For gamers who weren't yet born in the 1980s, it may be surprising to learn that Konami’s pedigree was once second only to Nintendo’s first-party output. Undyingly creative and highly quality-driven, the innovative glow that earmarked their arcade years was never truly rekindled post-1994.
Hot on the heels of Shredder’s Revenge, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection doesn’t just deliver refashioned nostalgic elements of the past: it is that nostalgia, undiluted and conscientiously presented. After a short but classy cartoon intro you can head to the Turtle Lair and dive into 250 original comic book covers; complete music playlists for every game; stills from every season of every Turtles cartoon series; a complete set of original game manuals, and, impressively, a mass of design documents showcasing Konami’s '80s and '90s concept artwork.
Elsewhere, Online Play beckons. Perhaps the collection’s most alluring attribute (and one conspicuously absent from Capcom’s Arcade Stadium releases), its utilisation of rollback netcode, ensures it works like a charm. You can create lobbies for friends or strangers and set a frame delay of your choosing to guarantee a smooth experience. With both arcade titles, Mega Drive Hyperstone Heist, and, crucially, SNES Tournament Fighters supported, childhood memories of late-night sleepovers and arcade coin drops are ready to be reawakened.
The game library menu is elegantly wrapped in artwork-rich black and white comic book pages, with a central video fixture running footage of each title. With a whopping 13 games on board, available in both US and Japanese regions, value for money isn’t an issue. While it may be of concern that many entries are repeated as ports, Konami’s tailoring of conversions makes each a mostly unique experience. There are also varying “Enhancements” for each title, including God Mode invincibility, stage selections, Nightmare and Turbo Modes, and in the case of Tournament Fighters, an option to unlock extra stage backgrounds for versus play. Additionally, aspect ratio, wallpapers, image filters, rewind, and save state features are all available from the pause menu.
While superior Turtles titles would eventually follow Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (arcade, 1989), the sentimental power of its four-player scrolling-beat-up action cannot be overstated. Once the focal point of every early-'90s arcade, its evocative audio and inimitable aesthetic are all present and correct, and developer Digital Eclipse (Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, SNK 40th Anniversary Collection) seems to have slightly refined the control inputs, too. While we’re of the suspicion that the game’s challenge is a tad lower than the arcade’s original default, this could also be the misguided result of arcade operators boosting the cabinet’s difficulty when we were kids. Regardless, it’s a slick piece of history, although one that gets repetitive when played solo. Unless you master it totally, it becomes trying in its latter half, sitting somewhere between arcade masterpiece and shrewd business exercise. At the same time, teaming up locally or online with three other players to crash your way to the Technodrome is still a magical adventure.
Turtles in Time (arcade, 1991), an all-round fairer and more varied sequel, also comes online multiplayer ready. The one-strike Foot Clan killer is gone, but with the introduction of a dash, shoulder-barge, and glide attack, it’s a more involving combat repertoire. The green foursome find themselves sucked into Shredder’s time warp and sent on a beat 'em up romp through the ages, from prehistoric lands to the dazzling highways of a future metropolis. It’s lengthy, diverse, and tons of fun to play with a team. It’s also beneficiary of the vocal track “Pizza Power”, a slice of certified '90s gold pinched from the studio album “Coming Out of Their Shells”.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES, 1989) is as nostalgically relevant as its arcade cousin, released the same year, but famous for entirely different reasons. Almost every kid who had a NES either owned or played this at some point, driving the Turtle van overground before entering the sewers to navigate side-scrolling action platform sections. You swap between Turtles in an attempt to keep them all alive, and knowing who has the advantage in cheesing certain obstacles and bosses (nearly always Donatello) helps a lot. Although it’s received a belated backlash over the years, primarily due to its vicious difficulty and unwieldy controls, we found it an enjoyable revisit. While still incredibly frustrating at times, Konami’s team did a better job with the first console outing than many give them credit for.
Turtles II: The Arcade Game (NES, 1990) did the unthinkable, squeezing the arcade original into an 8-Bit cartridge. Obvious concessions are made in terms of audio and graphical fidelity, but it plays a fast, absorbing, and altogether fairer game than that on which it’s based. With two new stages, Baxter Stockman as a new boss, and other little touches like extended sections and variations, it’s certainly different enough from its arcade cousin to warrant attention.
Turtles III: Manhattan Project (NES) followed in 1991, maintaining the scrolling beat 'em up angle while introducing a slew of new bosses in the form of Rahzar, Tokka, Groundchuck, Dirtbag, and Leatherhead. At eight stages, it’s a lengthy, graphically polished affair that plays similarly to its NES predecessor — but for us is perhaps the weakest of the NES trilogy. Still, with save state support it won’t be too taxing for folks intent on seeing the ending.
