Level Up: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Here’s a game that no child of the 80’s could pass up: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES. This strangely ambitious game is a far cry from the straight-forward beat-em-ups like Turtles in Time that most know and love. It’s a weird combination of top-down-exploration and side-scrolling action/platforming that’s somewhat similar to Zelda II. The majority of enemies appear nowhere in the Turtles comics or cartoons, the difficulty is rage-inducing, and the level-design is overtly ambiguous. Even the cover, featuring the Turtles uniformly clad in red bandanas and belts, was a funky choice. The thing is, this was the first Turtles game a kid could get his hands on, so everyone had it and played the shit out of it. The game’s quirks were accepted because kids were just pumped to have anything featuring the heroes in a half-shell.
So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a youngin’ in 1989. Watching TMNT on Saturdays is more of a religious experience than going to church on Sunday. You have as many Turtles action figures as you can guilt your parents into buying for you (maybe even the Sewer Set or Technodrome if you have a talent for in-Toys R’ Us crying fits). Your reading list consists exclusively of Nintendo Power and TMNT comics. As the entitled toddler you are, your life is not complete. Your existence screams for the lack of a Nintendo game based on your amphibious saviors.
But wait! What’s that on the shelf? The box is adorned with the lovable logo of Eastman and Laird’s ultimate creation. For a fleeting moment you scratch your head at the Turtles red attire, “Why are there four Raphaels?” Whatever, it must have been a bad laundry day in the sewer. Nothing can come between you and playing TMNT on your NES. (Note that the Turtles all wore red in the original comics, a fact most kids were unaware of).
Depending on how much of a little twerp you are and how much disposable income your parents have you do one of the following:
1. Ask nicely if you can rent the game at your local video store.
2. Beg for the game for your birthday / Christmas / whatever holiday is coming soonest.
3. You’re poor or your parents are hippies. You don’t have an NES and need to go to your friend’s house and help him convince his parents that TMNT for NES is a world-changing experience that will turn any child into a chores-performing, dutiful angel of a child.
4. Demand that your mom/dad purchase the game immediately or risk facing a tantrum that will last the remainder of their life until said game is purchased.
Flash forward to popping the cart into an NES for the first time. The intro starts, the Turtles look kickass. “Hey that’s not the Turtles theme song!” you think for a second, but the tune rocks anyway. Your excitement mounts as you press start and the game begins.
Aaaand…. Why’s this look like Zelda? Maybe if I go down into this sewer…
Now this is more like it! Side scrolling action. It’s what you expect from a Turtles game. I’m killing mousers and foot soldiers in a sewer. It’s childhood bliss. It doesn’t take long before you run into Bebop and Rocksteady dragging a bound and gagged April O’Neil around with them. Besides the odd overworld aspect, it starts off as game any Turtles fan would love.
Then things get weird. Instead of mousers and foot-soldiers you’re fighting dudes made of fire, frog people, Jason Voorhees with a chainsaw and weird insectoid critters that bounce off the ceiling. Remember those from the cartoon? Nope. Not only are these enemies completely absent from the TMNT canon, most are a real pain-in-the-shell to fight.
Once a turtle bites the dust you’ll probably catch onto another unique aspect of the game. You can switch characters at any time. This feature adds a bit of strategy as some turtles are more useful than others. Leonardo and Donatello have the longest range weapons, while Raph and Mikey are pretty useless. If you’re clever you’ll end up sacrificing the cool but crude and the party dude in favor of the turtles that can hit something more than an inch in front of them.
That said, it will take more than strategy to get past the infamously impossible water stage. Oh, you thought turtles were good swimmers? The controls suck, you’re surrounded by electric seaweed and you have to defuse bombs throughout the stage within an excessively short time limit. This stage is a perfect storm of shit and it’s where the game ends for most.
If you manage to get past this point you’ll find out that Shredder has kidnapped Splinter and that this, for some reason calls for you to start riding around the overworld in the turtle van. This is a nice little touch, but for some reason when the van takes damage it just hurts the turtle driving. NES logic, I guess. And yeah, there’s also the Technodrome and a fight with Shredder that I will never see outside of Youtube videos.
What’s amazing to me is the universality of peoples’ experiences with the game. It was one of the most popular NES games, selling over 4 million copies. Everyone remembers being weirded out by the cover, the eclectic variety of enemies and dying on the water level. It’s not a great game, but it’s not the worst by any means and it seems like everyone’s got a bit of love for it, perhaps because it was such a ubiquitous experience for kids of that era.
Check out Evan Sammons’ newly launched personal blog, Exegesis of Evan Sammons.