Ah, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One of the first toy phenomena I really remember as a kid. This was in part due to the cartoon series, although I want to say I actually remember first hearing about them via this video game. Either way, though, their original incarnation was a surprisingly gritty comic book series. From there, it expanded to a cartoon series (Which the Turtles’ creators, Eastman and Laird, weren’t all that involved with–realizing they didn’t know the first thing about making cartoons, they essentially hired a bunch of people who did know a thing or two about that world and told them “Go do your thing.”), a print magazine, and numerous video games.
Released in 1989 by Ultra Games (Another name for Konami), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stars the titular reptiles. The game begins with April O’Neil getting kidnapped by Shredder. It’s up to the Turtles to save her, and from there, the rest of the game’s plot unfolds, culminating with a showdown with Shredder himself inside the Technodrome.
To do this, you’ll use the abilities of each of the four Turtles in the appropriate situations. Or, at least, that’s the idea. You’ll discover, however, that a more accurate name for this game would have been “The Adventures of Donatello, Occasionally Guest-Starring the Other Ninja Turtles”. Each turtle theoretically has strengths (Leonardo’s Katana travels in a wide arc; Raphael has the quickest attack speed) and weaknesses (Raphael has almost no range on his Sai; Donatello has by far the slowest attack speed). But the game is designed such that Donatello’s strengths (His power and long range) are by far the best. Even better, his primary weakness (His slow attack speed) is neutralized by the fact that most enemies–at least the ones Donatello doesn’t kill in one hit–have invincibility frames, meaning they can’t be damaged beyond a certain speed anyway…a speed which almost perfectly coincides with Don’s attack speed.
Despite Don’s overpoweredness, or maybe because of it, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a difficult, unforgiving game. Your four turtles, whom you can switch between at any point, effectively function as “lives”, except when you lose a turtle, you don’t get the health of the other turtles refilled. In each level (Except level 2), you can recover exactly one captured turtle–“captured” being what happens when a turtle runs out of health in the game. Lose all four Turtles and you can continue…twice. Losing them a third time is Game Over, back to the start for you. And this doesn’t get into the numerous insta-death obstacles, from seaweed, to fire, to slowly closing-in spiked walls. That which doesn’t kill you, well, it tends to still hurt a lot.
Your best chance of survival is to find areas where there are pizzas near the entrance of an area and repeatedly exit and re-enter the area to power up your Turtles. Even then, though, the game won’t be easy–there are three infamous “problem” areas that trip people up. The first is disarming the bombs in Area 2–you have a little over 2 minutes to disarm 8 bombs in a dam, while wrestling with slippery controls and numerous lethal obstacles. Then there’s the entirety of Area 3. While it’s not super difficult, relatively speaking, once you know where to go, navigating the massive area is a challenge your first time or ten–I wandered around and never actually found the end when I was younger.
Then there’s the final area, the Technodrome. It’s divided into three areas, and while the first two aren’t easy, it’s the third that removes people’s will to live. It’s full of whirlybirds and, more dangerously, laser soldiers. These guys are the icing on a poisoned cake–even Don takes three to four hits to kill them, and they’re strong enough to drain all your energy in about 6 hits. And oh yeah, if you die in this third and final section of the Technodrome, you may as well say goodbye to that particular credit–because you get sent back to the first section of the Technodrome, minus any other energy you lost getting to that point.
Honestly, if this game weren’t released at the height of Turtlemania in the US, it wouldn’t be fondly remembered at all. The game is hard, and the controls are strange and floaty, especially jumping. It’s a game that illustrates the problem with licensed games pretty well. Thankfully, the next several Turtles games would be much more fun, especially with two players. This one, though, is a lonely, frustrating experience.