Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

April O’Neil’s mullet game is fierce indeed!

I’ve really been looking forward to this one. Not since Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Battletoads have I taken on such a divisive “love it or hate it” title.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, it’s background time. TMNT is a single player action platforming game with exploration elements that was released in 1989 by Konami. Outside Japan, the game was published by a pair of Konami front companies: Ultra and Palcom. This was done in order to get around Nintendo’s strict restrictions on the number of games a third party developer could release for the NES in a single year. Strangely enough, the relationship between the two companies was so good during this time that this arrangement had Nintendo’s tacit approval, which I’m sure must have sown some serious resentment among other, less favored NES developers.

The Turtles themselves were created in 1984 by independent comic book artist/writers Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a parody of the new wave of grim and gritty urban superhero comics by the likes of Frank Miller. Eastman and Laird’s wry comics relied on the contrast between the forboding Gothic cityscapes, hardboiled dialog, and intense violence of those works and the most absurd set of protagonists the writers could imagine: Teenage mutant ninja turtles! The result was pretty great, but its appeal was largely limited to well-read comics fans savvy enough to appreciate the joke. In 1987, one of the defining (and least likely) moments in the history of children’s entertainment occured when this obscure niche property had its violent and satirical edges filed off and became a smash hit cartoon series, spawning the terrapin merchandising empire we’ve all come to know.

I never was much of a Turtles fan as a kid. I think it hit just a little too late for me, since my interest in toys and action figures peaked around ages 5-8 in the era of He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Thundercats. By the late 80s, I was all about the video games.

This original TMNT title by Konami was not only their first ever appearance in a video game but also the first piece of Turtles-related media to ever hit Japan. They must have been very confused, because this is one strange game and most of the characters you encounter don’t seem to have been taken from the comics or the cartoon. In fact, the lack of recognizable enemies is a common point of criticism from dedicated Turtles fans. While I can sympathize to a degree, this “weird random enemies” factor is easy enough to justify as a product of the times; an NES thing. Certainly it didn’t prevent me from enjoying Sunsoft’s Batman or Capcom’s Willow and I’m more of a fan of those films than I am the TMNT cartoon.

The plot of TMNT is actually pretty dynamic for an action game of the time. In the first stage, you start out looking to rescue your extraordinarily kidnap-prone reporter friend April from mutant baddies Bebop and Rocksteady. After that, she tells you that the Foot Clan is going to blow up a dam and flood the city. Save the dam and you return home to discover that your ninja mentor Splinter has been kidnapped, and so on. It’s not exactly profound stuff, but it’s more than the single simple goal you’re given to last you through most 8-bit games.

Each of TMNT’s six stages except the final one consists of two gameplay modes: A overhead view of the city where you travel around on foot or by Turtle Van looking for buildings and sewers to explore and a side view action mode for indoor areas. You can switch between the four turtles at any time in both modes and each has his own supply of health. The golden rule here is that it’s always better to switch to a different turtle rather than allowing your current one to run out of health. “Dead” turtles aren’t gone forever, since the game states that they’ve actually been captured by the enemy. Most stages have spots where you can rescue a captured turtle, but it’s usually in a difficult part of the stage that’s off the main path, so you really want to avoid having to do this if at all possible.

The overhead segments aren’t particularly exciting, despite the presence of some simplified combat with a few basic enemy types. They mostly exist to link together the various buildings, sewers, and tunnels where the real action takes place.

Once indoors, your turtles can jump, crouch, and swing their signature ninja weapons straight ahead, up, or down. You can also find various sub-weapons in the form of ninja stars, boomerangs, and the almighty magic scrolls. These will extend your attack range greatly, but have limited shots. As a nice touch, however, your boomerang shots won’t decrease if you catch each one on the rebound. Since balance within your party is an issue (one I’ll address in more detail below), these sub-weapons are very important for the turtles with weaker primary weapon attacks. One final important pickup is the health restoring pizza. When you find a pizza, make sure to use it well by switching to a turtle with low health before grabbing it. Remember its location, too, since pizzas and other items will replenish when you exit and re-enter an area and “farming” these items as needed makes your quest much easier.

Overall, I really like the action in these side-view portions. They control a lot like those in an earlier Konami title I played recently: The 1987 Japan exclusive Getsu Fūma Den for Famicom. The Turtles walk slower and jump higher than Fūma does in that game, but the overall feel is very similar. This also extends to the large gallery of grotesque enemies that re-spawn readily and often take multiple hits to kill. In fact, you can think of TMNT as a whole as a bit of a spiritual sequel to Getsu Fūma Den, except without the clunky 3D mazes. It also has some striking visual similarities with yet another past Konami game: The Goonies II. Some of the building interiors resemble those in Goonies II, the map on the pause screen is similar, and the boomerang weapon handles almost identically.

