I bet you can guess my favorite turtle from the screenshots
Don’t be shell-shocked: since I’m writing a review on a collection, I figure I need to one-up it by writing my own collection. To that end, I’ll start by covering the collection itself and then move onto sharing thoughts on some select games within it. Be careful not to stub your toe or fall into a manhole while moving from essay to essay!
A Museum of Mutations - The Cowabunga Collection (Switch)
The most consistent trait of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is their inconsistency. Whether you want to call them mutations or adaptations, as the Turtles hop from comics to cartoons to movies to games, you’re rarely seeing the same exact Turtles as the last time you saw them. Makes sense – each new project involves different creative teams, so you’re bound to end up with differences in interpretations. Few properties benefit from this process quite like the TMNT, however. There’s something about TMNT’s chain of interpretations that have continually built them up into an enduring mainstay of culture. That’s particularly true for their presence in video games.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection collects all the instrumental moments that would go onto define the TMNT in video games. To be more specific, it contains the entire initial run of Konami-developed TMNT games from the 1980s and 90s – every game and every version of those games. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird may have created the property and the cartoon may have launched it into mainstream recognizability, but the developers at Konami played their own pivotal role in defining (or at least mutating) the characters.
Broadly speaking, the Konami games resemble the 80s cartoon, but saying that is a bit misleading - what the games are really adapting is a very specific era of that cartoon. The first season of the show differed greatly from the rest of its run; it featured a healthy amount of violence and action. Leonardo could slice up foot ninjas, Rocksteady and Bebop could shoot real guns, and the villains posed an actual threat. At this point, the show still bore resemblance to the comic even if it was still much more lighthearted. Later episodes toned down the action and danger, emphasizing the comedy to the point that the games based on the show almost feel like an anomaly. While the show moved in a different direction, Konami’s TMNT games kept the violence alive and in fact heavily reinforced it.
Konami’s TMNT recontextualized characters and concepts from the show into seemingly endless gauntlets of Foot ninjas, robots, and supervillains pouncing out at you from virtually every corner, no matter how ridiculous. The Turtles were already armed with weapons, so rather than relying on power ups or additional weapons to add strategy, Konami’s games focused on environmental situations where you could set up enemies and hit them via unconventional objects. Between their combat-heavy game design sense, their energetic soundtracks, and a cultural gap leading to some “unique” dialogue choices, Konami forged a version of the TMNT distinct from any other. Their Turtles live on in people’s hearts and minds to this day. Konami’s TMNT influenced virtually every other company that has worked on games for the property since, with the clearest example yet being the release of Shredder’s Revenge earlier this year.
Needless to say, so I apologize for spending so much time saying it, these games are important. One could say they belong in a museum. Luckily, the Cowabunga Collection greatly resembles one.
The games themselves are preserved as pristinely as I assume they legally can be (sorry, no Pizza Hut advertisements here). I played through them all and at no point did I feel like my ability to enjoy them was hampered by the port job or any bad UI decisions. As is standard in these kinds of collections, there are a variety of ways to tweak the games visually, so you can put some time into getting them to resemble a CRT TV or Gameboy screen if that’s what your heart desires. Personally, I just like to see the pixel art as cleanly as possible.
As is also standard of collections like these are attempts to breathe new life into the games. Many of the options provided are welcome – level selects for games that didn’t have them before, ways to turn off hardware defects like slowdown and sprite flickering, and even some interesting ways to improve the games like changing how dashes work in Turtles in Time or adding map markers to Radical Rescue. The usual cheat stuff like save states, rewinds, and infinite lives are also present and accounted for. On the whole, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the additions made here. They amount to mostly tasteful tweaks that even hardcore purists might consider using.
What anyone regardless of core-ness may be less happy with is the online mode options. I do not think an acceptable job was done here. First of all, many of the games are missing online functionality completely. You can’t take any of the NES games online, you’re limited to only the SNES version of Tournament Fighters, and most mind-bogglingly of all, the developers skipped doing an online mode for the SNES version of Turtles in Time.
