This past Saturday, February 15th, 2014, I did my 2000-Follower Special for Twitch.TV. In this special, I replayed the games I did for the very first SDA marathon, Classic Games Done Quick. I elected to go through the games in alphabetical order, and Battletoads, released on the NES in 1991, and developed by Rare, was the first game in the special.
Battletoads is a parody of a parody, being made as a parody of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Which in turn had large elements parodying 1980s Daredevil comics in its original incarnation)–instead of four turtles named after Renaissance artists, the main characters are three toads named after skin conditions, and their mentor is a bird rather than a rat. Also, instead of the sewers, they live in space, on a giant bird-shaped vessel called the Vulture.
The plot of the game kicks off when Pimple, one of the ‘Toads, and Princess Angelica go for a ride in their space-convertible. Suddenly, the convertible is swallowed whole by the Gargantua, a ship stolen by the Dark Queen. It’s up to Zitz and Rash, the remaining ‘Toads, to brave the world of Ragnarok, defeat the Dark Queen, and rescue Pimple and Angelica.
This won’t be easy, though. Battletoads has a reputation for being one of the hardest games in history. While I think this reputation is a bit overblown–Snake, Rattle N Roll and Cobra Triangle are two other games that are harder, without even leaving the realm of “Rare games on the NES”–it is very challenging, in part due to cheapness as much as anything else. Particularly later on in the game, almost everything kills you in one or, at most, two hits, and dying usually means going back to a checkpoint. Run out of lives and you have to continue at the beginning of the level you were on. Oh, and did I mention that there are limited continues–and that, when playing two-player mode, you share continues? Suffice to say that this is a game that does not want you to beat it.
And just what kind of game is Battletoads? The easy answer is “A Beat-em-up”, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Battletoads comprises twelve levels, and each one is different. Some are simple beat-em-ups, others have you riding vehicles in auto-scrolling sections, still others have you climbing elevator shafts or towers. One thing about the game is that its gameplay is varied–even the “beat-em-up” levels have something to set them apart from one another–like ice physics in one level, for instance.
At this point, I should admit that 7-to-8-year-old me totally bought into the hype regarding this game. And there was a lot of hype, particularly from Nintendo Power, which in 1991 gave the game more single-issue coverage than had ever been afforded a game (Not counting strategy guides) in the magazine’s history to that point. There were previews, too, which discussed Rare holding back on the game “until it was absolutely perfect”. Clearly, lots of other people bought into the hype too–though they had made games before, Battletoads was the game that put Rare on the map as a top-notch developer and kicked off their dominance, which lasted through most of the 90s.
Does the game live up to its hype, though? Despite the difficulty, the answer is “for the most part”. Each level is unique, and while the difficulty is cheap in some places, the game somehow sunk its claws into me until I beat it, some ten years (Off and on) after I had first acquired it. If nothing else, levels one and two are fun romps where you destroy things before the difficulty skyrockets in level 3.
What Battletoads is not, at least in its US release, is particularly well-programmed. It’s very possible to softlock the game in Level 10 by just barely getting to the third bomb first, and two-player mode has an infamous bug that makes Level 11 literally impossible to complete, as player 2’s vehicle never gets up to speed and gets continually run over until player 2 runs out of lives.
Still, Battletoads has a lot of goofy charm to it, and it’s a game that’s a landmark in gaming history, establishing Rare as a force to be reckoned with. If nothing else, play the first few levels to see that charm–I won’t blame you if you quit after level 3.