‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection’ review: nostalgia hit

This 'TMNT' collection preserves the original games, for better and worse

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection is a comprehensive retrospective of 13 ‘classic’ TMNT games from the late ’80s and early ’90s, spanning five different systems. It’s a celebration of our “heroes in a half shell” from their golden age, when they dominated comics, television, movies, toys/action figures, and—most pertinent to this review—video games.

This collection feels tailor-made to weaponise the nostalgia of that time. If you grew up with the games —lived and breathed with them after eating your Ninja Turtles cereal and brushing your teeth with your Ninja Turtles toothpaste on Saturday mornings: this collection is for you. If you didn’t play these games as a child, then this collection has more value for its history than the quality of the games, especially since there’s a better, new Turtles game – TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge – that launched this past June.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection. Credit: Digital Eclipse.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection. Credit: Digital Eclipse.

Here are the 13 games included The Cowabunga Collection:

  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade)
  • TMNT: Turtles in Time (Arcade)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)
  • TMNT 2: The Arcade Game (NES)
  • TMNT 3: The Manhattan Project (NES)
  • TMNT 4: Turtles in Time (SNES)
  • TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist (Genesis)
  • TMNT: Fall of the Foot Clan (Game Boy)
  • TMNT 2: Back from the Sewers (Game Boy)
  • TMNT 3: Radical Rescue (Game Boy)
  • TMNT: Tournament Fighters (NES)
  • TMNT: Tournament Fighters (SNES)
  • TMNT: Tournament Fighters (Genesis)

Of these, four of them come equipped with online multiplayer: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade); TMNT: Turtles in Time (Arcade); TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist (Genesis); and TMNT: Tournament Fighters (SNES). It is the multiplayer, whether on the couch or over the internet, that lets this collection shine.

Many of the games in this collection are beat-’em-ups, and the action is frenetic and  engaging. These games have a cult following for a reason, and while your affection for different games in the collection is likely to come more from nostalgia than any hard evidence, fans of the genre will likely have a blast in whatever game they end up in.

By covering multiple iterations of the same title across different systems, Konami has ensured that you will be able to experience several different versions of each title. There are big differences, even between entries that are outwardly the same. The three variants of TMNT: Tournament Fighters, for example, all have different storylines, character selections and control schemes. With some play, the real differences shine through: the SNES version of Hyperstone Heist might let you toss enemies at the screen, while the Genesis version of the same has a dash mechanic. Small differences, but often interesting ones.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection. Credit: Digital Eclipse.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection. Credit: Digital Eclipse.

The most surprising thing to discover is that for all their sound and ‘fancy’ graphics (and really, all the games look pixelated by today’s standards), the two arcade games are inferior in nearly every way compared to their respective NES and SNES ports.

The NES adaptation of the original arcade game has better hit detection and two original levels (the Foot Clan Ninja School and a snowy rendition of Central Park) that the arcade did not. The SNES version of Turtles in Time also has better hit detection, and a midpoint Shredder fight that lets you toss Foot Soldiers into the foreground of the screen to damage your opponent.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection. Credit: Digital Eclipse.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection. Credit: Digital Eclipse.

Both ports also have superior stun mechanics to their arcade counterparts. On the original arcade games, the first hit leaves little time for a follow-up hit, and if you attempt it, you’re likely to get punched in the face. But on the ports, you can more easily combo an opponent, or stun one Foot Soldier on one side of you while demolishing the other.

In other words, you can engage in strategy, instead of mashing the attack button and praying. On a meta-level, it raises the question of whether the arcade games were stun-less by design – what better way to eat kids’ quarters than to give them a game that renders strategising impossible?

Fortunately, there are cheats and enhancements. All of the titles have a rewind option, to redo any section that gave you trouble until you get it perfect. However, the amount of cheats on offer varies hugely from game to game: while the TMNT arcade game might let you turn on god mode or even ramp up the difficulty to an incomprehensible level, some game’s “cheats” might only let you turn on some map icons. Across all games, You can save your state, which means you no longer have to beat it in a single sitting. There are also options to toggle the slowdown and flickering, because these games are no longer beholden to the limitations of their original consoles.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection. Credit: Digital Eclipse.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection. Credit: Digital Eclipse.

Rewinding is especially important in a game like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES) and its notoriously broken levels, where you often have to employ bugs against bugs to succeed. The infamous dam level, which guaranteed a lost turtle in the best-case scenario – and a game over if you made the slightest error – is now beatable, as are the sewers levels that washed you back to the beginning of them if you fell into the water.

The selling point around retro game compilations of this sort is to indulge your inner child – rediscover your naïveté. In practice, there have been too many advancements in video games over the past three decades – visually, narratively, and technically – to make that possible. Instead, playing these games will remind you of how you once felt. But actually recreating that sense of wonderment is a bridge too far.

Ultimately, it feels like as players we’ve lost the ability to extrapolate realistic visuals from rudimentary, pixelated versions of them. It’s why these games burn so brightly in our minds, and it’s also why playing them now might be a bit of a comedown from what we thought they were.

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection launches on August 30 for Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. This review was played on a PS5.

The Verdict

Of the 13 games in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection,  five or six of them are of legitimate quality and stand up to the type of scrutiny that a modern palette demands. As for the rest of them? If you spent a childhood playing them and you have your nostalgia goggles on, the drawbacks might not matter, but they’re unlikely to win over new fans.

Pros

  • Upgrade options and cheats make even the broken games playable and accessible
  • Online multiplayer
  • These classics play exactly the way they used to

Cons

  • These classics play exactly the way they used to
  • Graphics haven’t aged so well
  • Neither have the controls
  • Cheats vary in usefulness and applicability, depending on the game
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