The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, unlike most intellectual properties that are licensed for games, have had a few bright spots in their video game history. The original Ninja Turtles arcade game as well as Turtles in Time are considered high-points for the franchise, and in my personal opinion, Ninja Turtles Tournament Fighter was alright, too. Those three games were great experiences for me in the late 80s and early 90s.
What I remember most fondly about Ninja Turtles games isn’t what was great about them. Oh no. In fact, the memories I hold near and dear to my heart stem from the original NES Ninja Turtles game.
This one is well known for box art featuring the all-red bandana Ninja Turtles, which confused me until many years later when I learned that the image is inspired by the original comic book and not the cartoon. Also, it’s well know for coming out at the cusp of Turtle-mania. This is also why millions of Turtle fans like me remember playing the game and realizing that it’s not very good. But I’m getting a bit ahead of my story here.
My history with the game starts shortly after my parents bought me my Famicom. I was looking for games to buy, and I remember seeing that there was a Ninja Turtles game out for the Nintendo. That’s all I needed to know for it for me to want it bad. Time would pass, and when my birthday came around, we made a trip to Toys R Us and my parents bought me the game.
My memory isn’t the greatest, but I do recall the Toys R Us video game area of the store being set up dramatically different back then. Right now, it’s a section of the store with its own cash register and theft detection devices. Back then, I remember it being a completely glassed-off section of the store. There was a booth area where you would interact with the customer service rep, tell them what you wanted, and they would go and get it for you. To me at the time, it was almost like a kid’s version of Fort Knox.
Anyhow, I took the game home and was so excited to play it. It was the first North American NES game I could call my own AND it was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. How amazing was that?
Well, not so much. At the time, I played through the first level and thought it played well enough. Each of the turtles played differently due to the unique characteristics of their weapons and beating up Foot soldiers was fun enough. There were a few moments where you drove around in the Turtle van and could run over bad guys as well. After that first level though, the game totally fell apart for me. Most people never got past the second level, which famously had you swim through electrified plants and diffuse bombs under a pretty tight time limit. In spite of my frustrations with it, I played it for weeks until I could consistently beat it with little trouble.
That third level though, forget about it. It placed you in a large world that was very maze-like, leaving you to figure out how to get to where you needed to go. There were no indicators telling where to go, or at least where to go next. At some point in that third level, it tells you to use a grappling hook, but I don’t think I ever figured out how to use it; only actually getting it to work once by fluke. I must have played the game up to this level for months and never figured out how to beat it.
This game was the first time I remember forcing myself to like something, even though it wasn’t very good. My fandom for the Ninja Turtles, my love for video games, my limited supply of games to play and my general lack of life experience culminated into months of gaming frustration.
It wasn’t until the home release of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game where I finally realized and acknowledged that the first game wasn’t that good. When the game had run its course for me, I never played it again. It wasn’t till last year I watched a YouTube video to see how the rest of the game looked.
Years later, its funny to see how many people shared that experience with me at the time. Most famously, the Angry Video Game Nerd turned that anger towards the first Ninja Turtles game into Internet comedic gold. He’s now one of the more recognizable figures in video game culture.
The original Ninja Turtles NES game will be fondly remembered as a lesson learned for me. I don’t think it would be the last time I let my emotions cloud my objective look at a game, but that was definitely the first I can remember.