TMNT: The Cowabunga Collection is here—but how do its games hold up?

In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection, Konami and Digital Eclipse have come together to produce what really is a pretty fantastic compilation of the Japanese developer’s extensive efforts in releasing Turtles-related games in the 8- and 16-bit eras. And when I say extensive, I mean it: the 13 games featured here came out across only five years, 1989 to 1993.

With The Cowabunga Collection, you can play (or replay) a wide variety of games featuring Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michaelangelo, from classics like the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game or TMNT: Turtles in Time on the SNES, to some lesser-known but surprisingly still enjoyable gems (that I won’t spoil just yet).

Digital Eclipse has been putting some very welcome effort into its recent retro compilations, and The Cowabunga Collection features some really appreciated emulation-level options—such as better performance for the NES games, and gameplay modifiers for others—along with a ton of supplemental materials.

The problem is, trying to properly review 13 vintage games, including a handful I’d never touched before, with modern eyes, opinions, and preferences can be pretty tough at times. So, instead, I’m taking another approach here. Rather than just give you a standard review for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection, I’ve ranked its thirteen featured games not only in terms of their quality, but also in terms of how worth playing they still are.

So, without further ado—here’s that list!

13 TMNT: Tournament Fighters
1993 – Sega Genesis

If you’d ask me before putting this list together if I’d have thought that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters for the Genesis would come in dead last, I’d never have believed you. Sadly, this may very well be the worst game in this collection. Given the vast array of characters introduced in the show’s first season alone, how do you make a fighting game based around TMNT with only eight characters—where one is a nobody from the comics, and another a totally original character? The graphics are disappointing, the controls are a mess, and there’s just little fun waiting here.

12 TMNT: Tournament Fighters
1994 – NES

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters on NES is not a good fighting game in any serious way. Its sprites are small, its core mechanics aren’t all that exciting, and its roster of characters is lacking. But here’s the thing: Unlike what we just talked about on Genesis, the NES version has legitimate excuses for being the way it is. Nintendo’s 8-bit console wasn’t beefy enough to handle fighting games, and when taking that into consideration, what we get here is actually impressive. I don’t put Tournament Fighters on the NES this low on the list due to any feelings of malice in my heart. It’s near worthless if you’re looking for a Turtles-centric fighting game, but it’s neat as a tech demo for what the NES could do if pushed to its limits.

11 TMNT II: Back from the Sewers
1991 – Game Boy

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back from the Sewers feels like that “we have food at home” meme, where the original Game Boy game is what the kid wants, and this is what’s waiting for them at home. Sloppier controls, less engaging gameplay, and some real dollar store-quality sprites for the Turtles make me confused on how this was the sequel to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan rather than its predecessor. I’m sure someone out there will try to convince me I’m wrong about Back to the Sewers, but I’m not.

10 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
1989 – NES

The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES has grown into this sort of legendary game at this point, due to its unnecessarily punishing difficulty, obnoxious stage design, and overall complex gameplay—especially for a release that should have been friendlier to younger players. Going back to it now years later, TMNT is… well, it’s fine. Is it good? Absolutely not, no matter what some people on the internet will tell you. But it’s also not really bad either—though I think it would have been far more enjoyable to go back to had Digital Eclipse build in some difficulty options like they did for other entries in The Cowabunga Collection. As it stands, it’s an awkward, ugly, yet strangely charming experience that isn’t as terrible as you might be assuming.

09 TMNT II: The Arcade Game
1990 – NES

I feel bad for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, because it does not deserve being so low on this list. I have so many memories as a child of games I loved in the arcade finally coming to the NES, only to have those ports either be absolutely awful or nothing like their coin-op counterparts. TMNT II, on the other hand, is a fantastic home port when considering the limits of the NES, and I would have been ecstatic to get the game as a kid. The problem is that, you know, this collection brings with it the actual arcade game, leaving this as more of a fun novelty or fuel for nostalgia. I’m sorry Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game—you really do deserve better than I can give you.

08 TMNT: Tournament Fighters
1993 – SNES

Far and away, the best version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters the world received was the Super Nintendo version. Of course, that statement only says so much. Yes, the visuals and audio are markedly improved here, the controls are far better, and the roster is definitely the better among the three versions. Still, none of that means that this is a particularly great fighting game, or that it comes close to filling the potential that existed for such a project based around the Heroes in a Half Shell. If you’re curious about the Tournament Fighters trio, this is definitely the one to play—but I’m not sure how much playtime most will put into it.

