It’s Hard Out There for a Turtle – Nintendo Entertainment System – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – 1989

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (U) [!]_005

Nintendo Enterainment System
Genre: Action Platformer

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of those games growing up that I remember watching cousins play and struggle through, nearing the end and throwing their controllers as hard as they could when all of that work turned into a nice little Game Over screen. It is not known for being forgiving, and every child of the late 80s/early 90s probably fell prey to the popular brand slapping around their childhood dreams of giving the Shredder his just desserts.

The game has managed a cult status over the years, though, as being a ‘Nintendo Hard’ rite of passage. Having bought this game when I was but a wee innocent lad, I too watched in frustrated horror as one by one, my turtles shrunk into their shells until my continues were used up and I had to restart my agonizing trek. With my now decades old resolve, I decided to take down this ancient juggernaut once and for all.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles follows the characters on their usual fare. April is kidnapped, and the Turtles must rescue her. When they return from their rescue to find their lair ransacked and Splinter missing, the true adventure begins. This includes stopping the Shredder from blowing up a dam, defeating a Mech-Turtle to save Splinter, a various other feats all to find the angry tin can himself and put and end to his world ending desires.

Like in most games, the turtles have their own strengths and weaknesses. The only clear

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (U) [!]_017

Dynamic rooftop fights- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a nutshell

difference here is that Donatello is a powerhouse. He has both the longest weapon and the most strength of the turtles. Now, as you can switch between each of the turtles throughout your adventure, losing one just means that they have been captured, and if you want them back, you’ve got to go out of your way to find them and get them back on the roster.

Word to the wise: if you lose Donatello, just find him and keep him in a safe little bubble until you need him, like a precious gem.

Some other fun mechanics are that the turtles can attack in three directions- forward, up, and down, which comes in handy to attack monsters above you or below you- even through ceilings and floors! The game really does rely on you cheating the system, since most monsters don’t reel back from your attacks if they take more than one hit. They pause, but there will be a lot of places where your breathing room is limited due to advancing adversaries.

There are also special items strewn throughout the game. Some are certainly more useful than the others. Boomerangs, shuriken, and magic scrolls allow your turtles to attack from a bit further away. You can also regain health by finding pizza slices, halves, and whole pies. Another hint: if you find an easy place to grab some health reviving pizzas, running back and forth between the overworld and wherever the pizza is becomes a great way to restore your turtles to full working order.
In the game, there are also two different travel modes, speaking of which. There is an overworld in which your turtle makes their way between sewers and buildings, running into the occasional Foot Soldier to be dispatched or, in less advantageous situations, vehicles that will try to run you over or drop missiles from above. Only two stages really utilize this method of travel to any large extent, and one of those gives you the Party Wagon, the kitted up transport of choice for our four heroes. The remainder of the game is played in usual platforming fashion, making your way through enemies, the occasional

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (U) [!]_031

Seen above: the map, your character status, and April giving probably the best advice she does in the entire game.

mini-boss, and finally a boss for the level, which tends to be some familiar face from the show.
As stated, this game is hard with a capital ‘FU’. It is not impossible, but a few pieces of the design make it almost unbearable. For one- there are so many instant death moments. While swimming to defuse bombs under the dam, seaweed will grab your turtle and pull them to a watery doom. While running through one of the final levels, out of nowhere the walls begin to close in, lined with spikes. If you are touched by them? Turtle gone. Compounded on top of that is that the enemies are unrelenting and some of them take multiple blocks off of your life gauge at a time. While this is normal for any game, the sheer amount of enemies that can be on the screen at a given time coupled with their inability to be kept at bay with attacks can quickly turn this into an unfair display of design.

The other thing I noticed with the game is that the controls consistently feel slippery. Jumping, in particular, goes out of control a good amount of the time, sending you far too high, much too far, or any other number of directions that you didn’t mean to go. While the hit detection in the game is actually pretty good, there also seems to be a problem with attacking upward or downward, like there is a small delay for the game to register that you are trying to attack up or down. In a game where precision is necessary to keep up with the onslaught of obstacles coming at you, this is not a welcome thing to have to learn.

One last note is that there is no password or save function in this game, so unless you want to throw a level select cheat into the title screen, the game needs to be beaten in one sitting. Considering it took me about two hours at least to get through it (and that’s being generous), that just adds to the difficulty of the game.

The exceptions to the grueling difficulty of the game are the bosses. They are not easier by

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (U) [!]_013

This screenshot means more than all other screenshots in this article.

much of a stretch, but if the player has been thorough and explored a bit, they are the most fun part of the game. Not only do we see the usual rogue’s gallery of Bebop and Rocksteady, but a Mecha-Turtle and even the Technodrome make appearances in fun and methodical fights. This seems the be the case in a few Nintendo games of the time, but while they feel well-fought and tough, there is some catharsis to finishing them. While the actual control of the turtles still gets in the way, obviously, the bosses themselves usually prove to be a good time.

There are other quirks that the game has that are interesting and welcome compared to other games. For one, the levels never feel like they last too long. Even the infamous dam level only lasts a little bit of time. The only thing that really draws them out is having to recover your lost characters and working on preserving their life through repeated pizza gorging. Also, unlike in most games, projectiles can almost always be destroyed by hitting them. This creates some interesting tactics to defend yourself throughout the levels, though you can’t always tell which attacks that will work for.

Unlike many other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games of the time, this game does not have bright and vivid graphics and palettes. While not quite as gritty as the tone of the original comics, this feels like it is a much more serious game. Sprites are well enough illustrated, though the capacity of the NES is shown when too many sprites appear on screen. Colors are mostly muted, which makes things like the sky on the rooftops or the flashing seaweed in the swimming level that much more vivid.

There are even small cutscenes here and there that are usually well drawn and carry the dark feel of the game.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (U) [!]_034

C’mon.  Like I could go without a screenshot involving Shredder.

The music is a cavalcade of driving electronic rock in most areas. The blips and boops of the system make the soundtrack incredibly infectious, specifically the Overworld theme. Ironically, divorcing this game even further from the cartoon that everyone knows and loves, the theme song from the popular show does not make one appearance. For once, even the grating sounds from the game feel like they fit in, and the audio meshes together well. While it isn’t exactly symphonic, the music in this game is probably one of my favorites that I’ve played through in recent memory.

This game is such a strange juxtaposition, as it really has almost no influence from the cartoon looking back on it but it still brings up so many memories of it. The game isn’t horrible, but due to a few design choices, it is incorrigibly difficult. Do not expect to get through this game the first, second, or even fifth time at it. With enough trial and error, running through the game can easily become rote- but it takes getting to that point to really conquer Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If you’ve ever been interested in reliving or experiencing ‘Nintendo Hard’ for the first time, this would be the perfect place to start.

2 thoughts on “It’s Hard Out There for a Turtle – Nintendo Entertainment System – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – 1989

  1. The furthest I have ever gotten was the roof tops, I thought I was near the end… It took me maybe 2 hours to get there, and that was roughly half way. So as well as being hard in places, it is very long.

    I always liked the Dam level as a kid, I don’t know if I played it so much, but when I play it every few years I instictively know where to go in the water level, and never die on it.

    And, I. LOVE. THE. MUSIC.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The length really is a killer in this game- especially since it’s all of five stages long!

      I vaguely remembered the rooftops from playing a long time ago, but man, as much as I wanted to like the Dam level growing up, I think age has made me appreciate it a little more. When I was younger, I lost so many turtles to that damn seaweed!

      Seriously- I didn’t realize how much I loved the music until a couple of days later writing this and looking up every track I could to listen to it again. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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