Overall Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
In 1989, legendary developer Konami (under publisher brand Ultra) released the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, a side-scrolling platformer with overhead, swimming, and status-screen portions highlighted by the capacity to switch between different Turtles and the ability to use secondary weapons.
At a time when the Ninja Turtles were a red-hot cultural phenomenon that had a mega-hit arcade game, their first foray onto the NES console was a bold take on how to incorporate controlling the four heroes while battling familiar foes in a colorful environment with solid music and tight play control.
The game begins in an overhead view, depicting your chosen Turtle protagonist navigating the streets of Manhattan with the choice to descend into sewer holes while avoiding hazards such as roving enemy bulldozer-type vehicles. This view will be returned to repeatedly throughout the adventure, for traveling between areas, entering building, even diving off the Hudson Dam into the Hudson River for one particularly notorious portion of the game.
When the Turtles have entered a given area, the view switches to a side-scrolling platformer, with the Turtle sprite sporting a fairly large on-screen presence. The classic NES control scheme is present: The A button jumps and the B button attacks. The chosen Turtle (which can be switched on the status screen that is brought up by pressing Start) can swing his weapon forward, up, or down, with the corresponding press on the directional pad (the forward swing being the obvious default). Traversing tricky jumps, battling numerous re-spawning enemies, picking up alternate weapons (switched between with the Select button) like ninja star shurikens, finding pizzas to regain units on the health bar, and beating the occasional, the Ninja Turtles embark on a quest to first rescue April O’Neill, then their rat mentor Splinter, then invade the Technodrome and defeat Shredder altogether.
The appeal of of this game, besides being a well-designed license title and the relatively high challenge level, is the option to switch between the different Turtles. Since each has a different weapon (as any TMNT fan knows), some situations are better for the long reach of Donatello’s bo staff, yet in other situations Raphael’s sai may be the only weapon that can take out a certain enemy’s projectiles to make him easier to defeat. When on Turtle’s
health is dangerously low, a beeping signal occurs, potentially signaling an opportune time to insert a fresh, more-health-present Turtle into the fray. Juggling the four Turtles and their respective health bars is a key aspect to the gameplay.
To put it simply, this game looks pretty good, especially for a 1980’s NES cartridge. The turtles’ weapons operate with lethal efficiency (including the deftly spinning nunchucks for Michaelangelo and Raph’s sai); the different areas have distinct, detailed elements with some excellent backgrounds at certain portions; a couple of the bosses are truly intimidating; and, overall, the slash-’em-up operates at a fairly smooth clip.
There are a couple of downsides to its graphics, however. For example, although some of the foes are certainly inventive (say hello to the chainsaw-wielding maniacs and the guys that are completely on fire), most of them have a distinctly monochromatic tone to them, lending the characters a washed-out appearance that lacks polish. This is especially apparent in portions of the game that rely on a swarm of flying enemies, each of them a lifeless clone that you can hardly tell whether it is a robotic or organic being. Also, on certain stages (the infamous underwater bomb-disarming level being a prime example), it is a little too obvious that the background elements are tile-based, with a very squared-off, ill-fitting appearance at times.
The music is solid, with an appropriately rockin’ overworld track and competent bg work throughout. The sound effects are not bad, though the very splashy/swishy sound that many enemies make when you kill them is an interesting choice. Perhaps the highlight of the game’s sound, though a subtle effect, is the fact that each of the turtles’ weapons makes a different noises, from the quick slicing of Raphael’s sai to the loping “swoosh” of Donatello’s wooden bo staff. The boss music is a nice touch, but sometimes starts up at odd times, like the random frog mini-boss that interrupts a level near the beginning of the game.
This NES video game is arguably rather underrated for its innovation. Not only does it present a viable method for switching between different characters, and making the characters distinct enough to warrant such roster-juggling, but it is also a dynamic experience overall between the platforming action and the overworld traveling, including vehicle portions and simplistic overhead combat. It was also notably the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game to hit the Nintendo Entertainment System.
In fact, that is where its legacy ultimately stands. Although it is a decent game of its own merits, it will always be compared to its sequels, which were multi-player beat-’em-up classics that more closely resembled the much-beloved TMNT arcade unit. This is, in the end, possibly an unfairly disproportional comparison. Aside from a questionably difficult difficulty level, this original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game for the NES was not as bad as many remember, and offers a better-than-average game. Even if it may be inferior to its franchise successors, the original is good for three and a half stars out of five. Cowabunga, indeed.