Back in the 90’s the Brawler genre (or Beat ‘Em Ups, as some call it) was everywhere. Most notably in the Arcade platform with games like Double Dragon or The Simpsons being standouts that everyone knew and loved… but there was one that still reigned over all in the hearts and minds of kids everywhere, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game made by Konami. It was one of my favorites, and I actually owned a real 1989 Turtles arcade cabinet for many years (this was before 1Up Arcade started pumping out scale models that you could buy for a couple hundred bucks). It was my prized possession, along with The Simpsons arcade cabinet too.
But as most people who have owned real arcade cabinets can tell you, they take up a lot of space, and the novelty of standing around for half an hour, opening the coin slot to pull the mechanism down to simulate a coin drop and keep adding lives, and playing the same single game more than a few times wears off relatively quickly. It’s still fun, and is a great conversation piece with friends, but 99% of the time, they collect dust. So console versions of those classic brawlers are a simpler form of the same experience. And with the new Turtles game, called Shredder’s Revenge, it takes that well known and nostalgic formula and really pumps it up even more.
If you haven’t already guessed by now, this review is going to pull a lot from my own nostalgic experiences around the turtles and the games more than this new game itself, and I will state why later on. My group of best friends and I have a lot of fond memories playing these games as kids, by ourselves, before we knew each other, and also together as a group of friends. Bonding over having one of our friends bake a cake while we all hung out, and we sat down and played through the turtles games while waiting for the cake to be made. As the cake was ready, we were still in the throes of a heavy session of tearing through time or history as the four mutant ninja brothers, and we simply couldn’t stop. So we made a pact, that we couldn’t partake in the cake until Shredder was thwarted once and for all. It took a long time, into the night, but we finally put an end to the rift into Dimension X and were finally able to munch down on some victory cake, and a hastily made boxed cake never tasted so good in our lives.
You see, these turtles games do one thing extremely well, and that's bring people together. My group of friends now live across the country, in multiple states, and we don’t get to see each other very often anymore. And while we are all still best friends and talk every day, we also are all in different stages of our lives. Some have kids, some have multiple kids, some travel a bunch, some are starting new jobs, some starting their own business… so we don’t always play together online either, as our schedules are all over the place. But every once in a while, a special game gets us to put aside some time to get together online and play. That game for us now was Shredder’s Revenge. From the moment we saw the announcement, we all agreed we would have to play it together.
So let’s actually talk about the game. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is developed by Tribute Games, made up from a few ex-Ubisoft employees and that have a real love for classic brawlers and really beautiful modern pixel art. They also developed Scott Pilgrim vs the world game, and Mercenary Kings. While I couldn’t get into Mercenary Kings, I did love Scott Pilgrim, so I knew this game was going to be incredible. And it is… to an extent. Like with 2020’s Streets of Rage 4, Shredder’s Revenge takes the basic formula and gives it a modern facelift and adds in all the tweaks to make it a modern rendition of those classic games. 16:9 framing, pixel art that looks almost as close to the original cartoons while still giving it it’s own unique style, and lightning quick and fluid animations bring the game to life that we could only imagine in our minds when we were kids.
While the tweaks do bring this genre into present day gaming, I will say I was a bit disappointed with how predictable and surface level the game actually is once that nostalgic gleam wears off. It’s not to say it’s a bad game, but let me paint a picture of what the game is and what it could have been.
The opening cinematic recreates the opening cartoon intro with a cover of the turtles theme, and while it does have its own artstyle, it meshes very well with everything. It’s fast and frantic and just fun to sing along to. Waiting for your favorite turtle to show up and see what they are doing is always fun. It’s good, but it immediately starts to lean into the nostalgic factor heavy right from the get go.
Once you choose the Story mode or Arcade mode (arcade mode just being play through the story with a single set of continues and no world map) you get to pick your character. Ranging from the four turtles, Splinter and April. Casey Jones is a playable character as well, but you have to beat the game first to unlock him. I didn’t understand why at first, but he’s pretty powerful and would probably be less fun if you steamroll through the game on your first go. Now the game actually begins and you find yourself in the Channel 6 office with a few civilains running for their lives and shredder laughs and you come running in through the door. Which brings me to my first issue.
The story is really non-existent. You piece together everything through the minor scraps they give you along the course of the game. A few in-game environmental placement of characters helps, but really… Why is Shredder in the Channel 6 office? Why is Krang’s Android head being carried off screen? Why is Vern being held hostage by Bebop? A small cutscene here and there would do absolute wonders to make this game feel more than vignettes placed next to each other and give an overall better story. Since the game is called “Shredder’s Revenge” I’m assuming it’s a sequel of sorts, and I’m assuming that it's a sequel to the Turtles in Time game, since that’s the last major popular one that people have nostalgia for. And you might have picked up on it already, but the issue is that I am assuming a lot here, right from the get go. I shouldn’t have to assume major plot points. Small details, sure, leave it to my imagination, but to have to piece together the entire story from what little there is to go on is kinda ridiculous.
