Ever since Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) first debuted, the franchise has enjoyed worldwide mainstream success thanks to action figures, cartoons, and videogames. Since I found some free time this December, I’ve decided to spotlight four such videogames every Tuesday of this festival season.
Released: 30 August 2022
Originally Released: 12 May 1989
Developer: Digital Eclipse
Original Developer: Konami
Also Available For: Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, MSX, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, PC, PlayChoice-10, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, ZX Spectrum
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles here in the UK) were the in thing for kids in the eighties or nineties thanks, largely, to the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987 to 1996) cartoon and an extensive toy line. A couple of years before Konami brought the “Heroes in a Half-Shell” to the arcades, the developers helped to make the NES a household name here in the UK with this adventure title, produced at a time when videogames (especially those on Nintendo’s ground-breaking platform) were built to last by ramping up their difficulty. Reportedly the first TMNT product to release in Japan, the game suffered from glitches and exploits across all its versions and is often cited as one of the hardest NES games of all time thanks, largely, to it featuring in an early episode of The Angry Video Game Nerd. regardless, the game was a huge success at the time and sold over four million copies worldwide despite mixed reviews, with some praising the controls and graphics and others flagged the lack of polish and recognisable elements from the franchise. Although readily available at the time on a variety of consoles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been pretty difficult to come by after being removed from the Wii Shop Channel in 2012, that is until this Cowabunga Collection released for modern consoles alongside a host of other TMNT games and quality of life features.
The Turtles are on a mission to retrieve the Life Transformer Gun from their archnemesis, Oroku Saki/The Shredder, who has kidnapped their friends and is terrorising New York City with bombs, ninjas, and his army of robots.
Unlike the vast majority of TMNT videogames, the original NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles title is a 2D, sidescrolling action platformer that allows you to switch between the four titular turtles at any time via the pause screen. Being as it was an NES title, your controls and options are somewhat limited, but also effective; X sees you attacking with your turtle’s signature weapon and A allows you to jump, and you can both hold A for a higher and longer jump and attack while in mid-air or crouching. The TMNT are separated not only by the colour of their bandanas but by the range, speed, and power of their weapons; Donatello has the longest reach and is great for dispatching enemies above or below with his bo staff, for example. He and Raphael also seem to dish out more damage, destroying some enemies in one hit that would take Leonardo and Michelangelo two or three, however Leo and Mike have better options for attack with an arc or a swing. You’ll also comes across a number of secondary weapons with limited ammo, which you can switch to using the Xbox controller’s ‘View’ button and will find some pick-ups that activate automatically to carry you across gaps. Each turtle has their own health bar, and the game “helpfully” alerts you when you’re at low health by emitting a warning wound, so you’ll need to switch between them to get past trickier sections with fire pits and the like. If a turtle’s health is depleted, he’ll be captured and unplayable until found and rescued, though it’s game over if all four are captured.
The game is split into two very distinct sections; the first is a top down overworld, a recreation of New York City and the surrounding district, which is split into six areas that act as the stages of the game. Here, you can wander about, attacking enemies and avoiding larger vehicles such as Roller Cars, carpet-bombing fighter jets, and helicopters with search lights. At one point, you’ll hop into the turtles’ Party Wagon, which allows you to blast at Roller Cars and enemies on the overworld with X, though you’ll need to search for a handful of high-powered missiles to destroy barriers with X and progress further. The second part of the game is the 2D, sidescrolling action stages, which are accessed via manholes placed all over the overworld or by entering certain buildings. These drop you into claustrophobic sewers, aircraft hangers, enemy warehouses, and robot factories and see you navigating past enemies, hazards, and tricky jumps to small blocks or platforms to either progress, find health and pick-ups, rescue a comrade, or access new areas, like the rooftops and caves. Not only to enemies respawn when you leave the screen for just a second, but hazards are numerous; you’ll be stuck on conveyor belts, walking across some smaller gaps and trying to jump across others to tiny blocks, and hopping over spike and lava pits. At some points, you’ll be dumped back onto the outside if you fall while jumping across the rooftops or landing in the raging sewer waters, and you’ll also have to contend with spiked ceilings and instant-kill crushing spiked walls near the end of the game. Easily the game’s most infamous section is encountered pretty early on when, after reaching the damn, you’re given 2:20 to navigate an underwater section full of electrical bolts and electrifying seaweed in search of eight bombs to disarm. While it’s true that this is a difficult section thanks to the unfair hit boxes, the tight time limit, and the labyrinthine nature of the section, it’s made all the easier with the Cowabunga Collection’s rewind feature and you can tank through some of it using well-timed character swaps.
