Play it on: NES, Cowabunga Collection
Though it was a huge success at the time of its release, many now consider the very first TMNT video game, released by Konami for the NES in 1989, to be a bad game. In particular its second stage, in which you must swim and defuse bombs set to blow up a dam, has been memed to hell and back as an example of bad game design and absurd difficulty. And I guess I can see how, in retrospect, the beat ‘em ups that followed seem like such a better, more natural fit for the Turtles, which can make this game look misguided in its approach to building a game around them in comparison.
But I will defend this game. Sure, it’s “flawed”…a lot of really cool, interesting games are. It also has ideas, and the way it incorporates exploration and shifts in perspective between top-down navigation and side-scrolling platforming help it feel like a real adventure, and not just a sequence of stages. As great as the beat ‘em ups are, I’d argue they also resulted in a kind of flattening in TMNT game design, establishing the “one true template” for Turtles games and making quirky games like this one a rarity.
Perhaps my favorite quirk is just how incredibly OP Donatello, with the absurdly long reach of his bo, can feel at times, and conversely, how ineffectual Raphael (my favorite turtle), with his short-range sai, can be in many of the game’s situations, leading to meta-strategies where it sometimes became smart to use him as a kind of sacrifice turtle, eating damage with Raph to keep the others healthy and safe in your inventory. It was a game made long before the current obsession with “balance” became a thing, and I think it’s better and more interesting for it. Also, I’m sorry, but that dam level is just not that hard. Get over it. — Carolyn Petit