Hot on the heels of a certain turtles-themed beat ‘em up, UK-based developer Bitmap Bureau launched their own highly anticipated brawler in June: Final Vendetta. In our co-op review, we praised the game’s Neo Geo-style graphics and core gameplay but called out some balance issues that hampered our experience. Still, Final Vendetta is such an interesting game that we jumped at the chance to interview Mike Tucker, Design Director at Bitmap Bureau about the game’s influences, reception, and much more.
Co-Optimus: Thanks for sitting down with us for this clearly in-person interview. First, could you tell us a little about your experience in game development?
Mike Tucker: Hello, and thanks for having me here! [I] started out in SCi's QA department at the age of 19. I've been in the games industry some time now – 27 years, in fact. I spent three years [at SCi and] then joined IO Productions as a production assistant on a sheep herding game called Stampede. That game, sadly, got canned, so the studio immediately rebranded as "iomo" and committed fully to creating some of the earliest mobile games for the likes of Nokia. This is where I learned to program, but my real passion was for design.
Some years later, I teamed up with a couple of colleagues to form Megadev, a new studio dedicated to creating high quality Flash games, which then led to a collaboration with Adult Swim and the creation of our first Steam title: the highly successful Super House of Dead Ninjas.
I learned a great deal in the Megadev years, but eventually, the four of us went our separate ways. Fortunately, I was then able to team up with my old colleague, Matthew Cope, to form Bitmap Bureau, an independent game development studio dedicated to creating 2D arcade titles for new and retro hardware.
Co-Optimus: That’s quite a history! I’d love to see Stampede brought back to life someday. Getting back on topic, what are your thoughts on the enduring popularity of the beat 'em up genre?
Mike Tucker: I think that great game design is timeless, so it was no surprise to see the beat 'em up genre make a comeback. It's not an easy genre to tackle, though, with the main stumbling block being the huge amount of art that needs to be created. It's encouraging to see the genre enjoying such a resurgence, though, and I'm sure we'll create a sequel to Final Vendetta one day too.
Co-Optimus: Glad to hear it! Bitmap Bureau and Numskull recently released Final Vendetta on consoles and PC. Can you give us a brief history of the game’s development?
Mike Tucker: I'd been wanting to make a beat 'em up for many years. It was only in 2020 that it started to become a reality after we came across a hugely talented sprite artist, Jabir Grant. He had the ability and drive to design and animate the game's cast of characters.
Also, with our recent experience of developing and releasing Xeno Crisis for the Neo Geo systems [and later porting it to other platforms], we wanted to follow that up with a title developed specifically with the Neo Geo in mind. A beat 'em up felt like the perfect genre to tackle, particularly with there being so few beat 'em ups on the system.
Co-Optimus: Final Vendetta shares some similarities with Final Fight, one of the most influential beat ‘em ups of yesteryear. Did any other classic beat ‘em ups influence your game’s design?
Mike Tucker: Final Fight is still my favorite beat 'em-up of all time, although the Streets of Rage series certainly did a lot for the genre. Final Vendetta blends elements of both but also features certain elements from other games in the genre such as Konami's Crime Fighters series, Double Dragon, Target Renegade, Super Street Fighter II Turbo [a fighting game – ed.], and, no doubt many others!
Target: Renegade (NES version, image source: Moby Games)
Co-Optimus: Since you mentioned Crime Fighters, let me ask about titles. Final Vendetta’s title is evocative of the second game in Konami’s Crime Fighters series, the 1991 beat ‘em up, Vendetta. Is the title a deliberate reference to the original Vendetta brawler?
Mike Tucker: I guess so! There’s been a few games titled “Vendetta” over the years, though, and it was actually the working title for the project. We were about half-way through the project when we settled on “Final Vendetta,” which might not lend itself very well to the naming of a potential sequel, although Square-Enix and Capcom have gotten away with it until now!
Vendetta from Konami
Co-Optimus: The element that most attracted me to Final Vendetta is its pixel art, which is quite distinct from other modern games in the genre. Can you tell us about the art style and character designs?
Mike Tucker: All of the sprite art and most of the character designs were handled by our artist, Jabir, who did an incredible job creating so many frames of animation in the time he had available. We also had Eva Wang design several of the enemy characters. We didn’t want to get too elaborate or wacky with the designs, but we did have fun with some of them for sure. And the art style is hopefully in keeping with classic Neo Geo games!
Co-Optimus: Another one of Final Vendetta’s high points is its soundtrack. Which artists contributed to the soundtrack, and how did your collaboration with them come about?
Mike Tucker: The majority of the soundtrack was written by Featurecast (Lee James) who’s actually a good friend of ours. We got to know him through his wife, who happened to work in the office next to us. Lee’s an amazing DJ and producer. [He] initially helped us by mastering the Xeno Crisis soundtrack, and then creating the sound effects for Battle Axe.
When the notion of developing a side-scrolling beat ‘em-up was put forward, Lee was the perfect candidate given his production skills and love of Streets of Rage. Lee also happened to be good friends with the Utah Saints and Krafty Kuts, who were both keen to contribute to the soundtrack. It’s fair to say that we’ve all been blown away by their efforts!
Co-Optimus: Those artists did fine work, alright. Do you have plans to release the soundtrack on digital services like Amazon and iTunes?
