How Shredder’s Revenge captures the essence of classic TMNT arcade games
Frederic Gemus still remembers the first time he played the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game. There was something about the experience, with its big expressive characters and approachable gameplay, that drew it right away. “Playing that game was so great because it was like playing the cartoon,” he tells me via Zoom (with a huge collection of retro games behind him). “It was so different from Nintendo back in the day.” So when Gemus, now a designer at Montreal-based studio Tribute Games, got the chance to work on a modern take on TMNT, it was kind of a dream project. “That was pretty awesome to learn about,” he says of the project.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is out now, and it comes from some proven experts in the field. It was developed by Tribute, with developers who have worked on titles like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game and the cult hit TMNT game for the Game Boy Advance, and published by Dotemu, the team behind the incredible revival of Streets of anger† The purpose of Shredder’s Revenge was pretty much the same: taking the best parts of the classic TMNT titles and make them work for a modern audience.
For Gemus, there were a few things that made those classic games stand out, which he wanted to highlight in Shredder’s Revenge† The first was accessibility. While the arcade games were still designed to consume as much of your quarters as possible – and thus were quite challenging – they were still easier to pick up and play than many of their contemporaries. He also believes that the pace and level design of the original TMNT games had a lot more in common with an action game than a standard side-scrolling beat ’em up. “You have enemies that come in, in different patterns, and it’s all about getting them out of the way very quickly so you don’t get overrun,” he explains. “That’s something we really wanted to recapture in the game.”
While the team had a similar design philosophy, they were of course also able to take advantage of modern technology. Shredder’s Revenge is available on the PS4, Switch, Xbox and Steam, which is a small step up from the 16-bit consoles and arcades of the 90s. Crucially, it still looks wonderfully retro, with beautiful and expressive pixel art filled with all kinds of cool animations. I especially like the Foot Clan enemies who hide in garbage bags or disguise themselves as chefs for an attack. (It also sounds the part thanks to a brilliant soundtrack from Sonic Mania composer Tee Lopes.)
“We like to say that we like to make games the way you remember them, rather than the way they were,” says Gemus. But the developers weren’t so limited when it came to how much they could put on the screen and weren’t forced to do things like re-use animations or character sprites to save memory. Moreover, they were able to add completely modern features such as online play.
Finding that balance between modern and retro was a challenge, a challenge that involved a lot of research and testing. The development team played most of the classics — not just TMNT games, but also other beat ’em ups – and old songs from Nintendo power to get a better idea of how the levels were laid out. Testing, meanwhile, was extremely difficult. Due to the pandemic, it was initially not possible to let testers play together locally. But even if they were able, the chaotic nature of the game’s multiplayer — which supports up to six players — made following the playthroughs difficult. “Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to analyze what’s going on because there are so many things happening on the screen,” Gemus says.
And while nostalgia is clearly a big part of the experience, for both the classic games and the original animated series, Gemus says Shredder’s Revenge is designed so that even brand new players can pick it up. “There are no real points in the game that you need to know about” [the original games],” he says. “Of course there are lots of Easter eggs and little tributes. But there is never really a requirement to enjoy the game.”
Shredder’s Revenge comes out at a time when there’s been a resurgence of side-scrolling beat ’em ups. It’s a particularly good time to be a turtle fan; in addition to Shredder’s Revenge, 13 classic games will also be bundled later this year. And Gemus has a theory about why these games, which once dominated arcades, are so enduring.
“At first you feel like it’s just knotting, but at some point you realize it’s more like a dance,” he explains. “There’s a lot of positioning, a lot of rhythm – it’s like dancing. You can just dance for fun, but you can also become a professional dancer and do all these incredible moves.”