Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a one player game in which the players can switch freely between the four turtles at will. The game is split between overhead worldview sections and sidescrolling platforming sections. Once one turtle dies, the player is reset with the next available turtle and has the option of searching the level to rescue the defeated turtle. The difficulty of the game is very extreme and has sent many a controller sprawling across the room.
The box art to the game is taken from a reprint of Eastman & Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #4 Vol. 1 which is why all four turtles have red headbands. The original comics were in black and white so there was little reason to give each turtles differing colors. The full cover has Donatello swinging his Bo at an alien named the Utrom, which was used as the basis for Krang in the classic cartoon. The image was cropped so consumers who were more familiar with the cartoon would not get confused from it. This along with the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade Game were published by Konami for NES under the Ultra name to get around Nintendo's publishing limits.
This game has little to do with the comics or the cartoon beyond the characters. Even the trademark theme song is no where to be found. While Bebop, Rocksteady, and Shredder all make an appearance, there is nothing really said about any sort of evil scheme. The turtles just know they need to stop the evildoers.
The game is divided into two primary modes of gameplay. When in exterior locations, the action is seen from a high top-down overhead view. The area can be freely explored to locate entrances to buildings and sewers while fighting off or avoiding enemies. The player will eventually be able also drive the Turtle Van and use its weaponry to clear some obstacles.
When inside buildings or underground, the action switches to a side-scrolling perspective with platforms and obstacles that need to be jumped on or over. The player is able to jump, duck, or attack using either the selected turtle's primary weapon or a subweapon found during exploration. Boss fights are also encountered in this perspective. Once the player has completed he primary objective of a stage, the game moves on to the next.
The player can freely switch between control of any of the four turtles at any time. Each has his own health gauge, and upon running out of health is captured. Players can restore the active turtle's health by collecting pizza in the environment. If a turtle runs out of health, he is captured and must be rescued by finding him in the environment, though captured turtles are not able to be rescued until stage three. If all four turtles are captured, a game over occurs.
Each turtle can attack in four directions using their signature weapons, including up and down. Donatello's attack range with his bo staff is longest, and he also swings around to hit in the opposite direction. Leonardo uses his katanas, which provide the second-largest attack range, followed by Michelangelo's nunchuks and Raphael's sais.
The game is divided into five stages:
- Rescuing April from Rocksteady and Bebop
- Disarming bombs placed at the Dam
- Using the Turtle Van to reach the center of a city
- Finding the Turtle Blimp in a Foot base
- The Technodrome
Of the game's non-boss enemies, only the mouser and the Foot Clan soldier appeared in previous TMNT media. The rest of the game's standard enemies were created for the game.