For the nostalgic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan, the new game Shredder’s Revenge will be something of a dream. After all, the work pays homage to the original 1987 animated series, as well as the iconic 1991 Super Nintendo game Turtles in Time. It’s turtles at their most corporeal – light-hearted, messy, and approachably humorous. And it all comes with a loud pixel art style.
But it’s not the late 80’s/early 90’s sentimentality that makes the game work so well.
It’s the modern flourishes, be it news anchor April O’Neil wielding broadcast equipment as a weapon, or a plethora of cute animations involving the henchmen before the brawl begins. Within minutes of starting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, I was smiling and enjoying the way the evil Foot Clan had besieged the news station, and immediately got to work behind the front desk and in the recipe kitchen, instead of trashing the store.
Nostalgia is a key ingredient in Shredder’s Revenge, but revival-inspired video games work best when they’re non-retro feeling retro. That was the specialty of Montreal-based Tribute Games and Paris-based Dotemu, who combined talent to bring an older version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back to life. Instead of trying to reboot the series like newer film and TV offerings, the studios instead took influences not only from decades-old Nintendo games, but also from long-discontinued toys from the ’80s and ’90s to give the game a family charm – friendly appeal of spending time in a digital playset.
Of course, there are underlying motives to the game. No doubt the modern custodian of the Nickelodeon brand, for example, wants its intellectual property to be remembered before a new animated film debuts on Netflix later this summer. But for Tribute and Dotemu, Shredder’s Revenge is another case in which they can keep aging pixel art styles alive and reintroducing them. While pixel art is making heavy use of indie games and local studio Yacht Club Games is writing love letters to the 8- and 16-bit era of yesteryear with Shredder’s Revenge, Tribute and Dotemu set out to revamp it and to revise and improve the games of their youth.
“People will compare it to the arcade games of the ’80s and ’90s,” says Jean-François Major, co-founder of Tribute Games. “People have faulty memories of that time. If you were playing any of the older Nintendo or Super Nintendo games, they are pretty difficult. The controls are not that intuitive. There are a lot of quality of life things that we have become accustomed to with modern games today. We needed to make it look like a 90’s game but modernize it.”
Cyrille Imbert, CEO of Dotemu, says: “What I find really interesting about video games is that gameplay is a language that you learn over time and evolve over time. We don’t speak the same language as we used to when we were younger with video games. Even if you’re a developer working on a game that looks like a retro game, you need to make your current language work within the game.”
There were many other challenges. Modern games tend to place more emphasis on story than in previous decades, and studios aimed to balance narrative animation with the chaos of up to six-player gaming. Encouraging players to play the game again was a key goal, as Shredder’s Revenge was scheduled to be completed in under three hours. That meant making sure each character had a unique feel and that the narrative elements didn’t get in the way. And then decisions had to be made about what to keep from previous Ninja Turtles works – and what to update.
This is where lessons learned from the team’s previous game projects came into play. Dotemu is perhaps best known today for Streets of Rage 4, a revival of Sega’s popular Genesis-era brawler, and Tribute Games was founded by a team of former Ubisoft employees working on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, before starting their own company and developing original titles like the Metal Slug-influenced Mercenary Kings. It’s worth noting that while back at Ubisoft, some members of the Tribute team have been working on the Game Boy Advance title TMNT, based on the 2007 film of the same name.
“The Turtle games were less about one-on-one combat,” says Major. “It was more about crowd control. When we replayed the older games, we counted how many enemies came onto the screen and we tried to adjust the pace and rhythm.” This is very different from Streets of Rage 4, which was more one-on-one Battles, and Scott Pilgrim, which is more of a mid-paced game, he said, explaining that Scott Pilgrim is “faster than Streets of Rage, but it’s still slower than a TMNT game .”
In Shredder’s Revenge, enemies seem to come from all directions, whether you’re walking through a Channel 6 newsroom or skateboarding through Manhattan. They go about their business idly when a character enters the screen until more enemies come out of windows, doors or behind and suddenly you can fight off a pile-up. With three difficulty levels, however, Shredder’s Revenge should be suitable for casual or family play sessions, as well as hardcore runs for those looking to master the game’s dozens of moves. But be careful. If you’re anything like me, you’ll lose a fight while distractedly looking at the parrots, hippos, and giraffes in the background of the Central Park Zoo level.
“We went back to the Turtles’ ’87 design,” says Major. “If you remember the TV shows from back then, they were kind of funny. They weren’t super violent. They had more of a humorous tone with them. We tried to work with that and keep that in mind. While you fight, let’s try to stay light-hearted.”
Inspiration sometimes came from unexpected places. “We also took a lot of influence from the toy lines of the era,” says Major, specifically citing some robotic toy vehicle designs that made it into the game. “They had some pretty crazy toys. That adds to the vibe. We didn’t care if they made it onto the show or not. If they made sense, we went with them.”
Another modern invention: each turtle here moves at its own pace and has its own fighting abilities. In the older arcade games, Major says, “the Turtles all had their own moves in common.” But even here, the team referenced vintage designs, going back and considering a coin-operated “X-Men” arcade game with two Six player screens from the early 90’s. One goal, Major says, was to essentially ensure the game felt different no matter how many people were playing.
“I don’t even know what magic it took to not have a big gap in the middle,” Major says of the X-Men game. “That was something that really influenced our decision-making. Could we do a six player beat ’em up? It’s faster, really messy. The experience is very different when playing with six players. It becomes more of a party game than a tactical crowd control game. We designed each level to have different waves of enemies – different patterns – depending on how many players are playing. Attention was paid to how many players play the level. It was a lot of work and a challenge for us, but I think people will appreciate it.”
According to Major, Nickelodeon initially approached Tribute Games to work on another project, but Tribute was designed for original games, and Major says the studio pushed for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles if it wanted to venture into licensed properties. That was partly because many members of the team had experience with the brand from their Ubisoft days, and partly because those early Turtles games were a huge influence on the side-scrolling beat ’em up genre.
“The Turtle games shaped the entire industry,” says Major. “Back then, if you had a Super Nintendo, it was the game you had to own. If you had a Super Nintendo, you had to have Turtles in Time. And we wanted to go back to when people were big TMNT fans.”
It also helps that the property is just a tad odd, says Major, who admits he dressed up for Halloween as a kid as Donatello, the operation’s resident staff-wielding head.
“If you think of Mario, for example,” Major says of the Nintendo mascot, “the guy is a plumber. I don’t think it would really work if you introduced a plumber today. But this game is iconic. The Turtles were a revelation when they were released. It lasts and I don’t even know why. There is something appealing about all the characters and they are all so different.”
“Anyone can identify with one of them,” interjects Imbert. “Everyone has their own favorite turtle. They’re not perfect, and that’s what makes them cool. They’re just teenagers, but they’re also turtles.”
However, with Shredder’s Revenge, expect everyone’s favorite characters might not be Turtles at all. From the start, Major and Imbert say it was critical that reporter April O’Neil be a playable character. “It was always planned that way,” says Major. “April, from the first pitch we made, was playable. I just feel like it’s about time. We wanted to have a broader roster and not just the Turtles. It really was time for April to have their moment to to shine and not just be a damsel in distress. She’s been with the Turtles this whole time and it’s time for her to kick some ass.”
Think of it as a decision – and a game – worthy of one of April’s signature moves: the mic drop.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge