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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES) artwork

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES) review

"And for dinner today, fried turtle..."

Your turtle has been electrocuted.
Your turtle has been electrocuted.
You have failed to disarm the bombs. Game over.

Welcome to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Konami's first attempt to bring the insanely popular 80s craze to the videogame world. Unlike their later games, this one doesn't really play as a classic beat 'em up. Also, unlike their later games, it's not very good either.

But give credit where it's due: we actually have a really interesting setup here. The game is a series of side scrolling action sequences interspersed with a top-down level layout. It's something of a maze: you enter a building or a sewer from one location, play through the side-scrolling action sequence, and end up back outside in a different location that you may not have been able to reach before. It's kinda like the inverse of Blaster Master in that way. The other cool aspect is that you can switch between each of the four Ninja Turtles at any time. Each turtle also has his own health bar, so you have to pick and choose which one to use at which moment, and make sure to switch out when one's health bar is low. Both of these aspects were rather novel back in the day, and both lend themselves to smart, interesting level design and exciting gameplay.

That is, assuming the execution is well done, which is simply not the case here. Whether due to the NES being overloaded or just poor programming, the combat in this game is bordering on terrible. Your jumps are incredibly floaty, being extremely slow, barely maneuverable, and far more vertical than horizontal. End result is that they have little purpose in dodging or maneuvering during fights. And moving while fighting isn't fluid either, meaning you are mostly just mashing the attack button and hoping everyone in front of you dies before you do. But the worst part is that everything is so darn glitchy due to the NES being overloaded with sprites. Konami chose to make your character quite large (and thus enemies large as well), but that led to too many sprites and thus enemies constantly flickering in an extremely distracting manner. I mean, I could understand the tradeoff if this extra size was used to make everything more detailed and recognizable (just look at the gorgeous TMNT 2 and 3 on the NES!), but I can't make out what anything is supposed to be. If you're hoping for TMNT nostalgia to help take the sting out these flaws, it ain't happening.

Oh, and the switching turtles? You'd think that each would have their own advantages and disadvantages, but nope. Any minor differences in speed of attack or whatever pales compared to reach, which means Donatello is by far the best turtle around. Poor Raphael just spins his little sais in front of his stubby little T-Rex arms in a useless fashion while Donny can push his bo seemingly half-way across the screen. Also, since there's no stun animation on enemies when they get hit, you'll almost certainly take damage when using those dinky weapons, making it even more imperative to use Donatello. Oh, and to make this even more ridiculous, Donatello, and ONLY Donatello, completely trivializes two of the six bosses, being able to kill them without taking any damage at all. Hope he's your favorite, because he's the only useful one around!

So that's level 1 in a nutshell. What's level 2? Oh, the water level...

After a brief sidescrolling section, you dive into the water. You have 2 minutes 20 seconds to disarm five bombs that you must find, or else it's game over. You'll find one-way currents, laser beams, and electrified algae along the way. As with many underwater levels in games, it's difficult to control your turtles (and this one is probably worse than most), but at least there's no combat! Except that the algae is placed in very, very narrow bands. You will end up getting hit here; it's nearly impossible to get through unscathed.

Remember when I said this thing was timed? Normally, developers will aim for a time that will take an intermediate player, oh, maybe 80% of said time to complete (and an expert maybe 30-40%). This gives the player a bit of pressure, but without becoming too frustrated. So I did some research. Some guy named Skunky48 is the speedrun champion of this game, and it took him 65 seconds to complete (almost half the allotted time). But he was willing to take massive damage to do that, and remember, you don't recover your health in between levels! So you, the non-ridiculously talented player, can't possibly hope to replicate that and still win in later levels. So I checked out vids of people who were trying to minimize damage. And it took them... 80% of the total time to complete. Expert players. The best of the best require 80% of your time limit to finish. So how is an average player supposed to do that?

First: you have to memorize the route. So there are lots and lots of game overs as you slowly learn the map (remember, running out of time here is an automatic game over, not a simple life lost). ANY mistaken route or uncertainty of where to go is guaranteed to make you lose. But even that is probably not enough. So you try to compensate by taking damage in order to speed through areas faster, perhaps ignoring the vertical electrical bolts. But again, no health regeneration... It's highly unlikely you'll make it far through the rest of the game if you do this approach. If you want to avoid damage, you need to practice, practice, practice. You literally need to become an expert to finish. But this is the only water level in the whole game; you can't improve yourself in relatively safe locations. You only get thrown to the wolves time and time again. And all that practice, all that time, won't help you one iota for the other 90% of the game.

Needless to say, this is extremely frustrating and poorly thought out. The idea that you don't regain health between levels is novel... but fails when this water level practically requires you to take heavy damage. Timed areas can create satisfyingly stressful sequences, but not when they require memorization and practice that you can't actually do before the sequence. Oh, and of course, the swimming controls are shoddy at best. Just more pain to deal with. All for a sequence tangential to the core game.

Of course, the game continues on after this painful level, but there's really no point in talking about it. For one, it has the same flaws already mentioned with respect to level 1, so no point in rehashing them. And for two, it's not like you're going to see these levels anyway. Ultimately, it comes down to this: TMNT is an action adventure game with a few really neat, fresh ideas. Unfortunately, those ideas are saddled with poor combat and platforming that drag the whole experience down. And you can't even get in a groove with it, because the game throws a massive curveball right in level 2 that will probably cause you to give up. There's better side scrollers on the NES, better TMNT games on the NES, and more of both have been made for other systems in the past 30 years. There's no real reason to deal with the frustration; those neat ideas just aren't worth it.

mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (January 07, 2019)

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Masters posted January 07, 2019:

Great review. Just one thing confused me: where you say, "So that's level 1 in a nutshell. What's level 2? Oh, the water level..." but it didn't seem as if you were actually discussing level 1 before saying that?
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EmP posted January 07, 2019:

Missed the chance to say "So that's level 1 in a halfshell."
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overdrive posted January 07, 2019:

All of us who lived during the NES era had at least one of those games that you hate-played because you got it as a present and needed something to pass the time and you never beat this one and it's a rainy Saturday.

For my best friend growing up, this was that title. I think he did make it fairly near the end, even. I remember him talking about guys shooting lasers that were impossible to avoid or something like that.

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