If you’re a retro gaming fan like me, then Dotemu is probably one of your favorite modern studios. The company has made its name as a developer and publisher by reviving classic franchises with excellent games like Wonder Boy : The Dragon’s Trap and Streets of Rage 4. It’s also publishing a remake of the classic city-builder Pharaoh and developing a sequel to the arcade hit Widnjammers. Last month, Dotemu delighted nostalgic gamers by announcing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge.
The company is a leader in the retro-revival movement. It’s not just exploiting old gaming franchises but also reviving them with passion and care.
I recently interviewed Dotemu’s CEO, Cyrille Imbert. I asked him about the new TMNT project and how it came to be, and we also talked about his company’s position as a premier retro gaming studio. I also clumsily tried to get him to bring back one of my favorite Genesis franchises. (You miss 100% of all the shots you don’t take and all that.)
This is an edited transcript of the interview.
GamesBeat: Was the TMNT deal hard to lock down?
Cyrille Imbert: It didn’t feel that different than classic video game licenses in terms of approach and talks we had with Nickelodeon. It’s just that it’s a big company. We’ve worked with big companies for some IP, of course, but this one is pretty big. Lots of licenses there. That’s a huge part of their work, to make sure that their licenses are in the right hands. That’s something they do a lot. They have lots of different licenses in different media. It was a bit different. But right from the start, we had a good connection with the Nickelodeon team.
For me, because of our DNA, it was important that we worked with the ’87 design. That was a personal dream. But it just made sense. Also, because — not only as a fan of the old TMNT games, but also because we wanted to see that coming back, that’s our childhood. We knew that we’re not the only ones around who want that. We pushed for that, but with a complete idea of how to do it and what it should look like. We were already working on Streets of Rage 4 back in the day. It all made sense, and I think it made sense for Nickelodeon as well.
But it took some time. It’s just because of random elements that I can’t communicate. Nothing out of the ordinary. It’s just that some events on the other side meant we couldn’t sign anything right away after first discussing it. It took quite some time, almost two years, to get that done. But it wasn’t because either party wasn’t into it. We just needed to get everyone on board and that takes time, especially when there are changes in the different teams over time. At Dotemu we’ve learned to be patient and to never give up. That’s what we did. It finally happened.
The funny aspect of all this is that pretty early in development, maybe after six or eight months, after our first contact with Nickelodeon, we met at GDC, and I learned from the guys at Limited Run Games, from the guys at Nickelodeon, I learned that there was another studio that was proposing content for a game, similar to what we were proposing. I was like, OK, that’s never good news. But that’s life. That’s how it goes. Nickelodeon, it was completely normal for them to do that, to receive different concepts and ideas. But I managed to know on the same day who was at the other company doing the pitch. It was Tribute Games. I knew that through Limited Run Games, because they heard about it. They’re good friends with them. And basically I got their email. I knew about the company, but never met them in person. I asked if they were available for a meeting in the afternoon. We met and talked. We had almost the same idea. It was perfectly in-line. I thought it was great, because back in the day we were wondering who could be the right studio. It was right there. We said, OK, let’s go together instead of doing two separate proposals. Let’s join forces and propose something really cool that’s in line with Nickelodeon’s expectations, that would please the fans, and that would be made by fans, because that’s one of the most important points of all our projects. The teams are actual fans and know everything about those projects. That’s how it came to be.
It was a long story, but it ended pretty well, and now we need to deliver an awesome game. It’s not over yet, but it’s a good step. We now know that we’re not the only ones happy about this.
GamesBeat: Was there any pushback about going for that original cartoon aesthetic?
Imbert: I don’t know exactly the internal discussions at Nickelodeon, but from my side, it wasn’t an issue. From the start, I said that’s how we wanted to do it. We didn’t want to do it in a different way. We crossed our fingers that they would accept. But it was never a subject like, no, that’s not possible, or it’s going to be super-complicated. I don’t know about those internal discussions. It might have taken some time to validate that. But for me it never appeared to be a huge issue.
