Why TMNT: The Cowabunga Collection is Digital Eclipse's biggest project yet

Digital Eclipse is no stranger to compiling classic games in a single collection, but Editorial Chris Kohler, along with Konami's Charles Murakami, explain why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection may be the team's definitive work so far.


Across gaming history, the publisher with the most Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles titles under its belt has been Konami. The Japanese publisher has been there from the very beginning when the Turtles were at the height of their popularity. From arcade brawlers, to platformers, to fighters, and even through the experimental ideas, Konami was there all through the 90s. Collecting all of these games under a single collection wasn't going to be an easy task, but if anybody was up for this pizza party, it was the team at Digital Eclipse.

Digital Eclipse has been in the collection game for many years. The team has been responsible for old-school retro compilations like the Mega Man Legacy Collection, the Disney Afternoon Collection, the Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, and many more. The team has been used to taking groups of beloved old-school games and compiling them all into a classic museum-like presentation. Digital Eclipse's reputation speaks for itself and it's no wonder Konami approached the studio for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection. However, while Digital Eclipse has grown accustomed to handling games that have raised generations of fans, the team knew it was handed a truly enviable task with the TMNT games. Forget the darker ages of the 00s and 10s, this was the golden era of the Turtles franchise. This needed to be something special.

To learn more about the making of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection, Shacknews had the opportunity to speak with Konami Senior Producer Charles Murakami and Digital Eclipse Editorial Director Chris Kohler. We discussed the various titles, the differences (both the subtle and more extreme) between similar-looking SKUs, the unique Digital Eclipse flair that has made each title both a tribute to the past and a modern touch-up, and all of the work that went into turning The Cowabunga Collection into gaming's definitive Turtles museum.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Arcade Game

Source: PlayStation.Blog

Shacknews: When did Konami first approach Digital Eclipse for The Cowabunga Collection?

Charles Murakami, Konami Senior Producer: Back in 2018, we were making various collections for our 50th anniversary at Konami and one of the suggestions was to have the TMNT collection. And then once the fans were like, "Yeah, that's the next collection we want," I was passionate about the game, but I knew that the people that were going to be just as passionate as I am, if not more, was going to be Digital Eclipse. I've met a lot of the people at Digital Eclipse before, and I knew they were huge fans of, not just TMNT, but like retro gaming, emulations, the historian part of these collections. I knew that we were on the same page. So for me, it was a pretty quick no-brainer that Digital Eclipse is the guys I wanted to work with.

Shacknews: Chris, this certainly isn't the first time that Digital Eclipse has been hired to restore a collection of classic games. I'm familiar with the Mega Man Legacy Collection, for example. You have a long history of this. So how has the team's approach to remastering games evolved over time?

Chris Koehler, Digital Eclipse Editorial Director: Digital Eclipse started out and, the person running a lot of the show, as far as the additional content that was added or "How were the collections put together?" was Frank Cifaldi. And now Frank actually just runs the Video Game History Foundation, the nonprofit, full-time. I basically came in to fill the Frank spot, but I wanted to fill it in my own way.

And so we are now looking at [as] it's really all about when we get that that group of games and when we know what games are going to be in a certain collection, what is the best way to add context? What is the best way to let a totally new generation of players experience these games? A lot of that is thinking about, first of all, what kind of context was available to the players in the beginning, when they actually had these games, and they bought these games in the stores back in the 80s and 90s? A lot of that context was the box, a lot of that context was the manual, sometimes that context was buying a strategy guide at the store, and sometimes that context was like having an issue of Nintendo Power or Electronic Gaming Monthly open to a page that had the Konami Code in it and showed you where to put in the Konami Code to refill your life meter or whatever it is. All of that context was there for players in the 80s, in the 90s, and it's not necessarily there today if you buy a retro game collection, because you might simply have just the game with nothing wrapping around it. And I don't want that. I want to make sure that people at least have, just in a very literal sense, scans of the boxes, scans of the original manuals that you can go through.

