Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES) Review

Check out our video review:

My friend came to me a while back and asked if I wanted to play through the classic Turtles games. I’ve only played through Turtles in Time and I love that game so I agreed. Shortly after that, the Cowabunga Collection was announced which, needless to say, was amazing timing. Not only that, it contains all the games we want to play. We knew not every game supported multiple players like the first game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES. But he was persistent that I suffer through it just like he did years ago. Developed by Konami and published by Ultra Games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in June, 1989. It was re-released as part of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Collection in 2022. For this review, we played the version in the Collection for PC. I went into this game expecting it to be dated and not much fun and in the end, that’s exactly what it is and I am extremely grateful the Collection comes with a rewind function.

The story follows the Turtles as they track down Shredder who possesses the Life Transformer Gun which is capable of returning Splinter to his human form. The game takes the player to multiple areas and each area centers on a different objective like rescuing April O’Neil and Splinter and prevent the Foot Clan from blowing up a dam. There’s not much I can say about the plot other than it’s exactly what I expected from an NES game like this. The game obviously features characters from the comics but it’s based on the 1987 animated series which was quite different from the source material.

Turtles is primarily a side scrolling action game. Each area consists of multiple levels to navigate. The areas are viewed from a top down perspective and I call them overworlds. You navigate each overworld and must locate the entrances to the levels and if you make to the end of a level, the exit will take you to another location in the overworld. In most cases, you will have to complete levels in a specific order to progress and certain levels will contain items required to progress like missiles for destroying obstacles and rope to reach certain locations.

All four Turtles (Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo) travel together but you can only control one at a time. You can switch between them at any time and they do wield their unique weapons and have their own health bars. Donatello is easily the best since his staff has the longest reach and hits the hardest. It’s the one Turtle you don’t want to lose and you can lose Turtles. By that I mean, they can get captured. If a Turtle “dies”, they are captured and you have to find them in one of the levels to rescue them, or in other words get them back on your team. Each Turtle has different stats or traits and in my opinion, Mikey and Raph suck considering what you’re up against. Their range is terrible and the hitboxes in this game are sometimes bullshit among other issues. In fact, sometimes it’s better to simply avoid enemies rather than engage them. To put it bluntly, this game is just not fun to play.

Due to the game’s age, I fully expected it to not hold my hand and be unforgiving. It doesn’t and it is but it’s also cheap and inconsistent. The level design will often result in situations where you basically have to know what’s coming before you get there. For example, you climb up or down a ladder into a new area and will immediately have to dodge an attack which may seem impossible in some cases. Enemies seem to respawn the moment you leave their part of the screen so if you have to backtrack you have to deal with them again. Not only that, it seems the game randomizes some elements like the enemies that appear but this can be used to your advantage. If you see enemies you don’t want to deal with, you can sometimes leave the area and come back to be greeted by different foes. Foes will sometimes drop sub-weapons that come with ammo and all of them do prove to be useful.

It’s not uncommon to get overwhelmed and the gameplay is very trial-and-error. One of the few positive things I will say about this game is that it does include a good variety of enemies, even if a lot of them are a pain in the ass. One of the worst levels in the game has you swimming through water to find and disarm bombs. Anything not water is basically harmful making this entire level tedious to navigate. Not challenging in a fun way. Just tedious and frustrating. You’ll have to contend with the current, poisonous seaweed, electricity and rotating gears. Thank fuck for the Collection’s rewind function. Funnily enough, most of the area bosses are easier than the levels that precede them and some can even be easily exploited.

Another thing I enjoyed about Turtles is the variety of environments. You’ll navigate sewers and different buildings and each world does feel different with levels showcasing different colors. That and you’ll encounter new enemies as you progress. Even though the game basically has you moving from level to level, it’s not always clear how to progress to the final boss. One world requires you to take a specific route or in other words, navigate through specific levels to reach the end. Some levels don’t lead anywhere but may contain power-ups or pizza which replenishes health so definitely be on the lookout for those. Levels like these will typically require you to backtrack which can be annoying due to the respawning enemies.

The final positive thing I will say about this game is that I don’t hate the audiovisual presentation. It obviously looks like a product of its time but I was impressed with some of the backgrounds. Plus, the music accompanying the action is upbeat and catchy. On the technical side, the game did run as expected. It ran fine for the most part. Slowdown will occur from time to time and the sprite flickering can be annoying but the Collection allows you to remedy these issues.

Ultimately, I don’t like this game and never want to play it again. I just don’t find it to be enjoyable. It’s cheap, frustrating, and I question some of the design choices. I’m well aware many NES games are challenging and unforgiving but Turtles just isn’t fun and that’s my main problem with it. Hitboxes sometimes feel all over the place, the level design is often frustrating, and the game just isn’t fun to play. If it wasn’t for the rewind function of the Collection I would have quit playing long before beating it and never looked back. It’s also not the best representation of the franchise. It doesn’t really convey the charm of the animated series. It’s just a brutal side scroller that fails to be compelling and fun.

I would not recommend Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It sucks. It’s not a great Turtles game, it’s not a great side scroller, it hasn’t aged well, and, worst of all, it’s not fun. Konami has made better games and better side scrollers for the NES. If you’re a TMNT fanatic, you may want to check it out but it’s worth noting that there are so many better Turtles games out there at this point, and ones that are also a better representation of the franchise.

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