That brings us neatly onto the 16-Bit era, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (SNES, 1992). Revered as one of the highest-quality arcade ports of its time, it mimics its arcade counterpart astonishingly well, allowing you to throw enemies into the screen and get creative with combat mix-ups. Changes include Bebop, Rocksteady, and Super Shredder entering the fray, and there are even visual improvements thanks to a little Mode 7 wizardry on the Neon Night-Riders stage. Graphically, its detailed backgrounds and superbly animated sprites really pop. The only thing it drops slightly is speed, owing to the SNES’s occasionally sluggish processor.
One won’t really feel that speed difference, though, unless they play it back-to-back with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Hyperstone Heist (Mega Drive, 1992) which moves at a comparatively breakneck pace. Hyperstone Heist has only half the number of stages compared to Turtles in Time, rips backgrounds from both arcade games and mashes them together, and introduces all-new stages and bosses, notably feudal Japan and Tatsu the Ninja henchman. While it cuts some elements back — like the ability to throw enemies into the screen — and is limited to an hour of game end-to-end, it’s still distinctly arcadey thanks to the Mega Drive’s architecture. With bold sprites and great animation, its increased zip makes it incredibly fun to play, and some may even prefer its immediacy over its spiritual SNES equivalent.
With Turtle mania sweeping globe during the '90s, it’s unsurprising that Nintendo’s dominating handheld received a trilogy of its own. The Game Boy’s dot-matrix format remains undeniably charming, reconstituting arcade action in a miniature form.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan (Game Boy, 1990) is a side-scrolling action game that has more in common with Strider than Final Fight, having you pace right and swat Foot Soldiers across five upbeat Turtle-themed stages with excellent designs. The sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back from the Sewers (Game Boy, 1991), is somehow inferior in sprite work, showcasing a graphics artist who can’t draw a decent flying kick, but much broader in scope, with skateboarding stages and the ability to traverse greater areas of the screen. The final entry in the Game Boy trilogy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue (Game Boy, 1993), switches from straight-up action to maze-style adventuring as you set about ‘rescuing’ your pals to make them playable. Each Turtle’s unique abilities can then be used to progress, not unlike Castlevania III or Metroid, into areas previously inaccessible.
Turtles Tournament Fighters (SNES, 1993) will be, for many, the package highlight. Released during the Street Fighter II boom, it’s both beautifully drawn and animated, with a gritty look and large, weighty sprites. It still plays superbly almost 30 years on, each Turtle sporting a repertoire of special moves spread across four buttons. Street Fighter-style inputs blast out stylish attacks and there’s plenty of combo building and experimentation to indulge in. The system includes a super attack gauge (and is one of the earliest games to feature one) and a finely balanced cast of ten playable characters and two bosses.
Even though the computer AI plays a mean game, Tournament Fighters holds up well for both single and competitive play, and joins the ranks as a new online multiplayer experience. The rollback netcode really comes to the fore here, and it's fantastic to be able to match up against human opponents. As a plus, the Japanese version contains slightly altered voice acting and an attire adjustment for Ninja girl Aska.
While SNES Tournament Fighters really demonstrates Konami’s 16-Bit mastery, the same can’t be said of the Mega Drive version. Pretty much all-new in terms of visuals and mechanics, you can play as April O’Neil and even break through certain stage barriers to reach new areas, and the music, by Suikoden composer Miki Higashino, is a noteworthy perk. As a fighting game, though, it falls into average territory. It’s playable, certainly, and has some unusual Contra-inspired backgrounds to boot; but, in spite of its brisk movement, it lacks the technical depth of the SNES game, making it better for a brief foray.
Finally, the North American and European-only NES Tournament Fighters (1993) is something of a curio. It’s actually fairly impressive for an 8-Bit console, and, pared back to very basic elements though it is, offers some reward. It’s short and simplistic, but its back-and-forth attacking and a Splinter icon randomly throwing a power ball into the arena makes it at least worth a look.
TMNT: The Cowabunga Collection is indisputably the best thing Konami has released in a long while, meeting all expectations and then some. Bar absent difficulty settings for the arcade games, it’s an anthology that finally gets it totally right. Digital Eclipse and Konami have done the fans justice, offering a comprehensive library that doesn’t hide content behind a paywall, while going above and beyond in terms of features and bonuses. With online functionality and rollback netcode being the icing on the cake, this is now the gold standard for retro collections. Capcom, pay close attention.