For the games that are available, they generally work well. At least if you’re sticking to two players. If you go over two people, then the game enters Dimension X and strange things start to happen. Games will run at reduced speed, the sound will distort, the graphics will glitch up. At one point April’s face had a big hole in it and it was very disturbing to look at. Leonardo and Raphael ran around legless at multiple points in my playthroughs. It’s rough. No matter how many players I tried, sometimes the main menu music of the collection would fail to stop playing, overriding the sound of the games themselves entirely. This glitch forced me to frequently back out of online games and try again. Unlike the notable omissions from online functionality, these are issues that I am assuming will eventually be patched and fixed. Until then, to say the online experience gave me a bad impression would be an understatement.
I understand that adding online functionality to older games is not a simple task. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, however, there are other options out there on the world wide web for playing these games online in a much better state than what this collection offers. If you can’t match those standards, then it calls into question why this collection should be played over any alternatives.
Where The Cowabunga Collection remains competitive is in its presentation as a virtual museum. This collection doesn’t just preserve the games, all kinds of stuff resides here. Box art, instruction manuals, advertisements, even outside contextual material like comic book covers and stills from the many animated shows are available for viewing. The standout inclusions to me are the fully translated design documents and character sketches for the games. These documents provide some rare insight not only into the design of the games themselves, but even some tidbits on how the developers viewed the TMNT as cultural outsiders who were attempting to make games that appeal to foreign audiences using foreign characters. Inclusions like these documents highlight the cross-cultural collaboration that made the TMNT games such interesting products of their time.
As a museum, The Cowabunga Collection excels. The games are all perfectly playable offline and the supplementary game features and material to look through are wonderful additions. The TMNT have undergone many mutations over the years, with their time at Konami being one of their most endearing. Having that entire legacy of games available along with a gallery that further expands on that legacy highlights the truly special circumstances that these games spawned from. Through this collection, this specific era of mutation can continue to live on far into the future.
The Progenitor of TMNT DNA - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade)
If you were to hop out of a sewer grate and ask me what the single most important game in TMNT history is, as people often do, I’d have to say it would be the original 1989 arcade game. This game set the tone for what people would expect from TMNT games for decades. The standard it set remains to this day. Its look, its feel, its structure, mechanics and sound have risen to the level of iconography for the TMNT. You could say that the TMNT arcade game is the progenitor of the TMNT’s DNA in video games.
What’s in TMNT DNA? I’m glad you asked, or at least read my question making you ask. To find the answer, we have to look back on the TMNT’s origins.
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird loved comic books and they loved making them. They loved comics so much that they took a major risk and started their own company based out of the room they lived and worked together, a “mirage” of a studio that they could use to produce and sell their own independent comics. Their big independent comic book ended up being TMNT, and they wore their influences on their sleeves in the final result.
Their most apparent influences in my mind are the works of Jack Kirby and Frank Miller. Jack Kirby’s comic books are power incarnate. The poses, the action, the set pieces, the character design all exude strength. More than that, they exude imagination: an infinite world of creativity lives in his work, with the only limits being what you can physically put on the page. Frank Miller’s art captured a darkness and frustration boiling over the evils of society. His takes on characters like Batman and Daredevil confronted the ugliness lurking underneath society in a way that felt real despite the characters being superheroes. Eastman and Laird’s TMNT borrowed the power and imagination of Kirby and integrated the darkness of Miller into their admittedly goofy idea of ninja turtles, creating one of the purest examples of a passion project put to paper.
The exact reasons as to why TMNT took off the way it did are hard to say for certain, but I suspect a large part of it was that the comics proudly displayed all of these influences. TMNT provides a mixture of action, seriousness, absurdity and imagination that can only really come from the comic book industry, where anything is possible.
Even if the goal was technically to adapt the cartoon rather than the comic book, most of that core DNA remains, so the question becomes: how do you turn something like TMNT into a video game?
