It’s time to feel old, because today is the twentieth anniversary of the original Xbox console and, by extension, the entire Xbox brand!
Released in North America on November 15th 2001, Microsoft’s Xbox was the first major console created by a North American company since the Atari Jaguar (remember that thing?). At the time, many people wondered how the Xbox would fare against the competition. Industry mainstay Nintendo was releasing the GameCube around the same time, and Sony’s white hot Playstation 2 had been out for a year by that point.
Thankfully, at least one game ensured the Xbox would be a major player in the video game world.
Yes, the Xbox had plenty of great games (my personal favorite being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath), but it was Halo that proved, right out of the gate, that Xbox was a force to be reckoned with, and that it was here to stay.
Though Xbox couldn’t match the sales numbers of the Playstation 2, it left an indelible mark in video games, even popularizing online multiplayer on home consoles with (what else?) Halo 2.
In twenty years, we’ve gone from the original Xbox to the excellent Xbox 360 to the Xbox One to the oddly-named Xbox Series X/Series S (not to be confused with the Xbox One remodels called Xbox One S and Xbox One X…which people have confused it for so why did they call it that?!). Over those two decades, Xbox has provided countless memories of fun and excitement to players the world over. The Xbox legacy has provided so much joy to people, that we can all forgive the fact that its original controller was basically a brick with buttons on it. Seriously, why was that thing so huge?!
*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD*
“And now for something completely different.”
That Monty Python quote may be a tad overused, but it’s certainly a fitting way to introduce Stranger’s Wrath, which has to be the odd man out of the Oddworld series, and I mean that in the best possible way.
After Munch’s Oddysee – the second installment in the originally planned five-part “quintology” of Oddworld titles – failed to meet its creators’ vision, in addition to having a disappointing reception from critics and fans alike, developer Oddworld Inhabitants hit the pause button on the Quintology and decided to make a whole new kind of Oddworld game. Unlike the previous “bonus game” in the series, Abe’s Exoddus, this new title wasn’t to be a more polished version of an established formula (though there was some talk of a Munch’s Exoddus back in the day), instead, this new Oddworld entry would be unlike anything that came before it. This game would end up being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, a title whose bold ambitions and deviations from series’ tradition paid off in spades.
Originally released on the Xbox in 2005, Stranger’s Wrath was, like Abe’s Exoddus before it, quietly one of the best titles on its console (and I’d argue it’s whole console generation). Stranger’s Wrath became a surprise critical hit and quickly gained cult classic status. Though poor sales numbers and falling outs with publishers saw Oddworld Inhabitants leave the video game industry for near of a decade shortly after the game’s release. It’s a crying shame. Though Oddworld has reemerged in recent times, you can’t help but wonder of all the possibilities the series missed out on during those silent years, especially after Stranger’s Wrath pulled away the curtain and proved Oddworld was a series that could go seemingly anywhere.
After having created unlikely heroes in both Abe and Munch – characters who were incapable of defending themselves but could find other ways to overcome enemies and obstacles – Oddworld Inhabitants decided to make their third protagonist a stark contrast to his predecessors: The titular “Stranger” of Stranger’s Wrath has a face like a lion, and arms like a gorilla (making him the first mammalian creature in Oddworld, unless the Fuzzles from Munch’s Oddysee count). To cap it off, he’s a badass bounty hunter carved from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Suffice to say, the Stranger is pretty far removed from Munch.
Although Stranger’s Wrath takes place on the same continent of Oddworld as the previous entries in the series, it’s in an area untouched by the industries of the Glukkons (the series’ usual antagonists), being largely underdeveloped and reminiscent of the wild west. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s ever been confirmed if Stranger’s Wrath takes place around the same timeframe as the other Oddworld games, or if its events occur sometime in Oddworld’s past.
