"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES has a lot going for it, in spite of its famous flaws."
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES gets a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve. The game was a hit at the time of its release, which came right as Turtle Mania was picking up serious steam in the late 80s. It was a match made in heaven: the preeminent video game console of the time, combined with the world's favorite “heroes in a half-shell,” all tied together by the minds at Konami (a company that by was already well known for such 8-bit hits as Castlevania and Contra).
Unfortunately, Konami proved to be its own worst enemy when it came to this inaugural attempt at interactive Turtle Power. Later that same year, arcades would host a separate Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game--also developed by Konami--that would blow fans away. Unlike the NES game, the arcade title eschewed platforming action in favor of a side-scrolling beat 'em up that not only did a better job of showing off the green teens' martial arts prowess, but also looked simply amazing because it replicated the look of the hit animated series as closely as was possible for a non-laserdisc video game at the time. Add in music, voice samples, and enemies which looked more like those featured in the TV show, and it’s easy to see why kids all around the world happily shouted "Cowabunga!" while dropping quarters like crazy and leaving their NES cartridges at home to gather dust. Even with a flashier arcade title also available, though, the original NES game still has its merits and shouldn’t have been dismissed as often as it was.
Gameplay is divided between an overworld map screen and platforming stages that take place within the various buildings, sewers, and tunnels that can be accessed from said map. You can move freely around the overworld, but dangers lurk around every turn as Foot Soldiers patrol and steamrollers drive around, ready to squish your chosen Turtle into paste. You can fight them off (particularly during Stage 3, when you’re driving the Turtle Van), but it's typically better to run. Several stages also allow players to venture off the beaten path as they seek out the boss. The entire fifth stage is a boss hunt, actually, as you must fight your way through different caverns in search of the Technodrome. It might wait for you at the end of the first passage you explore, or you may have to explore numerous corridors first; you won't know until you try.
You can choose which of the four Turtles you wish to control at any time, though this is more significant during the action stages than it is on the street map. Each Turtle has individual ratings based on his weapon of choice, which determine attack speed, strength, and range. While Donatello has the slowest speed, his bo packs the greatest punch and features the longest range (though even the weak but speedy Raph can deliver comparable blows when his life meter is diminished and his attacks are more desperate). Additionally, you can pick up sub-weapons which are either found tucked away in the furthest reaches of these areas, or simply dropped randomly by dispatched enemies. Shuriken and triple-shuriken are the most basic options, while boomerangs provide a good middle-ground and ninja scrolls pack the fiercest punch.
The game serves as a loose interpretation of the cartoon. It features such familiar foes as Bebop and Rocksteady, vehicles such as the Turtle Van and Turtle Blimp, and even the aforementioned confrontation with the Technodrome. Splinter, Shredder, April, Foot Soldiers, and even the Mousers also make appearances. However, the majority of the enemies seen throughout the game are wholly unique to this title: men made of fire, robots with flying heads, chainsaw-wielding thugs, laser-toting jetpack soldiers, and the Mecha Turtle doppelganger, among others. That means greater variety than what the swarms of palette-swapped goons offered in the arcade game, though the occasional appearance of other cartoon baddies has always skewed favor towards that other iteration.
What most typically turned players away from this initial NES game, though, was the difficulty. The second level’s dam segment, where the Turtles must swim underwater to disarm bombs, is a particularly infamous segment. With that said, the game's level of challenge does tend to be a bit overblown by critics. Yes, it is difficult, but it's certainly no worse than some other Konami titles and other NES games in general.
Controlling the Turtles is often another point of contention, and it definitely requires some finesse. This comes into play not only during the dam mission, but also whenever you encounter numerous single-block gaps throughout the game. In most situations, you're trained to simply step over the gaps, but later on, they reverse what’s expected of you, and suddenly you need to drop down those same single-space gaps or you’ll be captured.
Yet another issue some players have with the game is the way that it requires you to manage available resources. Each Turtle's life meter is tracked persistently throughout the six levels, and can be refilled only by collecting pizzas or being rescued. If one Turtle loses all of his lives, he is captured and can still be rescued, though he'll lose any special weapons he was carrying. This leads to some cases where you might decide to proceed by asking yourself "Which Turtle would I hate to lose the least?" Sometimes, it can be more useful to let a Turtle get captured and returned to you with all of his life restored than it is to keep him around in a weakened state.
Although a player can learn how the Turtles move well enough to overcome most obstacles, there is a persistent risk posed by the randomly-dropped special weapons. If you're plowing through enemies, one defeated adversary might drop a simple shuriken item and cause you to pick it up by accident. Before you know it, you've not only lost the 99 scrolls you had stockpiled, but you’ve also wound up wasting several of the newly-activated weapon.
The game’s limited continue system doesn't do anyone any favors, either. Your demise may also be hastened by the fact that if you’ve lost more than one Turtle, you can only rescue a single one of them in a given stage (and you don’t get to pick which one). As a result of the various rules at play, you’re essentially required to play the game in a certain way to proceed: primarily by stockpiling powerful weapons and treading carefully in order to avoid losing them. That takes away some of the sense of freedom that was established elsewhere.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES has a lot going for it, in spite of its famous flaws. The graphics are quite good, even if some character designs don’t come through as well as others, and the music has that classic Konami sound that gamers love. If you're up for a challenge and you want to try something different from the norm, you can't really go wrong with this one.
Freelance review by David Oxford (April 28, 2013)
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