Well, the TMNT arcade game established the “beat-em-up” genre as the TMNT’s definitive home. Yes, there was a TMNT game before this (we’ll get to that) and TMNT games in other genres came after this, but this game planted the notion in the back of everyone’s mind that the TMNT are best suited for walking from left to right and massacring any armies of ninjas that hop in front of them. It’s genuinely difficult to imagine what a TMNT game could be about if it didn’t involve knocking down waves of enemies, and that’s thanks to this arcade game.
I believe this became the dominant video game interpretation of the TMNT simply because it fits the TMNT so well conceptually. Both the comics and the cartoon took advantage of serialized storytelling. The TMNT’s adventures are largely self-contained and don’t require much context. That makes it easy to get to the action, and Konami’s beat-em-ups are all action all the time. Comic books and arcade games share common sensibilities in that way – they are small investments with low time commitments to get to the fun.
Everything else about the game similarly extends from the TMNT DNA. While the aesthetics of the game borrow from the show, they carry on the spirit of the comics through the strong character designs, poses and impactful animation. The structure of the game keeps you moving to the next screen just like how a good comic will keep you turning to the next page. Despite the fantastical nature of ninja turtles fighting off robots and monsters, the background and stages evoke the mundanity of a real New York. That contrast forms the heart of the TMNT as a concept: they mix the creativity of Kirby and the realism of Miller in an absurd new way, and that contrast is apparent all over the arcade game. Even the soundtrack itself, when it’s not borrowing from the show directly, matches its mood with carefree anthems tinged with appropriate bouts of drama.
It just makes sense that this was the form of TMNT that captured people’s hearts in video games. The beat-em-up structure, the artistic design of the world and characters, and even the nature of the arcade industry fit the TMNT like an initialed belt-buckle. This perfect storm of creative interpretations resulted in a flurry of ideas that have gone onto define TMNT well into the future.
Reverse Adaptation - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)
Despite being the first TMNT game ever released, people aren’t clamoring for a follow-up to the original NES game in the way people wanted something like Shredder’s Revenge for the beat-em-ups. Why is that? Don’t tell me it’s the underwater bomb defusal, I’m positive it runs deeper than that. My theory is that if the TMNT Arcade game was an attempt to make a video game that fit the TMNT, then the TMNT NES game is an attempt to make the TMNT fit into a video game. The difference may seem minor, but it changes everything.
Unlike the arcade game, I would not say the NES game captures the essence of the TMNT in any meaningful way. On a surface level, yes, all the familiar characters make an appearance: the TMNT themselves, Bebop and Rocksteady, Shredder, Splinter, and especially April, who offers her support. Beyond that, though, I struggle to come up with things in this game that concretely draw from the TMNT. If anything, most of the enemies feel like they could have come from different properties entirely. I doubt they’d let that chainsaw guy make an appearance in the cartoon.
Rather than adapting the source material, TMNT NES feels like a reverse adaptation, trying to fit the TMNT into a platformer structure without regard to whether or not that makes sense. The TMNT are about action, and this game is almost the opposite of action. You technically fight enemies, but the combat lacks nuance and is better approached slowly and carefully. The open structure encourages aimless wandering through areas and getting lost. I missed the part in the TMNT cartoons and comics where the Turtles spend 5 minutes trying to jump across a tiny gap, but correct me if that’s in there.
The main “TMNT” thing I enjoy from this game is the multi-character system it employs. With this system, the game draws attention to the individual character traits of the Turtles in a more meaningful way than the arcade game. It adds a lot of strategy to the experience, even if Donatello happens to be the best choice in nearly every situation. At the very least you might need to swap Turtles when Donnie takes too much damage.