You’ve probably deduced by now that Stranger’s Wrath is a western. As stated, the Stranger is a mysterious, no-nonsense bounty hunter, drifting from town to town bagging outlaws for precious Moolah (the currency of Oddworld). Though Stranger’s quest for cash isn’t all about greed, as he requires a hefty sum to pay for a life-saving operation, giving the character a vulnerability that makes this lion-gorilla more human.
It’s not just Stranger and his place in Oddworld that differentiates Stranger’s Wrath from the previous Oddworld titles, but it’s also very different as a game. Whereas Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus were 2D puzzle-platformers, and Munch’s Oddysee attempted to translate that into 3D (while introducing several original ideas that, sadly, didn’t quite pan out), Stranger’s Wrath combines a first-person shooter with a third-person action-adventure.
Given the game’s time of release deep into the Xbox/PS2/GameCube generation – something of a creative dark age for gaming in which concepts like color were frowned upon for being “too kiddy” – the changes Stranger’s Wrath made to Oddworld may have damaged the series under less talented hands (need we remember how Jak & Daxter tried to be more “edgy and mature” with its sequels, which now just seems like laughable conformity in retrospect). Thankfully, the creativity of Oddworld Inhabitants is still at play here, and arguably at its best. Somehow, Stranger’s unlikely marriage of genres works seamlessly at the press of a button.
If the Stranger has anything in common with Oddworld’s past heroes, it’s in his disdain for guns. Putting an Oddworld twist on the first-person shooter, Stranger is equipped with a crossbow over his right arm, which doesn’t shoot bolts or arrows at enemies, but the various little critters scattered about Oddworld, humorously referred to as “live ammunition.”
When in first-person mode, the player can equip two forms of ammo onto Stranger’s crossbow at a time (one on the left, one on the right). There are eight primary types of this live ammunition, giving players a lot of options and combinations as to how they want to tackle a situation: Zapflies are electrically-charged fireflies that can be shot in quick succession or be given a short time to charge up and do some real damage or knock out electrical devices. Chippunks are foul-mouthed little rodents who will lure an enemy away from a group with its insults (the bad guys can’t wait to step on them). Bolamites are spiders that wrap enemies in their webbing for a short time. Fuzzles – returning from Munch’s Oddysee – can be fired directly onto enemies or planted as a trap, and provide continuous damage with their ferocious bite. Thudslugs are heavy, beetle-like creatures that can knock an enemy out with one well-aimed shot. Stunks are like skunk versions of chippunks, leaving a terrible smell where they land, causing the bad guys to vomit and making them easy pickings for Stranger. Stingbees, which come in massive quantities, are fired like a machine gun. Finally, Boombats, as their name bluntly suggests, are bats that explode.
What Oddworld Inhabitants managed to successfully do with the live ammunition concept is create a variety of well-defined weapons that each have a distinct role, and will all come in handy at one point or another. Though different ammo types are better for certain situations, none of them ever come across as a pointless addition.
Bad guys are worth more Moolah if they’re captured alive, but there’s also nothing stopping Stranger from taking them out of the picture altogether. Some ammo types are better suited to incapacitating enemies (like Stunks or Bolamites), whereas others are more lethal (Stingbees, Boombats and Fuzzles). After an enemy is downed or killed, Stranger can use a vacuum like device on his crossbow to suck them up to collect the bounty (a mechanic I have to applaud. So many story-focused games are so concerned about something being “too video game-y” as to not fit in with their narrative, so it’s great to see games like Stranger’s Wrath not feel embarrassed to embrace a more convenient video game element to go with their story). Personally speaking, my favorite is the Chippunk/Stunks combo, luring in an enemy with the former then using the latter to capture said foe whilst they puke.
The boss outlaws are trickier, having both a health bar and a stamina meter. If you want to bag a boss alive, you have to find the best way to deplete their stamina, which is different depending on the boss. The only setback to this is it’s rarely apparent what a particular boss’s weakness is, and if you’re out of that particular ammo by the time you get to the boss, you don’t always have an opportunity to get more of that specific ammo during a boss. It isn’t a huge drawback, but it is a little bothersome to not know ahead of time if you’re trying to bag the boss alive for more Moolah.
