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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is a 1990 fever dream come true

Cowabunga, dude!
(Image credit: Dotemu)

When I was about eight years old, I lived in a town in Scotland called Larkhall. It didn't have much going for it but, to my eyes, one jewel loomed large: the high street arcade. My dad would send me to buy his paper on Sunday morning and pay 50p for the errand, and I would invariably find my way to the gloomy but light-flecked hall of dreams. There were so many machines to fall in love with but there, in the corner, was Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Turtles was 20p. I'd spend 40p of my pocket money there and 10p on a sweet, or Ghouls 'n Ghosts. After a few months I'd got so good at TMNT that my credits would stretch to ridiculous lengths, and was once surprised to be yanked away from the cab by my angry mother, who declared to the entire arcade that "Turtles is a mug's game!" as she dragged me out by the ear.

Cowabunga, dude!

(Image credit: Dotemu)

I love my mother but she was wrong about this. Because, being a young boy in 1990, I loved the Turtles and would constantly play with my figures, draw them, write stories, and think about that game. I used to stand near the machine, after my credits, and watch others play, making mental notes but mainly just basking in it: watching for the visual gags, and the slip-ups, in a way I couldn’t when I was playing and hyper-focused on survival. Konami's arcade masterpiece lived rent-free in my mind through the week and, on Sundays, I would pay the rent and soak in that glory.

Turtle power

These games are sometimes described as simplistic beat-em-ups, and that's a fair assessment, but it doesn't address why their players find them such rich objects. If I had to articulate this feeling it would be as straightforward as a childish mind's wish to be a Ninja Turtle. These wonderful coin-slot machines and their chunky controls being as close as you would ever get to that fantasy.

Don't even get me started on Turtles in Time, released a few years later – both in arcades and on SNES – and delivering the unbelievable reality of playing this stuff at home. Then the Hyperstone Heist on Mega Drive! These are events that are now hard to appreciate.

Shredder's Revenge is a laser-targeted shot into the nostalgic hearts of middle-aged Turtles fans

Which is why some people see Shredder's Revenge as what it is, a laser-targeted shot into the nostalgic hearts of middle-aged Turtles fans, and those fans see it as something more pure. Neither side is entirely right, but you've probably guessed I'm on the latter.

Those older games don't feel nearly as good to play as they once did – as we'll all rediscover when the Cowabunga Collection hits later this year. And the smartest thing Shredder's Revenge does is stay away from the more in-depth combat system of Dotemu's previous classic 2D revival, Streets of Rage 4, to focus on pace and spectacle.

Cowabunga, dude!

(Image credit: Dotemu)

Each level in Shredder's Revenge takes about five minutes to play through. Each character has a basic moveset, and the more advanced moves that maintain chains. The overwhelming number of enemies you'll face are colour-coded Foot Soldiers. And now I'm going to say something slightly controversial but it deserves highlighting because it's the brave and right decision: Dotemu made this an experience that skews to the easier side. 

There's been criticism – of the way characters can taunt to fill their super meter and then unleash mega attack after mega attack, for example. But the audience for this game is, let's be honest, middle-aged. And while I'm not saying we're bad at games, a throwback side-scroller designed to evoke memories isn't the place for a hardcore challenge (though by all means Bring It On with the DLC).

It's still somewhat challenging, and you can't ignore the enemies by any means. But a simple moveset with more contemporary staples like a dodge and taunt makes this flexible and fun to play around with, the air and dodge attacks a particular delight. These come alongside easy-to-execute combos and specials, and the frisson of tossing enemies into the forescreen, getting a 'Mode 7' achievement in the process. For some, and I'm one, this is what a Turtles game should be. 

Six shredder

You do hammer through the levels, especially on the wild six-player runthroughs: I've had no problem finding tons of randoms to play with, and the screen can be absolute chaos. You lose track of who you are, it's so busy, and I absolutely love that feeling of just looking at a tangle of limbs and spamming ‘attack’.

The six-player thing speaks to another brilliant element of the game's design. This isn't just about evoking those 90s Turtles games, but the era they existed in. The mode is a clear nod to another beloved Konami beat-em-up, X-Men, released in 1992 and boasting a deluxe cabinet with two screens that supported six-player co-op.

But look closer and you'll notice even more. Capcom is as big a subterranean presence as Konami is on the surface, with many of the Turtles' animations echoing classic attacks from Street Fighter characters. This also extends to 'cameos' for the likes of SNK: Look at these side-by-side comparisons.

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If you find those impressive, click through on that tweet for a whole thread of them.

In this way, Shredder's Revenge is an homage to that early 90s era of arcade gaming, where you'd see the same great animations on loops and the idea of a six-player beat-em-up (with two screens!!!) was almost too much for one mind to take.

The arcade spirit can be seen too in the backgrounds, dotted with Foot Soldiers doing daft things like whisking on a cooking set, manning hot dog stands and – the classic – sitting in the driver's seat of a car waiting for a Turtle to walk in front of them. These details are usually called incidental but they matter enormously in a level background that is designed to be seen dozens of times: you cannot overvalue a sight gag enough, nor a callback to some extremely minor character like Vernon. You can read all about him on his wiki page.

Bop it

The boss fights! Bebop and Rocksteady, then Bebop and Rocksteady squeezing out of a car window, then a host of minor villains from Rat King to (almost unbelievably) Groundchuck. Fighting Wingnut in the sky, and the next level starting with his KO-ed form in the dirt… it's priceless.

Everything is framed like an arcade game too, levels beginning and ending with amazing pixel art scenes. A voiceover says something like, "They're getting away!", and off you go. In a Turtles game, who wants more plot than that? The interstitials between levels, where you see a boss in silhouette as a kind of teaser, absolutely slot into this simple setup – and can even make you think about other shadows from your past. Such an all-encompassing recapture of a moment makes you think about the childhood friends and fellow Shell-heads you would have once shared your excitement with – a warm if slightly melancholy feeling.

Finally, there's the soundtrack which zeroes in on those original chiptunes, rebuilds and remixes them, and then in the ultimate act of 90s convergence, drops the Wu-Tang Clan on the climactic track. Other signature tunes are given amazing vocal performances with cheesily perfect, movie montage lyrics. Composer Tee Lopes is not only some sort of musical genius, but an artist that understood the assignment: get as many remixes of the 'heroes in a half-shell' leitmotif in this game as you possibly can. I have lost count and I am loving it.

Cowabunga, dude!

(Image credit: Dotemu)

This approach makes Shredder's Revenge one of the most spectacularly good examples of a phenomenon that has been well-recognised for years now, though I'm not sure there's an agreed-upon term for it. Perhaps because it's oft-remarked upon in derisory terms, as if adults should be above 'childish' things.

I don't see it that way. I don't think adults should spend their lives watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons or Marvel movies, but am also pretty sure none of us do. Instead these things – whatever your particular poison may be – are all our miniature madeleine cakes, the scent of a time and place and company that is gone forever. If someone had bottled the stale smokey air of a Larkhall arcade in the early 90s, it would smell like Shredder's Revenge.

You could call this the Peter Pan-ification of culture: Except we all did grow up and now live other lives. We just enjoy, and now have the opportunity, to remember what Neverland was like. It's as impossible as ever to really be Michelangelo whacking the Foot clan, but games like Shredder's Revenge feed our inner child for the brief and beautiful hours they fill: and how. Second star to the right, and straight on till morning dudes!

Rich Stanton