Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection review – worth shelling out

In the summer of 1989, two great titans of teen pop culture combined. Veteran publisher Konami, then famous for titles such as Contra, Gradius and Castlevania, won the licence to produce games based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the global stars of a hit cartoon series and action figure line. That year saw the first two products of this fertile relationship: an entertaining action-platformer on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and a four-player arcade beat-’em-up that would go on to become one of the highest grossing coin-ops of 1990. They were bright, ridiculous and brimming with TMNT characters, story arcs and scenarios – and they were just the beginning of a series of tie-ins now collected together in this lovingly produced compilation.

There are 11 games here, taking us from those late-80s originals on through the NES beat-’em-up sequels, the Genesis exclusive Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist, fighting game Tournament Fighters (three versions are included) and the three excellent Game Boy platformers. Common elements stand out to fans: the way Foot Clan ninjas would burst into the scene by smashing through windows or screeching up in cars, the robots with electrified whips, the interactive scenery (gushing fire hydrants, spinning road signs), the RSI-inducing boss battles, the pizza. You’ll hear the famous cartoon theme song in a multitude of chiptune interpretations; there’s digitised speech; there are crap jokes and silly cutscenes. They’re so resonant of that era’s games, cartoons, music and movies. It is weird to recall now that the use of the word Ninja in the title was banned in the UK, nunchucks edited out of the cartoon series. Playing these daft, compelling games brings it all back.

TMNT Tournament Fighters
TMNT Tournament Fighters. Photograph: Konami

It is also so interesting to be able to switch quickly between the different games, appreciating the nuances that different consoles brought. Play the SNES version of Turtles in Time and you get lush, detailed backdrops and Mode 7-enhanced “into the screen” effects; switch to Hyperstone Heist and you get the Mega Drive’s huge sprites and lightning-fast animation. It’s also fascinating to see how the combat experience evolved from attacking and jumping to experimenting with contextual combos.

The conversions to modern hardware have been brilliantly handled by specialist developer Digital Eclipse. By default, visuals are crisp and authentic, and the menu allows players to change the screen ratio and switch between TV, monitor and LCD filters if they feel like it. The biggest surprise is how well the Game Boy titles translate. Sure, it’s weird to see the handheld’s blocky monochrome graphics on a 55-inch 4K television, but they work, and you can totally imagine a modern retro-style indie game looking very similar. There’s a handy in-game save function, too, as well as the ability to read strategy guides, input original cheat codes and rewind time if you get felled by a Rocksteady kick just before the end of a boss battle.

Turtle’s Lair collects together hundreds of archive images, from original box art and instruction leaflets to concept sketches and design documents. It’s an absolute treasure trove, from the sparse, graceful storyboards that guided Back from the Sewers to the highly expressive gameplay docs behind Turtles in Time. It would have been amazing to get some TV commercials and video interviews with development teams too, but perhaps that’s just greedy.

Cowabunga Collection is a nunchuck-twirling, shuriken-hurling jaunt through a glorious five-year stretch of Konami’s rich history, a perfect complement to the recent indie brawler Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge. Some fans would perhaps have preferred a compilation of all the company’s movie and TV tie-ins, bringing the best TMNT titles together with similar scrolling fighters such as The Simpsons, X-Men and Aliens, but that would surely be a licensing nightmare. Instead, we have this generous slab of 1990s Saturday morning cartoon culture, captured in digital form for both half-shell veterans and their hatchlings.

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