic line of action figures but also a whole host of videogames, without perhaps none being more popular than the original Ninja Turtles arcade game.
Developed by Konami at a time when arcades were full of amazing side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups, Ninja Turtles may not have been the first videogame based on the franchise but it definitely defined the genre that would prove most popular for subsequent videogame releases, particularly in the arcade. After Konami helped to define what it meant to be “NES Hard” with their original NES TMNT title, which proved to be a huge success at the time, they turned to the incredibly successful arcade game for the sequel, which proved equally popular thanks to its presentation and ambitious recreation of its technically superior arcade brother. In later years, the arcade version of the game was further ported and emulated to numerous consoles over the years but was de-listed from digital stores for the better part of eleven years until both versions were included in this Cowabunga Collection for modern consoles alongside a host of other games and quality of life features.
The Turtles’ arch-nemesis, Oroku Saki/The Shredder, has kidnapped their friend April O’Neil and their mentor and father figure, Splinter, and swamped the streets with his Foot Soldiers and other minions. Understandably unimpressed, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo waste no time in grabbing their weapons and giving chase in a rescue mission.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a sidescrolling beat-‘em-up that supports up to four players; some arcade cabinets were apparently set up to accommodate just two, and to allow any player to select any character but, generally, cabinets were set up specifically for four players to play simultaneously. Each of the four Ninja Turtles is selectable and has specific strengths and weaknesses: Leonardo is the most well-rounded, Donatello is slower but has a longer reach, and both Raphael and Michelangelo have fast attacks but are limited in their range. Each character can perform a flying kick and a super attack by pressing the jump and attack buttons at the same time which, unlike other sidescrolling beat-‘em-ups of the time, doesn’t appear to drain your health. In addition, they can hurl their enemies around for extra damage but there’s no forward dash and very little in the way of intricate combos on offer here; it’s a simple, pure “go right and mash the attack button” beat-‘em-up, with the exception of one level, where the TMNT race around the streets on rocket-powered skateboards.
While levels and environments are noticeably sparse, there are a few intractable elements that both benefit and hinder your gameplay; traffic cones and street signs can be hit to damage enemies, you can smash fire hydrants to push enemies away, or blow up groups of them by attacking explosive barrels. At the same time, though, enemies can drop on you from behind signs or pop up from sewer holes and throw manhole covers at you; there’s also some spiked walls, laser turrets, freezing blasts, and electrical hazards that can be difficult to dodge without a dash or roll manoeuvre. The search for their friends and family takes the TMNT from the streets and sewers of New York City to the Technodrome itself; along the way, they battle various versions of Shredder’s Foot Clan and some other familiar faces, such as Bebop and Rocksteady. If you’re really, really lucky, you can pick up a pizza box to restore your turtle’s health, but these are few and far between, so you’ll either need a lot of money to replay after losing a life or, better yet, make use of the infinite credits made available in this version of the game.
For the NES version of the game, much of the gameplay and combat remains intact and surprisingly faithful, especially considering the NES’s limited hardware. Naturally, you’re limited to two players at any one time, but you can still attack with X and jump with A, pulling of flying kicks and smacking the odd fire hydrant, parking meter, traffic cone, and explosive barrel to help thin out the enemies coming at you. The Foot Clan will still burst out from window sand jump out from the sewer, and you can still fall down the holes they leave behind, but the amount of onscreen enemies is severely limited compared to the arcade game; on the plus side, this makes crowd control a little easier and you’re rarely swamped with too many enemies at any one time. While a bit sluggish compared to the arcade title, the NES version performs far better than other similar 8-bit ports, like Double Dragon (Technōs Japan, 1988), though it helps that the Cowabunga Collection gives you the option to disable slowdown and sprite flickering. You’re still able to go diagonally down or fight on higher panes, too, as well as blast along on your rocket-powered skateboard; the NES version even includes two new stages, a snow-swept New York City and a Japanese dojo, each including new enemies, hazards (falling ice blocks and bamboo spikes), and bosses alongside additional cutscenes, which was a nice and unexpected touch.
Graphics and Sound:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is presented in the finest 2D graphics of the time; the four turtles and their enemies are large, bright, and well-animated; though they have limited idle animations, each wields their signature weapons and looks ripped right out of the animated series. Environments aren’t incredibly inspiring, however; the streets of New York are surprisingly bland and there’s not much going on in most of the levels. Rats will run by in the sewers, enemies will jump out from behind buildings or burst out from walls, and there are some layers to some levels that allow you to fight on higher ground but, mostly, the environments are lacking much of the character and interaction of later TMNT games (with the exception of April’s apartment, which features some impressive fire effects, and the final Technodrome level).