Stranger finds more ammunition by coming across the nests of each respective creature, knocking them out and collecting them. The exception are the zapflies, of which Stranger has unlimited ammo. This might be my only critique with the live ammunition. While it makes sense from a gameplay perspective that Stranger needs one type of unlimited ammo so that he always has a means to collect more, I think the zapflies are a little too good to be the one that comes without limits. The other ammo types (other than Stingbees) are in short supply, with Stranger holding a max of about ten to fifteen shots apiece (though you can buy upgrades for more ammo). So it seems a little overpowered that the ammo you can charge up for a stronger shot is the one you can’t run out of.
The first-person aspect is only half of the equation, of course. Players can also swap to third-person to use melee attacks and run faster (with Stranger going beast-mode and running on all fours at top speed). Like the bosses, Stranger also has a stamina bar, which is used for the melee attacks and, interestingly, to heal. Instead of finding health around the place, the player simply needs to hold a button for Stranger to “shake off” the damage at the expense of stamina. That may sound like another overpowered element, but you’d be surprised how many times you can still manage to bite the bullet as you wait for your stamina to replenish during a gunfight.
Like Abe and Munch, Stranger can communicate with NPCs. Due to the game’s heavier focus on action, “gamespeak” has been streamlined to a single button, with Stranger simply asking what he needs to for information (or to remind the player what they’re supposed to be doing, if there’s no NPC present).
The structure of the game is simple enough. Go to the bounty store, accept a job, head out to find your target, take out his gang and eventually the boss himself (usually cumulating in a big shootout with the boss and his gang, or a more traditional boss fight). After you’ve exhausted a town of its outlaws, you move onto the next and do the same. Sometimes, you’ll even have an option as to which job you want to take at which time. And just before the formula might start to feel repetitious, the game throws a huge curveball at the player, and though the core gameplay remains intact, the structure changes drastically.
I won’t give away any spoilers, but you could say that Stranger’s Wrath is divided into three acts: Act one comprises of the first two towns and their bounties. The second act is the third town, where the game gets considerably bigger. And act three comprises of everything post-shift.
Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but it should be noted that the twist the game takes has been a talking point ever since the game’s 2005 release. Some love it as an all-time great gaming twist that benefits the story of Stranger’s Wrath, while others feel the game becomes far more linear after the twist. While I can understand the complaints of the latter category, and may even personally prefer the more game-focused first two acts as opposed to the story-based third, I find myself siding more with the more positive outlook of the twist. So many games want to be everything (a trend that started in the generation of Stranger’s Wrath, which saw the rise of Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls, and has only become more extreme in the years since), but they end up lacking a definitive purpose. It’s refreshing to come across a title like Stranger’s Wrath that knows exactly what it wants to be, and executes it so well.
Though I will admit I have two issues with the game’s post-twist timeframe: the first is that (again, without spoiling anything), it becomes much easier to get a hold of more ammo, which takes away some of the uniqueness that hunting it down has in the earlier parts of the game. The second is that each of the Live Ammunition types (save the Zapflies) get an upgrade during this section. That may sound cool, but the issue I have is that I kind of like the functions of some of the un-upgraded ammo better, but once it gets the upgrade, you can’t switch it back. Given the direction the game goes, these changes make sense. But it would be nice to have the option to use the tools at play the same way you did up to that point.
Though it may be something of a shooter, I actually think the best game to compare Stranger’s Wrath to would be another beloved 2005 title: Shadow of the Colossus.
Like Colossus, Stranger is a story-driven game in which the game drives the story. Some may complain that these titles are “too linear” or that “they don’t have enough for the player to do other than the main objectives.” But to complain about such things is kind of missing the point of these types of games. While today, we have the dreaded “walking simulator” (first-person games with minimal gameplay in which the player simply walks through the story), Stranger, like Colossus, tells its story through a game. Perhaps it’s not quite on the same level of “a story only a video game could tell” as something like Undertale. But like Colossus, Stranger is the combination of gameplay and narrative done right.
