It's Time for a Radical Rescue (Although That Specific Game Comes Later)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)
It's hard to overstate how big the Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesOriginally dreamed up as a parody of Marvel's Daredevil comics (going so far as to basically reproduce to opening shots of that comic's hero gaining his powers), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not only launched a sudden boom of anthropomorphic fighting animal comics but have, themselves, starred in multiple comics series, TV shows, and movies. were for a period of time in the 1980s and 1990s. Their movies were huge, their cartoon was huge, and their toys were in every kid's hands. They were an ever-present force for a while there, and it's safe to say that kids in the NES era hungered for a TMNT game they could play on their shiny consoles. However, whatever game the kiddos were expecting, the 1989 game (developed by Konami, released by subsidiary Ultra games in the USA) was not the game the fans were hoping for.
I remember what this first TMNT game came out. I had a friend who was able to get it first, so we clustered around his NES in his basement, loaded the game and, for a little while, enjoyed a light and fun turtle beat-em-up adventure. That warm feeling lasted about half a stage, right up until we had to jump off a dam to dive underwater and stop some time bombs. At that point the game just got harder and harder, like it was actively trying to torture players. It was the next stage, where you had to drive the Turtle Van around and find where the bad guys were located, that we all just gave up. The game was organized in such a way that we couldn't figure out where to go, and any location we went into destroyed us with mob after mob of enemies. It was ridiculous.
That's the reputation this game has gotten over the years, as one of those games everyone tried to play as kids and no one was able to beat. TMNT '89 is a stupidly hard game, the kind of adventure that's often described as "Nintendo Hard", and it's absolutely unforgiving for much of its runtime. I don't blame young me for not making it through this game as, honestly, even adult me struggles with it (emulation save states are about the only way I can clear through it with any regularity). And, considering all the games that game out in the franchise afterwards, this first title on the NES is the odd duck that seems so different from everything else that came afterwards.
Forget what you know about the TMNT from later titles and arcade adventures; this game is basically a different genre from all the rest. Instead of a classic arcade-style beat-em-up (think Final Fight, Streets of Rage, and most other TMNT titles) this first NEES adventure is a platformer closer in style to the Ninja Gaiden style. Players are tasked with taking the four turtles -- ranging from Donnie with his mega-reach due to his bo staff, to Raph who I guess contributes with his tiny sais -- across overworld and platforming areas to find and rescue April and Master Splinter in various segments, all before heading to the Technodrome to battle the evil Shredder. And that involves a lot of exploration through underground dungeons consisting of tight hallways and lots and lots (and lots) of enemies.
The first thing you'll notice about this game, upon booting it up, is that it doesn't resemble any of the other mainline titles from the series. Instead of drawing graphical inspiration from the popular cartoon at the time, this game basically goes it's own way, creating versions of the familiar characters that are only recognizable in passing. But then so much of this game is only recognizable in passing, from all the random enemies that never appeared in any other related work, to the fact that the game only sports three bosses based on popular characters (that I could recognize at least): Bebop, Rocksteady, and the Shredder. So much of this game feels like it was designed from notes about the series without anyone actually watching the cartoon or knowing the lore at all (which, if you finish the game, perfectly explains the ending).
Of course, this game came out before the first movie or the cartoon were localized for Japan, so that might explain why Konami felt so free to go their own way with the title. About the only things recognizable are off-brand April and Splinter, those three bosses, and the fact that the turtles like to eat pizza (so, of course, pizza is the health refill of the game). The rest of the time you keep waiting for familiar faces or recognizable locations to pop up. Instead, though, the turtles go from one generic location to another, supposedly exploring New York City even if its hard to tell that from what you're seeing.
Really, it's hard to tell much of anything from the game just due to how obtuse the overworld is. As I noted, once we got to the driving section of the game it was impossible to figure out where to go next. The only clue you get is to find some missiles but the game doesn't clearly tell you where the missiles are hidden (in a building a few doors down from where you start). If you go the wrong way you could spend a long time exploring buildings that have nothing for you, getting turned around and lost in the maze of levels. And then, due to all the enemies that constantly respawn and spam you, you'll likely lose your turtles and have to start over again.
That, really, is one of the most obnoxious parts of the game: each of your turtles has one life and, if you lose all four turtles in a level you're done. No extra lives, no continues, just game over. And believe me, unless you're a super-pro at this game you will lose turtles very quickly. Hell, even the pros I've watched struggle to get through sections without having to eat tons of damage. That's just how this game rolls.
Which is odd because, once you get to the actual bosses in the game, their fights are pathetically easy. Along with their standard weapons the turtles also have ranged weapons (like throwing stars and magical scrolls) they can collect as they explore the game, with each turtle being able to carry one of these extra weapons. While the special weapons are of limited use against the regular enemies (with them dodging and the constant spam making it useless to fire off the weapons), the special attacks positively chew through bosses. The big fights in the game feel pathetic while the regular trudge through the stages is rage inducing.
Rage is, honestly, the natural reaction for this game. There are so many times while playing through it that the enemies will mob you, or you get forced onto traps or spikes, and then you'll lose yet another turtle. Over and over again. Getting kicked back to start is a frequent occurrence, which is really annoying when there's only six stages to the game. It's long and annoying simply because you have to play the early sections over and over again. And then to have it capped by a Shredder battle that can be taken out in seconds... yeah, the balance of the game is very off.
If the TMNT game series had followed just this path (instead of going the route of the much improved arcade games), I don't think they would have been anywhere near as popular as they were. This game, while seemingly well made at first blush, is a blend of all the worst impulses of the "Nintendo Hard" era. I think we should all be thankful that Konami learned its ways (for the most part) after this tile and (largely) course corrected the series with the future installments.