Retro Video Game Review: Battletoads

…What? The only thing I’ve played this week that I actually finished and am in a position to talk about is Battletoads, so I figured I might as well talk about it.

OK, I imagine this game is one that speaks for itself among gamers. Released in 1991, it is regarded as one of the most difficult games ever released (especially the version on the Nintendo Entertainment System). Developed by Rare, who gamers might know for also developing games like Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie, it was a game that is considered by most to have played it to be about the closest you can get to pure pain in video game form (so, think of it as the 2D version of Dark Souls). Surprisingly, though, the game actually had sequels: 1993’s Battletoads in Battlemaniacs (which was first released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System) and Battletoads & Double Dragon (which was first released on the Nintendo Entertainment System) and 1994’s Battletoads Arcade. None of them are QUITE as difficult as the original game, from what I’ve heard, but most people who do hear about the game tend to hear about it because of the difficulty, so the sequels don’t tend to get as much notice. For the longest time, the whole franchise had only been available either through original cartridges (which can be pretty hard to get hold of, especially considering you also need a working console to play them) or through emulators (which is how I played the game, by the way), but Rare released a compilation of games last year titled Rare Replay which includes the original game and Battletoads Arcade (among a few other games) on the Xbox One, which means that you can legally get hold of the game now if you particularly want to.

So why am I reviewing this game, considering it has a reputation that speaks for itself and it is older than I am? Well, two reasons: firstly, I managed to beat the game over a long period of time (six hours of nonstop gaming isn’t exactly a small gaming session) and I figured this would be a good chance to talk about the game in proper detail through my own experience with playing the game and secondly, I hadn’t seen any free game this week which really grabbed my interest, so I had to grab whatever game I could to review…and, as I said at the start, this was the only game I finished this week.

So, what do I think of the game? Well, it definitely IS a difficult game and I certainly wouldn’t suggest playing the game if you’re put off by games which are relentlessly difficult…but, if you are willing to put the time in to learn how to play the game well, it actually becomes a surprisingly rewarding experience that is a lot more engaging than its reputation might have you believe.

Let’s get the obvious comment out of the way: yes, Battletoads is a difficult game. I had to play with the unlimited lives code on (mostly because I’m not crazy enough to try to beat the game without it on) and, even with that on, I still found some of the levels insanely difficult. Most people who have played the game would say that it gets difficult on level 3 (Turbo Tunnel), but trust me, that is actually not the hardest the game gets. I would say that the biggest challenges are actually level 10 (Rat Race) and level 11 (Clinger Winger), which took me more time in my successful playthrough to beat than the rest of the game combined (although level 8 (Intruder Excluder) and level 9 (Terra Tubes) are certainly not a walk in the park in their own right). However, most of the challenge in the game can be beaten if you memorise everything (only in Rat Race and Clinger Winger does memorising the game not help you much, as they also require huge amounts of nigh on pixel perfect maneuvering to beat them) and know the tricks for how to beat them properly (the earlier mentioned Turbo Tunnel stage is only really difficult if you aren’t sure how to handle the jumps across gaps), which means that the vast majority of the challenge of much of the game is often caused by the unfamiliarity of the stages. This doesn’t mean it’s an easy game, obviously (some of what you are asked to do IS pretty ridiculous, I’ll admit), but, once you work out the patterns to how to proceed through the game, you can feasibly breeze through a good amount of it in a short period of time with very few deaths (I can get to Intruder Excluder in less than an hour, even without taking wraps). I honestly think that this game, Comix Zone and Rayman (two other games I really like which are notorious for their difficulty) aren’t as insane on the difficulty as they seem on first glance: yes, when you’re not prepared for them, they can get hellishly difficult, but, once you know what you’re doing, they become…maybe not easy, but certainly far more manageable.

The story of the game is pretty much nonexistent, but what there is is fairly cliche: the brother of the toads and the princess are kidnapped by the villain, Dark Queen (wow, save some creativity for the rest of us, guys!) and you have to go rescue them. If you’ve played a video game more than once in the last few years, you can probably tell that this is pretty much ripped directly from whatever book video game plots seem to be lifted from when the developer can’t be bothered to come up with a highly unique story, which, in today’s gaming scene, would have the game ripped to shreds by most people. Considering this was released in 1991 and the game had to fit on a cartridge rather than a CD, however, I think it’s fair enough to grant this an exception, since full voice acting and cutscenes were pretty much unthinkable to fit into a game at the time it was released.

The graphics are actually not too bad, considering it has been about 25 years since the game was released. While there are some graphical glitches which nowadays stand out (the standout example to me is in Volkmire’s Inferno, where the developers clearly have copied the toad’s sprite from the bikes in the Turbo Tunnel and replaced it onto the jet without properly redrawing the jet underneath the toad’s legs), it actually still feels quite charming in the graphics department and you can tell that this was a product by a professional team working with technology that was very good at the time. By the standards of today’s games, it’s obviously pretty basic (I suspect there are more bits in a single character in a triple-A game today then there is in the whole of this game), but, for the time, it was actually not too bad and there’s even an awesome rotation effect on level 12 (Revolution) which makes the tower you are climbing actually rotate as you go around it!

The controls are mostly fine, but I do have my complaints. Maybe it was the emulator I was using (although I refused to change the controls, so this is arguably my fault as well), but the movement can be a bit odd with regards to dashing, as you have to double tap the direction you want to run in. Not too problematic, right? Actually, in some of the sections where you have to move rapidly (Terra Tubes and Rat Race), this can be quite frustrating, as it’s all too easy to end up walking when you meant to dash. I would definitely recommend rebinding this control if you want to play the game to have it work if you hold down a button, since it’ll reduce the hassle on the more difficult stages more than you might think. I also think that the game has too many functions attached to the attack button, as you have to use that button to pick up objects (fine most of the time, but more than capable of killing you in level 4 (Ice Caverns) if you accidentally kick an ice block when you meant to pick it up), so players who can rebind their controls might want to rebind that to a different button.

The game, considering the difficulty, is actually really varied in terms of game style. While the bulk of the game is in the beat ‘em up genre, there are vehicle stages (see the infamous Turbo Tunnel stage, as well as the surfing stage in level 5 (Surf City), the jets in Volkmire’s Inferno and…whatever the vehicles are in Clinger Winger (motorised unicycles?)) and the descent level level 2 (The Pit), all of which actually shake the game up a bit, and the nigh-on platform game styling of level 6 (Karnath’s Lair) is something that would be really good fun if it weren’t for the final room of the level being so difficult that I would actually suggest taking the warp to avoid the room ENTIRELY because of the difficulty being that bad (seriously, the only reason I can beat that room is because I know a cheap way to do it which means I skip most of the room: it’s that bad that I would actually encourage you to take the cheap way rather than play it legit!). None of this makes the game any easier, but it is still variety and I appreciate the effort!

Ultimately, I think Battletoads is a game that lives up to its reputation, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call the game impossible, just one that demands a lot from the player before they’re able to beat it. It’s not a game to play if you’re not a serious gamer by any stretch of the imagination and I certainly would say that you’re going to want to be prepared for a lot of frustration if you want to play this game…but, if you like a challenge, have a lot of spare time (especially if you don’t want to use the unlimited lives code) and are willing to spend a lot of time learning what the game throws at you, then this is worth a shot, because it is surprisingly engaging to play and the feeling you get when you finally beat it truly makes it worth it!