Mike Tucker: It’s actually available now to stream on Spotify, and I’ve been told that it should also be on iTunes [and Amazon] by now! [We still can’t find the album on iTunes, but we assume that it should be releasing soon. -ed.]
Co-Optimus: If I may be critical for a moment, what’s the deal with the pigeon sound effects in the first level? Their shrieks are the stuff of nightmares. ;)
Mike Tucker: Well, we couldn’t have a game based in London that didn’t have pigeons in it. Perhaps we’ll have to create a no-pigeon DLC!
Co-Optimus: How does scoring work in Final Vendetta? My co-op partner and I usually get an A- or S-Rank on the first stage, but then we rank much lower on subsequent stages.
Mike Tucker: The rankings are largely based on the number of times you got knocked to the floor on a level, but you can increase your rank with a fast time and a chain of 200 or more. This has been made more lenient with the latest patch!
Co-Optimus: Thanks for clarifying that. Speaking of combos, can you tell us about your goals with the various fighting mechanics?
Mike Tucker: I think that Capcom, Sega, and Konami really set the benchmark for beat ‘em ups. We’ve tried to recreate the feel of their classic games but also added move cancelling, buffering, combos, dodging, blocking, and juggling to give players plenty of options in combat. We’ve already seen some amazing combos and juggles posted to Twitter!
Co-Optimus: While we’re talking about combat, gamers currently have to complete the game to unlock the training mode, which is counterintuitive. Why not allow players to train from the start?
Mike Tucker: This was originally added as a mode to aid with testing, but we thought we’d include it in the release version too. We didn’t want to spoil the experience of encountering the various enemies and bosses for the first time, though. We also thought that it would appeal more to hardcore players looking to perfect the game, which was why it was initially locked until you’d completed Arcade Mode. Following a load of feedback, we unlocked it in the first patch, [which] is now available on Steam and will be available on consoles shortly.
Co-Optimus: Final Vendetta supports 2-player local co-op. Does bringing a second player along increase the enemy count or anything like that, and are there any co-op tricks we should know about?
Mike Tucker: There’s a few points where you’ll face more enemies if both players are still alive, and there’s certainly some crazy combos that can be performed with two players - I think we’re yet to see the full potential of that!
Co-Optimus: Let’s talk about difficulty. Some players (like me) find it frustrating to have to replay the more approachable early stages just to reach the parts we’re having trouble with. Why not let gamers continue so that we can retry the parts we’re struggling on rather than going through the whole thing again each time?
Mike Tucker: We added a casual difficulty setting soon after release which does indeed let you continue indefinitely, and there’s also a hidden cheat menu which lets you choose your starting stage. We might move this into the options menu [in] a future update. But the bottom line is that Final Vendetta is not an easy beat ‘em up. I grew up playing video games in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so I expect (or rather hope) to be challenged when playing a game, and our games reflect that too - you’ll need to spend some time learning the game’s techniques, enemy behaviors, etc. to have a good chance of completing it.
However, we’re learning that there’s a large number of players… who don’t want that kind of challenge, so, from this point on, we’ll be adding difficulty settings and menu options to make their [lives] easier. Those players who still enjoy a challenge and don’t mind putting in a bit of time learning our games will, hopefully, come away feeling some sense of accomplishment, though.
Co-Optimus: While we’re discussing challenge, can you give any advice for avoiding the swinging traps in Stage 4? It seems like no matter what I do, I usually get hit by each one.
Mike Tucker: I just use the vertical dodge move (double-tap up or down) to avoid these. Your timing needs to be fairly decent, though.
Co-Optimus: Two weeks before Final Vendetta’s release, Dotemu announced that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge would be launching the day before your game. That must have put you guys in a tough spot. Did you discuss pushing your release date back?
Mike Tucker: No, not at all. It didn’t faze me at all, to be honest. I think Numskull were probably more annoyed than me! Perhaps it was just a coincidence. If not, then I’m very flattered, although with such a huge franchise and development team behind the game, I don’t think they should ever have had any cause for concern. I think Final Vendetta offers something quite different to TMNT (from what I’ve heard), and many beat ‘em up fans have picked up both.
Co-Optimus: That’s a good attitude! Of course, launch doesn’t have to be the only time a game gets noticed nowadays. Now that Final Vendetta is out in the wild, do you have any plans for title updates or downloadable content in the future?
Mike Tucker: We’ve already released a couple of patches for the Steam version which have gone down very well, helping to balance the game further, fix a few bugs, and also cater [to] more casual players. Currently, there’s a lot of demand for the boxer enemy (Karen) to be made into a playable character. I’d love to do that and perhaps offer it as free DLC, but it would involve quite a bit of work. We’re constantly being asked to make a sequel too, and we certainly have a load of ideas for that!
Co-Optimus: Vendetta-ly, I mean finally, is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Final Vendetta?
Mike Tucker: I’ve always described Final Vendetta as something of a thinking person’s beat ‘em up, and you might be a bit shocked when you first play it. There’s quite a lot to learn in terms of each of the playable characters’ movesets and enemy behaviors, but please stick with it… The combat is a lot of fun and will strike a chord with fans of Final Fight and Streets of Rage in particular. We’ll be back one day with a sequel when time allows!