Pizza party like it’s 1989
By Joel DeWitte
Nostalgia is a fickle thing. Revisit a movie, TV show, or video game, and it can be proven as time tested or something which was better left as a fond memory. How much of our media history is seen through rose colored glasses, or better remembered as a footnote leading us to its better contemporaries? It’s within this context we have to view Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection – a compilation of thirteen classic arcade and home console games from the half-shelled hero’s heyday.
The included games range from classic arcade beat-em-ups, to 2D fighters and side-scroller action games. Notably, for the first time, arcade perfect copies of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Turtles In Time have made their way on home consoles. These two are the most visually impressive, featuring much more detailed art and fluid animation than I expected. These late 80s/early 90s brawlers also feature more nuanced combat than its contemporaries from franchises like X-Men and The Simpsons, such as timing jump and attack buttons in different ways that result in different combat moves. It’s a marquee experience for couch co-op gaming up to four people. Even better, several of these games feature online gameplay to connect with friends far away.
The classic console titles are a hodge podge, some which time hasn’t been kind to. The original TMNT for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is a personal favorite, but I can’t ignore the ancient game design quirks of enemies that respawn if you walk back-and-forth on a screen, suffocating numbers of bad guys that hit like a tank, and half of the turtle squad being ineffectually weak. TMNT Tournament Fighters, while a competent 1v1 fighter, has a slow pace that can take some excitement out of the matches, with a roster that is halfway filled with unrecognizable characters. TMNT II: The Arcade Game (NES) is a weak facsimile of its source material, especially with that game being readily available to compare against. The “be impossibly difficult so they have to keep inserting quarters” philosophy is strong.
That said, those laid the foundation for sequels that show continued iterative improvement. TMNT III: The Manhattan Project (NES), TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist (Sega Genesis), and TMNT IV: Turtles in Time (Super NES) show growth in style and complexity that are just as entertaining today as it was playing with your friends on a Saturday Night. The trio of Game Boy games (TMNT: Fall of the Foot Clan, TMNT II: Back from the Sewers, & TMNT III: Radical Rescue) are surprisingly robust 2D side-scrolling adventures that have impressively detailed graphics and level of exploration you didn’t often see from games on the handheld. Even if some of the collection didn’t connect with me, it’s fun to experience the evolution and see how far game design had come.
For those like me who don’t have time to play a game over and over again to complete it, The Cowabunga Collection’s accessibility features are a godsend. The arcade games let you add extra lives whenever you’d like as if tossing more quarters into the cabinet. Each game offers save states – the ability to save your progress at any time. You can even hit rewind at will to re-try that jump or undo a ton of damage from a boss. With some of these games’ difficulty, it’s a great crutch to have if you want to hit credits.
Moreover, The Cowabunga Collection acts as a historical document to the turtles’ video game and animated television legacy. The extras menu houses a ton of special features. A hefty dose of design documents for the turtles games and cartoons. A bibliography of the animated series’ episodes. Copies of the video games’ printed advertising material. Copies of the box art – game packaging from all regions they were sold. There’s even a sound menu that has entire soundtracks of the games, your own personal turtles jukebox. It’s easy to get lost digging through this treasure trove of special features.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection is a trip down memory lane for kids of the 80s & 90s. Beyond the hits, a deep history of retro handheld and console titles offered with the tools to blunt their difficulty make them all approachable to veterans and newcomers alike. The special features are enough to get lost in for an hour or so by themselves. Developer Digital Eclipse has gifted us one of the best retro game collections I’ve ever played, with the reverence that Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo deserve.