In the late 1980s the arcade scene in the US was still going strong. Classic style arcade games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man were being overtaken by a new genre of quarter-munching pain: the brawler. Or the beat-em-up. If you’ve played one, then you can picture what I’m talking about. It was usually a one to four player experience where each player would take control of an avatar and battle hordes of enemies all while gradually moving to the right with the goal to reach a boss encounter by the end. These games were often very simple, usually requiring just two buttons and a joystick, and most all played the same: you punch, you jump, you unleash a special move that consumes a portion of your health, and you die. A lot. Most games required the player to pump in another quarter upon a final death, usually giving them 10 seconds to do so, which would allow the player to re-spawn immediately. This made completing the game quite manageable, provided one had enough quarters because these games were designed to beat the player down. There was often just too many enemies onscreen for even the most accomplished player to dispatch in a flawless fashion. The character the player controlled just wasn’t equipped with enough maneuvers to avoid hits while simultaneously dishing out punishment. Plus, the games weren’t above getting cheap by having players get attacked by unseen enemies or by having boss characters just shrug off all damage. Actually having a story and an ending made them unique at the time since the goal wasn’t to just play as long as possible and get the highest score, which also made them addicting. Yeah, I want to see the X-Men defeat Mangeto, I need to know if the Simpson family rescues Maggie, and I have enough money to do it!
One of the developers who best exemplefied excellence in the field of the beat-em-up was Konami, and two of their biggest hits belonged to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The other part of this genre that appealed to players was they looked lovely. As video game technology advanced rapidly in the 80s, the home consoles could not keep up with the arcade. That’s why it was the arcade where you could find a brawler with beautiful, large, sprites that truly resembled what they were supposed to. It made this genre a magnet for licensed properties and developers could even sneak in some soundbites if the property was from television or a movie. And for a franchise like TMNT, it made creating a game that actually looked like the mega popular cartoon show a feasible thing. The home Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the Nintendo Entertainment System sort of looked like the property. I knew I was looking at the turtles when I played it, even if they didn’t exactly look like the characters from the show. And the enemies were pretty damn confusing as well, and not always for technological reasons. With the arcade game that released the same year, there was none of that. It felt like playing an episode of the show and was a delight to my kid-brain. My strongest memory of that title was playing it at my cousin’s birthday party which was held at a roller skating rink. We were there, confronting Shredder, after spending who knows how many quarters to get there, when a kid who had been watching for most of the time accidentally stepped on the power cord. My cousin, the birthday boy, went ballistic on the poor kid while my aunt tried to calm him down. At the time, I was initially disappointed to not see the end of the game, but I think I felt worse for the kid. My aunt had been trying to corral us anyway for cake and ice cream so she wasn’t disappointed. Maybe she actually did it and blamed the kid!
That initial offering from Konami looked great, and the pacing was a lot of fun, but it was very much a basic game design. When the developer came back for the sequel, Turtles in Time, it did more than just put a shine on the experience. Special moves were added, the kind that take away health to execute, and some additional maneuvers were added to freshen up the experience. By far, the biggest new addition, and the flashiest, was the ability for the player to toss enemies at the screen which was highlighted during the attract mode setting and certainly worked to get attention. And when that game was brought to the Super Nintendo, it was a near perfect port. Some animations and sound clips had to be removed, but the game made up for it by adding new boss encounters and levels making it the superior experience. And it was beatable at home, with the ability to adjust the amount of lives players had and toggle the game’s difficulty. It was a terrific experience for kids in the early 90s into the franchise and it’s a shared experience for men my age (and probably a fair amount of women too) and one most remember quite fondly.
