TMNT: The Cowabunga Collection review

When a new retro collection is revealed, some scallywag will spontaneously mention ROMS and emulation…often before declaring that they own a Raspberry Pi. While emulation has its virtues, the subject of ownership single handily validates any retro compilation. I’ve never felt like I’ve actually owned anything I’ve downloaded, but if I were to buy an official collection, the sense of ownership comes into play. TMNT: The Cowabunga Collection makes me feel as if I’ve been reacquainted with games I loved as a teen – I now own them once again. Legally, presented with context, and without the flaws an emulator can generate.

That’s another boon of official collections – they’re often lovingly presented, while the games themselves have been handled with care and attention. Retro specialists Digital Eclipse are behind this 13-game strong collection, even going as far as to fix sprite flicker and slowdown within the 8-bit titles. They’ve dived into the history of each, providing design document scans, adverts, box art, and more – and both the US and Japanese versions (where applicable) are available. Sticking another two fingers up at emulation boxes, four games additionally feature online play. When it comes to extras, you couldn’t really ask for anything more.

The team was even thoughtful enough to include a ‘90s gaming magazine-style strategy guide, presented in a similar manner to Nintendo Power, EGM, etc, that’s full of tips even long-time franchise fans may not know. If that wasn’t enough to make sure your voyage into Konami’s past is a smooth ride, it’s also possible to watch playthroughs and join in at any time, skipping past tricky sections or fast-forwarding to certain points. This proves invaluable for exploring each and every game fully, being way more beneficial than it may initially seem.

The 13 games present span Konami’s initial run of TMNT tie-ins from the early ‘90s. This is when ‘Turtle Mania’ was in full swing; kids couldn’t get enough of the half-shelled heroes, resulting in Konami releasing a glut of tie-ins on most major formats. One of the key reasons this collection excels is that, quite simply, we aren’t dealing with your typical licensed garbage. Konami put significant effort into their ‘90s Turtles tie-ins, and that’s something still noticeable today.

This lucrative run began with 1989’s duly titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES – a huge seller than even helped Nintendo shift NES console bundles in Europe. As the first entry out the door, it has some problems – the cartoon series was still in production, so it mostly used the comics books as source material. This led to some irregularities, such as a peculiar enemy assortment. Nevertheless, this is one of the more unique games on the collection – it isn’t a scrolling brawler, but rather a non-linear adventure with overhead map screens, optional locations, and underwater levels that help provide rarity – even if they are frustrating to the extreme. While unfairly difficult, it’s still a game rich in nostalgia for many and was far superior to most licensed NES games. A decent first effort from Konami, although far from being the franchise’s pinnacle.

It was the arcade game that set the blueprint for what was to come. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II as the NES conversion was known – was one of the most successful arcade games of all time. Although incredibly straightforward – using a simple 2 button combat system – it’s still enjoyable to play through today, mimicking the look and feel of the cartoon series closely. The NES version added two extra stages, making it a tad longer– this too was a huge seller, although you’d be pushed to find anyone that preferred it over the arcade original.

The success of TMNT II led to a continuation on NES, released only in the US and Japan. 1992’s TMNT III: The Manhattan Project is something of a hidden gem, fixing the minor flaws of the original, introducing lots of surprise boss characters, while having one of the more unique storylines. It pushes the NES hard too – as a system exclusive, it plays to the strengths of the console.

1992’s Turtles in Time is, undoubtedly, the pinnacle of the collection. A marked improvement over 1989’s arcade game, it embraces the silliness of the cartoon series – and its forever growing roster of characters – to create a faster and more vibrant experience, complete with redrawn visuals that help set it apart from its predecessor. It’s worth playing through both the arcade and the SNES version, as they have several differences – including Mode7 backdrops in the SNES version, and new bosses. The prehistoric world in the arcade version features a beige blob as its boss, for instance, while in the SNES version the constantly grimacing Slash shows up.

From 1993 onwards, things take a slight diversion – and not entirely for the better. TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist on Genesis (Mega Drive) is a slightly odd reimagining of Turtles in Time, even reusing some sprites and the time travel premise – which is never really explained. The boss battles aren’t much fun, being quite rudimentary while also featuring an odd cast (Rocksteady but no Bebop?) It’s one of the few games present that has a boss gauntlet towards the end, seemingly just to pad the experience out. It isn’t a bad game – far from it – but it definitely feels inferior to Turtles in Time. The Mega Drive had far better examples of the genre available.

This leads us to TMNT: Tournament Fighters. By 1993, the Turtles had been in the limelight for a good six years – those who grew up with it were likely in their mid-to-late teens by now. Tournament Fighters reflected this, being a one-on-one brawler with a darker tone that was clearly hoping to compete with Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Try as they might, Konami didn’t have quite the beat’em up mastery as Capcom – this was a middling SFII alike that looked great, and sported a reasonably diverse selection of characters, but lacked the depth and finesse.

The SNES and Genesis versions are presented differently, even featuring alternative rosters, so once again it’s worth trying out both. Much like Hyperstone Heist, these weren’t bad games – the ‘90s gaming press were kind to both the SNES version and its technically inferior Genesis counterpart – but we can’t imagine either becoming newfound favourites.

The NES version, meanwhile, was the final game from Konami to be published in the west. One-on-one fighting games never fared well on system, mostly due to its limitations and its two-button controller. This is no exception. It’s presented well but feels alarmingly choppy. The ability to remove the notorious sprite flicker eliminates some problems, ultimately making this the best version of a middling experience. It’s interesting to see what the NES was capable of in 1993 – but other than that, this is more of a curio than a bona fide addition to this package.

This leaves us with a trio of monochrome Game Boy games. Don’t be quick to discredit them – they hold up surprisingly well, and we’d even consider the third entry to be a hidden gem. The Turtles look astonishingly good in black and white. Who knew? The first is a simple affair – perhaps even too simple to class as scrolling beat’em up, being more of a rhythmic action game – but there’s comfort within that simplicity, and it more or less accomplishes what it sets out to do. That’s to say, it provided fans with a slice of TMNT action while on the move.

The sequel is a more refined and polished experience, using the presentation of the cartoon series to good effect. It is, however, perhaps the most childish of all 13 games present – the Turtles look curiously twee. All change for the third handheld game, which you may be surprised to hear plays like a mini Castlevania – a non-linear experience centered around exploring levels, finding keys, and beating bosses. The boss selection is inspired too, featuring characters from late in the toy line. A challenging difficulty diminishes some of its appeal, but at least it’s now possible to save anywhere and rewind.

Laying the collection out flat, it provides the nostalgia-fulled first entry, two arcade hits that remain a lot of fun to play, their two noticeably different home conversions, two hidden gems (The Manhattan Project and the Game Boy’s TMNT III: Radical Rescue), two other serviceable handheld games, and a trio of experimental one-on-one brawlers. All of which are wrapped in a package with a wealth of extras – including some you may not expect.

While the £34.99 price point is higher than past Konami collections, the majority of games present take around an hour to finish – depending on how reliant on the rewind function you are – making for a package with a lot to explore. And as an added bonus, it’s possible to bring your online buddies along for the nostalgia ride.

Like a real-life turtle, these ninja teens have aged gracefully – with only the odd wrinkle to show.

Konami’s TMNT: The Cowabunga Collection is out now on all formats, both digitally and at retail. Developed by Digital Eclipse.