Graphics and Sound:
Since it’s an NES title, the graphics are obviously somewhat dated; the top-down sections on the overworld aren’t great, with movement being noticeably clunky, and the game’s reliance on mazes and looping paths can get annoying when you’re stumbling around the airport trying to find the correct path or dodging searchlights in the dark to find the right manhole. The variety in these top-down locations is appreciated, though; you’re in the city, visit a dam, pop along the JFK Airport, and infiltrate the Shredder’s secret base under cover of darkness, and the game opens with a pretty ambitions character introduction screen and is accompanied by some fitting chip tunes to help ease even the most annoying sections, and each stage ends with a rendition of the TMNT theme to punctuate your victory. When you pause the game, you’ll get access to a pretty basic grid-like map that isn’t much help but it’s better than nothing; April O’Neil and Splinter will also offer some limited advice to give you an idea of what you’re looking for or how to defeat the game’s bosses, but these features are stripped from you in the final area as you’re “lost”.
The 2D sections are where the game shines since you can actually see the TMNT in action, though the actual sprites obviously don’t emote or animate all that much unless they’re being swept away by the current. Mostly, the controls work just fine; you’re generally restricted in your horizontal and vertical movement so it’s rare that you have to make precise jumps but, when you do, they have to be pretty bang-on. Hit boxes are quite big, which is an issue in such close quarters, and backgrounds can be disappointingly bland and repetitive; all that separates one sewer section from another is the amount of brown and green, for example, so it can be easy to get lost, especially in sections that have to warping about trying to find the right exit. Things pick up a bit as you progress, with large background elements being used as static boss sprites, and you can avoid any slowdown or sprite flickering by turning them off with the Cowabunga Collection’s enhancements (though a fair amount still remains, perhaps unavoidably). The game’s story is primarily told through limited text and some art portraits, but the game doesn’t include any credits and it’s a bit cheap how the enemies constantly respawn but the health items and other pick-ups don’t, meaning you sometimes have to backtrack into dangerous areas to restock your health and ammo.
Enemies and Bosses:
Considering the source material has a near inexhaustible cast of characters to choose from, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles features some truly bizarre and misplaced enemies; I may not be able to remember every TMNT character but I could barely recognise any of the enemies encountered here, with the shuriken-throwing Foot Soldiers and the Mousers being the most familiar for me. There are some really weird baddies here, ones that are far too generic for a TMNT game and sadly symptomatic of this era of gaming; we’ve got robot bugs, spider-like jumpers, flaming men who spit out smaller minions, a large porcupine that shoots spines at you, a big bald asshole with a chainsaw, flying eye drones, this weird blank slate of a humanoid who becomes invulnerable when crouched down, another bald asshole who tosses boomerangs, crawling eyes, giant mutated frogs and fleas, and some truly aggravating Dimension X Troopers who hover about firing lasers right at you, no matter where you are, and always attack in groups! Some of these enemies will act as mini bosses, gaining a health bar and teaching you their attack patterns and such, but most of the time they’ll swarm the screen just to annoy you and screw up your jumps.
Each stage of the game ends in a boss battle, generally with the life of one of the TMNT’s allies at stake; Bebop goes solo in this game as Rocksteady is holding April hostage, though he attacks in very much the same way as he always does, by charging at you with a head of steam, punching you when you get close, and jumping at you with a kick. It’s pretty simple to stay at the right side of the screen, jumping up to where Rocksteady and April are to avoid Bebop’s limited attacks, and smack him with your weapons. Rocksteady gets in on the action at the end of the warehouse stage and follows very much the same pattern; while April sits all tied up, Rocksteady charges at you with his horn, tries to jump at you, and fires bullets at you. However, you can destroy these projectiles, which is always helpful, and you can absolutely cheese this by hopping on top of the crates on the right-hand side and using Donatello’s crouch attack to defeat him without taking a single hit! When you finally figure out where the rope is and how to get across the rooftops, you’ll find Splinter held hostage by a dark version of Leonardo; this guy attacks exactly as Leo would when you play as him, with sword swipes and such, but draining his health reveals that he was the “Mecaturtle” (not to be confused with Metalhead…) all along. The Mecaturtle hovers about using its rocket boots and fires homing missiles at you, punching when up close, but there’s a lot of room to dodge and land hits.