Because of the popularity of those two games, developer Tribute Games returned to it for 2022 with Shredder’s Revenge. The turtles never actually left the brawler genre, more were made into the 2000s including a re-make of Turtles in Time, but none managed to capture the attention of fans like Turtles in Time did. Tribute seemed hell-bent on changing that as Shredder’s Revenge was revealed well ahead of the launch and it was immediately clear that the game was after adults who grew up with those old school games. It’s a 2D, sprite-based, brawler that incorporates a lot of what Turtles in Time did, plus it adds a dash of something new. Yes, it’s still limited by its genre and it’s not out to reinvent the wheel or reexamine what this genre is capable of, but it does provide for some depth. Mostly, it’s designed to take players on a trip through an enhanced episode of the classic cartoon series and returns the original voice cast for the turtles. And because we’re now in the year 2022, the experience has been enhanced to include up to 6 players either via the couch or online and it’s no longer limited to those who own a Super Nintendo.
Shredder’s Revenge presents two main game modes out of the gate: Story and Arcade. Story mode is self-explanatory, while Arcade is basically just the story mode without the interludes and map and is intended to be more challenging. From the get-go, players have access to six playable characters: the four turtles (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael) plus their master, Splitner, and main ally April O’Neil. All of the characters differentiate themselves via three attributes: Range, Speed, and Power. Leonardo is intended to be the most balanced, while the other characters all lean towards something such as Donatello having the best range and Raph hitting the hardest. The characters also handle slightly differently with Mikey being able to bounce off of foes while Leonardo has a wide-ranging jump attack. As you progress through story mode, characters earn experience and progressively get better via enhancements to their special move so it pays to replay with different characters.
The actual gameplay should feel rather familiar to those who played Turtles in Time. The face buttons on the controller all do something different with one being attack, jump, parry, and special. Special moves no longer consume health and instead have their own meter that gradually fills as you dish out damage. Most special moves are designed to clear the screen, or at least a portion of it, and are best used when undier siege by a lot of enemies. As characters accumulate experience, the special move meter expands and a special dive attack can be unlocked as well as a ninja master mode that’s like a temporary buff in place of just one, singular, attack. Jumping and attacking the standard way should feel pretty familiar as well, while the parry button is where the backflip is basically mapped to now. Players can also still grab enemies by simply walking into them which opens up the bash attack where the player slams the enemy to either side in a comical fashion and the screen-toss is still present, and just like the SNES game, plays a role in one boss encounter. There’s also a taunt button which allows the player to earn special move power without fighting and in co-op mode there’s a button dedicated to assisting allies via a high-five which transfers health from one player to the other. Each player has a set amount of lives at the beginning, but beating back enemies can earn extra lives. Pizzas still restore health and are scattered about the levels and new to this game is a massive pie that will restore the health of all active player characters, so no fighting over that one. There’s also still power-up pizzas which make the player momentarily invincible and places them in a spinning attack to smack away all foes. There’s also a new one that just enables the player to spam their special move too. In short, it’s all rather familiar, but there’s enough new wrinkles to please old school fans and nothing added breaks or ruins the experience. It’s all for the better.
Where the game really shines is in the presentation. There’s a great intro done in a hand-drawn style with a new arrangement of the theme song (sung by Faith No More’s Mike Patton) to accompany it and really set the mood. The sprite work is bright and vibrant, and while the characters seem a little small relative to their environment in this one, it all fits well on the screen. The art style is obviously based on the cartoon, but it also has it’s own thing going for it. Foot Soldiers have more of a squat appearance with oversized heads while the sizing on the boss characters fluctuates quite wildly. Bebop and Rocksteady are huge, while Rat King is fairly petite. All of the enemy deisgns are also based on the show, so you’ll see Triceratons that look removed from their lone experience and Slash has his very toon specific look. All of the bosses from Turtles in Time return for this one, but there’s also some new ones that I won’t spoil. I would consider at least one a true deep cut from the show, but if you’re as into collecting NECA’s action figures as I am then none will appear that deep. You also get the returning cast from the show so you have Cam Clarke (Leonardo, Rocksteady), Rob Paulsen (Raphael), Barry Gordon (Donatello, Bebop) and Townsend Coleman (Michelangelo, Rat King, Rahzar). Unfortunately, they’re the only ones brought back so someone like Pat Fraley is missed, but if you’re only going to bring back four cast members from the show at least it’s the turtles. Most of the characters are one and done battles, but like the original game, you’ll chase Bebop and Rocksteady around a bit. Levels in story mode are laid out on a map of New York that are accessed by driving the Turtle Van around which feels like a nod to the original NES game, though you never get to drive the van in a level which feels like a missed opportunity. There are still surfing and hoverboard levels, and in story mode there are collectibles scattered across levels that can be uncovered for an experience bonus, but they’re not very compelling. The story itself is also mostly non-existant and of little importance. Shredder is still interested in the Statue of Liberty for some reason and most of the game involves the turtles trying to prevent the bad guys from re-assembling Krang’s body.