I’m not saying all of this as a knock against the game itself. It contains a lot of interesting ideas that set it apart from other platformers of the time. It just doesn’t mesh with the TMNT spirit in the same way that allowed the arcade game to take off. Even still, NES TMNT has its own little legacy in influencing the Gameboy games that would come afterwards. Those games expanded the side-scrolling action and continued the multi-turtle strategic considerations. Radical Rescue even brought back the more open-ended game structure. The NES TMNT is far from a failure, it just happens to be an anomaly within an anomaly, ultimately falling to the wayside compared to the cultural impact other TMNT games would have.
Unambiguous Turtle Time - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project (NES)
Arcade games get a bad reputation for being greedy. I often hear about how arcade games are “designed to take your money,” that they are “cheap and unfair,” or even that “they spilled mutagen on me and now I can’t play very well with my rat hands.” To an extent, sure, I would agree with the consensus that arcade games are not fair. At least in a straightforward sense. Arcade games are not designed to be easily completed in one go, as doing so would prevent return customers. Instead, they are designed in a way that will require you to keep spending money to reach the end. That doesn’t mean they are completely unfair, and in fact, most arcade games can be completed on a single credit. Like most games, they can be understood and mastered. There are specific strategies you can learn and implement into your play to overcome the seemingly unfair challenges thrown at you, it just takes time and practice.
One of the ways the TMNT Arcade game ups its difficulty is by making your interactions with enemies ambiguous. You’ve probably experienced this before: you walk up to an enemy, start whacking him, and all of a sudden the enemy just snaps to his senses and thwacks you back without warning. What the heck, right? The game just cheated. Well, maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. Yes, I’m the Arcade Game Apologist today, and I’m here to inform you that depending on the enemy type there are a variety of methods you should using on each enemy to prevent situations like the one described. As long as you use the right tactic, you can defeat most enemies completely unscathed. So just learn everything, execute it all perfectly, and stop whining already!
I’m well aware of the problem, of course. You don’t get a real warning for when an enemy can or cannot break out of your attacks, and even if you do take damage, there a dozen different ways to interpret that: my strategy was wrong, my input was wrong, my distance was wrong, my timing is wrong, or perhaps even the definitive go-to: the game itself is wrong and badly designed. What constitutes truly bad design is up for debate and ultimately relative to what the goal of the game was, but I would agree with the notion that it would be nice if the arcade game gave some clearer feedback to the player.
One of big advantages of the NES interpretations of the TMNT beat-em-ups are that they clear up a lot of the ambiguity in the game design. By necessity of the hardware, they simplify both the mechanics and your interactions with the enemies.
Take your basic attacks, for example. In the arcade games, you can perform combo attacks by mashing the attack button. These combo attacks are a major culprit for tricking people into being more aggressive than they should be. In most cases, you’re better off poking an enemy and retreating rather than sticking around for a chance at multiple hits. The NES games convert your attack to just that – a single poke. You can press it repeatedly, but at no point will you be misled about how long you should stand around. This change alone might be enough to get you to approach the game differently. However to further emphasize the point, enemies will also shoot backwards a little to get the message across: this is a game where you should focus on one attack at a time and play defensively.
The NES games don’t fully abandon the nuance behind combo attacks. TMNT II retains the uppercut attack from the arcade version, while TMNT III allows you to stab enemies and flip them into the sky. Both of these methods will do more damage than a normal attack, one-shotting most of the weaker Foot ninjas. The trade-off of a combo attacks remains, though: at the cost of the higher damage, you are stuck in one position for a longer amount of time. By removing combo attacks, the NES TMNT games make the risk and reward strategies of the combat system a lot more obvious.
On top of the combat changes, the NES games make other subtle changes to dull the arcade edge of their inspirations. Less enemies are on-screen to gang up on you, which makes a huge difference in your survivability. Your health bar on average lasts longer than any of the arcade games, giving you more time to learn the different enemy quirks and patterns. It also helps to not need to put any quarters into your NES when you run out of lives, although I suppose you can still do that anyway if you’d like.
