When I was a youngster, there was no joy quite like grabbing a bowl of sugar-laden cereal and sitting down to watch cartoons on a Sunday morning.
Superted, The Poddington Peas, The Real Ghostbusters, Captain Planet, Bucky O’Hare… I loved them all, but my absolute favourite had to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Or rather Hero Turtles at the time, as Ninjas were considered too violent for kids in the UK.
It had an amazing theme tune, some cool characters, great dialogue (at the time, at least!) and even had storylines that spanned over multiple episodes. While my friends were all about Michelangelo the ‘party dude’ or Raphael the ‘tough guy’, my geeky tendencies were already showing at an early age, as Donatello was always my top turtle.
I still remember the first time I got to play a TMNT game. I’d gone to a friend’s house who had a brand-new Nintendo Entertainment System, and it had come with a copy of Turtles.
We booted it up and it didn’t take long to realise that I had been right all along, as Donatello was by far the best to play as, with his Bo Staff having both the strongest hit and the furthest reach.
It also didn’t take long to realise it was hard as nails, too. But it was the spark that lit a fire inside me, making me want to play as many TMNT games as I could. So, when I saw The Cowabunga Collection announced, having just got done with the excellent Shredder’s Revenge, I went and pre-ordered it on the spot.
What Is A Cowabunga Collection, Exactly?
The Cowabunga Collection is a 13-strong anthology of some of the Turtle’s greatest outings. Titles span across the NES, SNES, Mega Drive, Game Boy and even the the huge 4-player arcade cabinets.
Not only that, but each game has a selection of quality-of-life enhancements and graphical settings to play around with, a digital strategy guide, and a video of a full playthrough. This lets you see the end of the game even if you can’t face grinding through some of the punishing gameplay.
Oh, and there are a load of cool little extras thrown in too, but I’ll get to them later.
So, let’s jump down the manhole and take a look at what’s on offer!
Who turned out the lights?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES) – 1989
The one where it all began!
The original TMNT game on NES has garnered quite the reputation over the years, thanks in part because it featured in one of the earliest Angry Video Game Nerd episodes, a YouTube channel that remains massively popular even to this day.
This game is difficult, there’s no two ways about it. Why? Well, it came out in an era where most games just were… be it accidentally through bad programming, or intentionally in order to give the title more play time.
TMNT on NES seems to fall right in the middle of the two. Some parts have clearly been designed to be brutal, as anyone who has played the infamous ‘dam’ section will attest to. But then there are some cheap tricks that don’t seem to have been planned, but increase the difficulty exponentially.
The biggest has to be that not only do almost all the enemies in the game respawn constantly as soon as they are off screen, but they respawn RANDOMLY too.
This can be a particularly big issue in some of the sewer levels, where should a certain type of enemy spawn above a set of difficult jumps, it can be almost impossible to make it across. As a result, you fall in the water, get dragged away and have to do the whole stage again, hoping the enemy selection is a little kinder.
Another thing this game became known for was the severe sprite flicker when a lot of enemies were on screen at once. The Cowabunga Collection gives you the option to remove this, and the slowdown that often came with it.
This title holds a special place in my heart, so I loved coming back to it after all this time. Not to mention seeing how gorgeous it looked on the crisp, clear Nintendo Switch OLED screen. It’s not for everyone, but if nothing else it’s a good way to show newer gamers just how tricky things used to be in the early days of gaming.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade) – 1989
I can’t even begin to imagine how much money this arcade cabinet cost my parents.
Between this and the Simpsons arcade game I must have spent hundreds throughout the course of my childhood.
I loved everything about this game. The graphics (although dated by today’s standards) looked outstanding; it was like playing an episode of the TV show.
While the NES game combined a couple of different playstyles throughout the adventure, the Arcade game sticks to the classic side-scrolling beat-em-up.
It’s definitely designed to be a ‘quarter muncher’, with cheap hits coming at you left and right, especially when bosses are involved. But on the Cowabunga Collection you’re free to rack up as many credits as you like, so it no longer becomes an issue.
I never quite managed to best this in the arcade as a kid, but a few weeks ago I sat down with a friend to set things straight and finally did it.
The ending was… underwhelming, but it was certainly one to tick off the Bucket List.
Oh, and for those of you that want to play with friends but aren’t in front of the same TV, this game features online co-op!
