Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection (Steam)- Review

Title: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection
System: PC (Steam)
Price: $39.99
Release Date: 08/30/2022


Prelude

This is gonna be a weird confession from me: I barely know much about the TMNT at all. Being in a rather unorthodox set of living conditions for the first eight years of my life, I pretty much watched whatever was on TV and played whatever I owned for my GBA, so of course while binging Yugioh and Pokemon on the weekends, I stumbled upon the Fox Box and caught a glimpse of that channel’s programming.

While kid me would quickly be hooked to Sonic X and Kirby: Right Back at Ya, another show gripped me for a few years, and that was the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Show. I watched it for a while until I was adopted, which at that point they were on a stupid season about going to the future and I lost all interest.

Nevertheless, when stuff like the 2007 CG movie or those weird Michael Bay films would come out, I’d still recognize the characters, even in their different incarnations, and when I’d see something paying tribute to the original 1980s TV show, I’d be completely confused by how drastically different it looked from the turtles I grew up with. Everyone having pupils, Shredder having human flesh instead of being shrouded in mystery, and this weird talking brain monster? Definitely a weird sight for me, and let’s not even get into those live action movies which used horrifying costumes that scared the daylights out of kid me at the Blockbuster.

With that said, I did eventually learn through the internet and word of mouth how that aforementioned 80s show was a gargantuan hit, to the point of getting tons of thing from absurd music albums, lots of video games, and even a pinball machine I’ve had the misfortune of playing a few times, and going to Barcades in recent years showed me the two TMNT Arcade titles, and gave me a decent glimpse into just how well the brand adapted to video games. So when a new TMNT belt scroller came out this year and was excellent, and Konami announced a compilation of every major video game from the 80s TV show, I definitely was on board to giving this branch of the brand a shot, and seeing if these titles would stand up as great games for a newcomer like me, rather than typical licensed tie-ins people overinflated due to nostalgia of the brand.

Now that the Cowabunga Collection has landed, I’ve spent quite a lot of time with it on my Steam Deck, and have definitely made tons of notes in my head on the experience. I can definitely say right off the bat, that this is easily one of the best compilations Digital Eclipse has done to date.

Presentation

From the onset, you have a splash screen with several options to choose from. You have the list of games, ordered by console rather than in chronological order, oddly enough, along with the “Turtles Lair”, the equivalent to the Museum in other Digital Eclipse titles such as SNK 40th Anniversary Collection.

The games themselves are all emulated rather well, with most of the same visual options that are in other DE compilations, from borders, filters, (including a surprisingly good LCD filter that I recommend for the Game Boy trilogy) and even the watch mode that lets you watch a TAS of the game and jump in when you wish. That being said, there’s still a few new things to mess with here, such as a faux strategy guide for each of the included games, (save for Genesis Tournament Fighters) showing you general tips, secrets, maps, and even embedded videos for how to do certain techniques or watch strategies for a certain boss. Considering how two of the included games are maze heavy, these guides are tremendously helpful and negate the need of ever having to look something up on the internet if you end up getting stuck in any of the games.

The Turtles Lair however, is truly remarkable, though I still prefer the SNK 40th museum for the chronological focus. Here, you have an insane amount of material to sort through and enjoy, from full manual scans of every single game in the collection, EN and JP, (no PAL, unfortunately) all the respective Box Art, assorted development documents for select titles, press releases, Comic Covers, stills from all of the TMNT shows to date, with every single item having keywords you can search on command. (meaning if you only want to see everything related to a particular game or character, you can! …But it doesn’t sort in chronological order, making the search tool a bit of a mess, especially if your inquiry leaves you with hundreds of pages to flip through)

An absurd amount of love was put into this museum, and even though it’s not as tightly organized in a chronological sense as the aforementioned SNK 40th collection, there’s plenty to sort through here with tons of interesting facts to know, although I do wish it would have added something that explained the history behind the TV Shows and Comics, rather than just still pictures from each.

Gameplay

This compilation is a pretty fun set of games, and we’ll get into those very shortly, but right away I want to note that a lot of these have pretty nifty enhancements! From the ability to shut off flicker/slowdown in some titles, enable cheat modes or easy code unlocks, to even being able to choose the Japanese version of every game possible, this is a pretty standard Digital Eclipse Package, which means it’s a pretty good curation of fun games.

With all that out of the way, time for our usual tradition, of going into each game one by one!



Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)- The Turtles begin here, with a game so old that in Japan it didn’t even have the TMNT branding at that point! (and the dialogue in the JP version gets pretty strange with how it interprets Turtle Lore, but both versions are otherwise identical) If you’ve heard this game before, you probably have from AVGN or other similar retrospectives painting this out as an ungodly frustrating, horrible mess of a game, but in all honesty, the original TMNT really didn’t phase me all too much one way or the other.

