Learning to appreciate TMNT on the NES/Famicom

Although I watched the 80s cartoon growing up I hesitate to consider myself a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I like Ninjas but could care less about Teenagers, Mutants and Turtles. I do, however, love video games and the old NES/Famicom era fills me with nostalgia and memories of sitting on the floor with my brother (and occasionally cousins) as we worked our way through a particularly difficult game.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game for the NES (or in my case, the Famicom) was one of the first games I remember buying. We’d had Super Mario Bros. and an F1 racing game for the longest time until our dad finally relented and allowed us to buy one new game. Having recently played the amazing TMNT arcade game my brother and I got so excited seeing the TMNT Famicom cartridge for sale. We were expecting a belt-scroller beat ’em up just like the arcade but quickly joined the throngs of disappointed little boys and girls when we saw that first screen.

What we expected… (image from Kotaku)
What we got -_-

Graphics aside, the direction seemed to be really different. But it could still be good, right? Well there’s a reason this game is infamous and why it was one of the Angry Video Game Nerd’s first videos.

My experience with the game is similar to pretty much everyone else’s who played it growing up — it was frustratingly difficult, had to be completed in one sitting (no passwords, save slots or level-select codes) and could be very cryptic (the Area 4 maze and where the Technodrome shows up in Area 5). Keep in mind too that growing up in Southeast Asia means Famicom & NES cartridges were likely bootleg meaning we had no instruction manual to glean hints from. I think my brother and I once made it all the way to the Technodrome but we were never able to beat the game.

Thank God for Save States

I pretty much forgot about the game deciding that it was just too punishing to be worth it. I would eventually beat it when emulators became mainstream and save states allowed me to farm for the overpowered scroll weapons and see what an abysmal disappointment the final boss was.

Would you like some bread with all that cheese?

That was it, right? I could finally put this game to rest and officially declare it a waste of time. It had some good points (controls were fine, music was good) but ultimately was a victim of failed execution.

But in a world of decompilers, ROM hacking and speedruns, maybe it isn’t as simple as that.

Donatello best, Raphael worst… right?

Ask any casual player of this game and they’ll tell you Donatello is the best turtle bar none; despite his attack’s slower start-up he has the reach and is twice as strong as his brothers who are of equal strength. Next best would probably be Leonardo because at least he has the reach. Then it’s a toss-up between Mikey and Raph who are both weak with paltry reach but often it’s Raph who’s cited as being fit only for cannon fodder. That was the entire point of the Red Swaze Challenge, to get as far as you can using only Raphael because he was by far the worst turtle in the game.

That’s the spirit, buddy. You keep trying! Sprite from The Spriter’s Resource.

I thought that there was nothing more to know about the differences between the turtles. They all walked at the same speed, had the same jump height etc… It was actually quite disappointing that there were not more differences between the four.

Until one day I was watching a speedrun of the game when the player (or a commentator) mentioned that the turtles receive a strength boost when their health fall below 50%. I’d never heard of this before but did vaguely remember the rare occasion I killed a grunt in 1 hit instead of the usual 2 which I chalked up to random chance similar to a Critical Hit in RPGs. I never realized I could control this by simply dropping my health down to 50%.

That doesn’t really change things for Raph though because he’s the only turtle who doesn’t receive this strength boost. So if anything this should settle the argument once and for all: Raphael is indeed the worst of the bunch.

My Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Famicom Cartridge. Yes, I’ve kept it all these years.

When I realized that they actually tried

Then I learned that Raph could kill certain enemies in 1 hit where Leo and Mikey needed 2. Although I could see the reasoning (make the character with the shortest reach stronger) the fact that so many casual gamers were oblivious to this means it the situation was so rare that the knowledge completely passed them by.

As it turns out things are a bit more detailed. For a more complete picture I point you to the Damage Stats Guide on GameFAQs which shows that Raphael can indeed kill certain enemies in fewer hits when Leo and Mikey do not have the aforementioned strength boost. So the idea, in principle, is sound but it’s easy to see why so many people missed it:

  1. For the few grunt enemies where Raph has an advantage he usually only saves 1 additional hit. That’s easy to miss especially if you thought, as I did, it was a random critical hit. Compare that to Don who saves you 2 or more hits on those same enemies.
  2. The game is so hard that your turtle will probably be below half health anyway meaning Leonardo and Michaelangelo will have that strength boost making them stronger than Raphael again.
  3. For boss characters, Raph could save you a good deal of hits over Leo and Raph but only if the strength boost does not come into play. Once it does, Raph again only saves you 1 hit (occasionally 2). But why wouldn’t you prefer to use a turtle with superior reach especially when bosses deal so much contact damage?

Ultimately this changes very little, if anything at all. Don is still the best turtle and is the reason why speedrunners use him only switching turtles for the water level or when they death warp. I applaud the developer’s attempt to make the turtles more distinct but the game just wasn’t balanced around it. Still, who was even trying to balance games back in the 80s?

And since I mentioned the water level, I’ll leave you with a video explaining just how broken that level was.