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 sucked him right in. “Playing that game was so mind blowing because it was just like playing the cartoon,” he tells me over Zoom (with a huge collection of retro games behind him). “It was so different from the Nintendo back in the days.” So, when Gemus, now a designer at Montreal-based studio Tribute Games, had a chance to work on a modern take on TMNT, it was pretty much a dream project. “That was pretty awesome to learn about,” he says of being put on the project.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is out now, and it comes from some proven experts in the field. It’s developed by Tribute, which features developers who 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 Rage. The goal of Shredder’s Revenge was much the same: to take 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 emphasize in Shredder’s Revenge. The first was accessibility. While the arcade games were still designed to consume as many 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 pacing and level design of the original TMNT games had much more in common with an action game than a standard side-scrolling beat ’em up. “You have enemies coming in, in different patterns, and it’s all about disposing of them very quickly so you don’t get swarmed,” he explains. “That’s something that we really wanted to recapture in the game.”
Of course, while the team utilized a similar design philosophy, they were also able to take advantage of modern technology. Shredder’s Revenge is available on the PS4, Switch, Xbox, and Steam, which is a slight step up from 16-bit consoles and ’90s-era arcade cabinets. Crucially, it still looks deliciously retro, with beautiful and expressive pixel art full of all kinds of cool animations. I especially love the Foot Clan enemies hiding in garbage bags or disguising themselves as leaders before an attack. (It also sounds the part thanks to a brilliant soundtrack from sonic mania compose Tee Lopes.)
“We like to say that we love to make games the way you remember them, rather than the way they were,” Gemus says. But the developers weren’t as limited when it came to how much they could put on screen and weren’t forced to do things like reuse animations or character sprites in the interest of saving memory. Plus, they were able to add in completely modern features like online play.
Striking that balance between modern and retro was a challenge, one that involved plenty of research and testing. The development team played most of the classics — not just TMNT games but other beat ’em ups as well — and dug up old issues of Nintendo Power to get a better sense of how the levels were laid out. Testing, meanwhile, was particularly tricky. Initially, it was impossible to have testers play together locally due to the pandemic. But, even when they were able to, the chaotic nature of the game’s multiplayer — which supports up to six players — made following the playthroughs difficult. “Sometimes it’s a bit hard to analyze what’s going on because there’s so many things happening on screen,” Gemus says.
And while nostalgia is obviously a big part of the experience, both for the classic games and the original animated series, Gemus says Shredder’s Revenge was designed so that even brand-new players could pick it up. “There are no real points in the game where you need to have knowledge of [the original games],” he says. “There are a lot of Easter eggs, of course, and little homages. But there’s never really any prerequisite to be able to still enjoy the game.”
Shredder’s Revenge is coming out at a time when there’s something of a resurgence of side-scrolling beat ’em ups. It’s a particularly great time to be a turtles fan; in addition to Shredder’s Revenge, 13 classic games are also getting a bundle later this year. And Gemus has a theory as to why these games, which once dominated arcades, are so enduring.
“At first you feel like it’s just button mashing, but then at one point you kind of realize that 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 the fun of it, but you can also become a professional dancer and do all of these incredible moves.”