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Deep Dive: How TMNT Shredder's Revenge was built on nostalgia and new ideas

Reviving a class series is a careful balance of appealing to players both new and old. Here's how Tribute Games approached it.

Yannick Belzil

February 7, 2023

8 Min Read
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Shredder's Revenge

Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.

Earlier installments cover topics such as the art pipeline of Pentiment with Obsidian art director Hannah Kennedy, designing the complex economy of Victoria 3 with lead designer Mikael Andersson, and the soft body physics in JellyCar Worlds, with Tim FitzRandolph of Toyful Games.

In this edition, Tribute Games narrative designer Yannick Belzil explains the company's approach to balancing the nostalgia of the series rich transmedia history with that of modern-day design conventions. 

The year is 1990. At the Promenade Du Cuivre mall in Rouyn-Noranda, I step into the arcade, transfixed: there’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade cabinet. And the Turtles don’t look edgy and violent like the incomprehensible (to my young mind) NES version. They look and sound like my favorite cartoons! I SLAM my quarters in! “Cowabunga” rings out when I select my Turtle (Raphael, of course). I hop into April’s blazing apartment and start fighting the Foot.

My mind is BLOWN. This isn’t a coin-op machine, it’s a portal into the world of the 1987 Ninja Turtles animated series, in perfect video game format. From then on, any video game based on an established world has to measure up to this.

Flash forward to 30 years later. Tribute Games gets the opportunity to make a TMNT brawler. We want it to have the same impact—but it won’t be easy. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have a legacy as stand-out beat-em-up games. We now have a lot to live up to and something to prove as a studio. There are still games based on IP, but remarkable ones—like the Turtles ones—are few and far between, especially ones made by smaller studios like ours.

A big challenge stands in front of us: How do we update TMNT without losing its essence?

Like a trusted neighborhood pizza parlor, are we going to be able to deliver?

Updating TMNT

We have a motto at Tribute Games: we make “games that play the way you remember them.” One of the key tenets of our studio is to work with classic gameplay, while always adding fresh elements. When tackling a new version of TMNT, we needed to go to beat-em college and study the classics.

Luckily, most of the studio had been preparing to make a Turtles game ever since we were kids (some of us had even already worked on a GameBoy Advance version based on the 2007 animated movie).

A lot of the research was already done, but the team did their homework and replayed these games. But it didn’t stop there: we also played other games of the era. It was important to feel out how the Turtles titles approached their brawling mechanics versus how the Final Fight or Double Dragon franchises did.

From then on, we asked ourselves: what do we like about that era of beat-em-ups? What do we keep? What can we update?

Teaching Ninja Teens!

What does Michelangelo love about being a turtle? Probably many things, but when we sit down to play a beat-em-up, what we love is being a powerful brawler.

But how do we make the player feel like a teenage mutant martial artist? The answer is: explosive combat!

TMNT Arcade's combat was fast-paced and nothing like other games at the time. This was an important part of the DNA we wanted to keep but the previous incarnations of the Turtles were much more demanding precision-wise. Your character needed to be exactly aligned with their enemy to properly connect with them during a fight. This created a challenge, but also made for a bit of frustration. We wanted to remove this barrier by making the characters’ strikes more generous. The Foot Soldiers don’t need to be precisely aligned to your Turtle anymore. Immediately, the player’s main action, fighting, feels more powerful and satisfying.

C-C-C-Combo Maker!

The increased satisfaction feeds into another update: the addition of a combo system. When the characters’ strikes feel good, the players are motivated to keep fighting and a chain of attacks culminates into a satisfying finisher! Furthermore, the chaining attacks lead the Turtles into combos with the possibility of juggling their fallen adversaries.

Ninja Power!

The previous incarnations of the beat-em-up Turtles have special moves: powerful maneuvers the players could execute at the cost of their own hit points.