GamesBeat: When it comes to the classic TMNT games, Turtles in Time is the one people think about. Are you taking inspiration from some of the other games?
Imbert: Shredder’s Revenge is a beat-’em-up, so most of the inspiration comes from the old Turtles beat-’em-ups, especially Turtles in Time, which was probably the best of them, the arcade version. But Tribute Games worked on other TMNT games in the past, some time ago. They’ve already been inspired by different games, and that’s what they want to do again. Taking inspiration from different games, cool aspects from different games.
But in the end it’s a beat-’em-up. It’ll be mainly inspired by beat-’em-ups from that era, not only Turtles. Inspiration is going to be taken from all these awesome beat-’em-up games that came out back in the day. We have some freedom around that.
GamesBeat: Do you have to talk to Konami at all? Does it have any rights involvement in this?
Imbert: Not on our side, at least.
GamesBeat: The classic TMNT arcade games are simpler than Streets of Rage 4. Are you going to make this new TMNT game’s combat more complex?
Imbert: The idea is going to be pretty similar in Tribute’s mind. That’s why we got along on the project. They have this idea of taking most of the feel, the good parts of the games back in the day, but adding modern gameplay. Feeling and mashing those together, trying to find a balance between what made those games great, what made the whole experience great, and translating it to a modern era with modern gameplay mechanics, additional mechanics that are not too invasive. Same for Streets of Rage. We’re not going to do an RPG with multiple paths and something super-complex and modern. We’re going to stick to the classic formula of a beat-’em-up, but adding mechanics that will improve the core mechanics, the basics of what makes a good beat-’em-up, but expanding it, finding nice touches and mechanics that will improve the overall aspects. Those little details that can make a big difference.
Above: Streets of Rage 4 with the classic character sprites.
Image Credit: Dotemu
GamesBeat: With Streets of Rage and TMNT, there’s been a revival in beat-’em-ups. It wasn’t long ago that it seemed like a dead genre. How do you think the whole beat-’em-up scene had such a big revival recently?
Imbert: For me it was weird that we weren’t still playing beat-’em-up. It was the other way around. For me it was like, why? This is so good. Why aren’t we playing that? I don’t really know. It just makes sense to me. It’s a great genre. It’s chill. They don’t have super-long sessions. You can play with your friends. You don’t have to think too much. It’s so nice, nice moments that you have with beat-’em-ups, whether they’re on the RPG side or more on the arcade side. It doesn’t really matter. If it’s well-made, it’s always good. I’m super-happy that it’s coming back and that we’re contributing to that.
Of course I remember when I was talking with different partners about Streets of Rage when it wasn’t announced. They said, yeah, but a beat-’em-ups? Are you sure? Nobody plays those today. It’ll just be a small crowd playing that. They weren’t sure it was the right idea. Sometimes I had doubts. I looked at the different numbers, the recent releases, and there weren’t many of them. I wasn’t sure people would like it. But in the end, people were waiting for that. I’m glad we contributed to that, and hopefully it’s going to stay there now.
GamesBeat: With Wonder Boy and Streets of Rage, you took the original pixel look and adapted it into something more hand-drawn. With TMNT you’re sticking with pixels. Why did you make that decision?
Imbert: It’s mostly about finding the right team for the right project. For Wonder Boy and Streets of Rage, the team with Lizard Cube and the talented Ben Fiquet, who took care of both of those projects, it just made sense. He’s so good at animation and character design. Everything about it makes sense. We thought it was a good idea, especially for Wonder Boy, because it’s an 8-bit game. It didn’t age well. It’s still very charming, but it’s harder than playing Streets of Rage 2 nowadays, for example. It needed to have something different, and Ben is extremely talented. The first time we saw the artwork, it was perfect. He managed to translate the 8-bit art into something fully HD with a living universe. It was so cool. Streets of Rage, the original games are nice. Wonder Boy III is really nice. But the Streets of Rage games are younger than Wonder Boy. They still look really nice.
