Retro Games Rediscovered: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


I’m in the age bracket where I grew up with the Ninja Turtles.  I never got into the comics, but I played the first two Nintendo games, the original Turtles game on PC, the arcade game, The Manhattan Project a couple of times, Turtles in Time on the SNES, had several of the original action figures (unlike my cousin who had them all), watched the animated series as often as I could, and watched the first three movies all in the theater.  In fact, I will date myself so far as to say that I watched the original movie in these things us Ancients refer to as drive-ins.  I both loved and still love the Turtles. 

There’s a certain bit of nostalgia with them that will never grow old or leave me, regardless of how much nightmare fuel Michael Bay tries to eke out of the franchise.  And although they are probably more superhero adjacent than anything, as part of July’s Supers festivities I wanted to review the first few games in the series.  When I played these games as a kid there was always a mixture of frustration and awe with the series, especially the earlier games.  Hopefully after picking them up again after 30 years my thoughts will have changed.  But we’ll see.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Original TMNT box art.  Copyright Konami.

This is the game that started it all.  I played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles originally on the NES and later on a buddy’s PC.  For the article purposes I’m focusing on the NES version.  This game was released by Konami in 1989 and is a single player, side-scrolling, action platformer.  Players select which Turtle they will start playing as and can switch between characters as required in different sections.  Different characters have certain strengths and weaknesses for situations.  Raphael with his sai’s is very fast but does little damage and forces players to get in close to enemies.  On the opposite end we have Donatello with his bo staff that hits hard and gives players some distance from enemies but is very slow.  Players can also gather various power ups in each level.  Active power ups, such as ninja stars and boomerangs, can be used directly against enemies.  Passive power ups, such as ropes and missiles for the Party Wagon, allow players to unlock new map sections. 

Players can also perform attacks standing, kneeling, upwards while standing, and jumping.  Lastly, players essentially have four lives (one with each character).  Once a character is reduced to zero health, they are taken captive and can be found and released in different spots on subsequent levels, adding them back into your available roster.  Within each level is a specific objective, such as rescue April O’Neil or Master Splinter, or find/infiltrate the Technodrome.  While each objective is straightforward, getting to them is not.  While there are only five levels in the game, three of those require players to traverse an over world map and find the correct path to the objective, so there is a bit of exploring involved.

Leo fights Bebop TMNT on NES.

My reaction is pretty cut and dry: I hate this game.  As a kid I only ever made to the end of level four without Game Genie cheats, and even then, I only beat it once.  There are even a few weapons and objects that will instakill your character just by touching it, like spiked walls or seaweed while swimming in Level 2.  Fortunately, these are far and few between.  There are several sections throughout the game where the frame rate drops and it gets super laggy, making movement and combat difficult.  Plus, there are a couple of different jumps in later levels that are just terrible and incredibly difficult to pull off.  Exploration gets easily frustrating as well, especially in the Airfield (Level 3).  There are a few points where you are required to use ropes to get to the next building, and if you don’t manage this precious resource you’ll quickly run out and become stuck in a section you can’t get out of.  This was a game growing up where I knew my player limits and would quickly pass on the opportunity to play it.  When I saw Level 3 approaching, I knew my run was soon to be over.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game

TMNT II: The Arcade Game box art.  Copyright Konami.

Moving along to the next offering I have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game.  Keeping in the same vein we played the NES version versus the arcade game.  This was again released by Konami as an arcade game in 1989 and ported to the NES in 1990.  The NES port is a two player, side-scrolling action game, but this time there is a three-dimensional element added in.  Players can choose one of the Turtles and this time players have both a life bar and a starting number of lives.  Once players lose their final life they can choose to continue and either play the same character or choose a different one.  If there are two players and one runs completely out of lives, they can use additional lives that the remaining player has before having to use a continue. 

This time around Foot Soldiers are color coded based on the type of attacks they perform, and players see the introduction of Roadkill Rodney, robots, and mousers.  Players are also introduced to a point system for defeating enemies, and an extra life is granted for reaching certain point totals.  Additionally, players have a standard attack, can drop kick enemies, and can perform a heavy attack by pressing the attack and jump buttons at the same time.  The story is super simple: April and Master Splinter are captured by Shredder and the Foot Clan, and the Turtles give chase to rescue them.

Comparison shot of TMNT II in the arcade versus NES.