In this case, we built out what we're calling the Interactive Strategy Guide, which is almost like having an issue of a classic video game magazine, but it's all digital, it's all inside the game, and it's interactive because the "screenshots" in the magazine are actually videos that you can click on. When it's like, "Oh, like, here's a bonus feature," you can click on that and actually see the player either defeating a secret boss or finding a bonus. So, then you can carry that into the game and do that yourself. And then, additionally, [there is] the opportunity to go and to find any behind-the-scenes stuff. That could be magazine ads, there are old press releases that are that are reprinted in the digital galleries in this game. And then, of course, there's almost a thousand pages of design documents that were the original sketches and the process by which the original developers of this game in Japan, of all these games in Japan in the 80s and 90s, actually put these games together.

It's just any content that we can find. Then it's making sure that we... it's like, how do we present all of that? How do we make sure that players can find all of that? How do we make sure that players can enjoy all of that? Really, I mean, in this case with The Cowabunga Collection, just so much more than anybody anticipated would ever be in a retro game collection is in this. I mean, if this isn't the biggest collection we've ever done at Digital Eclipse, I would love to know where it is. I think this is really, just absolutely, just the biggest.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Tournament Fighters on Super Nintendo

Source: PlayStation.Blog

Shacknews: What was the approach to a game like, let's say Turtles In Time or Tournament Fighters, where there are multiple SKUs, but there may be little subtle differences between the two? Is it mainly in those special features or in those design docs and that sort of thing?

Kohler: Well, with Tournament Fighters, yes, there were three versions and they are completely different games from the ground up. It's not even a question of minimal differences. In fact, there's actually very few. There are no games in this collection where there's only minimal differences between between the two of them. Even Turtles In Time, the arcade and the Super NES version are very, very different experiences: new levels, different bosses, remixes, things like that.

But yeah, with what you're talking about specifically, Tournament Fighters, all three games are totally different. There's the 8-bit NES version, which was one of the only one-on-one fighting games that you could play on that platform in the U.S. The Genesis version is completely different. It's about clone Turtles and things like that. They all used characters that came from the wider world of the Ninja Turtles, but they all used different sets of them and they all interacted in different ways. And so, again, it wasn't even a question to me. Of course, we need all of them. It's like, we can't just do one of those games. We've got to include every Turtles game from this era, because every one of these games is somebody's favorite. Every one of these games is the one Turtles game that somebody owned. If you only owned a Sega Genesis, you had those those two games that came out. So you want to see your favorite game represented. We want to represent your favorite game. And more importantly, we want to show the full history. It's just important to be able to go to people and say, "This is the definitive collection. This has everything. You will want for nothing if you if you purchase this collection."

Murakami: Timing-wise, because the NES [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game] came out later than the original arcade version, that's why you have Baxter Stockman become a fly. But if you look at the original arcade game, they only had the first five episodes to work with. So the character hasn't mutated into a fly yet. So even though the game is called TMNT 2: The Arcade Game, there are subtle differences that came because it came out later. So we want to show every part of the history of these games.

Shacknews: I had completely forgotten that these games were also dependent on like the timeline of the cartoon itself. That's really interesting.

In terms of the collection soundtracks, how did you how did you approach restoring the soundtracks, especially given the drastically different audio quality between the Arcade, NES, the SNES, and the Genesis, especially?

Kohler: The soundtracks are presented as they appear in the games. There are plenty of people who enjoy listening to NES music. I am definitely one of those people. The best thing that I can say about the soundtracks, the really exciting part, is that for some of them, we were actually able to find documents in Konami's archives where the composers of the soundtrack actually wrote down official titles for some of these pieces, which don't appear in the game. So when you go into the music player that's in the Turtles Lair, you pick out a cassette tape, because it looks like a little cassette tape, you pop that in, and you start playing the soundtrack to the game. Some of the titles for certain games, they're going to sound a little strange, because some of the titles are things like "Little Brain Krang" or like "The Four Heroes" or things like that. In those cases, where the title is not just like "Stage 1" or "Stage 2," you know that that's actually the title that the composer wrote for that piece of music.

This always happens where I end up having to go to one of our engineers and say, "Oh, hey, I need this functionality, because we need to do this, because this is the historical way to do this." Because, originally, the soundtrack player didn't have Japanese text support and on one of the soundtracks, the names were written in Japanese. And I was like, "We have to add Japanese text support to the soundtrack player. Sorry." It's always these little things, but it's always just driven by this idea of, like, let's let's nail it. Let's do it the proper way.

Shacknews: There is one other platform that's also included as part of this collection, and that's the Game Boy! So I have to ask, because modern audiences have become so accustomed to playing basically on any kind of resolution from 1080p to 4K, were there any challenges in restoring something like a handheld Turtles title, where there were originally such limited resources available?

Kohler: When you're playing these games, you can play them exactly as they were. You can absolutely have it on the screen. We have a couple of filters, like monitor filters, things like that, or like an LCD filter, so that you're not just looking at the plain black-and-white pixels, but then there's also enhancements that we can add to these, as well. For example, you might want to give yourself extra lives or, in the case of the NES games, you can turn off the flicker or the sprite slowdown that sometimes plagued NES games, because of the original hardware. It's not something you really have to worry about anymore in an emulated version.

So it really is about giving the opportunity to either play it exactly as it was or do some some tweaking to it. Essentially, you can add add borders around the screen, stuff like that. And so, yes, in the case of the in the case of the Game Boy games, yeah, if you want to take that Game Boy game and put it full screen across your gigantic 4K television and see pixels as big as your head, go for it. Yeah, sure! Why not? Knock yourself out!

Murakami: Yeah, and then, you know, the original Game Boy games, they were really good at making the sprites pretty big. So when they're blown up onto a giant 4K TV, it still looks great, which is a bit of a shock for when you had a screen like [the size of the Game Boy's], but the original sprites were really big, so it actually translates really well.

Shacknews: Was there an individual title that proved to be more challenging or proved to be more work than you might have originally expected?

Murakami: I'm sure for [Digital Eclipse], anything that required online work was quite a bit of work. So the two arcade games have online play, along with Hyperstone Heist from the Genesis and the Super Nintendo Tournament Fighters. They all have online play. That's quite a bit of significant work. And, not to mention, they're on different, you know, original platforms, which adds additional work to everything.

Kohler: Yeah, it's like making four online games, essentially, because they're all different and they all have to be tested individually. It was very harmonious between us and Konami, because we were all really on board with, "We want to do this the right way." And we just kept giving ourselves more work to do, because we could have made decisions that gave ourselves less work, but we always seem to make these decisions that give ourselves more work to do, as far as adding online and all of the different things that we did in the Turtles Lair, which is the museum section of the game, and things like that. There's got to be things that you sort of glance at for a second as you're going through, you know, some of the content that somebody put hours of work into.

Murakami: Yeah, all I had to do was say yes, right? They were like, "Oh, we want to put enhancements into the games." I'm like, "Go for it!" Oh, "They want to make a strategy guide." Yep! That sounds good to me!

Shacknews: I'm glad the topic of the Turtles Lair has come up, because I am so fascinated by extras, by making-of docs, and that sort of thing. What is something you feel that players are going to find that is really going to blow them away?

Kohler: Let me just go through everything. First of all, before I even get into the Turtles Lair, as far as extras go, when you jump into the game's menu, there is a Change Region button. So as you're scrolling through this menu — which is all done with Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's amazing art, so the games are placed inside where comic book panels would be, as you're flipping through this thing — there's a Change Region button. You hit that and the game variants, they all change from the U.S. versions to the Japanese versions, the art changes, and the games titles change to reflect the fact that the Japanese versions had different titles. Before you start playing games, you go to the Enhancements menu and you can tweak stuff, and that could be things like we just talked about, like turning off the sprite flicker in any game. It could be things like in the Sega Genesis version of Tournament Fighters, you can play as the three boss characters, and that was not something that you could do in the original game, not even with a not even with a cheat code. There's smaller enhancements and there's major enhancements to some of these games.

