The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game on the NES sold very well thanks to the mega popularity of the cartoon series that ran for a decade beginning in 1987. The game, however, is notoriously hard and not very fun, despite some positive design elements.
The main gimmick is that you can switch between the four titular teenage turtles at any time by pressing START. As in the TV show, each ninja has his own weapon. Donatello is the most powerful because his bo staff has great reach and can be thrust upward or downard. Most platforming segments are divided into two floors, connected by ladders, and Donatello can clear enemies on the top level from below. Leonardo has a sword (katana), which is not as good as the bo. Michaelangelo has nunchakus, which everyone in the 90's called nunchucks. Their range is not great, but Raphael's sais are even worse. All the turtles move slowly and make giant floaty jumps, which makes dodging enemies hard.
The main reason the game is so difficult is that every stage is packed with enemies. Spawn points trigger every time, even if the point was offscreen only briefly. This makes the many areas that require backtracking extra difficult. The bosses are characters from the show, like Bebop and Rocksteady. Regular enemies are generated at random rather than being tied to a particular location. If you leave a building and reenter, the enemies will likely change. They are all bizarre monsters that bear no resemblance to anything in the cartoon, such as fire monsters ("an ex-pyromaniac from Brooklyn," the manual says), frog-men, and gigantic frogs. No individual foe is hard, but they attack you with overwhelming numbers, rapidly draining your turtles' health meters. It doesn't help that, whenever a turtle is hit, he is knocked backwards. When a turtle's health runs out, he's kidnapped by the Foot Clan and can't be used anymore. There are a few locations where a turtle can be rescued. Lose all four turtles and it's Game Over.
Certain locations hold pizza recovery items: a slice recovers two bars, a half pizza four bars, and a full pizza all eight. You can swap out a damaged turtle, then swap him back in to eat pizza. You can keep revisiting these locations, but that assumes you're good enough to gain more health than you lose in the process. There are also secondary, ranged weapons, like scrolls, shuriken, and boomerangs. These have a limited number of charges. Players are advised to stock up on scrolls in the third stage, as they are the most effective attack: a powerful wave that can destroy multiple enemies at once.
The game has six stages called "areas." To make it seem longer, Konami (under the Ultra Games label) gave players a measly two continues. (The Konami code does not work, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding.) Such arbitrary limiting of continues, a holdover from the days of arcade machines, afflicts many NES games. As I said in my review, The Lost Vikings has changed my opinion of save states, so I used them to extend my continues indefinitely. Yet I still can't get past the third stage.
The various parts of each area are connected via an overhead map, not unlike Rygar and Zelda II. Many buildings can be skipped, giving the game a maze-like aspect. The sunscreen shows a map of the current area, but a strategy guide helps here, such as Hand-Drawn Gaming's issue about this game. I recommend all readers subscribe to it! Ironically, the oft-criticized second stage, which sees the turtles swimming in the Hudson to defuse mines against a time limit, is among the easiest. I suspect the timer stressed out children. If you lose a turtle, the defused mines stay that way, making a second attempt that much easier. In the third area, you get to drive around in the turtles' van and shoot missiles, assuming you are skilled enough to acquire the missiles! Between stages, a plot about kidnapping Splinter plays out in cutscenes.
The music and graphics are good for an early NES game. The tie-in license made TMNT a smash hit, selling four million copies, but it quickly developed a negative reputation. By NES standards, it's not terrible—there are hundreds of worse NES games—but it's too frustrating to recommend.
Also, I just learned that the four red bandanas on the box art—instead of each turtle having his own color as in the game and cartoon—is not a mistake! The art is from a famous cover of the comic book, in which all wore red. For 90's kids, however, the "wrong"-colored bandanas were proof the game was trash.
"Graphics, controls, music, and sound are all above par and the game does a pretty good job of incorporating elements from the cartoon series."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate NES: Guide to the NES Library, 3.5/5
"You will be tearing your hair out before long."
— Anonymous, Nintendo Life, 3/10
"An overtly hair-pulling game littered with unreasonable level design and blistering difficulty, yet with an undeniable charm and quality."
— Hardcore Gaming 101