For me, the game is okay for single player but much more enjoyable with a friend.  It’s hard, and I won’t pull any punches there.  Plus, there is only one difficulty level so there isn’t a way to tone down the harder parts.  Finally, toss in that this is an arcade port of an NES game, you’ll quickly find that the graphic and audio qualities aren’t there.  However, what is has going for it are the varied enemies, additional boss characters, jump attacks, AND the ability to move vertically on the screen.  You could argue that any changes made over the last game are an improvement, and I’d completely agree.  But what’s nice is that you can start seeing the direction that designers were taking TMNT games. And I like it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time

Box art for TMNT IV: Turtles in Time.  Copyright Konami.

Lastly, I played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time.  Full disclosure: I skipped Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project for no real reason, other than wanting to skip it.  I had played it a couple of times back in junior high but really wanted to focus on what I feel is the better game: TMNT IV.  That said, this was also released by Konami (1992) and is a side scrolling action game with a three-dimensional depth to it.  Foot Soldiers are once again color-coded based on what else they can do/what weapons they are armed with. Roadkill Rodneys and mousers are present. Rock Soldiers are introduced, and both many classic bosses return and new ones are introduced (looking at you, Leatherhead).  Players can select one of the four Turtles and again have both a life bar for individual lives and a lives pool they can draw from once their life bar reaches zero.  Once all lives are lost for a character, the player is given the option to continue, and if they choose to continue, players can choose a different Turtle to play as.  The number of continues is based on the game’s difficulty level and can be changed in the options menu before play starts.  Additionally, players can start with more lives than the standard three that are given. 

We also see the return of the points system and receiving extra lives when reaching a certain threshold.  What’s neat is that there are a couple of nifty changes in this version over TMNT II.  First is that when stunned, you can grab Foot Soldiers by the arm and pound them back and forth in an overhead swing.  This is great for clearing out a group of enemies.  Next is that you can stun enemies and either flip or spin-toss them towards the camera.  While not just a cool visual to eliminating enemies, this is an important skill to learn as there are a couple of bosses that can only be defeated this way.  Plus, the players are given additional points for defeating enemies with style: one point for beating someone up, two points for the overhead swing, and three for flipping/tossing them. 

Last is the introduction of a couple of bonus levels where the objective is to grab mystery pizza boxes for bonus points and fight a boss at the end.  The bonus levels are a nice break between regular levels and switch up the action a little bit.  As far story goes the game begins with the Krang and the Foot Clan stealing the Statue of Liberty and transporting it to an unknown location.  The Turtles respond, eventually track Lady Liberty to the Technodrome, and are thrown into a time portal by Shredder.  The Turtles then make their way through various historical time periods and eventually to a futuristic level.  The final level finds the Turtles back in the present at the Statue of Liberty fighting Shredder in two different forms.

Leo takes on Foot Soldiers in the Technodrome on SNES.

My reaction?  This game is my jam and I never tire of it.  With this game you get clean graphics, good audio quality, solid controls, and funny reactions for silly things like stubbing your toe or falling into an open manhole.  The additional moves are great, not only scoring you more points but also seeing cool animations, but they’re integral to a couple of fights.  Certain enemies and bosses will block attacks, level design is interesting, and adding new bosses is always welcome.  The best part for me, though, is that I feel like you finally get a complete Turtles game on the console with TMNT IV.

Parting Thoughts

I had a great time revisiting these games, even though original doesn’t always translate to better.  If you want to go all in then definitely try the first couple of games, but my feelings are that you can start the journey with TMNT IV.  Honestly, you won’t be missing anything as it’s not any type of series and you get a fully polished product with the fourth game.  Additionally, both a new game has been released, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge (2022 release), along with a compilation package called the Cowabunga Collection (2022 release) which features all the previous games rolled into one download.  These are great times to be a fan of the Turtles and their games. 

Until next time, remember to keep that pizza hot, and be ready to kick shell.

Cover photo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge.  Copyright Tribute Games/Dotemu.

[This post was originally published at Otherverse Games & Hobbies]

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A New England transplant that originated from parts westward, Ryan is a bit of a nerd that knows a little bit about a lot of things, all while claiming to know nothing about anything.  Seemingly part Khajit a logistician by trade, he’s the kind of guy that can get you virtually anything if there’s coin to be had a problem to solve.  Ryan began to learn the scrounging arts while serving time in parts east as a Loggie and has been perfecting them steadily over several decades.  He has a problem with continually purchasing models, paints, and terrain that he doesn’t really need but his wife doesn’t seem to mind.

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