If we wanted to go for something pixelated first, then we wouldn’t have done it with Lizard Cube, because it’s not necessarily their main thing. On the contrary, we said, we have to do something different, because otherwise the difference wouldn’t be that huge. It just made sense. Because we were working with Lizard Cube, the things they had in mind, even before we started to work on the project, were really in-line. If we had those graphics back in the day, we would have said, yes, that’s it, that’s how it needs to be, because it’s more about the opportunity in the moment. It just clicks. It feels right. For TMNT, of course, when I received the first fake screenshots from Tribute Games — I know their password. I know how beautiful they can work on pixel art. That just made sense as well. Streets of Rage is not necessarily associated with arcades. It’s a console game. It doesn’t have that link with the arcade. It makes sense to have pixel art TMNT, because it’s been a long time, first of all. Streets of Rage, there was nothing after the third one. TMNT, there have been some tries, many games for the past 20 years. Almost none of them have been pixel art. It just made sense. It clicked.
It needed to be pixel art, but with the awesome art we know Tribute can provide, that really shined in the trailer we released. When we saw those first artworks, it was great. We knew people would like it, because we liked it, as gamers and as fans. We knew it was going to work. But it’s not something we really thought through a lot, like it needed to be this way. We just thought we would try it, especially with their expertise. Let’s see what they can do with their own expertise. While Lizard Cube is more about HD hand-drawn animation, Tribute Games is more about very nice clean pixel art. It worked out.
GamesBeat: How do you go about picking the projects for Dotemu? Is it more about looking for franchises that have been dead for a while, or is it more about teams approaching you?
Imbert: It’s a bit of both. Sometimes teams approach us. For example, for Pharaoh, the remake we’re doing, the team came to us to do another game first, a city-builder. But then we said, you’re good at doing city builders and you love that, what’s your favorite game? They said it’s Pharaoh, the best city builder ever made. Would you like to do a remake of Pharaoh? Yes, of course. Then I had to check if it was possible and talk to Activision. This time it came from both sides. Sometimes it’s on our side. It would be great to work on that license, everyone would be happy to see it coming back! First we check with the IP holder and see if it’s possible, under what conditions. If it works out well, before proposing anything, we look for the right studio to do that. It can be our internal studio that’s working on Windjammers 2 right now. Or it can be an external studio as well.
We try to find the perfect match. It can’t be another way. It has to be a perfect match between a studio that knows the license by heart and the license. Over the years I’ve had some proposals from studios because they know what we do and they know we have ways of getting licenses, even if it seems impossible. But every time we’ve felt there’s a slight chance the studio doesn’t really know the game, we refuse those projects. It can’t be any other way. It’s so complicated. The fans expect so much. We like those licenses as well. We don’t want to propose something that would be harmful to the license. We want to go further. We need to work with the right people, people that know everything about those games. It can’t be any other way. For Windjammers, for example, not everyone on the team, in the studio, knew about the game or played a lot of the game before. That’s why we started to do a remaster of the original version, so we were sure we would know every detail about the first one before starting production on the second one.
GamesBeat: Do you have many pitches turned down? Or would you say more pitches are accepted than rejected?
Imbert: We have more pitches that are rejected, for sure. Probably 1-out-of-10 is accepted, and it takes some time.
GamesBeat: Working with these established franchises, how much creative freedom do you have with each one?
Imbert: It’s about the same for each project, because the way we approach the IP holders is we come with a concept. We come with a proposal, full proposal with all the details. That’s how we want to do things. If the IP holder doesn’t agree with that, OK, why not, but what do they want to change, and is it still in line with what we have in mind? If it differs too much and we feel it’s not the right way to do things, we just don’t do it. Until now, at least, every time we came with a concept, it clicked as well on the IP holder side. They saw the idea held together. It made sense. Because everything is set right from the beginning, almost everything, or at least the big idea is there, then we have freedom, because we’re initiating the thing. We didn’t have to change things afterward. We just have to stick to the plan.
