Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles review
Half-Assed in a Half Shell
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or Hero Turtles for us in Europe). What an odd idea to mix amphibians with ninja skills and set them loose against legions of foot soldiers and some really weird hybrid baddies. It caught on though, so it should come as no surprise that the video game publishers would catch on and start getting the licences to produce related games. This is an early effort on the NES, but be forewarned that this does no favours to the whole 'license tie-ins are bad' view.
When you first start the game you find yourself staring down at your turtle from a birds-eye view. This top-down forms one part of the gameplay, as you get to explore the cities and other sites. Combat in this mode is very limiting, where foot soldiers are killed easily and tanks will generally just flatten you. It is actually possible to destroy a tank (not sure quite how a wooden staff can manage that) by learning its movement patterns but it is often not needed, as running past them in generally easier.
While earlier areas are pretty basic there is admittedly some more complex areas later on, where some locations become optional and wandering off the main path can result in some extra pickups. The game does attempt to provide hints on the pause screen about where to go, but the advice is rarely useful as the wording tends to be pretty vague. Still, it's nice being able to wander through the different areas finding your way to the goal. When you enter a doorway or sewer opening the view changes to side-on, and this is where the real meat of the game lies.
The action scrolls left or right, although sometimes you will have to go up or down floors as well. Along the way you'll have to fight off a lot of enemies. Many of them will be of the 'walk into you to damage you' variety, but some will present a few tricks out of the norm, like dive-bombing bugs or throwing flames out. Each turtle has a basic weapon attack used as short range that can be aimed in three directions (straight ahead, upwards and downwards) and winning is often a case of spamming the attack button until the target dies.
You can also grab special secondary weapons, either by finding them or defeating so many enemies. There are different weapons available, like shurikens, boomerangs and what I can only assume is a shockwave attack. These all differ in range and power, like the shurikens are pathetically weak and the shockwaves are really powerful, so choosing which ones to grab tends to be important. Each weapon picked up can only be used by the turtle that grabbed it and these weapons are also limited in number.
This is a nice feature since it gives more options, and restricting them to the turtle that picked them up makes sense. If anything the replacement feature is frustrating. When you grab a special weapon it will replace whatever weapon you already had. This means that you could accidentally lose a stockpile of powerful shockwaves to a small number of weak throwing stars, which does not invoke good feelings.
The enemies themselves can be rather irritating to fight though, mainly due to the damage system. Whenever your turtle gets hit they will be knocked back and stunned for a moment. However, the same does not hold true for the enemy, who do not get stunned by attacks. For turtles that rely on close range attacks for their primary offence (that's 3 out of 4) this makes encounters much more difficult than they should be. Unless you can take higher ground then combat tends to involve hit, retreat, hit, retreat, hit, repeat. That or try to abuse the secondary weapons that have decent range.
There are a few bosses in the game, but they really don't feel like anything more than generic enemies with a little more endurance. They generally don't do anything special, either with techniques or with intelligence. Amsuing, the first bosses of the game can be killed without exposing your turtle to any risk by exploiting a level design oversight.
The platforming elements can be pretty bland but not a total disaster. The turtles respond well enough to the jump command and they get some rather significant height. There are quite a few areas that require some precise leaping too. There are a few times when it becomes more frustrating than anything - especially when failure cuts short a turtle's life - but these are fairly rare. If anything, the bigger issue is that challenging leaping isn't done enough.
The game does throw in a few more unique areas too. The first is an underwater level where you have to swim around to defuse bombs, but this level completely fails. The swimming controls themselves are alright, but the level itself is horrid. You're against a timer that is so tight that you'd be pressured even when you know where you're going, and there are some parts that will instant kill you if you drift too close, but you're not given much room to squeeze past.
The second is a bigger success, where the overworld lets you drive around in the van. You can squash foot soldiers like this and tanks no longer autokill you. In addition you can fire missiles off to blow up enemies and barricades. You're given a fairly decent play area to drive around in, so it's a nice addition that could have used even more playtime.
The unique trait of this game comes down to the team of turtles you have. Rather than having lives you have four turtles that possess separate health gauges and have different weapons. Switching a turtle is as simple as pausing the game and highlighting the turtle you want. Losing a turtle means not being able to use that turtle's abilities, although at a few rare points you can rescue a lost turtle to use them again.
It's a cool setup that works as a good alternative to a simple life counter, but I wish the team wasn't so unbalanced. Donatello is much better than anyone else, possessing killer range and power. The other three are much weaker and possess little range with their attacks. Losing Donatello causes the game's difficulty to spike, as you've then lost your best offence and then you have to get close to enemies that don't flinch. I wish more care had been taken with the balance.
In fact, the difficulty can be rather brutal even with Donatello in the camp. Enemies tend to come in large numbers and often make appearances as you're tackling difficult jumps, plus they have the annoying habit of respawning the moment the area they stood in goes off-screen. There are also some rather cheap moments that can instant kill a turtle, like before the final area are a few screens with killer walls closing in and you have to drop down small gaps to escape (which is not that as easy, as hitting the gap a bit fast and you'll skip over it). A welcome difficulty to NES veterans, but be aware that it isn't that forgiving.
I'm not sure if there's an overall story or not, aside from the whole backstory of the turtles that is more implied than anything. Rather the game presents a series of short stories, involving rescuing characters, foiling evil plans and taking the fight to the bad guys themselves. There's not a whole lot of story dialogue though so it's hard to really appreciate these scenarios.
The game is quite mixed visually. The side-scrolling sections look good. They have some pretty detailed backgrounds, the character sprites look like they should and are animated well enough (if a little basic) and the generally layout works nicely. There is some lag or sprite flickering at times when the action gets too much though. The overworld could use some work though, as the areas look quite bland and the small size of the sprites makes it quite hard to pick out actual details.
The music is what I'd consider passable. The tracks played are alright but not really catchy (except maybe the title screen tune) and the quality is so-so. The sound effects are really odd though. For some reason every time you are hit the action is joined by the sound of what seems to be electrocution, regardless of whether you were hit by blades, fire or blunt objects. It's a rather distinct noise but very out of place. There are a few other more fitting sounds like explosions and an item pickup that work better.
TMNT could have been great, but fighting is frustrating and platforming is often bland. There are a few nice concepts in here and exploring around has merit, but too much of the game is flawed. Yet another game to add to the long list of tie-in failures.
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