You go into the Turtles Lair, you start going through, it's this really fun 3D-rendered version of the Turtles' sewer lair. We envisioned this as "This is where they keep their stash." This is where Michelangelo keeps all of his video game magazines. Leonardo has the secret scrolls and secret boxes, and that's where all our design documents are. These design documents, they all came out of Konami's archives, and they had binders full of pencil drawings and sketches for how these people were putting these games together back in the 80s and 90s in Japan. We scanned every one of them, put those all into the Turtles Lair, did the painstaking work of identifying what games they were from, what order they should be in, how to classify them, and so you can scroll through all of those. The soundtrack player is in there, there's screenshots from the TV shows, there's comic book covers, there's variant comic book covers, there's really rare variant comic book covers. There's a lot of comic book covers in there! There's game boxes, there's manuals, the whole manual for every game, U.S. and Japanese, all scanned, all very nicely cleaned up, all presented in high resolution, brand new scans of the boxes and the manuals. And there's probably even more stuff that I'm forgetting.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: The Manhattan Project

Source: PlayStation.Blog

And then, more importantly, you add all that together. You have almost 2,000 items in the Turtles Lair and that is really tough to go through, and so there is also a Search feature. If you want to pull up the Search feature and you want to say, "I want to see only magazine advertisements from the 8-bit era that feature Michelangelo." And you can pop that all in, you can sort of hit radio buttons on the Search feature, and you can run that search, [it] generates a custom gallery for you that will show you only magazine advertisements for 8-bit games in which Michelangelo shows up somewhere.

You can go even deeper than that. If you love Roadkill Rodney, and I love Roadkill Rodney, if you want to learn everything you can about Roadkill Rodney, you just search for Roadkill Rodney. It'll bring up individual pages of manuals, some designer's pencil sketch of Roadkill Rodney, TV screenshots where Roadkill Rodney appears in an episode. Everything has captions. All the design documents that are handwritten in Japanese, that's all optionally translated for you. If you are a Ninja Turtles fan, you could spend more time in the Turtles Lair than you spend playing the games, quite frankly, just reading, searching, looking at everything, and seeing how all the pieces kind of fit together. It's like we're just handing you a Ninja Turtles reference library. Some future Ninja Turtle scholars are going to cite this game in the "works cited" of their research papers, their dissertations on Ninja Turtles culture, because I really believe it is this amazing. It's almost like we did a huge coffee table book of Turtles history. It's mind blowing. I hope you enjoy it.

Shacknews: I'm both excited and terrified by the idea that I'm just going to get completely lost in this thing.

Kohler: You should be. Absolutely!

Shacknews: I saw some influencers coming out of the Cowabunga Collection showcase from San Diego Comic-Con and some of them were discussing Tournament Fighters and that it's been optimized for a competitive audience. In what ways did you optimize Tournament Fighters to appeal to both casual and competitive players?

Kohler: Basically, when we're talking about that, what we're talking about is a variety of things, which is the just making sure that the online settings for the online matches are what the competitive community wants, which is to say people usually play on Hi-Speed 1, that's the speed that they play on. So we made sure that that is the speed that you're going to be playing on when you join a match online. It's stuff like that.

Also in the there's an interactive strategy guide in the game and for Tournament Fighters SNES, because it is online, we made sure to have a complete move list in there. So I mean, you have access to a move list that's a bit more expansive than what's in the actual game's manual, as well. Turtles is esports, apparently. So if you want to start playing competitive Tournament Fighters, this is it might be a good place for you to start.

Shacknews: Lastly, as we all know, there was another Turtles game that came out this year. You mentioned that you had been working on The Cowabunga Collection since 2018. Was it a fun coincidence and a happy accident that there just so happened to be a new Turtles game this year and now suddenly interest in Turtles games is higher than it's ever been?

Murakami: Yeah, since we started so far back when it was announced, it really caught us by surprise. But you could tell they're a fan of of previous Turtles games. And one of the great things is, if you haven't played those games before or haven't played in quite a while, this is a perfect place to try it out, so that you can see where all that is coming from. Not to mention, we not only have like the beat 'em ups that they take inspiration from, we have the adventure games, which is like the original NES games; the Game Boy games, the Metroidvania-type game, which is The Radical Rescue; and on top of that, we have the fighting games which are Tournament Fighters. So you get the breadth of all the Konami games from the 80s and 90s. So if you want to see the roots of where all these games came from, this is the place to be.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection is almost here. The full collection is coming to PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch on Tuesday, August 30.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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