Shell-shocked in the best way possible.
Developer Digital Eclipse has spent the better part of the past decade refining the retro video game collection across Capcom classics such as Mega Man and Street Fighter and SNK gems such as Samurai Shodown and Crystalis. Their work with Capcom also led to the modern revival of Disney-licensed games including DuckTales and Aladdin, offering an enticing view into a world where Digital Eclipse was allowed to crack into more vaults to bring back and memorialize the licensed works of the ‘80s and ‘90s. That world might be getting realized as Digital Eclipse worked with Konami and Nickelodeon on one of the best retro compilations I’ve ever seen in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Collection, featuring 13 games across the NES, Super Nintendo, Genesis, Game Boy, and arcades. The emulation is great, the features are numerous, and the explanation and accessibility of old games is among the best I’ve seen from one of these packages. Some of these games might have shown their age overall, but you’ll likely never find a better playing version of any of them.
Before diving into the specifics of the robust lineup, the overall package is fantastic, albeit maybe a little disorienting at first. After all, there are three separate ways to enter into a menu to select a game. First, there’s just the full list of games, featuring all 13 and, where available, their Japanese counterparts. That’s how you play the games on your Switch in normal circumstances. Two other menus are also available for online play and multi-system local play, featuring four games: the two arcade beat-’em-ups, the Genesis exclusive Hyperstone Heist, and the SNES version of Tournament Fighters. Would it be cool if every game with multiplayer had online play? Sure, but the selection available for online play hits the right notes, including three beat-’em-ups (two that support four players) and the best version of the fighting game.
Every game has fully remappable buttons as well as varying lists of enhancements. All of the beat-’em-ups have some sort of level select, unlimited lives, or easy mode, making even the toughest areas and boss fights beatable for virtually everyone. The enhancements don’t make the challenging gameplay of the first TMNT game on NES any easier, but rewind - available for all the console games - helps to ward off the mountains of pitfalls peppered throughout that intriguingly busted adventure. My favorite enhancement is one for the third Game Boy game - subtitled Radical Rescue - which changes the dotted map icons to more specific location types in a way that feels like it could have been part of the game 20 years ago. The numerous options make all of these 13 games the best playing they’ve ever been, at least outside of the arcade games being in their element in the lobby of a Pizza Hut. Like past Digital Eclipse collections, you also have the ability to watch the games being played to completion while being able to hop in and take over at any point.
In addition to games, this collection also includes a lot of collectible ephemera. You can gaze upon box arts from different regions, different advertisements, and a wealth of design documents. The amount of content is vast and seemingly all-encompassing, though most of it static. That’s likely not through the fault of Digital Eclipse and more just the reality of putting together a collection of Japanese video games from decades ago. The design documents are fascinating to flip through, even if they’re in Japanese. Of all the cool ads and box art shown, the most helpful part of the extra content are the strategy guides. Accessible via every in-game pause menu, these guides offer neat and tidy explanations of each game’s eccentricities in a very playful manner. Moves are detailed, secrets are teased, and in the case of the Metroidvania Game Boy game Radical Rescue, a detailed game map is included in the guide.
13 games are included but these 13 games are not all created equal. Some of them are more bad than good, but the fact that all of these games are included are great because you can see the full oeuvre of Turtles games from the era. Should you spend much time with Tournament Fighters on NES? Absolutely not, but it’s neat to see the differences between the comically late-gen 1994 NES release and the Super Nintendo and Genesis releases. There’s a reason why the SNES version of Tournament Fighters is the one playable online, but the Genesis version is an acceptable adaptation and the NES version is a hell of a curio, especially if you try to use the enhancement to have two Hotheads fight against each other at the same time.
Beat-’em-ups make up the majority of the lineup, with the original arcade and its NES counterpart, the NES-exclusive Manhattan Project, and the three versions of Turtles in Time on the arcade, the Super Nintendo, and Genesis’s Hyperstone Heist. I know that technically Hyperstone Heist isn’t Turtles in Time, but it’s kind of like a remixed version of it. Regardless, while the older beat-’em-ups show their age more than I expected, the latter ones are still a lot of fun even if the 2022 release Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is the idealized version of these ‘90s games. Your nostalgic mileage may vary for these games. The SNES version of Turtles in Time was a game I replayed a lot over the years, whereas I have only ever played Manhattan Project and Hyperstone Heist sporadically over the past 30 years.
A game I didn’t expect to enjoy a ton in Cowabunga Collection was the first NES Turtles game, renowned for its electrifying seaweed and punishing difficulty. The addition of rewind is game-changing for me, letting me appreciate the ambition of this borderline unfair and unbalanced ‘80s action game. This is still laced with enemies that respawn at the slightest movement of a screen, but now you can have a powerful sub-weapon with the rewind.
The hidden gem of this collection is assuredly TMNT: Radical Rescue, the ambitious and solidly made Metroidvania Game Boy game. You start off as Michaelangelo and have to navigate a maze of rooms to fight bosses, find items, and rescue your brothers. A decent in-game map is baked into the game, but the collection’s enhancements and strategy guide offer even more detail. Radical Rescue is something I first experienced here, but this also seems like a game that wasn’t that unkind in its original form. It’s just made a little bit better with quality of life here. Two other Game Boy games round out the collection and they’re some of the weaker inclusions. Not that they’re completely terrible, but they are emblematic of the era, with chunky sprites and clunky controls. The most fascinating aspect of the first two Game Boy games is how they build up to the quality of Radical Rescue.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Collection is one of the best retro packages I’ve ever played, providing a nearly definitive encapsulation of the Turtles games of the era while also presenting them in the best way possible. You can play them roughly as they were when they came out, or make use of the enhancements and rewind functionality to get through hard spots. Or maybe you just want to watch a playthrough of Hyperstone Heist just because. Cowabunga Collection presents so many ways to experience the Turtles games of the ‘80s and ‘90s, making it enjoyable for anyone who has any interest in the Turtles or their video game exploits. This truly is radical.