If you like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you will not like this game. If you do not like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you really will not like this game. I get the feeling Ultra, the company responsible for this mistake, never even watched the Ninja Turtles show. They included the bare minimum of reference points to the franchise to claim it was a licensed game. And what's worse, everyone bought it. Did you know Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the sixth highest-selling NES game of all time? That also earns it the dubious distinction of being the highest-selling rancid-bowl-of-garbage-soup game on the system.
The first thing you see when you start up the game is Leonardo standing on allegedly the streets of New York City. This is a lie. Nothing on the screen reminds one even remotely of New York City, and most of what you'll see is just random tiles of graphics tossed together, like the "trees" between buildings. The second thing you'll notice is a steamroller appearing practically on top of you the moment you round the first corner. It will instantly kill you and you will restart the level. You are incapable of damaging it. What a way to start the game. Every stage but the final one has some such overworld screen, from which you get from action area to action area, usually consisting of sewers or buildings. On one of these you get to ride around in the Party Wagon, but even that's lame as balls - it shares a health bar with your turtles, has only one weapon by default, and can't kill those freaking steamrollers with one shot (meaning they'll run over you before you can destroy them).
The plot is as weak as you might expect. When the game opens, April O'Neil is kidnapped by Bebop and Rocksteady. Splinter sends you out after her, though at no point in the game do you even realize that this is your mission until you accidentally bump into Bebop and see April all tied up on a ledge with Rocksteady. Which means that for the first while, with no clue of where to go, you're just sort of wondering what's going on. When you finally rescue April, you have to stop a terrorist plot, and then Splinter gets kidnapped. Shredder informs you of this by possessing your television set and talking to you while inexplicably sticking his hand out of the screen. When you save Splinter you have to track down the Foot Clan to their camp, find the Technodrome somewhere underground, and eventually kill Shredder. It's as simple and dull as you'd expect.
Whenever you enter a building or sewer from the overworld, the game becomes a sidescrolling action title, but one of the most ridiculous ones you can think of. Ultra just programmed in as many irrelevant and stupid obstacles as they could, such as sewers full of conveyor belts, or instant-kill lava, or yes, even magnets that pull the turtles into spikes. How in the world does a magnet, which functions by attracting metal, suck in a reptile? And even if I were to accept that there could be such a magnet, I'm positive it wouldn't look like that crap.
As for the turtles themselves, problems galore. They are all unique in terms of attacking, but there isn't anything close to a balance here. Donatello is far and away the best turtle in the game. His bo does more damage than any other turtle's weapon, and has the best reach as well. Leonardo has almost the same amount of reach with his katana, but he's really weak. Raphael has a decent amount of strength, but his sais have no range whatsoever, so he virtually can't hit anything without being hit himself. Michelangelo has gimpy range (barely more than Raphael) and is the weakest turtle in terms of damage. Neither Raphael nor Michelangelo can attack downward, either. Only Leonardo or Donatello can hit an enemy below them. So you'll basically be playing the entire game as Donatello, unless you need to switch turtles for health purposes, which you can do at any time on the pause screen, instantly.
And that's the other thing. Each turtle has a health bar, but it will deplete a lot quicker than you might think. There is only a split second of invulnerability after being hit, so you'll touch an enemy and often get hit three or four times consecutively before you can move. You collect pizza to recharge your health, but because the pizza disappears, you have to choose which turtle you want to stay alive (always Donatello). If any one of your turtles dies, he is "captured" and you have to restart the area with your remaining turtles at their remaining health. So if all your guys were low on life, and one dies, you will lose all your progress on that level and have to start from the beginning with everyone dead in a single hit. Isn't that fun? If (when) all your turtles die, you get the game over screen and the choice to continue, which starts you at the beginning of the stage with all four turtles at full health. But you only get two continues for the whole game, which means you really have to be perfect as you play. Using a continue before Shredder's level virtually guarantees your failure.
I can even complain about the map screen. In the past, I've rightfully decried the lack of a map function in games. But what is this nonsense? I can't tell what's going on in this map at all, and it's the simplest one in the game. The third stage of the game is essentially an enormous maze to go find Splinter, but you have no idea where he's being held. And when you're looking at a map that's just red with some white dots, it really doesn't help you figure out where you need to be going. It's salt in the wound then when April or Splinter starts yapping at you when you're trying to make sense of it. Usually April will tell you that "You have my support," which is about as worthless as a wheelchair to an armless man, and Splinter will say "You can do it" after telling you something that's either obvious or hard as hell. There is no in-between. And then, as you see above, sometimes April just asks to be smacked in the mouth. Don't you have some news to report or something? Like, "This just in: I'm a rotten skank?"
The only good news is that the game has some bonus weapons the turtles can collect. Killing enemies will occasionally yield one of three different weapons, all of which have limited ammo. The first is a ninja star, which does as much damage as Donatello's staff. Which means Donatello is better off just attacking, since his staff can hit multiple people at once and the ninja star can't. Why's he so good? More to the point, why are the other turtles so bad? You can also get a triple star, which throws three at once in a spread pattern, which would be useful if they didn't fire so slowly. Then there's the boomerang, which is actually nice, though it only travels a short range before returning. At least when it returns to you, you get to save the ammo on it. Here's a trick too: you can throw a boomerang with one turtle, switch to another, then let the boomerang return to you. Now that turtle has boomerangs. Nothing like cheating the system, eh? Finally, there is the ultimate weapon, the scroll. Yes, the ultimate weapon you can acquire in this game is literally a rolled up piece of paper. And what does it do when shot? Naturally it creates a shock wave that rips through enemies and does massive damage. As if paper could do anything else. Pfft. You people.