We transformed this into a hit-related mechanic: to perform the special move, the player needs to fill their Ninja Power gauge through multiple hits. When the gauge is full, the player can unleash the Ninja Power move. There’s no longer a health cost to perform the attack, so activation becomes entirely dependent on combat engagement. Transforming this feature also feeds the core gameplay, consisting in fast combat and non-stop action.

Shredders_Revenge_Mall_Brawl.jpg

Hitting the Dancefloor

Like a great action movie, a beat-'em-up thrives on great choreography. But here, it takes on a different meaning: enemy placement. We took our cues from TMNT: The Arcade Game for the NES.

In the Nintendo port, the Foot Soldiers show up quickly in smaller numbers and are mostly easy to dispatch. The player can have fun and move on to the next wave of enemies or the next part of the level in a breeze.

We decided to use that approach and discovered immediately how this started to dictate pacing, which also influenced level design.

Another part of choreography: enemy spawning. We’re used to adversaries entering the screen from left to right thanks to years of brawlers.

But now, Foot Soldiers can teleport or simply idle around as part of the scenery. These animations were funny vignettes and got to be expensive resource-wise, but they ended up being useful to break the monotony of traditional left/right enemy spawning. Unique spawns also added an extra layer of intensity to the combat by engaging the player to react at an enemy’s entrance.

Protecting the essence (or ooze??) of the franchise

Finding the essence of TMNT came easy to us. If anything, the challenge here was how to enhance the charm of the terrapin teens in every corner of the screen. We aimed to create an experience that felt like a spiritual successor to the games, while also evoking the 1987 animated series and the original toy line.

Funny Business

We somehow remember the original series as an action-driven spectacle (no doubt thanks to its iconic intro burned into our memories), but the show itself is much more of a family sitcom with broad, funny characters.

It became clear to us that injecting the comedic traits of the cartoon would give the game a genuine '87 TMNT feel. The players engaging in brawling get into the action while the funny boss animations, colorful backgrounds, and lively voice acting bring the comedy.

Somehow, it makes Shredder’s Revenge feel both like the actual animated series and the player’s memory of it.

Art Nouveau

Another key part of enhancing the TMNT recipe was going all-in on the art. Shredder’s Revenge remains our heaviest project art-wise, but it was needed to fulfill our ambitions in tackling these characters.

Freed from the technical limitations of the past, each turtle has their own run cycles, attacks, and reactions. The animations get to express the qualities that have made each character a fan favorite over the years. Players would immediately react to Raphael’s victory pose (reprising a classic moment from the series' opening credits) or April busting out familiar fighting moves.

While the urban background of the original cartoon has a bit of a “generic big city” feel, we were able to create a pixelated New York that feels both like an iconic video game locale and the actual Big Apple, with memorable pixel-painted scenery. The backgrounds become another occasion to showcase key visuals, sight gags, or references to TMNT’s rich transmedia history. They’re Easter eggs, but they also become a way to create variety in the environment—another great trick in avoiding beat-'em-up monotony.

Classic Voices

Going further into replicating the original series, we got the honor of working with the voice actors of the Turtles for the game.

This was, of course, a thrill. Being present for the recording and talking with the actors felt like I had my own Comic-Con panel. It was exciting for me to get the “real” voices of the characters to perform classic lines and new jokes. Their participation lent us an aura of legitimacy. There was something very special about them lending their voices to characters based on their performances.

We were very lucky to have access to all these resources. They allowed us to bring Shredder’s Revenge closer to the world of the cartoon or the toy line in a way the previous games just couldn’t match.

Conclusion

Shredder’s Revenge turned out to be our biggest game yet. Fans noted that our approach felt sincere and honest. Parents had a new game to share with their kids. We were able to stand aside beloved classics, but more importantly, not embarrass ourselves in front of our 10-year-old selves.

The Tribute Games ethos of merging classic game mechanics with new gameplay ideas worked out pretty well.

After all, everyone loves pizza. It’s a solid concept. But if you figure out how to add zest to the sauce or find fresh new toppings, you might end up creating a pretty good pie that delivers.

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