For starters, each stage is broken up into two segments: side view action stages, and an overhead segment that helps you get from point A to point B. The side view stages are definitely reminiscent of the ones from Getsu Fuma Den to me, and are likewise pretty janky. Luckily the biggest enhancement to this game is the option to shut off the flicker and slowdown, making this ordeal much smoother than it would be on an actual NES, and with the long-range characters such as Don… These are actually pretty fun! Yes, even the infamous time bomb stage, which isn’t even that long to begin with. I seriously had far more trouble with the overworld segments of the stage following that one than one of the so called “hardest levels on NES”.

Speaking of the overworld, this is definitely where I feel the game gets the most frustrating, as the hitboxes here are abysmal. Several times I try to hit a giant enemy or avoid it, only to take damage anyhow. Rewind is absolutely your friend for this one, and the strategy guide for this game comes in real handy as they provide full maps of all major parts of the game: a godsend considering how labyrinthine later stages get. Still, while it’s nowhere near one of my favorites in the set, the original NES TMNT isn’t nearly as bad as some would make you believe, and is pretty decent overall, at least from my newcomer perspective.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade)- The breakout hit for the Turtles, with this four player, cooperative belt scroller based off the cartoon. Includes pretty solid control and fluid gameplay, (a far step above Konami’s Crime Fighters and Technos’ Double Dragon) voice clips for several of the characters and bosses, and excellent music and sound design that has no right being as good as it is for a licensed game.

Seriously, the intro stage theme in this game is outstanding, and a lot of other songs in the game are pretty fun as well. Lots of chaotic action that manages to keep your interest, and with a full group of friends I can absolutely see why this game was a smash hit back in the day. The enhancements here are pretty nifty as well, with a new Nightmare Mode that makes the game’s enemy count get ludicrously high, or a god mode that makes everything a OHKO and you near invincible. Unfortunately for both this and the Arcade sequel, you do not have any way of changing DIP Switch settings at all, which is the only real bummer about these two Arcade hits.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan (GB)- The first TMNT game was a weird action game with assorted stages. The Arcade title was a four player chaotic, yet fun belt scroller. So how does the first portable Turtles game end up? Well, it goes for a simple action game not unlike Kung Fu. Move left and right, jumping over obstacles and beating up enemies that run at you, rinse and repeat until you beat all five levels and win.

There really isn’t much to this game, but the simplicity here works fine enough as it’s only just around 25 minutes long, plus there’s an in-game stage select to get you on a later stage if you want to. Yet despite this, I was able to be enaged for the entirety of this brief romp, and had a good amount of fun. It didn’t take too long, nor did it feel too repetitive as it ended right when it started to fatigue me. Considering this is one of the very early Game Boy titles, I say Konami did a great job with this one, and this is easily the most pick up and play friendly of the bunch so far.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game (NES)- Right off the bat, let this be your PSA to play the Japanese version. You’ll thank me later. Bringing the acclaimed Arcade hit to the home, this takes the fun, enjoyable Arcade experiences and bloats it in length, adding pointless padding and becoming a very dull, boring, and frustrating experience. It just doesn’t feel as fun to control as the Arcade game, but that in part has to do with how the Japanese version does include smoother control, and less aggressive enemies, hence my recommendation on the version.

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Still, once you get into it, this ends up being fine for a home port, and the Japanese version even ends up being pretty darn fun at times, but honestly if it wasn’t for that or the enhancements here like level skip or more lives, I wouldn’t even have the patience to stick with this one for long with the superior Arcade experience right here to play. This ain’t no cool remix like Life Force on NES, sadly!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (Arcade)- Following up the Arcade original, this sequel ramps up the speed significantly, adding a dash technique and overall making the whole experience a lot smoother, and it definitely gets you hooked right from the getgo! While the first game was good fun, the slowness I mentioned does lead to it being a bit repetitive to play after a while, especially on your own.

Well, luckily Turtles in Time is such a solid effort that even without any of the enhancements (return of the nightmare and easy modes, along with the handy level select and a new turbo mode) this game is great fun to play from start to finish. Whether it’s an attempt to do a 1CC, or just binging the whole thing with friends, this is a speedy, fun game with pretty creative time travel levels. It still doesn’t change too awful much from the original game, but you also don’t need to fix what isn’t broken, either. That being said, this game is notable for having all of its original OST intact, unlike the first game. Unfortunately for me, that means I had to realize that for some reason, some exec thought adding a cringe-inducing song about pizza of all things was a smart idea back in the 90s, and it comes off as completely ridiculous.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project (NES)- This game surprised me! It’s an original game that takes aspects from the first two arcade titles, and adds a whole bunch of original stuff to the mix to create a console exclusive experience. The combat is faster and more fun than the NES port of the first arcade game, each turtle has their own special, health draining move, and the stages and bosses have tons of variety!