But you know where devastatingly powerful scraps of parchment don't matter? In the melon farming son of a biscuit water stage. This may well be the worst water level I have ever seen, and it's only the second stage of the game. Where do I even start? It's supposed to be in the Hudson River, where the Foot Clan has planted eight bombs to destroy the dam. Stop right there. The Federal Dam in the Hudson isn't anywhere near Manhattan. It's actually closer to Troy, New York. So already this situation is nonsensical. Continuing though, we see that there are devices underwater which shoot electrical bolts vertically, and the turtles have to time their swimming to avoid them. Let's pause there again. If these devices are firing electric currents underwater, the whole river is boned. At the very least, the whole of the stage should be. The fact that you don't start the stage off watching yourself get electrocuted just indicts this stage further. Next up, we see that there is seaweed all over the place. This seaweed is also electrified, so that touching it injures you. And there are currents that push you into the seaweed, meaning you have a hell of a time not touching any. Which as we know from the way the game chains hits against you, means your health will deplete rapidly until death. Now let's stop there again. Seaweed can only occur in saltwater, or at least brackish water (mixed salt and fresh water). The Lower Hudson is indeed brackish, but if this actually takes place at the dam, which we said is upriver and upstate, then seaweed can't exist. Nevermind that it's electrified, which violates the other problems we've discussed.
There are rotating wheels of barbs in there. I know the Hudson is polluted, but give me a break. Nobody has polluted the river with multiple rotating lines of barbs. They just haven't. Why is that there? And what about that orange crap near the bottom left of the picture? Well, I'm not even sure what it's supposed to be, but I know that if any part of you touches it, it grabs you and pulls you under. Instant kill. Now let me get this straight. You, a turtle, which by nature is a marine-based reptile, are doomed to death because something pulled you a little deeper into the water? Ridiculous. And of course, this means you have to go back with less health to the beginning of the level with another turtle. At least the bombs you've already disarmed stay that way. And oh yeah, this entire time, you have a timer counting down to detonation. If the timer reaches zero and you haven't gotten to all the bombs, which is a virtual guarantee if you don't have the level memorized, it is an automatic game over. Not a loss of a turtle. A game over. And even if you win, you have to watch a long, unskippable, irritating cutscene. It makes me want to strangle myself with electrified seaweed.
Enemies. There are a lot of them. No, like really. A lot of them. If at any point the spawn point of an enemy enters your screen, the enemy appears. Which sounds normal, except that I really do mean at any point. Even if you're already fighting that same enemy. You might be moving around in combat to fight it and happen to walk away from the spawn, and then happen to move back near it. Which means another one appears and attacks. And you don't even have a clue as to what will appear, because it's all random. The game has random sets of enemies for each area and will change them at will, even partway through the area. There's just nothing you can do except prepare for every possible enemy at every possible time. And the enemies themselves by and large have absolutely nothing to do with Ninja Turtles. There are mousers and foot soldiers, sure. But it really ends about there. The rest of the time you're fighting cyborgs with chainsaws, exceedingly angry guys on jetpacks with laser rifles, balloons that drop missiles on your head (?), walking incarnate fire that constantly reproduces asexually at you as a weapon...the list goes on.
And you know what's really infuriating? Jumping. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles utilizes a pressure-sensitive jump system, so that pressing the button fully makes you flip really high, and tapping it makes you do a little hop. Neither is easy to control precisely, which is a huge problem in the areas that require you to leap onto single squares of terrain. Even worse, in many of these spots, missing a jump has you land in some water. The turtles then flail helplessly and have to restart the area. What the hell! Didn't you just do an entire level revolving around swimming underwater? How did you forget how to swim in the past 15 minutes? It's mind-numbing.
So with a game this stupid, frustrating, and difficult you would expect the bosses to be virtually impossible, yeah? Wrong. If at any time during the game any of the bosses hits you a single time, you probably suck. If you're using Donatello, and you absolutely should be, they're all so easy it's just confusing. Bebop just runs back and forth and you can chase him around hitting him until he dies. With Rocksteady, you can jump up on some boxes, attack downward, and pummel the crap out of him while he runs at a wall like a moron. There's a robotic evil turtle that you can just launch scrolls at and kill in 10 seconds while he forgets how to hit you. There's this giant mouser which can be attacked in his mouth by just standing below him and attacking up (which also kills all the little guys he spawns, as well as avoids all his other attacks). You can just throw ninja stars and crap at the Technodrome tank until everything that can hurt you is destroyed...without ever even getting near it. And Shredder? Shredder will literally jump into your staff over and over until he dies. Which is a good thing, because he has a gun that instantly kills you, and if any turtle loses to him you restart the entire level again.
Playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is like having an extramarital affair with a brain-dead vegetable. It's pointless, not enjoyable or rewarding at all, and yet you're still morally wrong for doing it. The ending to this game is as terrible as the beginning and middle are. The only time you aren't playing as Donatello is when he's low on life or you're in that freaking dam, because then you can use Michelangelo as seaweed fodder to save your useful turtles. This game is six stages of "action" that belong more in a sewer than the turtles themselves do. It doesn't even ever play the Ninja Turtles theme. And yet it sold millions of copies. Were you one of the suckers who got duped into buying this game based solely on the license? Shame on you.
Bottom Line: 4/20