Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – NES
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Publisher: Ultra Games
Release: June 1989 (NA)
Nerd Rating: 6/10
Reviewed By: FrozenMallet
Gamers decided that the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game on the NES is better than Mega Man 2.
Well, sort of. In the age of internet retro reviewers the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game on the NES has become a popular target to bash on. Maybe it is because the turtles are a beloved franchise that was just as popular then as it is now. Maybe it is because out of the library of turtle games this first NES effort is the most different from the others and isn’t what modern gamers would expect. Whatever the reason may be everyone seems to have forgotten that this game won Nintendo Power’s Game of the Year award in 1989. Critics of the time may have given this game mixed reviews but the Nintendo Power game awards were voted on by the readers, the gamers who played the games. We were the ones that really counted when it came to choosing what were the best games, right? There is no way we could all get this one wrong. Other notable nominees for Game of the Year in 1989: Ninja Gaiden, Zelda 2, DuckTales, Tetris, and of course Mega Man 2.
So in essence, we decided that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a superior game to Mega Man 2.
Why all the hate now? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a bad game, at least not bad in the conventional sense. The game doesn’t have broken controls or terrible graphics or annoying sound. But it can be an extremely frustrating experience. Most players never get past the second stage: the infamous dam level. The turtles have only two minutes to disarm eight bombs before that damn dam blows up. Even if you know where all the bombs are located, two minutes is just barely enough time to disarm them all. You can’t just splash around washing your turtle balls, especially when having to take the time to avoid the hazards like electric coral and that seaweed that will drag a turtle to his death like Artax in the Swamp of Sadness.
However, players that persevere to save the dam will be treated to a short cut scene that moves the story along. The cut scene lacked the polish and drama of those found in Ninja Gaiden, but it was still a nice reward to the player. It made saving the dam feel like an actual accomplishment. The first time I saw it I was about 10 and I could barely concentrate on what was happening on the screen as I was almost dizzy with elation. Keep in mind this was before Game Genie. Your turtle stops at the last disarmed bomb and does a muscle pose exclaiming “OK!”. Ok? Did the programmers realize what an accomplishment this was? Ok doesn’t begin to cover it. More like, “Fuck yeah!”
The music is pleasing also. While the theme of the 1987 cartoon show is never recreated in 8-bit glory for this game, it captures the mood well. Most of the music manages to convey a tense feel while still having a sense of light-heartedness. After all we are playing a game about big turtles who eat pizza.
The turtles themselves are well represented as well. All four turtles are present and they all have differences that extend past the color mask they wear. The turtles all move at the same speed and have the same jumping ability, but each turtle’s chosen weapon gives them each their own unique strengths and weaknesses. For example, Donatello may have the longest reach with his bo staff but his bo thrust is a slow attack which leaves him open to take hits from enemies at close range; Raphael may attack quickly with his sai but he also has the shortest reach of the turtles, but this is countered by his sai doing the most damage.
One of the most common complaints about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the enemy selection. As in, where did these things come from? The man made of fire, the guy with the chainsaw? These things had nothing to do with the turtles. With the exception of a few level bosses there are very few enemies the turtles face off against that are familiar in any way. These enemies look like Konami had a bunch of unused sprites from other games and decided to just throw them into this game.
Which isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes game designers will make decisions like this to add variety to a game’s visuals. In DuckTales Scrooge McDuck is fighting gorillas in the Amazon rainforest and I don’t recall that ever happening in the cartoon series. No one even complained that this made no sense because there are no apes of any kind in the rainforest. The reason the gorillas are there is because the trees are there, it makes sense visually so we all just go with it. This is the opposite of what happens in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the man made of fire is just as likely to be found in a building, at the dam, or even in the sewers. Our brains don’t know what to do with these conflicting images so we reject them.
So, with all that being said what do we have? We have a game where familiar heroes are represented fairly well, with decent graphics, and an exceptional music score. Why all the disdain? Aside from the unforgiving difficulty, this one is just different. Most Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games since this one have been hack and slash beat ’em ups. And if there is one thing that gamers hate it’s things that are different.
That must mean Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is automatically bad, right? Of course not. This isn’t the only game to suffer the wrath of gamers for being different. Castlevania 2, Zelda 2, and Super Mario Bros. 2 (the U.S. version) are all different from their predecessors and are widely looked upon as the low point of their respective series. Well, Castlevania 2 was scooped up off the bottom when Castlevania went 3D on Nintendo 64 but you get my point.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a solid game. Not great, not even above average but also not as bad as some current reviewers may lead their audiences to believe. However it’s also nowhere near as good as we thought in 1989. It just hasn’t aged very well. Contemporaries like Mega Man 2, Ninja Gaiden, DuckTales, Super Mario Bros. 2, and to some extent Zelda 2 have all aged much more gracefully and remained accessible to gamers of the modern age.
So why did we think this game was so great back then? I have no idea. Aside from all of us just wanting it to be good because we loved the turtles, my only other answer is it was the 80’s. We all had mullets and watched Saved by the Bell and listened to hair bands. It was just a crazy time.
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