I’ve mentioned before that, as a kid, you kind of take everything in stride. Super Mario Bros. is about a plumber that jumps on turtles and saves mushroom people? Yeah, okay. Oh, wait, now he’s a live action dude on a variety show that features cartoons that include a magical elf every Friday? Yeah, that makes sense. Oh, now Mario can fly because he gained the tail of a raccoon, a creature not traditionally known for its flight capability? Whatever, man, as long as it’s fun. Similarly, when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got their first videogame, I was elated, because, duh, Ninja Turtles and videogames: two tastes that go great together (like whipped cream and pizza). And thus did I play TMNT for hours, and I thought very little about its origins or eccentricities.
But now that I’m playing the game as an adult, I’m shell-shocked at how this might be the weirdest game on the NES.
It’s definitely a Ninja Turtle game
First, for anyone that skipped this magical adventure, I want to be absolutely clear that this is certainly a TMNT game. This is not the case of a bizarre localization where Goku became a random Native American or something. This is a radical turtle adventure that starts with an attract screen that is practically off the back of a TMNT action figure. Watch four mundane turtles mutate into awesome teenage ninja with four distinct weapon types! Look out for the evil Shredder! Bebop and Rocksteady are up to no good!
And it’s not just the intro, the overarching plot of this one could be a week-long arc on the cartoon. April is kidnapped. The Foot are going to destroy a local landmark. Splinter is kidnapped. Splinter is rescued, but it’s time to hunt down the Technodrome once and for all. There’s that nefarious Shredder, and we beat ‘em, but will he be back next week? Throw in Krang and maybe a random mutant or two, and you’ve practically got the entire series in one game. They even managed to wedge that silly blimp into a cutscene or two.
And speaking of cameos…
The Bosses are Amazing
Bebop and Rocksteady are up to no good, and you personally get to stop them. And their boss patterns make sense: they’re both animal-people known for charging in headfirst, and here is a pair of jerks that do just that. It’s a shame you don’t get to fight them simultaneously, but there is something appropriate about Rocksteady watching Bebop get defeated and then just wandering off. Foot Mutants totally aren’t bros, yo.
But the later stage bosses are the real gems. Metalhead is not “Mecha Turtle”, dammit, he’s clearly the robo-turtle of the TMNT universe. Then we’ve got Big Mouser that, okay, maybe it doesn’t move much, but it is certainly the granddaddy of all mousers. And there’s a fight with the entire Technodrome. Sure, the scale is way off, but it’s probably the best turtle vs. tank battle you’re ever going to see in this or any other medium. It’s bigger on the inside.
The bosses are pretty damn TMNT, and their accompanying Foot Soldiers fit the flunky bill. But things start to go off the rails when you look at…
The Other Guys
Okay, so the Foot Clan are ninja. That can account for a lot of different variations on a theme. I mean, you’ve got all the crazy ninja weapons, and you could have mutant ninja, and maybe like big ninja to accompany nimble ninja. That all makes perfect sense, and this is a robot army of ninja, so even the occasional jetpack or laser gun would be allowed.
But what we have here… uh… did anyone order a crawling eyeball? Or flying manta ray creatures? And are those Human Torch-esque “fire men”, or did some random Foot go full Thích Quảng Đức and decide to immolate around the place? I can deal with the occasional mutant frog monster, that’s practically canon, but “Chainsaw Maniac”? I think you might be a genre off, dude. And then there’s the… thing… that is just a bunch of spikes with legs creeping along the ceiling. That shouldn’t be a TMNT enemy. I’m not even certain that creature should be haunting anyone other than Lovecraft…
Oh, but these random Boomerang Buttheads (you never forget what you named enemies when you were seven) seem eerily reminiscent of Goriya, which reminds me…
Wow, this game is like The Adventure of Link
Back in 1989, videogames hadn’t quite coalesced into the rigidly defined genres of today. So when TMNT seemed a little bit like The Adventure of Link (a game released, in Japan, two years earlier), nobody thought much of it. Nowadays, we’ve had roughly six total games throughout history that can be described as “like The Adventure of Link”, so it kind of sticks out.
It’s a shame, too, because this set-up works surprisingly well with the level structure of TMNT. Heck, I’d argue that the overworld overhead perspective and underground “connected dungeons” structure of TMNT NES world works better than in The Adventure of Link. And it’s not just because of the Party Van! Let’s face it, you continue in The Adventure of Link, and the trek back to your favorite palace is more of a slog than anything. That huge, wide-open overworld is great in the beginning, but it’s just another stupid obstacle by about the time you acquire the raft. In TMNT, each level is self-contained and, more importantly, ends. Assuming you’ve got a continue remaining, you don’t ever have to cross the sewers of the first world ever again, and that’s a good thing for anyone that cares about their own time.
