I was at a Chuck E Cheese one day in late 1989 or early 1990 and my eyes wandered over to something mind blowing. There was an arcade cabinet adorned with Ninja Turtles and April O'Neil. There were four players gathered around it. I went over and watched and was in total awe. This was nothing like the NES game. This was a gorgeous beat-em-up with sprites animated with so much character that it looked like they had been ripped straight out of the cartoon. I dumped a lot of quarters into that machine that day. And then I went home and prayed that this arcade game would find its way to home consoles.
About a year later, I finally got my wish when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game graced the NES. I doubt that there was any game that I was in such anticipation of at the time. And to me, that cover art is beyond iconic. Obviously the game had to be scaled down in many ways. Four players were reduced to just two. Raphael's spin kick was gone. There were less sprites on the screen at a time. The graphics took quite a hit, and all the sprites were much smaller now. There was slowdown and flickering, but my god - we were playing the Ninja Turtles arcade game at home!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game has long been on my list of top beat-em-ups. Obviously there's an argument to be made that Turtles In Time is the better game. And maybe it is. But The Arcade Game just feels more important to me. There's more nostalgia for me. So when it was announced that Digital Eclipse would be compiling this new Cowabunga Collection, I could not wait. It was a day one purchase for me, as the kids say.
The first thing I did was a quick run through of the original arcade version. My memory held up just how impressive the game looks. There's no denying that. And having a fight against both Bebop and Rocksteady at the same time is awesome. But, the arcade game is an ARCADE GAME. It's meant to eat your quarters. And it's balanced for four players. So trying to run through this thing solo was ugly. I chewed through so many quarters that I lost count. It was fun and brief but also quite frustrating.
After that little reminder of the arcade renaissance I was ready to relive my NES glory years. And it turns out that for all the concessions that had to be made to get this game running on NES hardware, it's still my preferred version of the game. Interestingly, it feels like much of the port's weaknesses are actually its strengths. Because the game had to limit sprites on the screen, it meant that there's not quite as many enemies to swarm you constantly. By default, the game has been more balanced for 1-2 players, making it a more manageable experience. And for some reason the combat feels more precise, less floaty. When punches connect, you really know it.
Perhaps more interestingly is that the NES game is also like an expanded director's cut. There's two levels added here that were not in the original arcade release, and both feature new bosses designed by Kevin Eastman himself specifically for this game. The snow-filled Central Park is actually really nice to look at and the new end boss is a wolf (or something?) that throws huge ice boulders at you. Then there's a dojo level that's pretty cool and features a weird shogun dude whose head comes off and flies around. It's at least unique.
Like all the recent Digital Eclipse collections, this one goes the extra mile. You've got both the US and Japanese versions of every game included. You've got gameplay options ranging from aspect ratio to dip switches for flicker and slowdown all that way to the madness of a God Mode that makes you near invincible. Basically, you can play these games however you seem fit. Each game has a digital strategy guide with hints and tips. And I have to say, the "watch mode" is a neat inclusion as it means that basically every game comes with a Super Play video. I actually used this to watch a flawless playthrough of The Arcade Game and see how intentional and patient gameplay can be versus my own inclination to just run and flail my swords wildly.
Having said all that, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game is not a flawless masterpiece. It's a pretty straight-forward experience, and one that I always remember could be tackled almost completely by just jump kicking your way through everything slowly. The two added levels are cool, but some might find that just prolong the game too much. But for any minor complaints I might have, I still think this game is a mini masterpiece. As a beat-em-up on NES, it is a highlight of the genre on the system. I really do love this game, and I love that I can revisit the NES game on my Xbox now anytime I want.