The very first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for NES is unlike basically all of those that would follow in that it is a strictly single-player experience. It also makes less use of the brand than one might expect. It feels like one of those licensed games that didn’t really need to be licensed at all, but it’s still a pretty fun platformer.
TMNT isn’t a typical action game in that it isn’t divided into linear stages. Instead, there are six areas to explore, each connecting side-scrolling areas with an overhead city view. It’s not exactly “non-linear” but its structure makes for a few interesting gameplay quirks. Not every side-scrolling area is relevant to the plot, but most of those that aren’t will reward you with items or health pickups (naturally in the form of pizza). All of these renew upon leaving and re-entering an area, and due to the game’s limited continues, it can be worthwhile to farm out items at times to give yourself a leg up. It is somewhat reminiscent of Blaster Master in that way, though almost every action area has at least some obvious upside.
The way the game uses the titular turtles plays into the overall gameplay style. You can freely switch between any of the four, each of which has its own weapon with wildly variant damage and range. Donatello is clearly the best turtle to use in most situations, but if he dies, you can no longer use him. In this way you essentially have four lives, or more accurately, four health bars. Switching between turtles to manage this overall health pool is vital to making it through the tougher areas of the game. Each turtle can also pick up sub-weapons, so switching between them allows you to stock multiple types of attacks for various situations.
The structure and ideas behind TMNT are solid, but the execution is unfortunately lacking. This comes across in two main respects. First is the difficulty: many specific sections of the game are quite difficult and require some combination of practice, patience, and outside-the-box thinking. A key example of this is the underwater level, which is the furthest many players get despite being found in the second area. The strict time limit and bypassing of the usual four lives structure make it very challenging, though even a mediocre player can clear the stage pretty easily by simply being overly aggressive rather than careful. This is very counter-intuitive for an NES game. Later stages throw difficult jumps and obnoxious enemies at you, and losing one or two key turtles can rapidly bring your game to a halt. You’ll need to learn the tricks of any given encounter, and with only two continues, it can be difficult to get far enough to try a hard section again.
On the whole, TMNT is a pretty solid game. The difficulty can be nasty but isn’t as punishing as some of the harder platformers of its time, and the strategic gameplay and free turtle switching contribute to an intriguing play style. The lack of co-op or more normal enemies a fan of the franchise would recognize are both flaws, but only as far as the license. As a game it holds up fairly well.