LICENSE TO THRILL?: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)

Rod puts down the pizza and picks up a control pad for a TMNT classic on the NES.


Who made it?: Konami (Developer), Konami, Ultra Games, Palcom, US Gold (Publishers).

Genre: Action.

Platforms: NES.

Format: Cartridge.

Released: May 12, 1989.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the very first TMNT game for the NES. There was a sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, obviously a port of the arcade title, and another sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project, which was exclusive to the NES and used the same side scrolling beat-em-up style as TMNT II. This was one of the many NES games I owned when I was a kid. At that time, I had no idea that TMNT was actually based on a comic book and was more serious in tone. The fact that all the turtles wear red bandanas on the cover, just like their comic counterparts, was strange to me because I only knew them from the first animated series. Speaking of which, the famous theme music from the cartoon is absent in this game. However, if you don’t press any buttons at the title screen, you will see a sweet introduction sequence accompanied by some pretty cool music.

As with a large number of NES games, the story in TMNT is very simple, with April O’Neill getting captured to no-one’s surprise. The turtles rescue her and then return to their lair to discover that Master Splinter has also been captured. After he’s rescued, the turtles turn their attention towards the Technodrome so they can infiltrate it, destroy Shredder, and retrieve a Life Transformer Gun in order to return Master Splinter to his human form. Those who are familiar with the franchise will know that Splinter’s origin hasn’t always been consistent, and in one of these origins, he was once a human.

Since this game one player only, you will need to switch between the turtles, which you can do at any point during the game. Each turtle uses their iconic weapons. Donatello is armed with his bo staff; Leonardo has two katana swords (except, in this game, it only looks like he has one; Michaelangelo has his nunchukus; and Raphael sports his sais. Donatello’s bo staff is probably the best and most powerful weapon in the game, and is useful for long-range attacks, both in front of you and above or below you. If you time it right. you can even kill enemies that come from behind Donatello with the opposite tip of the bo staff.

You can also collect sub-weapons, such as missiles for the turtle van, single shot and triple shot shurikens, boomerangs, and a scroll which turns into a large curved beam that inflicts major damage to enemies, and is even effective on bosses. You will only have a certain number of them to use, and each turtle can only have one of these weapons at a time. However, you can spread them out and basically have four different sub-weapons at your disposal. There are also other items you can use, such as missiles for the turtle van, ropes for crossing wide gaps between buildings, and an invincibility item that looks like a turtle’s face and causes one to be impervious to attack. It’ll also enable you to kill enemies with one hit for a few seconds.

You can replenish health by collecting pizzas, of which there are single slices, half a pizza and a whole pizza, and each type gives you a different amount of health. Whenever the strength of one turtle is completely depleted, then that turtle becomes classified as captured and can only be rescued from the third level onwards. Making it harder, only one turtle can be freed per level. The ideal way to avoid capture is to switch between them and ensure that you replenish their health. There’s also a moment where the game openly trolls you in a level with a pizza located in a portion of the screen that is impossible to reach. That’s because there’s two walls of moving spikes as you make your way through gaps in the floor to get to the bottom of the screen. So, even if you get the pizza, you will die every single time. There’s literally no way to get it and survive, too.

In each level, there is a mission map you roam around, and this is from an overhead perspective, similar to The Legend of Zelda. Once you enter an area, the perspective will change to a side view like in Castlevania. In one of the levels, the main mission map allows you to use the turtle van, which can destroy barricades and enemy roller cars by firing missiles at them, and you can also run over any Foot Soldiers that attack you, too. Early in the game, you are faced with your first difficult level, the second half of which takes place underwater and requires you to disarm eight bombs within two minutes and twenty seconds, all the while avoiding electrified seaweed. As a kid, I took a lot of pride in the fact that I was the only one in my family to get past this stage.

When it comes to the enemies in this game, you will face-off against familiar foes like Mousers and the Foot Soldiers. But the rest of the enemies you encounter are completely made up, and this is also one of those games where the bastards will respawn if you go back to a spot where you’ve defeated them before. Besides Bebop and Rocksteady, there are other bosses to defeat, including a turtle similar to Leonardo, a man who wears a rocket suit and fires missiles, a giant Mouser, the Technodrome itself, and of course Shredder, who wears the same colours as he does in both the comic book and the first live-action film. Krang, however, is nowhere to be seen.

There are many moments in this game that can cause headaches, like getting across gaps by simply walking over them instead of trying to jump, causing you to hit your head and fall, no matter how lightly you tap the jump button. Also, in one of the levels where you’re in the sewers, it can be frustrating when you miss a jump and fall into the water, causing your turtle to be washed away, lose a bit of health, and have to start back at the last checkpoint. But at least you don’t have to go back to the start of the entire level, unless you lose all your health and all your turtles have been captured. Overall, it’s a difficult game, and as is usual with a lot of NES titles, you will also come across moments of lag, which were common then due to having multiple enemies on-screen at the same time. It can be annoying when it occurs in tense moments, like when you have very little health and your other turtles are in the same boat.

This game isn’t the best TMNT tie-in from the 8-bit era. For me, it’s one of those games I’ve never managed to beat. It was probably the first NES game I played that was really challenging, and I had yet to play Ninja Gaiden or Contra. From memory, the farthest I ever got was inside the Technodrome, and not even to the end of that level to face-off against Shredder. But, if you’re up for a challenge and love these pizza-chewing heroes, then I would recommend you put your sanity on the line and play this game!

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • The game received mixed reviews, most notably for its high difficulty level, and among fans and critics, it has been widely considered to be one of the most difficult NES games ever made. Despite this, it was a commercial success, selling over four million copies and becoming one of the best-selling titles for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
  • The game was released for the Family Computer (or Famicom) in Japan a few months earlier than the American NES version under the title of Geki Kame Ninja Den, which roughly translates to “Legend of the Radical Ninja Turtles.” This was the first TMNT product released in the country, predating the Japanese dub of both the first film and the animated series, resulting in the unusual name change. Subsequent video games released in Japan kept the franchise’s original title.
  • The game was ported to various home computer platforms in 1990, including the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Atari ST and Amiga. The Spectrum version of the game was number 1 in the UK sales chart from March until August 1991. The DOS version is infamous, as it contains a gap that is impossible to cross without cheating.
  • The game was released as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in all European territories with the exception of Italy, where it kept the American title.

Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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