After fighting through the Shredder’s robot factory, you’ll battle one of the more visually impressive bosses of the game – a giant Mouser that’s rendered as a background element and reminds me of the titular war machine from the original Metal Gear (Konami, 1987). While it looks intimidating, its lack of movement and predictability make this a pretty easy boss; it fires twin laser beams from its eyes that are simple to avoid, the smaller Mousers it drops are easily defeated, and you can easily smash away at the weak point in its mouth using Donatello’s ridiculously long bo staff. Naturally, you’ll eventually make your way to the Technodrome, which also acts as a large, impressive, and formidable boss battle; the humongous machine idles along on its treadmill base, frying you with electrical currents from its front and back spokes and protected by two turrets and an endless supply of Foot Soldiers. You need to fight against the pull of the treadmill, fend off the ninjas, and attack the Technodrome’s giant eye to eventually blow open an entrance, but this is easily the toughest and cheapest boss battle in the game. Once you fight your way through the insanity of the Technodrome, the game ends with a one-on-one encounter with the Shredder; after teleporting in with a burst of lightning, he jumps about the enclosed arena trying to punch you and firing deadly shots from his one-hit-jill de-evolution pistol. However, it’s laughably easy to avoid this and stay out of his way, especially with Donatello, and you can even trap him in a corner using Leo’s rapid sword swings to make short work of the would-be-conqueror.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As ever, you’ll occasionally find pizza strewn about in the 2D sections to refill either two bars of your health with a slice, four with half a pizza, and the entire bar with a whole pizza. Like all of the game’s items, these are quite rare and hard to track down thanks to the maze-like nature of the levels, and you’ll need to remember to switch to a turtle with low health when you spot one to keep everyone in tip-top condition. You can also find a turtle-face icon that looks like its should be an extra life but actually grants your temporary invincibility and puts you into an awkward frenzy. In one specific area of the game, you’ll also need to track down missiles for the Party Wagon to destroy the barrier son the overworld, though you can just about get by with one load of ten if you plan your route and shots correctly. Areas three and four also hide the rope item, which you’ll need to automatically cross large gaps across rooftops in area four.You can also pick up additional weapons, which you can switch to with the ‘View’ button and which act as projectiles, with each having a limited amount of ammo. Sometimes enemies will drop additional ammo, but mostly you’ll just stumble upon the weapons out in the open in 2D sections and they’re extremely effective, killing many enemies in one hit. You can grab shurikens, tossing either one or a triple-shuriken spread for maximum coverage, a boomerang, and a “kaiai”, which fires out a powerful energy wave.
In a change from most TMNT videogames, there’s no two-player option here; in fact, there aren’t any options to speak of in the base game, not even a difficulty mode or any sound options. Luckily, the Cowabunga Collection remedies that, awarding a 70G Achievement for completing the game and allowing you to view the game’s box art and manuals, switch between the Japanese and American version, and apply various borders and display options. While the enhancements only allow you to remove slowdown and sprite flicker, you can still rewind the game with the Left Bumper and access save states using Right Bumper, and choose to watch the game play itself if that’s your jam.
I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed the TMNT’s first venture onto the NES. It helped that I knew all about some of its more frustrating and obscure moments thanks to watching the Angry Video Game Nerd and the reputation that game as earned over the years online as one of the most difficult NES titles. While the game’s presentation and execution are a bit janky, opting for a restrictive and confusing 2D sidescroller rather than a mindless beat-‘em-up, I liked that each turtle was selectable at any time and shared their own health and weapons. While they all control the same, they’re made unique by their individual weapons, which can be particularly game-breaking in certain situations, and I liked the top-down sections of the game, despite how confusing it can be to navigate at times. What lets the game down is the oddball nature of the enemies on show; it’s almost as if this could’ve been any NES action game as the enemies are decidedly off-brand for the TMNT, and the environments just aren’t detailed or distinctive enough to really make an impact or make best use of the license. The respawning enemies and labyrinthine gameplay certainly add to the game’s difficulty; some of the enemies are needlessly cheap and make it extremely difficult to not take damage. However, I enjoyed the boss battles, especially the presentation of the giant Mouser and the Technodrome, and it’s fun to add a little more depth to the TMNT beyond just repetitively pummelling enemies. Tense, frustrating, and head scratching at times, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a fair amount of action packed into it for such a limited title and it’s definitely worth checking out, especially with the enhancements offered by the Cowabunga Collection, which definitely reduce the challenge offered by this influential NES title.
Was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a part of your NES library back in the day? What did you think to gameplay and presentation of the game, especially regarding its maze-like aspects? Which of the characters was your favourite to play as and which boss was the most exciting for you? Were you able to make it through the underwater section? What did you think to the additional features added to the Cowabunga Collection? What’s your favourite challenging game from the NES days? I have a comments section down below where you can share your opinions on this classic NES title, or you can start the discussion on my social media.
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