Amazingly, the only real issue I had with this one is that the overall length is a bit too long: seriously, after a while it begins to drag despite the fun factor, and I couldn’t imagine playing this for two whole hours with a friend without getting some sort of boredom kicking in. Luckily the enhancements here include level skips or the secret easy mode, which helps to speed things along. All in all, a hidden gem of a belt scroller and now one of my favorites on the NES!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back From The Sewers (GB)- Continuing from the formula established by the original Game Boy game, Konami took what worked in that simple title and added a whole lot of pointless bloat to it. The sprites are hugely downgraded, with the turtles looking completely ridiculous, you have a slide kick move now, which is pretty much useless, and the stages are far longer than in the original game.

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BFTS is a completely boring sequel, managing to be incredibly dull compared to even the original game, since that experience was brief, fun, and didn’t overstay its welcome, while this still maintains that Kung Fu esque style of gameplay, only in much more boring stages that drag on and on and offer little of interest to actually do. This game also loves to use compressed voice clips, from a screeching COWABUNGA every time you begin a level, to a PIZZA TIME every time you pause the game, and I honestly couldn’t enjoy this one much at all, and only managed to finish it due to playing it while I watched a Twitch streamer goof around, since it’s that simplistic. Easily the weakest title in the collection to me.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (SNES)- Here it is, the holy relic of the entire compilation for a ton of people. You may wonder why the SNES port would even be considered superior to the Arcade game, and I wondered that too before giving this a spin. After playing through both games back to back, I quickly realized that unlike a lot of SNES ports, TMNTIV is practically the “Perfect Edition” of the original Arcade game, despite losing two players and having inferior sounds. The stages have been tweaked and polished to get the pacing down juuuuuust right, and a brand new stage was thrown in with a cool gimmick, feeling just like it could have been from the Arcade.

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Most importantly, is the sheer sense of speed. Sure, Turbo Mode in the Arcade version helps make things insanely fast, and TMNTIV isn’t nearly that crazy, but the flow of being able to combo enemies and dash all around like a maniac is a pure delight, and I found myself enjoying this one just a little more than the Arcade original, which was also great! Really the only bummer for me is just how the game sounds, since all the voices are removed and replaced by slow, scrolling text, and the music renditions are pretty irritating compared to the awesomeness of the arcade original. I was going to compliment how it seems like we were spared from that Pizza song as a result of the hardware, but unfortunately, there is an instrumental version you can find in the game’s option menu.

Still, without a doubt, TMNTIV is a true gem and considering the original release date, it absolutely obliterated the competition of Rival Turf and the horribad port of Final Fight: and this was a licensed game too, something that honestly stuns me due to the quality of the ones I grew up with… The only negative I have to say about how it is in the collection comes from how this isn’t online multiplayer compatible, a true shame, but one I’ll definitely try to fix when my bestie comes over to play locally.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist (Genesis)- After an outstanding home port of TIT that should not have been nearly as good as it ended up being, Genesis owners would get this weird remix, as one of Konami’s early titles on the platform. Right off the bat a lot of things about Hyperstone Heist look the exact same as Turtles in Time: the game reuses tons of sprites, the intro looks identical at first, and even the options menu and your moveset feel similar to how the SNES game handled it.

Yet do not be fooled, for Hyperstone Heist is a weird remix of a game, sporting a new plot and brand new stages, some taking aspects from older Turtles titles, and others being fully original, with even a brand spanking new boss that isn’t in the other games! However, as a consequence of there being only five stages, they are really, really long, and unlike TMNTIII, they’re pretty repetitive and really boring to play solo.

Sure, it’s still nice to dash attack on a whim, and I could see this being a bit more engaging with a buddy, but the joy of TMNTIV was the speed and impact of everything, and while you kinda have the impact in HH, the speed and pacing just feels like a huge step back from even the original Turtles in Time Arcade Game. Pretty barebones enhancements here, but somehow this is the 16-Bit brawler with online MP, and not the SNES port everyone knows and cherishes, and I can’t see that being all that fun compared to what we could have gotten. Definitely an interesting curio, but compared to Manhattan Project it’s definitely the weaker Console exclusive.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (Genesis)- For some people, TMNT II GB won’t be the worst game in the set… Because it would likely be this game. Somehow, I found myself having a lot of fun with this, albeit the ironic and goofball kind. See, this is a Street Fighter clone, akin to a whole bunch of other similar titles from the era, only this was rushed out on Genesis so quickly it only uses the three button controls, like the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers game. Here the turtles, a few of their human friends and randos I’ve never heard of in my lifetime (one of which appears to be sourced from one of the comics, per the museum) travel together to the Dimension X in order to rescue Splinter from a band of evil turtles. Spooky!!!