Completing all of the levels in story mode will unlock one additional character: Casey Jones. Depending on who you beat the game with will also influence the ending you receive in a small way so there is some encouragement to replay the mode with different characters. Not only will they get stronger, but you’ll get a little bonus postscript for the ending. You can also replay any level at any time throughout story mode and the game will keep track of what you accomplished, or did not, for each one. There are cameos hidden throughout the game in addition to other collectibles. None of them are particularly difficult to find, it just requires the player to bash away at all destructable objects in a given level. There are also additional challenges for each one that range in difficulty. Some will require the player to just avoid a certain obstacle or maneuver an enemy in the level posseses, while others just task you with not taking damage. The difficulty can be toggled as well and playing on the normal setting presents a modest challenge. I haven’t tackled the game on hard yet, and I don’t know when I will since I tend to play with my kids, but I will probably try it at some point.
Shredder’s Revenge is available on all of the major consoles out there. It was first made available digitally, but physical copies have been made availble via Limited Run Games. There’s a standard version available now which is how I purchased the game for the Nintendo Switch, but more robust collector versions were also available. While it was tempting to go for the version that came in a VHS styled box, I ultimately didn’t want to pay the extra money or endure the longer wait to get it. All physical versions come with a Pizza Hut coupon like the NES version of the arcade game back in the day, which is certainly a fun inclusion that I assume most owners would prefer to keep over actually exchanging it for a personal pan pizza. And that inlcudes me. All physical versions also come with a fairly robust manual and some stickers which is pretty cool. As for the Switch version, the performance is great. I didn’t notice any slowdown or frame rate hiccups and it was easy to add players to the mix. I haven’t tried it online, but I hope to whenever my buddy who did go for one of the fancier packages finally gets his.
I don’t want to oversell Shredder’s Revenge. It is, at its heart, a humble beat-em-up that doesn’t require numerous amounts of quarters to get through. It is a fun experience though and is especially so for those who grew up on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the games from Konami. And even if you didn’t, my son is proof that it can appeal to the kids of today as well as he’s had his nose buried deep in this one since I got it despite us beating it in a mere two play sessions. It doesn’t do anything to elevate the genre, but it does do enough that I feel it’s easily the best beat-em-up I’ve ever played. There’s enough variety in the characters to make it worthwhile to experiment with them all and the player has enough control over the characters to make it possible to actually get really good at the game. Turtles in Time had some of that going for it, but mostly getting good at that game just involved managing the amount of enemies on screen in the most economical fashion possible and knowing when it wasn’t worth it to try and damage a boss. Some of the bosses in Shredder’s Revenge can feel a tad cheap at times, but for the most part, it’s also easy to see how to tackle each one and for the most part it’s pretty fun too. I think I only dislike one boss fight, Rat King, as it’s just too long and mostly involves the player dodging swarms of rats. Other than that, the other fights are fine and there’s a fair amount of variety in the encounters as well. I don’t think I’ll sink 60 hours into this game or anything, but it’s a good time and I feel motivated to at least power up all of the playable characters. If you grew up on this stuff, then this game is a no-brainer.