the energy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one of the biggest fads of the ’80s, has endured for 35 years. The initially dark comic creations of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, later refashioned for kids, headlined Turtlemania: a fusion of toxic martial arts waste and teenage mutant reptiles that swept the world. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello, their names copied from the most legendary Renaissance artists in history, characterized shirts, shorts, lunch boxes and, of course, video games.
Konami’s 1989 arcade release, a four-player scrolling beat-em-up designed to ruin unwitting parents, was a dream come true for kids tall enough to reach its bulky, tree-shaped control pad. shelving. It was hardly the fairest of games, but its sound effects, intro sequence, and “Cowa-Cowa-Cowabunga!” Since then, the coin-fall jingle has matured into giddy nostalgia.
Despite Konami’s excellent 1991 sequel Turtles in Time, and variations on the theme on the NES, SNES, Mega Drive, PlayStation 2, and Game Boy Advance, few have achieved the same kind of legacy, until now. Tribute Games, responsible for Scott Pilgrim and Panzer Paladin, among others, certainly haven’t done it by halves: TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge is the best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG of all time.
In some places, there are such strong echoes of Konami titles that it flies perilously close to potential copyright infringement. At the same time, Tribute and Dotemu have gone to town with the license, filling the massive sixteen-stage brawl with a vast compendium of much lesser-known baddies snatched from the depths of the Archie comic series.
Graphically, it’s a party. There are no CRT filters for this pixel party, which might be disappointing to some, but it’s so beautifully drawn that it’s hard to complain. Every inch is packed with detail, starting inside the April 5 Channel television station before moving through the back streets and sewers of New York. Familiar locations are depicted with fresh, loving attention to detail, gorgeous colors, and an authentic cartoon flavor, all tied together with great visual storytelling.
The zoo features incredibly cute and annoying monkeys and wild animals; the Turtles’ airship follows you as you fly over the sunny rooftops of the city, dodging incoming missiles; and certain sections feel like you’re fighting in the 1989 Playmates sewer toy game. It’s also packed with comedic elements. The Idle Foot Soldiers steal the tire from the Turtle truck, rattle Game Boys and lick popsicles, all before you disrupt their recreation with a nunchaku to your head. The sprite designs are deliberately chubby, but lovable, gorgeously animated and full of character, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have plenty of individual personality. Splinter’s elastic, varied but powerful repertoire is presented exactly as it should be, and April O’Neil is simply excellent, snapping shots of downed enemies and pummeling the crowd with a boom mic. Fan-favorite Casey Jones, who deals heavy damage with his golf clubs, brings the playable roster to seven once unlocked.
The scenarios have a lot of variety, although few novelties. The bosses where you have to throw enemies into the foreground and the obstacle-filled ‘Cheapskate’ skateboard rides are culled from previous titles. Where it works well, though, is the sheer number of enemies and how they attack, forcing you to continually apply different approaches. The bosses are also brilliantly designed and executed, with fun and engaging patterns and windows of opportunity to place them with a super.
The same effort has gone into the audio, with Sonic Mania’s Tee Lopes putting together an excellent soundtrack. Turtle’s vocal banter is recorded by the original cartoon cast, and occasional singing tracks ranging from rap-style beats to cheesy rock appropriately cement the tone. The chords and motifs are akin to the original show’s idiosyncratic sound, as are the one-liners that spill out as you bang on Shredder’s Foot Clan.
Although the aesthetics are assured, it would not be worth much if the gameplay was not up to par. Obviously, this is where Shredder’s Revenge comes into play. The control scheme is a marvel of accuracy, squeezing everything you need out of the pad without getting too complex. You can charge-attack, slide, slide, double jump, kick, climb, dodge, grab and hit in two different ways, and perform three types of devastating super attacks, in addition to your standard combos. In tandem, this shoots like a dream. You quickly get used to the moveset, which cleverly adjusts to each character’s strengths and weaknesses, and then you mix it up furiously. It’s only when you slide into an infantryman, launch into an up tackle and kick down, followed by a barge and additional juggling, that you realize how impeccably tense the combat is. It can be combo and heavy juggling, but it’s all very easy to start. The result is a wacky and raucous Turtle-scrum, in which you fearlessly launch yourself into enemy hordes, dodge explosives and free yourself from rivets, and dominate the screen to the rhythm of a ninja.
The formula works great for several key reasons. Dodge is a break-out maneuver, its abundant invincibility frames make it integral to avoiding weapon swings and telegraphed projectiles, while also closing distances with its optional knockback attack. Additionally, extended combos and chipping away at near-dead soldiers before they hit the track quickly build up your super gauge, letting you launch into a dazzling proximity-based whirlwind of death that carves chunks off bosses’ health bars. If you take a hit at any time before the super gauge fills up, it resets to zero (in any mode except Easy), requiring you to combo like crazy, charge it up in seconds, then unleash its fury to buy a moment of respite.
This economy works brilliantly, but at the same time presents the game’s biggest conundrum. For this review, we took April O’Neil on a single credit all the way to stage 13, loving creating risk-reward combos and the pressure involved in avoiding hits. Adrenaline simmers as you reach the later stages, forcing you to act sharp with dodges and take advantage of the generous iframes that come with escalating attacks. But, in further gameplay, we find that the shoulder button instantly fills the super gauge with a comical animated ‘meditation’. This somewhat neutralizes the need for more difficult skill-based gameplay, as you can find spots all over the place to quickly reload, and once you know the option is there, it’s impossible to ignore.
Still, while this smoothes things out, it doesn’t diminish the quality of the experience. There’s an Arcade mode on board, our preferred way to play, which is as easy as it gets. You get an extra life for every 200 enemies dispatched, and it’s a well-balanced and very engaging game at default. Crank up the difficulty to Hard, the go-to setting for beat ’em up fans, and the challenge is really on.
Story Mode augments gameplay with a worldwide city map, where stages can be revisited to complete challenges, discover hidden items, and reveal character cameos. The system here features a clever peripheral RPG element, whereby you convert accumulated points into additional health, upgraded supers, upgraded ‘Radical Mode’ abilities, and even additional lives. The goal is to gradually empower the entire team while working on the Collectathon goals.
Multiplayer is devilishly fun, with up to six players duking it out with a variety of cool team attacks and the ability to revive fallen allies. And, although we couldn’t test it online during the review period, you can have fun with internet-ready boys and girls at almost any point in the game.
Tribute Games is aware of a catalog of bugs and glitches, ready to be fixed from day one. However, we did find a few that weren’t on their pre-release list. Audio pops were occurring from time to time, and certain sound effects, such as broken windows, didn’t seem to work properly. There are occasional frame stutters even in single player, but these are so fleeting that they don’t really affect the action. Once, during a two-player game, we were left waiting up to three minutes between stages to a black screen, and then during a boss fight with Groundchuck and Dirtbag, the game slowed to 1 FPS before one of the bosses would go underground. never to return, ending the game. The worst of our fates was reaching the penultimate stage, only for an error to occur, the game to crash, and us not to return to our point of progress.
Despite these performance issues, we trust that Tribute Games will fix everything and shouldn’t deter you from making a purchase. Tellingly, these hiccups did not affect our overall opinion in the slightest.