Okay, maybe I’m being a little disingenuous. You’re going to see the first level again and again, because, frankly…
This Game is Super Hard
It’s a NES game, so it’s a given that everything is trying to kill you. Also, this was before even the concept of “refill stations” or “save points” existed, so good luck rationing enough pizza to guarantee Donny has a full life meter at all times. And, yes, because Konami (Ultra if you’re nasty) is full of vindictive monsters, there are instant kill traps. If you want to count those Foot Tanks, there are instant kill traps on the first screen. Hope you didn’t pick your favorite turtle to inevitably be squished first!
And the platforming in this game is just plain cruel. See this? See this right here?
I still have nightmares about this jump. Here’s your fun fact for the day! If you, like many poor, scrubby children of the 80’s, used a Game Genie to secure infinite life for your dear turtles, and you missed that one damn jump, the game would permanently freeze, and you’d have to start the whole adventure over again. What I’m saying is that even when you cheat, TMNT finds a way to punish your subpar ninja skills.
And I’ll remind you that this was a game essentially aimed at seven year olds. Konami, the “NES Generation” was already good at videogames at this point, but not this good.
Maybe I’m being hyperbolic. I mean, it’s not like there was an entire level that nobody ever got past.
Oh, right, never mind.
So this is Turtle Power?
This all adds up to a very confusing game. It’s super hard, but made for children. It features the heroic Ninja Turtles and their mortal enemies, Robot with a Jet for a Head and Spikey Wall Guy. There’s The Adventure of Link gameplay, but with the water level nobody ever asked for! When I was a kid, I thought this was as normal as butter sandwiches (RECIPE: butter bread, put on top of other piece of bread, eat), but now, as an adult, I see this is a game as strange as spreading animal fat on couple of slabs of wheat and calling it lunch. I understand licensed games could be anything back in the day, and Konami probably had all of about two hours of lead time to get this project out the door, but it still came out very… confused. Wolverine is a terrible game, but it’s a predictable terrible game. NES TMNT seems to zig every time you might expect a zag, and then you have to fight a mutant hedgehog for some reason.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES is a damn confusing game. It’s also kind of awesome, so, ya know, cowabunga.
FGC #238 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- System: Nintendo Entertainment System. It was also ported to various home computers of the time. Oh, it was also on the Wii Virtual Console for a hot minute, but it got rescinded due to licensing issues. I wonder how many games have actually left the Virtual Console never to return…
- Number of Players: Four turtles, but only one player. Quite the let down for Wee Goggle Bob.
- Favorite Turtle: Donny is best pony. Seriously, is there a reason to use anything other than that enormous bo staff? Donatello can murder Rocksteady without even having to stand up, and that’s to be commended.
- Other Influences: The stage leading up to the Technodrome takes place in a series of caves, and there are floating jellyfish monsters. Now, I’m not saying TMNT ripped off Metroid (mainly because TMNT caves look more like “caves” than the caverns of NES Zebes), but it is a damn weird coincidence. Are, like, cave-based jellyfish creatures a thing in Japan? I’ve never been.
- So, did you beat it? Yes! I even beat it back in the day, but, like Back to the Future, it was one of those deals where I beat the game, saw the very confusing ending (Splinter is human again? Huh?), and then was never able to get back there again (before the advent of savestates). I swear I thought I dreamed that sequence for years…
- Land of the Rising Fun: In the Japanese version, April is identified as Splinter’s daughter, because why not? It’s not like the turtles would rescue a random woman in a yellow jumpsuit for no reason.
- Did you know? The DOS port of TMNT contains an impossible jump in the third stage, so it’s technically impossible to beat without cheating/glitching. This is kind of amusing, because the “impossible jump” is not over an instant kill hazard, so it’s very likely that a lot of poor players banged their heads against that particular wall for years. Okay, I at least know my buddy Matt did that, because he talks about it every damn time someone so much as mentions a ninja turtle…
- Would I play again: This game is weird and confusing, but I kind of love it. I like weird and confusing, evidently. So, yes, I’m probably going to see it back in the NES again before too long.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bobby is Going Home for the Atari! Ah, for the halcyon days of titles giving away the entire plot. Will Bobby make it home? Let’s find out! Please look forward to it!