GamesBeat: Going back to those pitches, after some of the successes you’ve had, especially with Streets of Rage, do you feel like those pitches are better received now than they were a few years ago?
Imbert: Oh, yes, definitely. It helps, for sure. It’s hard to earn the trust of an IP owner. We’re always ready to take all the risk on our side, in order to convince them that we’re confident in our capacity to do the project well. We have to maintain what we have in mind and do it our way.
GamesBeat: Are you interested in doing any sequels to your revivals? Or is it more interesting to move on to another IP?
Imbert: It’s more interesting to move on to another IP, from my personal point of view. But it depends, above all, on the studio and what they want to do, what motivates them. It’s hard to work on a sequel or a remake of an existing license. If you’re a true fan, you don’t want to mess that up. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of questioning. It’s hard. You have back-and=forth with the IP owner, with us. You have lots of things to handle, how to do this or that part, will people be happy about this? It’s tough work. When you’re a fan you don’t want to mess that up, so it’s additional pressure. If you’re doing your own IP, there are no expectations from people. You just need to deliver something great. In the case of a sequel or remake, you need to deliver something great that’s in line with people’s expectations, even if those aren’t perfectly in line with your expectations. You have to understand that and deliver something that’s close to that. That’s why sometimes they’re like, OK, that was great, that was awesome, but I don’t want to do that again for a few years. That’s completely understandable. But if at some point someone said, hey, let’s do another one, I need to check with the IP owners of course, but if it’s possible, we’ll do it.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting how studios like yours are focused just on retro gaming. Do you think that this is a development that’s going to grow in the future? Do you even see yourselves as a retro gaming studio?
Imbert: Absolutely. Dotemu was founded in 2007, and the DNA hasn’t changed since then. It’s been a long time now that Dotemu has been working on that kind of phenomenon, of bringing back those old IP. It’s completely natural, with the way the market is evolving. It’s like every other art form. The music industry, they started to do remasters, remakes, finding old tracks from famous artists, bringing them back. Using old lyrics. Same thing goes for movies, finding the first version of a movie, the director’s cut, remastering it, making it a 3D movie, all that kind of thing. It just makes sense. That’s how you revisit art. There’s a need from the creators to go through that process of working on something that’s a passion for them, and there’s a need from the players or the viewers or the listeners to revive that thing that had an impact on their life. There’s an emotional connection with that. It makes sense that it’s coming back. It’s also important. I’m glad that this is a natural process. Especially in video games, which evolve so fast, way faster than any other type of art. If you lose track of what’s been made in the past, you lose your soul, kind of.
All those creators from the ’80s, ’90s that did games with almost nothing, in a market where their parents thought it was disastrous to see their children trying to make a career out of video games. They made the market. Thanks to them and their efforts and their craziness, today we have those awesome games, even up to the latest triple-As. It’s thanks to them. We must not forget where video games come from. That’s part of our role as well. The creators of tomorrow, the people that will become designers that are young today, that are starting their careers, they need to know what was up back in the day. They need to know how games were made, how they’re made like this, and why those games are still good today, to get inspiration for future games and not forget about this legacy, the way games were made. It’s not only natural, because our art form is very young. It’s only been maybe 50 years. Probably less than that. The history is just starting. We didn’t have any history 20 years ago, almost. It was all the present. Now there is a past, and that past needs to live on, to not be forgotten. That’s a need for creators and a need for gamers. That’s a good thing, I think.
GamesBeat: Who do you think is your primary audience? Is it people in their 30s and 40s, who are nostalgic for that period in gaming, or do you have a substantial amount of younger gamers playing these projects, even if they didn’t grow up with the titles they’re inspired by?
