*Review based on Battletoads’ release as part of Rare Replay*
Battletoads is the hardest video game ever made.
That’s an often repeated statement you’ll hear around the gaming community, and it’s a hard point to argue. I can’t think of another video game that demands so many actions to be pixel perfect, or that’s so unforgiving with its level design. Battletoads is on a level all its own in the realms of video game difficulty, with a challenge so incredibly steep that only the most dedicated players will see their way past the first few levels.
To put it simply, Battletoads is one tough bastard.
But is it any good? Well, that all depends. Battletoads is certainly a game that has a lot going for it: the core gameplay is fun, the levels are full of variety, and the music by David Wise is pretty awesome, and sounds a bit like a precursor to the composer’s later work in the Donkey Kong Country series. Not to mention the game has a fun attitude that serves as a pretty funny riff on the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles.
With all that said, Battletoads is also most certainly not a game everyone will enjoy simply because it is that damn difficult. Some levels even feel downright sadistic with their demands on the player. And in what has to be the single dumbest design choice in the game, if you have two players partnering up for the adventure at hand, you can (and most definitely will) hurt each other!
Essentially, Battletoads is a beat-em-up. Players can take control of two of the three Battletoads, Rash and Zits, as they embark on a quest through deep space to defeat the sexy Dark Queen and rescue a princess as well as their kidnapped comrade Pimple (I always wondered why Rare bothered to make three Battletoads characters since one of them always seems to be on the sidelines).
Though the game primarily serves as a beat-em-up, the levels quickly find ways to add variety to the mix. The second level sees the toads traveling downwards in a cavern via ropes, while the infamous third level (the game’s first massive difficulty spike) has players riding hover vehicles through a tunnel with rapidly appearing walls (with a single crash meaning instant death). Later levels include surfing, swimming through sewers, and racing giant rats down a construction building to reach bombs (this particular level being the bane of my existence).
The sheer variety is actually pretty impressive, given the limitations of the NES. Even when Battletoads is settling in its traditional beat-em-up stages, it still provides some fun. I especially like the comical animations, which also pushed the NES’s capabilities: If you run and attack an enemy, the toads’ heads will cartoonishly turn into ram horns, and after you smack a foe into the ground, you can kick him into oblivion when your toad’s foot transforms into a giant boot.
Simply put, the gameplay, when taken on its own merits, was fun for its day. But the ridiculous difficulty will no doubt prove alienating to many players. The third stage alone will exhaust all of your lives and continues several times over. And should you somehow manage to make it to the later stages, well, good luck is all I can say.
The aforementioned sewer stage includes sections where you run from giant gears, which will instantly kill you if they get too close. But these gears are fast, and will always seem to be trailing inches behind your character, and when they start chasing you upward, you might find yourself shouting obscenities you may have forgotten you knew, because the jumps you need to make have to be one-hundred percent accurate in order to keep your momentum going and survive the gear. I wish I could say I were exaggerating, but if you’re even a split second off, you’re dead.
That’s a major issue, because Battletoads is a game that – whether due to the limitations of its day, unpolished gameplay, or both – doesn’t have the smooth sense of control required for how accurate the player has to be. The characters feel clunky and stiff in movement, which is exactly the opposite of what you need when you can’t spare even a single second in some of these stages. Battletoads simply doesn’t allow the for the precision it demands from the player.
Anyone who actually managed to conquer these levels in the game’s original NES release definitely has my respect. How they managed to master such trial-and-error after so many game overs sent them back to the start of the game, I’ll never know.
The Rare Replay release includes a neat way to avoid having to start over, however. Along with being able to save your progress at any time, Battletoads – like the other early titles included in Rare Replay – gives players the ability to rewind up to ten seconds. So while you will most assuredly die and die again, you can, at the very least, rectify most of your deaths without having to go back to a checkpoint or getting a game over. It was only with this rewind feature that I was able to complete that infamous third level. You may say that I cheated, but as far as I’m concerned, Battletoads cheated first with how long that level drags on, how fast your vehicle ends up going, and how fast walls start appearing right in front of you.
Besides, the rewinding can only help you so much. It still took me countless tries to get those jumps with the gears just right (and even then, I think I got lucky more than I had them figured out). And to be honest, the rewinding ability still hasn’t helped me conquer that dreaded Rat Race stage. Those rats run so fast that rewinding isn’t going to do much other than have you reliving the sight of a giant rat zooming past a humanoid toad over and over. Even if you manage to hit the rats (which, again, requires one-hundred percent precision), you only buy yourself less than a second’s time, since the rats move so fast that, when they hit a wall and turn back around, they’re just going to speed past you all over again.
Yes, even with the rewind feature, I still can’t beat Battletoads. Normally, I like to beat a game before I write the review, but cheat codes and level skips certainly help in seeing enough of Battletoads to write about it. I fear I might otherwise never make it past those rats.
The disappointing thing is, with a game this difficult, it was just begging to be played with two people working together to help get through it. But then Rare decided to troll gamers by making the Toads able to hit each other, which will result in countless unintentional deaths from each other on top of all the ones you are going to get from enemies and obstacles. What’s worse, the players share lives and continues, so if the players end up accidentally killing each other repeatedly, you’re going to start the whole game over. With a single player, Battletoads feels close to impossible. With two players… it might very well be.
Now we go back to the question “is Battletoads any good?” Honestly, I feel like the answer is no. For all the things it does right in gameplay, variety and music, it almost seems to want to turn players away with its frequently unreasonable challenge.