An absolute classic and a must play.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game (NES) – 1990
Although I can’t see it, I can imagine there may be a slightly puzzled look on your face upon reading that title of this game, so allow me to explain.
Both the original TMNT game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Arcade game, had gone down extremely well with players. So much so that a lot were clamouring for that arcade experience in their own home.
Konami listened and ported the arcade game to the NES, but didn’t want to cause confusion with the original title. So they called it TMNT 2, with the ‘Arcade Game’ subtitle to explain that it wasn’t actually a direct sequel to the first.
Nice and clear, right?
So, why would anyone opt to play an inferior ported version of the arcade title on this collection? Well, because Konami changed things up a bit while moving it across.
Two completely new stages, extensions to the others and a unique boss fight replacing a Bebop/Rocksteady rehash all make this version stand out.
Sadly though it doesn’t play anywhere near as smoothly as its arcade counterpart, so I doubt anyone will spend too long with this.
The quality-of-life improvements do help though, with the option to remove slowdown and sprite flicker, add more extra lives, jump to specific levels or even enable ‘God’ Mode to help get through it.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Footclan (GameBoy) – 1990
With business booming on the NES, Nintendo and Konami didn’t want the handheld fans to miss out, and so Fall of the Footclan arrived in 1990 too.
Although things were stripped back considerably for the monochrome marvel, this is still an enjoyable Turtles outing and some of the spritework is fantastic (Baxter Stockman at the end of Level 3 for example.)
Move from left to right, kill everything that moves, fight the boss and repeat. The controls are surprisingly tight and responsive too, making this a real joy to play even if it is a bit repetitive.
You won’t spend long with this one, but it’s a great inclusion to the collection, if only to show what was going on outside of the main console offerings.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (Arcade) – 1991
I’m not quite sure how, but I didn’t realise this game even existed until I saw it pop up on this collection.
I must have played the original a hundred times or more in the arcade, but I don’t ever recall seeing a cabinet for the sequel, much less playing it.
That could be because we went to Cleethorpes quite a lot when I was younger, a place not exactly a known for being on the bleeding edge of arcade advancements. But I’m still surprised I’ve never seen it anywhere over the years.
As you’d expect this is more of the same classic arcade beat-em-up action, but with a fresh lick of paint. Everything looks even nicer, the Turtles have a few new moves, it’s generally quite a bit quicker, but at its core it’s the same fun, button mashing, quarter-muncher.
This is one of the titles that allows online play if you want to hook up with up to 3 other friends who own the Cowabunga Collection, and there are a selection of enhancements that can be applied including ‘God’ mode to make things easier, ‘Nightmare’ mode to make things harder and ‘Turbo’ mode if you want everything to move twice as fast as it should.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Back from the Sewers (GameBoy) – 1991
Just over a year after Fall of the Footclan, the Turtles returned to black and white (or should it be green and lighter green?) in Back from the Sewers.
Back from the Sewers is similar to the first GameBoy outing, but with some nice improvements. Once again you select your turtle and dive into the beat-em-up action, but they all play slightly differently here, with speed and range of attack varying.
Turtles still get ‘captured’ rather than dying when out of health, but this time the end of each level presents the player with a chance to free them. This is usually by beating a miniboss, which is a great help as certain parts of this game can be brutal.
The graphic style is quite different, with much larger turtles sprites and improved animations for jumping and attacking. The whole thing looks great considering it’s a GameBoy title.
There are different game styles in here too, with skateboarding sewer surfing, a good old fashioned ‘lift’ level (a staple of almost all beat-em-ups of the time) and one level where you have to climb through the sky on various airship platforms.
Be warned though, this game gets VERY difficult toward the end, and there’s even a hard mode for the true sadists out there.
The Cowabunga collection does let you jump to any level you like, and offers infinite lives, but even with those perks it’s still a tricky one to complete.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: The Manhattan Project (NES) – 1992
It’s at this point that the Turtles gaming timeline gets a bit messy.
These days it’s almost universally accepted that the same game will come out across multiple platforms in an almost identical manner.
For example, there wouldn’t be much point purchasing WWE 2K22 or Guardians of the Galaxy on both PS5 and X-Box Series X because it’s the same game.
But back even as recently as the Gamecube/PS2/Xbox days, one franchise could be represented completely differently across the different major platforms.
And that’s what happened here, with the NES, SNES and Mega Drive all getting different TMNT games in 1992.
