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How Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge captured the arcade experience

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Two years before “Streets of Rage” for the Sega Genesis wowed players with its diagonal-scrolling levels, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did it in arcades around the world.

The “Streets of Rage” series, started in 1991, is often considered to be among the most influential games in the beat-em-up side-scrolling genre, sometimes referred to as “belt action” games. Its first stage or “belt” didn’t just scroll left to right like a Super Mario game, it also scrolled diagonally, creating a pseudo-3D effect as enemies popped onstage from the background or adjacent levels to attack players.

But in 1989, Konami’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game” pulled off this same trick. Only two years after the influential beat ’em up “Double Dragon,” it became the first brawler game to feature four-player cooperative action. Now, arcade-goers — many drawn in by the cabinet’s bright, pixelated graphics — could stand shoulder to shoulder to take on Shredder’s Foot Soldier goons.

Anyone who played it will tell you it felt just like playing the TMNT cartoon, a sentiment that even Frederic Gemus, game designer at Tribute Games and a lead developer for the new “TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge” game released this week, can’t help but echo.

“It was the first time at the arcade they had this big cab with four players, and it was just like playing the cartoon,” Gemus told The Washington Post, citing the slapstick humor and pixels that mimicked the classic 1987 animated series produced by Murakami-Wolf-Swenson. “It was crazy, those visuals, but also the gameplay was so different than any other games of the time. … We were just leaning on Nintendo, which didn’t have games doing this.”

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Although “Double Dragon” for the first Nintendo home gaming console is one of the godfathers of the genre, it looked like cave drawings compared to the bright, large Turtles and swarms of enemies crashing into the screen.

“Even at the arcade, they mostly had like three enemies on screen,” Gemus said. “I remember when we talked to [Tribute co-founder and game director Jonathan Lavigne], we were comparing it to old-school shoot ’em ups, where enemies would come in with patterns, and it was all about knowing how to deal with those patterns rather than waiting for the enemies to come in for a one-on-one fight.”

That’s what differentiates “Shredder’s Revenge” from publisher and developer Dotemu’s critically acclaimed 2020 brawler “Streets of Rage 4.” Dotemu, a French retro games developer, worked with two other indie devs to update the franchise for the modern age; it also wore the publisher’s hat for “Shredder’s Revenge.”

“ ‘Streets of Rage’ is, I would say, closer to a versus fighting game, whereas TMNT is closer to an action game or a party game almost, and it’s really in harmony with the show: playful and not taking itself too seriously,” said Dotemu CEO Cyrille Imbert. “Both are nice to play, but feel different; with Rage, it’s very hard and slow and you have to strategize, whereas TMNT is more, like, go ahead, try some crazy moves and have some fun all the time.”

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During a Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Imbert met with Tribute Games, a Quebec-based studio that employed developers of Ubisoft’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game” from 2010. That title is often cited as the start of a new wave of retro-based games in the 21st century.

Dotemu had already spoken with the Turtles’ license holder Nickelodeon about making a new game for the brand, so when Imbert heard through the grapevine at the conference that Tribute was making proposals for a similar project to revive the Turtles brawler series, he decided to offer a bit of wish fulfillment.

“We met in San Francisco, and I explained my vision for the project, and it was a perfect match,” Imbert said. “We were not wanting to develop the game ourselves, we were thinking to find a nice studio to do that, and Tribute was just a perfect candidate. Teaming up as publisher and developer for this project was just the way to go.”

In the 1980s, Japanese developer and publisher Konami was already a world-renowned developer of arcade games. Its developers wanted to make an action game that would appeal to both Japan and U.S. markets, and the TMNT brand was a perfect fit. Its four Turtle characters made upping cooperative play to four a natural, fitting evolution for the genre.

Unlike other beat ’em ups of that era, the TMNT arcade game featured far more elaborate set pieces in its levels. The first level, journalist April O’Neil’s burning apartment, sees her get kidnapped at the end of the stage after the villains burst through her floor during gameplay. Shredder leaps out the window, and the Turtles give chase to the next level on the streets of New York City.

