In the NES era, Rare were best known for Battletoads, which put them on the map as a top-tier game developer, and has a reputation as being one of the hardest games in history. The truth is that Battletoads was one of the easier games they released on the NES. I can name, off the top of my head, three games they released on the NES that I would consider harder than Battletoads. This is one of them.
Released in 1990 by Rare (The game never got a Japanese release, it should be noted), Snake Rattle ‘N Roll came out, if Wikipedia can be trusted, partially as a programming challenge to create a game using as little space on the NES cartridge as possible. To that end, Rare decided to create an isometric game a la Marble Madness, and Snake Rattle ‘N Roll came to be. Its plot is simple. There are two snakes, Rattle (Whom you play as in 1-player mode) and Roll, who are trying to climb a mountain to board a UFO for space. Why? It’s never explained either in the game or in the manual. I guess they’re bored, like Athena, and decide to go on an adventure. Luckily, Rattle and Roll have a much better NES game than poor Athena.
Getting the snakes to space involves traveling through ten isometric platforming levels, followed by a final boss battle. Level one gets you used to the gameplay mechanics. In each level, the goal is to eat a lot. Specifically, you have to eat “Nibbley-Pibbleys”, which are dots of varying colors. Each level has a dispenser that they come out of, and as you eat them, your snake becomes longer. When you’re long enough, your tail flashes, and that’s the signal that you weigh enough to ring a bell and open the exit to the level.
Actually getting to the exits can be quite a challenge. The game follows the Rare NES formula, making the first level simple and fun, and making you want to play more. Then it drops the hammer a few levels later, ramping up the difficulty to the “I Wanna Be The Guy and Its Fangames Wish They Were This Hard” area. While in Battletoads, this infamously occurred in Level 3, the Turbo Tunnel, Snake Rattle ‘N Roll does wait a bit longer to up the challenge–Level 4 introduces a jump for which the spatial reference is out of whack with where you think it should be, plus a few obstacles that will kill you the first time you encounter them due to “knowing they’re coming” being the only way you have a chance at dodging them.
And it gets even harder from there. The isometric perspective means it’s not always logical what you have to do to make a jump–Level 5 has some jumps onto magic carpets where you have to jump farther out than it looks like you should. Worse, the game forces a “45-degree” control scheme on you, meaning pressing Right on the control pad actually moves you down and to the right. Given that most of the game scrolls diagonally, it makes sense, but it does mean you sometimes have to think about which directions to hit to make your snake go the way you want it to.
None of this, by the way, can prepare you for the last two levels of the game. Deciding that some of the cheapness of the previous levels was not enough, Rare decide that ice physics is what the game needs to kick the challenge up that extra notch. That’s not all–besides being icy, much of the terrain in these last two levels is sloped, requiring an absurd degree of control. Bluntly, nothing in Battletoads is as difficult as the second half of Level 10, and just getting to that point is absurdly hard too.
Dying in Snake Rattle ‘N Roll, thankfully, tends to put you right back where you were when you died. But you begin the game with a mere two continues. You can collect a couple more along the way, and extra lives come at a clip of about one per level, but you’ll find this is not nearly enough to get you through the game your first several tries, even with the relative non-penalty for an individual death. You’ll likely be playing for several hours to get all the way through–I’d estimate it took me about 6 hours of attempts across two sessions to beat the game. Should you feel like playing it afterward, of course, the game isn’t very long, and can be beaten in under a half hour once you get it down.
Besides the cares-not-for-your-feelings difficulty, the most interesting aspect of the game is its music. The game’s title is a pun on the song “Shake, Rattle N’ Roll”, which was a hit for several bands in the early 50s (Most notably Bill Haley and his Comets), and the title music has a striking resemblance to that song. Several other tracks in the game have an old-time rock-and-roll feel to them as well, which is an unusual direction for an NES game to take.
In spite of the sometimes cheap difficulty, especially once you get to about Level 7, Snake Rattle ‘N Roll is worth playing. The first few levels are fun, even if you don’t like tear-your-hair-out difficulty in games. The game is available used for cheap at Amazon, but it was never re-released on any kind of Virtual Console-esque service, so that’s your best chance to play it.