Imbert: Of course our primary target would be people like us. The average age at Dotemu is around 30 years old. That’s why we love working on these projects. We’re the target. We know what we want. But our goal is beyond that. I’d say between 25 and 45 years old, around that. But beyond that our goal, again, is to go beyond those lines and make younger people discover that, thanks to the success we can bring to these licenses. Wonder Boy, Streets of Rage, Windjammers, they’re being talked about within the gaming industry, the gaming world in general. People that never heard about those games are hearing about them, even if they never played it when it came out, or they were too young. They’re discovering that, and we’re aiming for that. That’s the point of modernizing the gameplay, to address the people who never heard about those games and make them discover it. You have a game collection and you want to show it to your friends, even if they don’t know, and talk about those games. It’s a way of sharing that passion for each game with other gamers that we know will like it. When you discover a game and you really like it, and you have a friend who’s never heard of this game but you know they’ll like it, you want to show it to them and make them enjoy it, then it’s the same spirit. We want to share that love for those games to as many people as we can.
GamesBeat: Was Wonder Boy a big turning point for the company? Was that the title that put you a bit more on the map?
Imbert: Absolutely. It was a risk for us as well. It was probably the most expensive project we ever worked on. It was our first remake. It was definitely a turning point. In the end, we developed our knowledge of how to communicate about these games, how to approach the fan base, how to manage expectations, and also how to understand what a good studio is and what quality is, because that’s what Lizard Cube delivered with Wonder Boy, a very high level of quality and attention to detail — we grew up from that experience. It was definitely a turning point. It was the confirmation of our strategy. We had that in mind for a couple of years. We were going for that, but we weren’t sure it would work. We had another experience that was not super successful before Wonder Boy with Pang Adventures. But we said, let’s continue and see if we can find the right way of doing this. Wonder Boy was the confirmation of that idea. That’s when we said, we’re on the right path. Let’s continue and try other things.
Above: Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap came out in 2017 for consoles and PC.
Image Credit: Dotemu
GamesBeat: Do you think Wonder Boy benefited from good timing? It came out a bit after the Switch released, and it seems like people who were hungry for Switch games, it was one of the first digital titles that a lot of people flocked to.
Imbert: Yeah, we were super-lucky with the timing. But for success you always need a bit of luck. A lot of luck, I’d even say, especially in the entertainment business. Whether it’s movies, TV, music, video games, you need to have the stars align at some point. That makes the difference between a game that has good success or great success. You just need to provoke that chance and that timing, doing the best you can do. Have a good game, good communication, and then if the timing is right, if the stars are aligned, everything is there for success. Even if the stars are aligned and your game is only okay, or your communication is not really good, then it won’t work. It’s a complicated recipe.
GamesBeat: Is the Switch still your strongest platform for your releases?
Imbert: It’s definitely one of the strongest platforms, but it depends on the game. For example, Streets of Rage 4 is even between all platforms, which was quite surprising. We were thinking it would do better on console than PC, but that’s not the case. It’s pretty even everywhere. For Wonder Boy, if I remember correctly, it’s evened out over time, but at the beginning the Switch was definitely stronger. Over time it evens out across all platforms. You can find console gamers on PC and PC gamers on console now. The frontier is a bit blurry nowadays compared to what it used to be. But for other games like Pharaoh, of course that will be much more PC than console, if we ever do a console version.
GamesBeat: Are there certain franchises that fans request you guys tackle a lot?
Imbert: That’s the funny thing. When we announced and communicated and launched Streets of Rage, almost every time people were talking about Turtles in Time. And we knew — we were like, yes! We weren’t the only ones with that idea. It makes sense. But yeah, we have lots of ideas from people following our games. We sometimes do surveys on Twitter. What game would you like to see come back? Lots of Sega games of course. Shinobi. Golden Axe. Those are games that come up often. Since we announced Pharaoh lots of people are asking about Caesar or Zeus. It depends on what game we’re communicating, but usually we’re pretty much in line. When people ask us, do you think about this one? We’re like, yes, we have!
GamesBeat: Has anybody else asked about Ecco the Dolphin, or is that just me?
Imbert: No, I’ve personally asked about it myself! I asked the team and we talked about it. We didn’t go too far, because it’s a complicated project. It’s super emotional. We didn’t find the right idea so far at least.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.
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