By this point the NES had been succeeded by the Super NES in most parts of the world, but Nintendo knew that huge swathes of their customers hadn’t made the jump yet, and so another TMNT game came out on their classic system.
The Manhattan Project is essentially a reskin of the arcade port from 1990, with a couple of new moves thrown in for good measure. Although by today’s standards it looks dated and doesn’t play that well, it reviewed excellently at the time and allowed players to squeeze a bit more life out of their consoles.
The Cowabunga Collection marks the first time this game has ever been released in PAL regions, which makes it worth a play just to see what we missed out on in the early 90’s.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4: Turtles in Time (SNES) – 1992
Sticking to the winning formula across Nintendo platforms, the freshly released SNES got its own Arcade port in the later stages of the year.
Turtles in Time had gone down a treat in arcades, so Konami once again made a home console version that showed off what their new hardware could do.
Graphically the games look almost identical, and it’s only the smoothness of animation that reveals the gulf in hardware. No mean feat when you consider just how wide that gulf was at the time.
There’s a lot to experience here too, even for those who have already played through the Arcade version on this collection. New bosses, completely revamped levels and bonus stages, and a 2-player fight mode all feature, although there’s no online gameplay so you’ll have to get your mates round for some old-fashioned couch co-op.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist (Mega Drive) – 1992
The Hyperstone Heist is similar in many ways to Turtles in Time, but it’s different enough that it also feels like its own game.
The sprites are similar, as are the controls and some of the cutscenes, so for anyone who has played Turtles in Time or the original Arcade game it will feel very familiar.
But the levels are different, things are faster and the enemies are more aggressive making for a more frantic affair.
Yes, at its core it’s a clone of the second arcade game, but it’s a good one and well worth a play, especially in 2-player couch co-op. One of the best in the collection.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: Radical Rescue (GameBoy) – 1993
Up to this point TMNT games had all followed a very similar ‘move from right to left and kill everything’ formula. Sure, the first NES game was a little more open world, but it was pretty close.
That changed across the board in 1993, starting with Radical Rescue on the GameBoy.
Radical Rescue still has elements of what made the previous games so enjoyable, but it’s more of a metroid-style scavenger hunt. Raph, Donnie, Leo, April and Splinter have been kidnapped, leaving Mikey with a rescue mission on his hands.
Players have to scavenge around a maze-like environment, locating keys, then cells that contain the other turtles. Each turtle has a unique ability that is required for progression. For example, Leonardo can drill through certain floor tiles, unlocking new areas to explore.
While sometimes frustrating due to cheap enemy placement, this game is a lot of fun and worth a play through.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES/Mega Drive/NES) – 1993/1993/1994
The final three games on the collection are console-specific versions of the same 1 on 1 fighting game; Tournament Fighters.
Personally, it’s not a genre I’ve ever been a huge fan of (largely because I’m rubbish at them) but I have spent quite a lot of time over the years playing Mortal Kombat and Tekken.
With that in mind, I thought I might have a shot at progressing through the story mode a little way to see what these games had in the tank.
With the exception of the NES version, I struggled to even land a hit on my opponents, much less win a round or two. Now, perhaps it is because I’m truly awful, or because the JoyCons don’t lend themselves to fighters that well, but they just seemed overly difficult to me.
If you’re a fan of 1 on 1 fighters then there’s a lot to enjoy here, the SNES and Mega Drive versions look glorious. There’s not much reason to go back and play the NES version though. I’m sure it was a great release for those who hadn’t jumped to 16 bit back in 1994, but it doesn’t have anything to offer when bundled with the other two versions.
I’m sure you’re sick to the back teeth of hearing about the Turtles by this point, but there’s more to the Cowabunga Collection than just the games.
The turtles ‘lair’ is a treasure trove of awesome extras for anyone who has an interest in the Heroes in a Halfshell. Instruction manuals, strategy guides, box and concept art, screens from the animated shows, behind-the-scenes images, full game soundtracks and loads more.
It might not be a huge deal to most players, but it’s just another example of the amazing value for money that this collection offers.
Perhaps you played one or more of these games back in their heyday, and want a fresh hit of nostalgia. Or you’re looking for a good co-op game to play with your friends or the kids. Maybe you’re just looking for a fun collection of games to play.
Either way, I’d strongly recommend picking up The Cowabunga Collection!