There are some fun elements to be found here, though; the TMNT can fall down open manholes and hide from enemy attacks while peeping at the player; when electrocuted you can see their skeleton, and when caught in Granitor’s flame burst, they’ll appear charred and damaged. When grabbed by enemies or battling certain bosses, little speech bubbles will also pop up, which is quite a fun inclusion, as they implore you to mash buttons to escape. Accompanying these are sound bites, with the TMNT exchanging quips and taunts with certain bosses or rallying each other with a cry of “Cowabunga!” You’ll always know when you’ve picked up health thanks to their triumphant shout of “Pizza time!” and, alongside these, levels are generally filled with some up-beat, catchy tunes that work well with the constant combat and the game also includes an impressive rendition of the cartoon’s iconic theme song.
Of course, the NES version has taken a hit (well, more of a pummelling!) in terms of graphics and audio; the sprites are incredibly basic, featuring little in the way of animation and detailed, and the backgrounds and environments are incredibly empty. However, it’s still a decent conversion of the arcade title; flames still flicker in April’s apartment, the Foot still drives cars and motorcycles at you and burst out from behind billboards, and the game does a pretty good job of translating the arcade’s cutscenes into NES-capable sprite art, even using the in-game sprites at various points to progress the story. The music is equally ambitious; while there are no sound bites included in this version, there’s a nice chip tune version of the TMNT theme and everything sounds very appropriate for the hardware. Although there’s a greater emphasis on text in this version, there is no boss dialogue and bosses don’t sport life bars; the heads-up display is also changed to one that’s far more simplistic and certain graphics, like the pizza, have been redesigned to fit the engine. Yet you can still splash in and out of water in the sewer, still race along on your skateboard, and the developers even included new stages and enemies. Although you can disable sprite flickering and slowdown, however, the game is still quite sluggish, which isn’t helped by the way the characters just shuffle or hop along, and I noticed some odd screen tearing as I was playing. Also, the screen scrolls a little out of synch to your movement, meaning you’re often right at the edge of the screen, which causes it to lag a bit and forces you to hop back more to the middle to keep things moving smoothly.
Enemies and Bosses:
For the most part, the TMNT will be butting heads with various members of the Foot Clan; these come in all different colours and variants, with the regular, easily dispatched foes wearing the common purple and the tougher, weapon-wielding goons coming in red, silver, or yellow colourings. These foes will toss shuriken at the turtles, stab at them with spears, or try to flatten them with comically large mallets, among other weapons. They can also throw manhole covers, dynamite, or massive tyres at the turtles and, later in the game, zap them with laser blasters, charge at them in sports cars and on motorbikes, and chase after them on skateboards and in annoying helicopter-like crafts. You’ll also battle robotic enemies, such as the Mousers (who will clamp onto your arm and drain your health) and Roadkill Rodneys, which race around the screen, whipping at you, and trapping you in an electrically charged tentacle.
As for bosses, the TMNT will contend with classic enemies such as Bebop, Rocksteady, and Baxter Stockman. You’ll first battle Bebop and Rocksteady individually, but they later come together to try and crush the turtles; each wields a projectile weapon (Bebop a machine gun, Rocksteady a laser pistol) and can attack with powerful physical attacks, like charging or punching. Baxter, however, will attack from the air, dropping Mousers on you from his craft, while Granitor and General Traag are much tougher thanks to their rock-like hides and roasting you with their flamethrower and rocket launcher, respectively. These two are not only notorious spam-artists, repeating the same attacks over and over again, but at also immune to “God Mode” available in this version of the game. While this normally allows you to defeat enemies and bosses in one hit, Granitor and General Traag will need to be whittled down like in the original arcade release so it’s helpful to be a bit quicker on your toes and use a character with longer reach, like Donatello.
After fighting through the Technodrome, you’ll be attacked by Krang inside his robot body; Krang’s also a bit of a classic arcade spam-artist as he’ll kick you, and zap you with lasers while you’re down to drain your health in no time. Although Krang is also immune to the benefits of God Mode, he is quite the showboat and will pause to gloat about being invincible long enough for you to land a few decent hits. After defeating Krang, you’ll immediately battle the Shredder. Oddly, Shredder attacks alongside shadow duplicates, effectively increasing his attack power and his threat; Shredder swipes at you with his katana but also unleashes a powerful energy blast that regresses your hero back to a regular turtle and is, essentially, a one-hit kill move. As you battle Shredder, he’ll lose his helmet, which is a nice touch, but there’s not a lot of real strategy to any of the boss battles beyond simply avoiding attacks and striking as fast and as often as possible. Amusingly, the Shredder can be defeated in one hit using the game’s God Mode, which significantly downplays his threat compared to the game’s later bosses. One downside to this game is that the bosses don’t have an energy meter, so the only way you know you’re doing any damage or getting anywhere is by noticing when the boss sprites start flashing.