What really breaks this game for a lot of people, and understandably so, comes from the sheer difficulty and cheapness of it all. Even on the easiest setting, the AI will read your moves and pull them off with sheer speed, and will hit you like a train before you can even blink. Several characters even have moves that outright make them broken, especially the three end-game bosses, which are absolutely impossible to play as and leave you on uneven ground.

…That is, except for this compilation, as by some miracle, Digital Eclipse hacked in the option to play as the three boss characters in full: yes, you couldn’t even play as them via a cheat in the original! Thus, with these three new characters, Tournament Fighters on Genesis became way more fun as a goofy game to mess around in, and being the overpowered Triceratron and being able to breathe on people to death is such a funny way to steamroll a game that I couldn’t help but smile while playing through it, even if I had to abuse rewind quite a lot. Unfortunately, you definitely will have to in order to see the true ending, for this is one of those games that locks it on the hardest difficulty setting. Not even watch mode will help you on this one!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES)- This is more like it, and also the version that’s playable online! (Sadly, I never ever found a match on Steam despite my various attempts of doing so here, so I can’t judge the quality) Being on the SNES, you have a decently enjoyable four button fighter here, with a lot more Street Fighter-isms in this one than the broken mess on the Genesis. That doesn’t mean the AI isn’t tough here, as it sure is, but you at least feel like you have some semblance of a chance to take them out, and with tournament and story modes to mess around in, several playable characters, and even secret characters for the 2P VS mode, this is an average, if fun fighter for the turtles.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (NES)- This port is honestly the surprise favorite of the three for me, however. Sure, you have less characters, (although some exclusives like Hothead were added) and there’s not much in terms of special moves, but with how this game plays? Honestly for an NES fighting game, this is immensely fun! The four turtles are the only playable characters in the story mode, and there isn’t much else besides them for the multiplayer modes, but considering the limitations of the hardware, the sheer impressiveness of the stage backgrounds and character animations, and even compressed voices?

Definitely the second best of the NES games by far, and easily my favorite of the Tournament Fighters trilogy, and this curio is absolutely worth a play here, especially since it didn’t really get much of a release: Japan didn’t get it at all and it came out so late that this is one of the rarer games in the set.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue (GB)- This game ditches the style the first two went for, and actually goes and just throws the turtles into a simple metroidvania! I say simple, because it really isn’t that in-depth or even lasts that long to begin with: you have a few health pickups, ID cards to open new areas, and the turtles to rescue with their own techniques to traverse to the next screen, and the included map in the collection’s strategy guide is immensely helpful for 100% purposes.

Each turtle does have their own gimmick, from Leo’s drill, Mikey’s hover, Raph’s protective shell, and Don’s handy wall climb, which leads to the traditional “new abilities progress the game” loop here. The bosses are what’re holding everyone captive, and this is the aspect of the game I find the weakest, unfortunately. They all hit like a tank, and while the rewind is a godsend for avoiding that, it does mean if you were to play without it, you have to be pretty much damn careful to avoid getting hit too much, hope you have a pizza on hand for backup health refills, and be careful.

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To make things even more annoying on this front, the final boss is preceded by a long, dull boss rush of powered up versions of every boss in the game, which takes this frustration up to the extreme. The Shredder fight at the end is at least good fun and more enjoyable of a challenge than the other foes, but Radical Rescue still has some jank to it that makes it especially fun to play in this compilation with all the QOL, but I still ultimately prefer the first GB title the most of three, by a tiny smidge.

Conclusion

In conclusion, The Cowabunga Collection was definitely a wonderful package of games, even for a Turtle newcomer like myself! A ton of these games hold up delightfully well and are means for great fun, and even the ones that aren’t so hot are at least worth playing through once, with Watch Mode, the strategy guide, and the enhancements all coming in handy to make the more unapproachable titles more accessible. When amazing games like Manhattan Project, Turtles in Time, Fall of the Foot Clan and the original Arcade game are all in one package, it definitely leads to the $40 pricetag being an absolute steel considering you get literally everything from the 89 era here: outside of some obscure MS-DOS game, there really isn’t anything I could think of Digital Eclipse needing to add, outside of maybe the GBA TMNT 2003 series of games, but that’s about it as far as I can say.

When my only real gripe with this compilation is how the museum is a little messy compared to the beautiful timeline order of SNK 40th, and how the Arcade games lack DIP Switch options, there really isn’t much else to say: Cowabunga Collection might easily make it as the best gaming compilation of the year, and that’s not even the last Digital Eclipse has in store for the year! Everything came together in a great playing package, with tons of bonuses, enhancements, quality of life, and 13 fun games to enjoy, and for that, I am definitely proud to declare myself a turtle fan now… At least, of the video game variety.

I give Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection a 9 out of 10.

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