It feels like an age ago now, but when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge was announced it triggered excitement among gamers of all ages. For sure, some of the reaction came from players of a certain vintage that remember the original show and the TMNT arcade game, from which this new game draws heavy inspiration. Plenty will also remember console ports and sequels in the '90s. Retro has been 'cool' for a good while now, though, so the love of older titles runs through generations, helping to explain the surge of remasters and retro sequels in the past five years, as well as Digital Eclipse's upcoming Turtles compilation, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection.
In the case of Shredder's Revenge, updates were relatively infrequent through 2021, barring the occasional character reveal, but that's now changed as promotion steps up a gear. Though still a 'Summer' release, it's clearly close to the finish line; we've had a chance to play the same PC demo that made its debut at PAX East recently, and also talk to a couple of key figures behind the game.
First of all, our impressions were limited to the first two stages, albeit with all characters unlocked. We crashed through a TV station and then New York streets, also fighting two of the most iconic grunt bosses of the older games and TV shows, Bebop and Rocksteady. Pleasingly the game looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, and though our demo was on PC we have confidence it'll hold up well on Switch — Dotemu (Streets of Rage 4) and Tribute Games (Panzer Paladin) know the hardware, and this is the sort of game that typically sings on Nintendo's hybrid.
As for the action, it has the frantic, high tempo feel that some will remember from the older arcades and games, which is relatively unique in the beat 'em up genre. Each Turtle has different strengths and combos, Splinter has some nifty moves for an elderly rat, and April O'Neil is an absolute delight — she's fast and a lot of fun. There are clever differences in character combos and beyond basic attacks, 'Turtle Power' moves and a very useful upward kick, we felt like we were continually discovering new moves and combo ideas. A real marvel is the dodge button; it sounds like such a simple move to have, but once we settled into utilising it effectively it made encounters even more enjoyable.
There are throwbacks galore, yes, but it also feels modern.
There are throwbacks galore, yes, but it also feels modern. Animation is smooth, though environments feel a little less interactive than in Streets of Rage 4, at least in these early stages. The speed is exciting, and though we were playing solo in our test time, it's a game that will no doubt shine in co-op. There was a lot to like in the demo, and it definitely left us wanting more.
After playing the demo a few too many times, we had a chance to chat with Dotemu CEO Cyrille Imbert and Tribute Games co-founder Jean-Francois (Jeff) Major; the latter is also the Technical Director on the game.
Going back to the start, you've previously explained that both Dotemu and Tribute Games were pitching similar Turtles games at the same time, before coming together on the project. Can you talk about how closely aligned your visions were right at the start?
Cyrille Imbert: We didn't really know each other before we started talking about this project in particular. I knew Tribute from their past creations, and when I heard that they were pitching too — we were at GDC (Game Developers Conference) — I asked around if anyone had the contact details of Jeff. So I contacted them, wrote an email, then a couple of hours later we met at the hotel lobby and started talking!
Jeff Major: Yeah it's kind of a funny story. I think for the most part our visions really aligned at the start, so it made total sense to partner up together and tackle that project. I think with both of our companies behind the project it really opened up some doors and made sure we could do a proper game for this license. A game near and dear to so many of us, so we needed to have everything on our side to make it happen.
With the original arcade as such a big inspiration, what would you say are the defining qualities of that older game?
Major: For my part it was one of the bigger licenses for beat 'em ups back then. Normally there weren't licensed games, but I think it paved the way for The Simpsons arcade and others in that genre. Also I think it's a really action packed, fast-paced game, it's really well suited for pick-up-and-play. Right out of the gate when playing you 'get it' and are able to pull your own weight.
We obviously needed to stay true to the originals, but also try to stay true to what people remember of those games back then.
Those were two major things we needed to recreate when tackling Shredder's Revenge, make sure someone can jump in and have fun, but also it's a bit different from Streets of Rage. There's more crowd control, and really flying across the screen from one side to the other to tackle enemies and so on. That's what made the TMNT games back then what they were, they had their own unique personality, I would say.
It was a strange feeling, when watching a preview clip of a later level in Shredder's Revenge my brain tricked me into thinking it was a throwback to the arcade. Yet the new game feels very modern as well, what were the main areas in early design where you considered more contemporary approaches?
Major: That was a key challenge. We obviously needed to stay true to the originals, but also try to stay true to what people remember of those games back then. Sometimes when you play older games years down the road, sometimes they're not as great as you remember them. So if you were to play Turtles in Time, for example, it's a bit slower than Shredder's Revenge, and the combat is a bit more stiff. Those are some quality of life things we needed to add to the game, and we needed to finetune things just enough that it doesn't feel off or 'cheap'.
So, for example, let's say you want to attack an enemy but are not quite aligned with them, well we just magnetise the player a bit towards that enemy. Little subtle things like that, we felt we needed to address.
Another thing was we wanted to add online multiplayer and stuff like that, even though we feel it's more of a party game in a sense. We couldn't not include online multiplayer. Our multiplayer aspect is pretty interesting, as we allow a combination of online and offline multiplayer, so you can have two people in one house and someone else online. It's all 'ease of play', that was a focus, make it as simple and painless as possible for people to jump in and have fun.
Dotemu achieved online play in Streets of Rage 4, too, so did you also feel that was particularly important for this project, with the way we play games nowadays?
Imbert: On TMNT it's even better as it has the drop-in drop-out mechanic, which unfortunately we don't have in SoR4. Yeah it's definitely something that Tribute wanted to setup from the beginning, and we were in line with that because that was missing in SoR4.
Of course, beat 'em ups in particular are multiplayer games in essence, it's a different experience when you play them with friends. For SoR4 we were surprised that people were down to play online so much, and asking for online features. We knew that was going to be important for TMNT as well, but it was already in Tribute Games' minds.