Many of the enemies and hazards featured in the arcade version reappear in the NES version, with some alterations and limitations; the Foot can still grab you from behind and Mousers will still bite your hand, but shaking them off is clunkier than before and Roadkill Rodneys now simply fire lasers. There is a new variant of the Foot that tosses dynamite at you, however, and the portraits of tigers randomly spring to life in the dojo stage; you’ll also encounter antagonistic snowmen that fire homing missiles at you in the snow-themed stage. All of the arcade game bosses return as well, but again with less dialogue and being far simpler; Rocksteady and Bebop simply blast at you and kick or punch you up close, for example, but you’ll still get (partially) roasted and blasted by Grindor and General Traag’s heavy ordinance. Two new stages means two new bosses, but there’s actually three new bosses in total as Baxter’s fly form replaces the duo of Bebop and Rocksteady at the end of the parking lot stage, hovering about and firing duel lasers from his antennae (or his wings, it’s hard to tell…) Anyway, Tora the polar bear awaits in the frozen New York City, though I never saw him do anything but wander around and punch at me, and the robotic bounty hunter/samurai, Shogun, battles you at the end of the dojo, swiping with his katana while his disembodied head flies about the place. The fight with Krang and the Shredder remain largely unchanged, except Krang’s sprite isn’t very intimidating and the Shredder can’t seem to one-hit kill you this time around; all enemies and bosses can also be defeated in one hit with God Mode activated as well.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Oddly, for a sidescrolling beat-‘em-up, there’s very few power-ups on offer here. The only item you can pick up is the health-restoring pizza and you can’t grab other weapons or gain any temporary buffs or bonuses, though it does seem as though this was originally planned for the game before the option was removed during development. The NES version stays true to the arcade in terms of power-ups and such, however I did notice an annoying lack of pizza, which no doubt would make the game more difficult for anyone not playing with the Cowabunga Collection’s enhancements activated.
In terms of in-game extra features, you’re obviously somewhat limited here as this was a simple arcade release; you can play through again with a different character and try to beat your high score, or play alongside up to four players, but there’s no additional gameplay modes to be found in the game. The Cowabunga Collection adds a whole slew of additional features, however; first, you’ll gain a sweet 70G Achievement for finishing each game, you can use the Left Bumper to rewind the game if you mess up, and press the Right Bumper to bring up a new options menu that allows save states and display options. Even better, you can opt to activate a number of enhancements, such as the aforementioned God Mode that makes you invincible and allows one-hit kills on most enemies and bosses, alongside a level select, the removal of penalty bombs (which instantly kill you if you linger too long), and the ability to play in “Nightmare Mode”, which vastly increases the number of enemies. For the NES version, you can also remove slowdown and sprite flickering, give yourself extra lives, enable “Easy Menu Navigation” (which I found no use for…), and “Fancy Jump Kicks” for increasing aerial attack effectiveness. The best part is that you’ll still get your Achievements even with these activated; you can also play online, make use of a strategy guide, switch between the American and Japanese versions (though there appears to be little difference between the two), view the game’s box art and manuals, and even choose to watch the game play itself if you wish.
Compared to other games of its era and genre, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is surprisingly light on features and content; there’s the most basic levels of combat and content on offer here, which probably puts it below other games of this type, which offer additional power-ups or combat mechanics. Yet, it’s the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game! Other TMNT games may have perfected the formula but there’s a charming appeal to the original. The classic 2D graphics, the simple beat-‘em-up gameplay, and the catchy, iconic music all make it feel as though you’re playing an episode of the animated series and really evoke the spirit of the influential cartoon. It might be a case of nostalgia goggles forgiving some of the game’s shortcomings but, for a straightforward TMNT adventure, it’s hard to deny that the arcade game is simple, evocative fun through and through. The NES title was legitimately impressive in its ambition; though obviously hampered by the limitations of the NES hardware, this version carries over all of the features of the arcade title (albeit far simpler in their presentation) as well as including new stages and bosses. For those who didn’t have access to Nintendo’s 16-bit console, the NES version of the arcade title is a decent substitute and a surprisingly faithful conversion considering the graphical downgrade, despite the lack of in-game options generally associated with similar sidescrolling brawlers. The additional features offered by the Cowabunga Collection only sweeten the deal; after years of being denied access to these classic titles outside of ROMS or unlockable bonuses, it’s great to be able to jump into them again at my convenience; both are short, snappy, fun-filled adventures that never outstays their welcome and the arcade title is especially important since it laid the foundation for future TMNT arcade titles so it’s a fun way to waste about half an hour of your life (or less if you plough through on God Mode!)
Did you ever get to play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles out in the wild or own it on the NES? How do you think it compares to other TMNT videogames and similar arcade fighters? What did you think to the NES version of the game, the new stages it added, and the allowances that had to be made? Which of the characters was your go-to and which of the game’s bosses was your favourite? What did you think to the additional features added to the Cowabunga Collection? Which of the four Turtles is your favourite (and why is it Raphael?) Whatever your thoughts on the Ninja Turtles, be sure to share them down below or leave a comment on my social media.