Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Game Name: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Platforms: NES
Publisher(s): Ultra Software
Developer(s): Konami
Genre(s): Platform
Release Date: Jun, 1989

Making games for a popular license is hard. I say it, because it’s not generally appreciated. You can see it in the results of these games that get produced – it’s gotta be damned hard. I think the major culprit is that you’re adapting something made for another medium. The Ninja Turtles got the rep for being a good TV show, because it played to the strengths of Saturday Morning television. It wouldn’t make any sense to say that the Turtles is a great TV show because it has a great video game, for example. Yet somehow the reverse idea got populated; that great TV shows should automatically make great games. Then we get disappointed when a low-res NES game comes out that’s just about eating pizza and fighting bad guys.

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 to fill your power bar.” The chief baddies 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 generic.

The entire game is broken into six missions. Levels involve 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 your way around the city levels remains constant. Enemies rarely appear on the streets, with the most common variety being a large steamroller that shows up to encourage you into the sewers.

Enemies are plentiful in the side-scrolling zones, and consist of the walking, charging, flying, and shooting varieties. You’ll note that only a handful actually 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. 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.

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 accumulates at twice the normal rate if enemies touch you directly. 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. If a Turtle dies… whoops, I mean “gets captured,” you won’t see them again until you rescue them by randomly happening upon them later. 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 much 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. Enemies burn off health for as long as you make contact with any of 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. But Raph and Mikey, although unique, aren’t unique in a useful way. Their weapons are functional, but feature no desirable stats like the other two, and their short range can actually get you killed. 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.

It’s also a fairly difficult game, especially if you don’t manage your Turtles. Of course, it’s hard to predict when you’re going to take damage, so most frequently you’ll have a run of bad luck with Leo and quickly switch to a lesser Turtle before you die. You can then roam around until you find a pizza, switch back to collect the health for Leo, and move on. Then 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 you switch back to that Turtle without getting more health. You still have a perfectly understandable health bar, so this incessant beeping is really pointless. 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 guys, did you only get half the license? Or did they let you pay carte blanche, and you figured you wouldn’t need silly old things like the theme music or a suite of enemies from the actual series?

The graphics don’t attempt to replicate the look of the show either, 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 bad game, but it’s not a great Turtles game. We were expecting more when this one came out. As I admitted at the beginning, perhaps this is unfair. This was a product with a licensed IP stamped on it, same as lunchboxes and bedsheets. 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.


One Comment

  1. Garth says:

    “I do think it’s interesting to note that the game does not play the Ninja Turtles theme anywhere.”
    They crammed the “heroes in a half shell” part in at the very end of a single track.

Leave a Comment