You mentioned the game's tempo earlier, and though it's quick, we noticed the character stats also make a difference, especially with speed. Did these characteristics for each fighter need a lot of workshopping and balancing?
Major: The stats that you see aren't fully accurate, they're more a useful visual menu feature. Each character was designed carefully and that was quite a big challenge, making sure they're balanced. As it's a co-op game it's perhaps not necessarily hugely important for the characters to be super balanced, but we tried to do them as best as we could.
The attacks that we designed always went with those initial stats that we envisioned for the players. There's a lot of work put into tweaking those values and respecting the hero you've chosen.
It's a game where there's almost constant discovery of new combos and moves. Can you talk about that combat depth in the game?
Major: Yeah, the combo system isn't 'stiff', in the sense that the way you chain combos is really up to you. There's the normal button mashing combo if you just keep hitting the attack button. That's fun, and you don't always see the full extent of the system, but players will be able to figure out how to chain and juggle Foot Soldiers. There's so many ways you can do that, you can start running and do a slide attack, then into a rising kick and so on. It's pretty substantial, but I would say it's more freeform that something like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat.
The dodge is a bit of a game changer too, easy to forget about but when used it's hugely useful. When did that come about in development, was it quite an early idea?
Major: I think it was pretty early. Some people had asked if we could have a block button, for example, but it was never in the spirit of Turtles games, we feel like the action needs to keep going. The alternative was the dodge, which keeps the movement going and you can even chain it with an attack, so really early on we knew we wanted something similar to that in the game.
This was a fan project to begin with, and I told everyone that our 'kid self' did all the work and research for the project.
The presentation is a highlight. Can you talk about the iterations and scale of that work? Even in the first two stages it does a great job of recalling a bygone era while still looking like a 2022 game.
Major: This is the most animation heavy game we've done to date. There are so many ways that enemies pop up, for example, even just player characters have such a long list of attacks and movements, and reactions. They can get shocked, dizzy, burned and so on.
That goes in line with modernising the game, in a sense, we wanted to stay true to the older games but for today's standards we needed more frames, more variety with enemies and how they pop on screen. The amount of bosses in the game is pretty impressive too. Right out of the gate we knew we needed all that variety, but I don't think we imagined how much work it would be. We really needed to get extra hands on animations and artwork.
On the music side Tee Lopes did an amazing job. Right from the start he got the vibe of the Turtles right away, and I think if you were to listen to his tracks it's impressive the amount of detail he put in. Some may listen and think it's quite straightforward, but there's depth and instruments that give little cues from the arcade era, for example, to give that nostalgia effect.
In terms of knowing the '87 TV show and original arcade game (1989), were a lot of the team already fans or did some have to go back and learn about it with a more modern gaze?
Major: This was a fan project to begin with, and I told everyone that our 'kid self' did all the work and research for the project. We did it when we were 8 years old, just watching the TV shows, having the action figures, dressing up as Donatello for Halloween and stuff like that! Pretty much everyone on the team watched the older TV shows to dive back into it, but we were already big fans.
You mention the older shows, and the current rights holders (Viacom) have a more modern cartoon and animated film out on Netflix this year. Was there any discussion on their side to tie the game to the modern projects, or was this project more independent and going its own way?
Imbert: I'm not sure of their plans. I know it was a request from both Tribute and Dotemu to work on this specific design, and we explained why it was so important for us and why we thought it would make a difference for TMNT fans. It makes sense that people who like beat 'em ups remember them from back in the day, like us they are maybe an older demographic and want to see it come back. I'm not sure if Nickelodeon has other plans for the '87 design, but I'm happy they let us use that one.
Were you surprised at all, to have that freedom to follow a retro vision?
Imbert: Well we put together good arguments to present to them, to say it's what people really want, what we feel as people from the gaming industry and as TMNT fans. Then, Tribute did a first mock-up when we pitched the '87 design and they were very happy with the results, and that made them feel it was the right way to go for this title. But I'm sure they may have other projects closer to other designs, they'll have other games for sure.
As the game gets closer to release, what are your hopes in terms of the audience it'll reach? Do you think it'll mainly be an older audience, or will it go beyond that?
Major: I think we're able to reach people that grew up playing it in the arcades, that's a given. But from what I saw at PAX, so many kids played the game. Even though it's a 'retro throwback' type of game, I also think it's a game that young and old can just pick up and have fun. I think the Turtles is a license that still holds up really well to this day, and the '87 design won't keep any younger players away. If anything, they'll be intrigued to find out what the Turtles were, back then.
Finally, do you have a message for fans and what you're most proud of with the game?
Major: I really hope everyone that picks up the game sees the passion we put into this title, and really hope it will open up more opportunities to dive into these games we grew up with. Hopefully it will prove that those titles still hope up and are still good fun.
Imbert: Same for me, I hope people will understand why we did this game. I think that's already the case for a lot of people, we see comments that they get it. We're doing this out of passion for the license, for gaming, for old-school gaming, modernising it and keeping up with those arcade-vibe games. Creating games is also about communicating with your players, I hope people have fun and enjoy a cool TMNT game.
I'm really looking forward to seeing people play it, PAX was the first time we'd actually shown it, it was so nice. It's hard to know how people will react, you always have some doubts, but seeing them play and have fun, complementing the awesome work of Tribute Games, that was so satisfying. Hopefully it will be great for beat 'em up fans but also beyond that, for families that want to play and discover those old-school games and realise they can age really well when looked after by the right teams.
We'd like to thank Cyrille Imbert and Jean-Francois Major for their time, and Tinsley PR for their assistance.