Between these mechanical changes and various difficulty tweaks, the NES games are overall much more “fair” experiences for the player. Still, they retain a lot of the core ideas behind the arcade game’s design. Bosses that might be “cheap” at a surface level have specific strategies that will allow you to prevail with minimal damage. The NES games just demystify some of the arcade obtuseness by providing a more straightforward experience. In this way, they provide a deeper insight into the design behind the arcade games while also making them very different experiences in their own right.
Thinking Outside the Shell - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (Arcade/SNES)
The original arcade game established a lot of the iconography that people would later come to expect from TMNT games. When it comes to following up an iconic game, however, things can’t be as simple as just doing the same thing again. People may crave the familiar, but that craving provides an opportunity to do something truly special. I believe Turtles in Time holds a special place in people’s heart largely because it not only follows up on people’s expectations for a TMNT game, it also greatly exceeds them.
A large part of the appeal of the TMNT comes from its mixture of the mundane and the absurd. The prior arcade game took full advantage of this, setting most of its locales in New York apartments, streets, and parking lots. It was a game that took place in the “real world,” and only really expands beyond that when you arrive at the Technodrome for the final battle. New York is an essential piece of the TMNT experience, so you don’t want to want to remove it from the equation completely, but it is also a setting that runs the risk of becoming redundant the more you use it. If you pump out sequels, you will need to either figure out how to make New York interesting again or how to get the Turtles somewhere new and exciting.
Turtles in Time accepts both these challenges, essentially providing two sequels in one game. The first few stages of Turtles in Time take place in New York with mostly new locales, only to then later send the Turtles into wildly different locations via time travel. This inspired twist ensures that whatever kind of sequel you may have wanted, you will be satisfied.
The shift between “sequels” is especially effective in the SNES version of Turtles in Time, which has you fight all the way through the Technodrome and confront Shredder before he banishes you into a time warp. It’s almost like you’re getting a sequel within a sequel, or that everything prior was just a warmup and the real game begins at that moment.
What strikes me as particularly interesting about how Turtles in Time tackled this dilemma is that it doesn’t fall back on any particular idea from the source material. It would have been very easy to send the TMNT off to space or teleport them into Dimension X, but instead the developers chose something totally out of left field. That being the case, this game could be considered the biggest creative spin that Konami took with the franchise. By thinking outside the shell and taking the TMNT where no turtle has gone before, Konami cemented their legacy on the franchise.
A Menacing Aura - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (Genesis)
Something’s off about Tournament Fighters on Genesis. This game weirds me out. It emits some kind of mysterious, menacing aura that is difficult to substantiate. If games could murder you, this one would 100% do it. What happened here? What is it about this game that feels so threatening? The time has come to leave our turtle shells of safety and confront the horrors of Genesis Tournament Fighters head-on.
The bad vibes begin with the premise. According to the opening, there are clone versions of the Turtles running around and they have kidnapped Splinter. Yeah, it’s that time of the week again. This game already features a harsher art style with a more aggressive, dangerous interpretation of the Turtles than the other versions of Tournament Fighters. The clones push this interpretation into creepy territory with color schemes that are sickly and off-putting. Thanks to the Genesis hardware, the voice clips struggle to sound human to begin with, and the clone voices further distort them into truly sounding like monsters. Everything about these clones are unsettling.
You don’t even have the safety of familiar TMNT locales to fall back on to face this new threat. In a dramatic departure from basically every other TMNT game up to this point, the Turtles have shuttled off into space and are completely removed from New York and the Earth itself. Worse than that, they’re making pit stops at the strangest places possible. Each planet contains bizarre architecture and monsters that feel more at home in the final stages of a Contra game than TMNT. The backgrounds in this game feel foreign to both TMNT convention and mortal understanding.
Beyond all of this, the game simply feels unwelcoming to play. The soundtrack lacks the peppiness of the other Konami TMNT games. These songs are sinister, almost oppressive in their sound and composition. While not an exclusive trait to this fighting game by any means, the AI shows no mercy and will quickly beat you down if you don’t resort to exploits. You’re not welcome to do anything in this galaxy except die.
