One of the great pleasures of recent years has been the revival of the side-scrolling beat 'em up - a genre whose prime was in the 90s, and one that's since been entangled and obscured by the crushing vines of nostalgia. I've always loved the swagger and style of Streets of Rage, only to go back to the original trilogy and be somewhat disappointed by the simplicity of it all.
It took Dotemu's unlikely revival of Sega's series with 2020's Streets of Rage 4, developed alongside Guard Crush Games and Lizardcube, for me to fall back in love with the genre. Here was the scrolling beat 'em up modernised not just in terms of how it looked - though it did look sublime - but also in how it played, with a variety and depth that makes it a pleasure to return to on each and every one of the many platforms it's found its way onto now.
Dotemu's next revival, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge, already had my attention, and having played through a couple of levels it's got me thinking this could well be the measure of Streets of Rage 4. Taking the much-loved multiplayer 1987 outing as an inspiration - and thus drawing upon Konami's arcade golden age - while also steering closer to the original animated series, this is another side-scrolling beat 'em-up that feels remarkably fresh.
"I think [the genre] has a reputation of being very repetitive," says Jonathan Lavigne, someone who certainly knows what he's talking about; before co-founding Tribute Games, the studio heading up development for Shredder's Revenge, he worked on Ubisoft's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as well as an earlier, well-received TMNT game for the Game Boy Advance.
"It's a fair reputation, honestly, because it's a challenge to make a beat ‘em-up that doesn't feel repetitive. Given the nature of these games you don't have options to do unique stuff with platforming and stuff like that - it's often just mashing the same button and the enemies don't have really distinct patterns. That's an issue with a lot of beat ‘em-ups. That's something that you have to alleviate, and find different ways to make it fun. It’s a huge challenge to make a beat ‘em-up that doesn't feel repetitive and keeps being entertaining all the way through."
Going from the small sample of levels available in the demo, Tribute Games has found some success here - there's a flow and momentum to Shredder's Revenge that makes it stand out from some of its inspirations. "What we did was to make the rhythm almost like a shoot 'em-up," explains Lavigne. "Enemies enter in certain formations and with certain timings that will create a certain rhythm. And you know, when you get into that beat you can and you make the player anticipate where to travel on screen. And also the pacing is really fast - enemies will enter then be defeated in a few hits, and then new enemies enter. I think that keeps the game from being repetitive because you keep the player active."
Shredder's Revenge offers one of those rare second chances at a game for Lavigne, having already had a crack at the licence in 2007 while working at Ubisoft. The Game Boy Advance Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie tie-in earned respectable reviews, though it was clearly compromised with a dev cycle of just seven months - a typical turnaround for Ubisoft's licensed games of the era.
"The game was great and we're pretty proud of it," says Lavigne. "But I wasn't entirely satisfied with it. We couldn't do multiplayer, because on Game Boy Advance you had to have the link cable and two copies of the game and only a very small minority of people would play multiplayer. That's something we had to just cut right away, so it was a single player beat ‘em-up, which is fine. It was good for what it was. But it's definitely not the same experience as playing with friends in the arcades."
It's that arcade experience that Tribute Games and Dotemu keep returning to, as well as how it tied into the wider cultural phenomenon that was the Turtles in the late 80s and early 90s. "It was a game you found a lot in the arcades," says Dotemu founder Cyrille Imbert. "That was pretty cool because you could play with lots of friends at the time! The show was running a lot in France, and I was pretty passionate about it, and the toys as well. It's not only the games, but the licence as a whole."
The Turtles licence is perhaps the biggest Dotemu has handled to date, and is a decent indicator of how much progress the French outfit's made since Imbert took over as CEO in 2014. Back then they were a developer known mostly for remasters of older games, porting the likes of R-Type, Metal Slug and Little Big Adventure to various platforms before it started getting a bit more ambitious with what it was handling.
"It was kind of a natural evolution for the company," says Imbert. "When we were doing mostly remasters we were seeing people asking for more. The opportunity for our first remake was with Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap and at the same time we worked on our first sequel as well, which was Pang Adventures."
Pang Adventures was a fresh follow-up to Capcom's Buster Bros, allowing Dotemu to find its feet with a relatively low-key licence. Wonderboy was more ambitious, though again the licence came without a mass of expectation - while beloved, Westone's originals only ever found a limited audience predominantly in Europe where the Sega Master System proved more popular than in other territories. Development partner Lizardcube delivered and then some, though, the subsequent remake setting a new standard for such projects.
"With the talents of Lizardcube and their passion for the game it was a project that made sense for us - to be able to produce titles like that, made by people that have true passion for what they're doing and are trying to make sure these awesome titles are not forgotten. It worked out really well, even if it was a smaller licence. It was just a remake - like, it was the same game - but with more options and such beautiful visuals. We were like, that's the way we need to go. We will continue to do remasters, we’ll continue to do remakes but we need to go further."
Every game since feels like another step further still. Streets of Rage 4 has been the most high profile, but its work with Windjammers has been just as impressive, first untangling a tricky rights situation then going on to deliver a worthy sequel to an arcade sports masterpiece. "The challenge with Windjammers was to find the owner of the IP," says Imbert of the situation around the game's original developer Data East. "But because we've been working with Japanese companies for such a long time we have connections and now we can get to the bottom of things. I go to Japan - or I used to go to Japan! - every year, and people there really appreciated the work we were doing and the passion we're putting into it, so we had a nice reputation."
It's that reputation that's opened doors and seen Dotemu working on such serious IP as Sega's Streets of Rage. "It’s presented as an easy and safe solution," says Imbert. "We take all the risks on our side - financial risks, commercial risks, everything - they have full hands-on, it’s their IP, and they can stop the project or do whatever they want, whenever they want. But we’ve confidence in our capacity to deliver something very cool for their property.
"It’s a virtuous cycle, definitely. But that's hard as well, because we need to maintain that trust and the quality of our titles, because if one day we don't deliver that then we have to build all over again this trust with IP owners and with studios and stuff like that. So it's a virtuous cycle, but it can be broken pretty quickly if we don't pay too much attention to the details."
Going from the fine details that make Shredder's Revenge feel so special it doesn't look like there's much danger of that cycle being broken any time soon - which begs the question what's next for Dotemu? Imbert mentioned briefly in a recent Edge interview a desire to work with Guardian Heroes - oh how delicious that would be - and seems to be turning his attention to a more modern brand of retro licences.
"There are things that maybe two or three years ago were not possible. But now suddenly, it's possible for some reason, and vice versa. There are so many potential projects on our side, and we are already working on a couple of unannounced projects. Don't worry, we have some nice ideas, and we've material to work on for the next few years. With time passing by, games that weren't considered retro maybe 10 years ago are gonna become retro in the next five or six years. It's this forever growing pool of possibilities."