If the internet’s reaction was any indicator, you’d think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is the big gulp of oxygen the belt-scrolling beat ‘em up genre’s been needing for decades. It’s not though. To be clear, Shredder’s Revenge is an exceptional game and totally worth picking up, but it’s only the latest in a thriving but much-overlooked genre. In fact the game’s greatest successes are the result of conventional wisdom that’s been accruing in the space for the past 35 years.
First you’ve got co-op. Arcades are the primordial ooze that beat ‘em ups sprang from. And whether it’s meant for four players or just one, an arcade cabinet is an object that’s ontologically meant to be shared and gazed upon together. Games like Castle Crashers brought this knowledge forward into the Xbox Live Arcade era by including online co-op so you could play as a group whether you had meatspace friends or not.
It’s not reinventing the wheel at all, but the ease with which Shredder’s Revenge lets you group up with players online is one thing that’s already pulled me through the game multiple times over the last month. Jumping in to help someone clear a couple levels with the game’s seamless co-op is a modern day reminder of dropping a token into the machine halfway through someone else’s run at the arcade and making a new friend for the rest of that evening.
Now let me talk to you about Dragon’s Crown. RPG elements, however lightly or heavily implemented, have been an easy way to make a beat ‘em up more engaging since River City Ransom. Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown, my personal high watermark for the genre, takes these first two points to their logical conclusion. The game’s six different character classes all feel distinct. But by layering in hefty loot and skill systems, Dragon’s Crown even lets you link up with three other players using the same class with drastically different capabilities. I still think about that game sometimes, man.
Shredder’s Revenge opts for the lighter approach here, but the numbers do indeed go up, and you’re given a smart drip feed of new abilities that make it feel like your character blossoms over the course of the campaign. Which is nice!
Today’s beat ‘em ups also tend to respect your time. Despite their history as notoriously hard games created to consume countless quarters and require multiple rentals to finish, nowadays beat ‘em ups are usually brief experiences.
Streets of Rage 4 went out of its way to faithfully adapt the gameplay from its predecessors, but thanks to the inclusion of generous checkpointing and extra lives I was able to see credits after two or three hours. I can’t even tell you how many weekends I poured into Streets of Rage 2 or Turtles in Time as a kid without ever seeing a final boss.
Shredder’s Revenge boasts a campaign with a tight run-time as well, but between the beefy character roster and long list of collectibles the amount of time you spend with the game is really up to you.
More than anything, I’m just glad this game exists. The Ninja Turtles NES games held the distinction of truly capturing the look of the late ‘80s show they used as source material. But even though I can still call to mind the feeling of wonder I got from playing a game that looked so much like one of my favorite shows, this new iteration drives home just how much mental leeway I was giving those games back then.
Someone coming to the series today has no less than four TV shows and three movie series to sift through, so it’s nice to know there’s a shiny new game out there pointing them back to that first adaptation of the comics.
Beat ‘em ups also have no shortage of legendary soundtracks and it’s worth noting that TMNT’s is no slouch either. Eternal Sonic fan Tee Lopes turns in a bouncy soundtrack that feels like a nice aesthetic cross between the Turtles in Time OST and his work on Sonic Mania. Raekwon The Chef and Ghostface Killah even show up to drop some particularly fun 16s before the end. All that’s to say it’s ‘90s as hell, in a good way.
The belt-scrolling beat ‘em up is widely considered a simple genre that hasn’t aged well over the last few decades, but Shredder’s Revenge illustrates how untrue that is. Sure, expectations have changed quite a bit over the last 35 years, but the heart of these games still beats wherever there are two friends with nothing to do that night. No matter how far they’ve fallen from their popular zenith in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Shredder’s Revenge is just the latest game to prove that this genre isn’t close to being done. As long as there’s a group out there looking to beat up some little guys together, these games aren’t going anywhere.
Yousif Kassab writes about games, music and manga on the internet. You can find him on Twitter at @Youuuusif (four U’s).