07 TMNT: Fall of the Foot Clan
1990 – Game Boy

The Turtles’ first foray onto Nintendo’s groundbreaking portable gaming machine, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan, is a totally respectable attempt to craft a side-scrolling action game based around our four heroes and their adventures. It’s also, unfortunately, kinda unremarkable. The problem is, this is one of those games where it feels generic enough that you could swap in characters from any other famous brand and still basically have the same experience. It’s got some decent sprites, it controls and plays much better than its sequel, and it’s a fine action game—but not particularly a good TMNT action game.

06 TMNT III: The Manhattan Project
1991 – NES

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project is easily one of the two most interesting inclusions on The Cowabunga Collection to me. Here in the far-flung future of 2022, it can be pretty hard to still appreciate 8-bit beat ’em ups, but Manhattan Project is both a wholly original game (rather than an arcade port), and a release I’m assuming a lot of people have never played (as it came out three years into the 16-bit era). This is a pleasant surprise and still fun to give a go, especially when you use the options to eliminate slowdown and sprite flickering. These kinds of all-encompassing collections are often praised for bringing together a wide variety of beloved classics in one place, but they also hold a lot of potential for giving lesser-known releases—such as The Manhattan Project—the second chance they deserve.

05 TMNT III: Radical Rescue
1993 – Game Boy

If The Manhattan Project was a nice surprise given I’d never had the chance to play it in my younger days, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue was a total shock given what I was expecting after the first two Game Boy titles. Suddenly, instead of simpler side-scrolling actioners, we get a full-blown Metroidvania, where you start as Michelangelo, have to find your brothers, and then properly use all their special abilities to save the day. Even crazier, that more exploratory and thoughtful design comes with controls, gameplay, and framerate that are far smoother than either of the previous, more action-oriented Game Boy titles. Add on top of that some great sprite art, and you’ve got my vote for the biggest hidden gem on the collection.

04 TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist
1992 – Sega Genesis

Look, as a lifelong Genesis fan, I can’t help but have a place in my heart for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist. Sure, it’s basically a mixture of elements taken from other TMNT games instead of a proper arcade port or more developed original project. And absolutely, it seems evident that Konami totally phoned this one in at times, given the shockingly simplistic backgrounds and gameplay sloppiness that show up more often than I’d like to admit. But still, it was the only game based around the Turtles that we had—and its mixed-up nature also makes it kinda interesting to go back to even today.

03 TMNT: Turtles in Time
1991 – Arcade

Now, I can already hear some of you getting mad at me over daring to put Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time in third place instead of higher. To some, this is the greatest TMNT video game of the retro era, and I can definitely understand why. Improving on nearly every aspect of the original arcade game, Turtles in Time is a blast to play (especially with three other people), the gameplay and visual/audial presentation see some nice improvements, and the time travel aspect offers up a welcome variety of stages and enemy types to keep things from getting boring. It’s just that, you see…

02 TMNT: Turtles in Time
1992 – SNES

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time on the Super Nintendo is the better version of all of that. Sure, there are a few visual cuts here, a questionable change or two there (like the SNES-exclusive version of the “Neon Night-Riders” stage, which I am not a fan of), and having a max of two players instead of four does suck. Beyond that, however, this is really Turtles in Time: The Director’s Cut, as the SNES port is simply more complete, polished, and enjoyable than its arcade counterpart. If you’ve got friends over, then play that original arcade version and you’ll have a blast. If you want the true Turtles in Time experience, though, you’ll only find it here.

01 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
1989 – Arcade

And with that, we get to my pick for the game that remains the most exciting and engrossing member of The Cowabunga Collection to this day: the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game. It may be the second TMNT-related video game to ever come out, but even after 30-plus years, it’s still one of the best. Nearly everything that Konami put into this release stands up to this day, and the game captures the look, energy, and character of the cartoon series amazingly well. Sure, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might not be as fancy, flashy, or flavorful as its older sibling Turtles in Time, but it distills the essence of the Turtles franchise down into a gaming experience in a way that few other games have been able to since.

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