Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, released on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, was different—to put it mildly. Sure, it had the obvious hallmarks; it starred all four turtles, each of whom had his signature weapon. The Shredder, who was the main villain, kidnapped April O’Neil and Splinter. You even fought the Technodrome and a giant Mouser near the end of the game.
But the feel of the game was totally off. The graphics were sort of gritty and angry looking; perhaps the developers were paying tribute to the original comic (which was much more violent than the kids’ cartoons that followed)? But even so, the comics never had the Turtles fight a psycho with chainsaw, or a guy on fire, or weird mecha bugs that flew in attack formation. Something felt off, like the game was originally conceived as something totally different, and was repackaged as a Turtles game at the last minute.
We expected something more lighthearted out of a Ninja Turtles game. The cartoon was a runaway success in 1989, so wouldn’t the video game also be fun, silly, and irreverent? Instead, we got one of the most difficult kids’ games to ever hit shelves—a game that the average 8- to 12-year-old would lack the dexterity and patience to overcome.
Look at areas like these, where you hopped on tiny platforms under low ceilings. If you fell in the water, which was often, you went all the way back to the beginning of the section:
Or how about this area, which was more of the same? Instead of water, however, you’d fall into a bubbling pit of lava. It was instant death:
But most players never even got to see these parts of the game; the vast majority of players got stuck on the Dam Level, which deserves some sort of booby prize for horrific design. It would be an insult to players to call this “difficult,” because that would imply an ability to master it. This level was broken, and borderline unplayable. The strategy was to simply survive it in spite of its flaws.
The premise was as follows: the Shredder has planted seven bombs on a dam on the Hudson River. If he succeeds in destroying the dam, New York will be flooded. So the Turtles must dive underwater and disarm all of the bombs.
There are no Foot Soldiers or other recognizable enemies in the water. Instead, there are four different types of inanimate obstacles. There’s seaweed, which can pull you under for an insta-kill:
There’s beds of sea anemones, which can electrocute/poison you:
There’s electric currents, which blink on and off intermittently:
And there’s a single glowing spinning propeller in the middle of the level:
Oh, and one more thing: you have 2 minutes and 20 seconds to disarm every bomb, each of which are placed a couple of screens apart. You need to complete the entire underwater level in the time it takes to listen to The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” And that means, in short, no screwing around. Put a move on it, and start swimming.
Underwater stages are usually a crapshoot in video games. At best they’re like the ones in the Mario franchise: no barrel of laughs, but at least the objectives are clear and the controls are responsive. When you get hit or die, you blame your own ineptitude instead of the game’s.
But this was not the case, at all, with the Dam Level. The swimming controls are extremely unresponsive; all you could do was repeatedly jam on the “A” button and wait for your turtle to react accordingly. It was easy to get stuck on the floor, which didn’t do much for your nerves.
You couldn’t afford to stall for a second, and that meant that you were going to get hit repeatedly. Unless you were some sort of gaming god, you didn’t have time to wait for the alternating patterns of the electrical barriers—you had to charge right through them to stay on schedule. And in other parts of the level the margin of error was impossibly narrow. Take a look at this maze you were expected to navigate without touching the walls:
How exactly were you supposed to snake through this quickly while wrestling with busted controls? The simple truth was you couldn’t.
So how did you pass the level? It was nigh impossible to do so with one turtle—you’d die before disarming all seven bombs, and there were no regenerative health pickups for the entire sequence. So instead, whenever one turtle got close to dying, you quickly pressed start and switched to another turtle. And when that one was almost dead, you pressed start and switched to another turtle, and so on. It was unlikely that the game developers intended for you to do this—to daisy chain your turtles together and beat the level not through mastery, but through attrition. But the game left you little choice.
If one of your four turtles died, he was “captured”—you couldn’t use him for the rest of the game. Now you only had three turtles to switch between, and here’s the kicker; any accumulated damage on the surviving turtles carried over to the next turn. Thus, every attempt to complete the level became more and more challenging. Your first attempt was your best chance; after that, your mistakes compounded, and the margin for error became razor thin.
And what about planning for the remainder of the game? This was only the 2nd stage, after all. Priority #1: Keep Donatello safe. In addition to having the longest attack reach, Donnie also had his trusty Bo, the most powerful weapon in the game. It was best to save him for boss fights and heavy duty situations.
Raphael was the second most powerful turtle, and his Sai was the quickest weapon. The problem, however, is that the Sai weapon had the shortest range—nine times out of ten, Raph would end up exchanging hits with his enemy rather than getting off a clean shot.
Since Leonardo was the first turtle on the selection menu, most players used him by default. His Katana blades had great range, but he himself was pretty weak. He required 2-3 hits to take out enemies that Raphael or Donatello could take out in one.
But the lamest turtle by far was Michelangelo, which, from a commercial standpoint, made zero sense. In the cartoon, he was the breakout comedic star of the quartet. His Nunchucks were the coolest weapon, and out of all of his brothers, Mikey had the biggest love for pizza. But in the video game, Mikey was a failure on all fronts; he was physically weak, and his Nunchucks were the second shortest ranged after the Sai. Just check out what the instruction booklet said about him:
Compared to his comrades, Michaelangelo’s power is only average. Enemies around his feet usually fall prey to his Nunchukus onslaught, though, and his courage will amaze you.
Jeez. Even the developers knew how badly Mikey sucked. It was a cruel irony; the character that most kids would want to play as was also the one that would get them killed the quickest. Mikey was the best character for disarming the dam; if he died in the attempt, it was no great loss anyway.
Clearly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES was not a good game. It took the sequel to finally get it right; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game was the funny and irreverent multiplayer brawler that its predecessor should have been.
At their best, underwater video game levels can add variety to the experience, but since they are usually few and far between (two or three underwater levels in a single game, at the most), they tend to feel half-baked—as if the developers spent scant time fine tuning the controls for precision.
In the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that oversight prevented most players from ever getting past the second level, and gave an entire generation of children water-related nightmares and an irrational fear of dams. Never forget.
Wing-Man has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter @WingManWriter.
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