One thing that takes some getting used to is the jumping controls. A light tap will make your turtle do a short hop and holding the button down will make them go into a somersault and gain much more height at the expense of precision. Once you’ve mastered doing the right jump in the right situation, the platforming becomes quite managable but if you somersault when you should be doing the hop (or vice versa), you’re going to have a bad time.

I also really liked the graphics and sound in TMNT. Instead of trying to make it look like the cartoon show, the artists opted for a grittier style that more closely resembles the comics. Nothing in this game in cute, that’s for sure. It’s quite a difference from the more colorful style adopted for later Turtles games like the well-known arcade beat-’em-ups. They even packed in a lot of nice little details, such as each turtle being a different shade of green. The music is all original, with the exception of a couple second riff on the cartoon’s main theme that plays when you defeat a boss. It’s excellent stuff and even has a bit of a funky side, much like the tracks in The Adventures of Bayou Billy, also by the same composer.

So why is this game so controversial? I already mentioned the lack of callbacks to the cartoon but the main gameplay related reason lies in its similarity to yet another earlier title: Blaster Master by Sunsoft. Yes, TMNT has a big world with branching paths and lots of exploration coupled with plenty of deadly enemies and limited lives and continues. Lose all your turtles and you can continue exactly twice from the start of the current stage before you have to start the game over. Thankfully, the same sort of approach that works well in Blaster Master also works in TMNT: Take it slow and methodical while keeping your strength up by farming health and weapons whenever you get low. It definitely works. I got kicked back to the title screen twice during my six hours with the game and I was only able to finally make it through the hell that is the final stretch of the Technodrome and defeat Shredder after spending a good chunk of time loading my whole party to the brim with magic scroll sub-weapons. Still, it’s a tough game and this sort of patient and cautious playstyle probably didn’t appeal to many young TMNT fans who picked up this game around the time of its release hoping for some lighthearted instant gratification.

I don’t believe in holding a game’s difficulty against it, however. Some games are harder than others and that’s okay. I do have a couple more serious issues with TMNT, though: The party balancing and the boss encounters.

To put it bluntly, Michaelangelo and Raphael are dreadful without a decent sub-weapon. They have almost no reach with their main attacks. Leonardo has more reach at least, though his power is mediocre. Leo’s okay. At the other end of the spectrum, Donatello is a veritable reptilian WMD with his bo staff. He has the best power and reach by far. His strikes are the slowest, but even this doesn’t matter all that much, since he still kills tough enemies faster overall due to his sheer power. I suppose in MMORPG terms, you’d say he has the best DPS (damage per second) combined with the best range. The only real question I have is why? What was the thinking behind designing Don this way and making Mike’s nunchaku both short range and weak? I just don’t understand how this could have been seen as good design, even in the abstract. Oh well. Bottom line: Always make sure Mike and Raph have plenty of sub-weapons on hand or you’ll regret it.

And the bosses? Well, they’re just not very intimidating or fun to fight, with the sole exception of the Technodrome in level five. Shredder himself is one of the easiest final bosses ever and even some of the common enemies in the later levels are significantly more dangerous than he is. It’s a missed opportunity to be sure, though at least the stages themselves are long and difficult enough that you still get a nice sense of accomplishment from finishing them.

For me, this just makes TMNT a flawed game, not a generally poor one. In fact, I think it’s quite good, with solid action and satisfying challenge coupled with very nice overall presentation. Sales figures and critical reception at the time of release support me on this. TMNT won Nintendo Power magazine’s “game of the year” award in 1989 and even became a pack-in game with the NES in Europe, effectively replacing Nintendo’s own Mario!

So where did all the hate come from? While I don’t doubt that not everyone loved TMNT back in the day, I largely credit one James Rolfe for its current pariah status. Rolfe is a filmmaker and YouTube personality best know for his series The Angry Video Game Nerd, in which he plays the title character. TMNT was the subject of the one of the earliest AVGN episodes back in 2006, in which the Nerd character railed against the game (particularly the second level, the dam, which is actually the shortest and perhaps easiest of them all) and coined the salty catchphrase “Cowabunga? Cowa-fucking piece of dog shit!”

Of course, the Angry Video Game Nerd is a fictional character and Rolfe clearly intends his work to be slapstick entertainment and not formal criticism but, with AVGN being one of the first big YouTube breakout series focusing on retro gaming content, it turns out that even a fictional angry nerd’s opinion can be highly influential. The end result of all this is a former game of the year condemned to infamous stinker status. Curse you, Internet Gaming Hive Mind! If only I had a proper flesh and blood archenemy I could shoot ninja scrolls at instead of you.

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