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Enemy Foot Soldiers creep around corners, flying-kick through windows and pop out of manholes as Shredder menaces the Turtles on live TV. Unlike other games in the genre where enemies would simply walk on screen or sometimes step out of doorways, the Turtles arcade game felt like a Broadway musical in how villains would sashay in with comedic timing.

“We all remember that skateboard lady in the arcade game that just crosses the street in the second stage for no reason,” Gemus said. “Aspects like these, how you spawn the enemies, are super important as it’s really part of the storytelling. It’s what happening inside the game rather than in cutscenes.”

This storytelling trick was repeated in Konami’s subsequent line of brawlers inspired by the original TMNT arcade cabinet, including “The Simpsons” from 1991 and the six-player “X-Men” arcade game from 1992.

“Shredder’s Revenge” amps this level of detail to the nth degree from its first frames to the last. Throughout the first level, April’s Channel 6 News TV studio, Foot Soldiers type furiously away at work desks, cook meals at its test kitchen and tap away on their smartphones like busy journalists before engaging the Turtles in a fight.

Creating so many of these moments was a large part of the game’s development, Gemus said, since artists drew and animated the pixels by hand.

“At some point, we wondered if we’re spending too much time on doing things that’s not necessarily part of the gameplay,” he said. “But it’s really important and pays off in the end. … It’s a lot of planning and work to set up correctly, especially working with the artists and the stage design, and at the end of the day it creates this very long narrative.”

The artificial intelligence of the enemies of the original TMNT arcade game was also unique. Brawlers until then had a push-and-pull relationship, where players could hang back to ease pressure from the onslaught of enemies. But the Turtles’ enemies would fly into the game and swarm, coaxing players to dodge across the screen and use every move in their toolset. “Shredder’s Revenge” tries to mimic that frenetic pacing.

“If you deal with the enemies as fast as you can, players will never be able to go deep into the system,” Gemus said. “So basically, it’s all about dealing with their entry. That’s why we spent a lot of time introducing attacks. Sometimes they come in with a jumping kick and it creates this kind of dance where you’re not just attacking, you have to dodge, you have to move around, you have to jump. It was important for us that this would be more than a simple button-mashing game.”

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Gemus said Dotemu provided consulting to help differentiate the game from other brawlers like “Streets of Rage 4” and encouraged mechanics closer to the older TMNT games.

Imbert said he was insistent to Nickelodeon on creating a game based on the 1987 iteration of the Turtles, and not the recent 21st century design revisions. His instinct was that he wasn’t the only player who wanted to return to those glory days of beat ’em ups. Tribute shared that passion, and the audience response to the early 2021 reveal of “Shredder’s Revenge” cemented this.

“It was just the dream to work on the ’87 design because that’s what we grew up with,” Imbert said. “This golden era of TMNT was not just the show, but also the toys. We needed to put as much of the toys as we could because they were so cool and we would love to play with them, but in a video game so we can re-create the stories like we did when we were children with those toys.”

Toy vehicles that make cameos in the game include the spider-like Knucklehead robot, the never-released Turtle Tenderizer monster truck and the Rat King’s Footski watercraft.

“Shredder’s Revenge” was a dream project fulfilled for both companies. Members of Tribute also worked on Turtles projects for the Game Boy Advance, but they dreamed of re-creating the classic arcade titles. Konami would go on to create another arcade title, “Turtles in Time,” which would later release on the Super Nintendo. That version was unique in that it had more content than the arcade game, which many cite as possibly the first arcade home console port that exceeded the quality of the arcade original. Now, “Shredder’s Revenge” takes all that rich history and re-creates it in a modernized package.

“I think we did it in a very honest way,” Gemus said. “We really tried to be respectful to the source material and put all the love we have for it in the game. After spending all these years developing the game, especially during pandemic times, we know we did it for the right reasons.”

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