This game departs from what Konami had been doing with the TMNT up to this point in numerous odd ways, yet on some level I can appreciate the sudden change in direction. It brings to the forefront some of the darker edges of the comics that had been lacking up to this point into the games. That becomes particularly apparent with the trip to outer space. The TMNT were fighting off aliens and traveling to other planets within 5 issues of the original comic, but these kinds of adventures typically took a backseat in the cartoon. In that way, the Genesis version of Tournament Fighters almost feels more like an adaptation of the comics than the show. I can’t say if that was the intent or just a coincidence, however even if it was the latter, it’s an interesting development to say the least.
The Sound of Battle - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist (Genesis)
Sound is instrumental when it comes to how a game feels to play. That became especially apparent to me while revisiting the various versions of Turtles in Time, which The Hyperstone Heist is technically one of. I get why people might look down on The Hyperstone Heist; it rides a strange line between port and new game. It differs enough from Turtles in Time to be its own thing while borrowing so much that it’s hard to give it full credit. Here’s the thing, though: regardless of any of that background context or the content of the game itself, The Hyperstone Heist happens to be my favorite TMNT to actually play, and that boils down to its sound design.
TMNT beat-em-ups are all about hitting people, so it follows then that the process of hitting people should be as satisfying as possible. After playing the full gamut of Turtles in Time Arcade, Turtles in Time SNES, and The Hyperstone Heist, I conducted several secret tests and conclusively determined that The Hyperstone Heist stands far above its colleagues in overall whackability. Don’t worry, I’m sharing the results of my research for peer review:
Turtles in Time Arcade performed the worst, scoring a 3.7 on the Whacko Scale. Hitting enemies sounds like smacking paper a little too hard – it lacks impact or excitement. You can barely even tell when the enemies explode after being defeated. A poor showing.
Turtles in Time SNES made a respectable effort, scoring a 7.142 on the Whacko Scale. Smacking around the Foot produces a noticeable crunch, selling the bluntness of your attacks. Unfortunately, there’s a muted nature to the sound effects that holds them back from their true potential.
Shockingly, The Hyperstone Heist’s sound effects overloaded my testing equipment, resulting in an astounding 318 times infinity on the Whacko Scale. The visceral smacks against enemies and the satisfying thuds of slamming around the helpless Foot ninjas… it’s just too much for current technology to handle. The Sega Genesis notwithstanding, of course. No one can accuse me of bias with made-up numbers like these!
It doesn’t end there. Not only are the sound effects in The Hyperstone Heist the best, so is the soundtrack itself. The compositions are great no matter which version you’re listening to, but the Genesis versions pushes them to even greater heights with more energetic arrangements and hard-hitting instrumentations to match the sound effects. This is truly the objective peak of TMNT sound design!!!
Well, even if you don’t agree with my very legitimate and scientific assessment, it’s an interesting aspect of game design to think about. Something as small as a sound effect can totally change the feel of a game, especially if you end up hearing it thousands of times in the same playthrough. The Hyperstone Heist has always been my personal gold standard when it comes sound effects in games and my recent time with it has only reinforced that. Graphics and game design form the backbone of a video game, but sometimes its the unsung heroes like sound and music that end up making the biggest difference.
A Final Aside - The Cowabunga Collection (Switch)
Don’t worry, I’m just about done. There was one other little thing I wanted to highlight about this collection. This collection primarily celebrates of the 80s and 90s era of the TMNT, so it was very surprising to boot up the game only to suddenly hear something that didn’t seem right. The main menu music reawakened ancient memories of playing the 2003 Gamecube TMNT game. It sounded just like something from that game! Well, after countless hours of research, it turns out that’s because it is something from that game. Pretty weird, huh? You’d think they would pick something from any of the games actually on the collection. That’s all the insight I have to share on that. Thanks for reading this far!