As the levels progress, parts of Krang’s Android Body show up and get taken by the bad guys. So you assume they are trying to put the Android body together for Krang in the end, which they do. You also assume since all the other games end with Super Shredder, this one would as well… and it does. You know you fought characters like Leatherhead and RatKing in the other games, and guess what as soon as you hear “we gotta head to the sewer” you assume the next boss is going to be Rat King… and it is. The whole game not only uses the same characters from the original games, but basically steals the same levels as well. Not all of them, but enough that made me kinda go “Is this just basically the original arcade games, gussied up with a new coat of paint?” and the answer is a bummer… Yeah, it kinda is. It’s a lot of the same locations fighting the same enemies and same bosses. Even the very end boss is basically exactly what you think it’s going to be and feels so unbelievably familiar that it’s basically the end of Scott Pilgrim as well… like down to the T in certain cases. Yes, there are new things in there, and some collectables to find, but I’ll get to that in a minute as well.
The gameplay itself, which is what you really come to these games for, is fun. A unashamed button masher brawler that hides a few new tricks up its sleeve. Combos and multiple dash attacks along with specials that can be charged up… it’s much deeper than the single attack combo and grab ‘n throw we got in the arcades. But with the same breath, you can also just spam attack and beat the game with ease, or you can just taunt which takes about two seconds to do, and it will fully charge your special meter, and you use your special to screen clear enemies in a massive wave of attacks. It’s really kinda a cheap way to play, but it is in the game, and necessary at some points when you are overwhelmed with foot soldiers and bots in the middle of a boss battle.
With every enemy beaten, you gain a point, and those points accumulate as you progress through the story. At certain milestones, you get a reward. An extra point on your health meter, a 1up extra life or a new attack or moveset. It’s pretty cool. But those rewards only go so far. You’ll get around 1.000 kills over the course of the main story mode in a single go. Completing it twice will easily max you out at 2,000. Each of those points stay with the character you are playing as. So if you want to play as a couple characters, you start a level 0 and level them up as you play. The points never reset, so that’s nice, but to max out all characters would require playing through the game around 14 times… which seems excessive. It only takes around an hour and a half to two hours to beat the game, so that’s not too terrible, but it’s the same 15 levels with the same exact story and level beats each time you play. You’ll quickly memorize where foot soldiers will pop out of, and what fake signs to stay away from and by the third playthrough it becomes insanely monotonous and boring.
Again, there are a few collectibles to find as you play through the levels, but playing it with my friends, we found the majority of them in our first playthrough. If you just hit every box or item that is on screen (there aren't that many of them) you’ll get everything in your first go around and maybe miss one or two and go back and grab them quickly. But it’s not enough to warrant more than a secondary playthrough. Each of the collectables are tied to a fun cameo character from the cartoon, and it’s nice to see them pop up, but they do absolutely nothing. Sure you get an extra 75 points to level up a character with, but it’s a one and done deal (as far as I know) and once you get it. It’s done. And that’s it, they just sit there bouncing on the main map screen and that’s all they’ll ever do.
Which brings me to my main criticism of the game. While it’s a great base for a nostalgic turtles brawler, it leans way too heavily on the past games, not bringing enough new modern game designs to the table, along with it being a very basic surface level game. Sure, there is a leveling system, but it’s almost laughable how shallow it is. The game went out of its way to get original voice actors from the cartoons, and doesn’t do much with them. They could have created a very fun and interesting new story, and added original animated or in-game cutscenes which could have been basically a new episode, or heck even a playable movie, like the 2009 Ghostbusters game was. Instead it just ended up being 15 static drawings with a single line of dialogue to string each level to the next.
The potential of this game was immense, and I feel like banking on Nostalgia for the ump-teenth time to bring back “the good ol’ days” of these games that never see releases anymore isn’t the right way to do it. If you go looking around, you’ll see people commonly say “well it’s hard to make a beat ‘em up work”. No it’s not. That’s a cop-out. It’s not hard, it just takes more effort than most want to put in, which is bare minimum banking on nostalgia to drive the entire sale of the game. You need more than “Hey you liked that SNES port of the arcade game right? Well here is basically a new one, new as in it’s the same, but with modern pixel art, and we brought back the original voice actors to say a couple lines each!”
It’s just not enough. You need to make these games more than a single hour or two experience and not bloat the game by just making it repeatable with 6 other characters. Collectables that do nothing, and take no effort to collect are basically worthless. A point system that gets maxed out after two hours is crazy and worthless, and having a story beat for beat the same (there is even the second level which is called “Big Apple 3pm”) as the arcades with the same handful of enemies is exactly why these games will sell to people who love nostalgia, but will only be played a single time or two before being uninstalled. It’s time to step up the genre of Brawlers and make it mandatory to bring more to the table than a nostalgic throwback.
It might sound like I hate this game, and I do not. I really enjoyed the couple hours I played of it last night with my best friends. It got us all together to hang out, talk… heck I even went out of my way to get pizza for dinner just to make it feel special. It was a great night of friends, gaming and pizza that I’ll never forget… but the game was something that will get uninstalled now. I found all the secrets. I unlocked the secret playable character. I leveled up my favorites and tried out each remaining character for at least a level or two. All within less than a handful of hours. It’s a shame there isn’t more to this game than what’s on its surface, and maybe it’s because it’s a budget $25 title, which would explain a bit. But if you look at the game and know there is nothing deeper than a nostalgic turtle game that is also really fun and that you can spend an evening playing with your friends, and have a good time, maybe sometimes that’s all you need.