There is it: The sweetest 10,000 points I ever scored. So ends my first full playthrough of Battletoads: No cheats, no warps, no mercy. And I only needed one continue!
This was…a really difficult game, not just to complete, but to review. After all the hours logged practicing its twelve levels, I’m honestly torn over whether or not Battletoads is ultimately a “good” game. Overall, I really think it is, but I also think that it may not be a good experience for most people.
What can’t really be debated is that this is one of the most wildly ambitious and best presented games for the system. Battletoads came out in 1991, when the core Famicom/NES hardware was already eight years old and had been thoroughly mastered by skilled programmers. It was created by the legendary British development house Rare, who would shortly go on to debut Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and numerous other instant classics later in the decade. The graphics and music (by celebrated Rare composer David Wise) are some of the best on the system, rivalled only by a select few similarly late releases like Kirby’s Adventure. The game also has a fantastic sense of humor, with Tex Avery-inspired cartoony animations and a ludicrous plot and characters. You do play as two toad men from outer space named Rash and Zitz fighting to save a third toad man named Pimple from what appears to be a dominatrix clad in leather fetish gear after all, so embracing the stupidity fully just makes sense. I especially love how your sultry antagonist the Dark Queen will show up between every level to taunt you with horrendous puns and goofy threats that would make Skeletor proud and that she seems to have multiple bits of dialog for her chosen at random each playthrough to keep this feature from getting too stale. There are so many nice flourishes like this.
The sheer scope of the game is also impressive. Twelve levels is quite a lot for an action-platforming game of the time and you’re literally never doing the same thing twice in any of them. You’ll fight a giant robot from the robot’s point of view, rappel down a cavernous shaft, speed through deadly obstacle courses on land, sea, and in the air, climb giant snakes, have snowball fights with living snowmen, race rats to defuse bombs, and more. The action seems to take every imaginable form and scroll in every possible direction. There’s such dizzying kaleidoscope of ideas at play here that it actually verges on overwhelming at times.
It sounds like a perfect game, but as almost everyone probably knows by now, it’s also a very difficult one to complete. There are a few reasons for this. First and foremost, you don’t have unlimited continues here like you do in other difficult games like Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins. You’re guaranteed sixteen lives (four to start and four more for each of your three continues) and you can just about double this if you’re good at scoring points and grabbing the 1-Ups scattered throughout the levels. This may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. At least not until you put in the time to get really, really good. Your toad has a six point health bar, but most of your deaths in this game will come in the form of instant kills, whether from enemies (bosses and even many common foes can kill in one hit) or stage hazards like spikes, poison gas, or falls. Even the enemies that you can potentially survive hits from normally take 2-3 of your six health points per attack. Lose all your lives and it’s back to the title screen for you, and this hurts a lot more than it does in a game like Contra. A failed Contra run may cost you twenty minutes or so at most, while bombing out of a lengthy Battletoads session can easily consume the better part of an hour. Also, unlike games with less variety in the action such as Contra and Ninja Gaiden, the skills you’ll use to pass one stage in Battletoads often won’t carry over directly to the next. The core gameplay is so different for each stage that it often feels like a dozen games in one, each of which requires extensive memorization and perfect execution. These factors introduce an element of relentless psychological pressure that most other game developers shied away from. You can laugh off a death in Ninja Gaiden and just try something different next time, but every death in Battletoads feels like a real catastrophe and it takes a lot of focus to not get rattled, lose your cool, and compound it with more sloppy deaths, ending the run. This pressure just keeps on mounting as you progress further and further, too, making Battletoads a very stressful, nerve-wracking game and setting it apart from other tricky titles like the ones mentioned above. Simply put, it’s very tough for me to relax and enjoy myself with Battletoads like I can with other difficult NES games. I certainly don’t think I’ll be playing it much again anytime soon.
But is this a flaw in the game or a flaw in me? That’s really what makes this review so hard to formulate. Few other games put players under the same kind of pressure that Battletoads does and that’s really what gives it its unique identity and why we still remember, play, and discuss it today. Would a less hardcore Battletoads be a better game? I don’t think so. Better for me? Maybe, although the sheer almighty satisfaction of finally conquering it makes even that verdict uncertain. The grim struggle/cathartic triumph cycle is arguably the engine that drives retro gaming as a hobby, after all. Battletoads may push this dynamic to its practical extreme, but hell, if somebody’s got to do it, it may as well be 90s era Rare, right?
Until next time, stay mad, bad, and crazy! Ribbit.
(Originally written 5/17/2017)