It’s impressive how Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath both deviates away from the series’ past while also somehow managing to fit right in to their established world. The only returning creatures of Oddworld’s past are the aforementioned Fuzzles, and the doctor who plans to perform Stranger’s operation, who is a member of the Vykker species introduced in Munch’s Oddysee. There’s not so much as a mention of Mudokons, Glukkons or Sligs. The townsfolk are all featherless chicken people called Clakkers, while a tribe of natives, salamander-like creatures called Grubbs, also show up. Meanwhile, the outlaws Stranger hunts down are an assortment of goblins, dinosaurs and slugs (their specific species are still unnamed, though it’s pretty cool how the game utilizes a consistent batch of creature designs for a varied assortment of baddies). It’s the right kind of franchise reinvention, which of course makes the series’ extended absence after Stranger’s release all the more heartbreaking.
There are a couple of areas in which Stranger’s Wrath may show a bit of age. Namely, the jumping definitely feels very “mid-2000s action game” in that it feels a little slow and awkward. This can make some moments that implement a bit of platforming feel a bit less than ideal. It should also be noted that there are some technical issues with the game, particularly in the Steam release I played for this review (the achievements are notably buggy in this version, but I suppose that’s only an issue if you’re really into those kinds of things). There were also a few graphical errors during some in-game cinematics (I actually beat the game twice ahead of this review, and while most of these graphical hiccups only showed up in one playthrough or the other, one particularly funny moment happened during both).
I used an Xbox One controller for my playthroughs, and it has to be said that whatever the default controller settings are on Steam for Stranger’s Wrath are dumbfounding. I admit I was worried for a brief moment that maybe Stranger was always just a mess a to control, and the game itself didn’t live up to my memories of it. Thankfully, a quick internet search gave me the instructions I needed to reconfigure the control setup to feel more like it original release, putting my concerns to rest. Stranger’s Wrath has also been made available for the Playstation 3 and, most recently, Nintendo Switch. I’ve heard the PS3 version lacks the technical bugs of the Steam version, and I’m assuming the Switch version follows suite. So those might be more ideal ways to play Stranger’s Wrath today, but none of the bugs found in the Steam version interfere with gameplay in the way those of Munch’s Oddysee did. So if you reconfigure the control setup for the Steam version it’s still plenty playable.
And play it you should! Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, like Shadow of the Colossus, is one of those games that quietly received praise for its originality, but went under the radar in its initial release. Whereas Shadow of the Colossus eventually went from being recognized as a cult classic into an all-time great, Stranger’s Wrath has unfortunately never broken through that glass ceiling that Oddworld has sadly been under since day one. In a more perfect world, Stranger’s Wrath would have ascended right alongside Shadow of the Colossus. Here’s hoping that one of these re-releases will eventually see Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath takes its place on the pedestal it’s always deserved.
*Review based on the updated Steam release of Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee*
The Oddworld series has had a turbulent development history. Originally envisioned as a five-part “Quintology,” the series quickly expanded to include “bonus games,” after the success of the first entry in the series, Abe’s Oddysee, lead to the development of an unplanned direct follow-up, Abe’s Exoddus. The second “proper” installment in the Quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, would then see a number of road bumps in its own development. Originally planned as a Playstation 2 exclusive, all the work developer Oddworld Inhabitants made for that version of Munch went out the window and had to be rebuilt from the ground up when the game transitioned to the Xbox. And with the pressure of releasing Munch’s Oddysee as a launch title for Microsoft’s then-new home console, many of the ideas and concepts series creator Lorne Lanning and company had for Munch had to be trimmed down, cut short, or removed entirely.
It should be no surprise that Munch’s Oddysee is widely accepted as the worst entry in the series by both fans and critics then. Even Lorne Lanning has publicly expressed his disappointment with the finished product on numerous occasions. Munch’s reception would shift Oddworld Inhabitants’ focus onto a bonus game once again, as the next Oddworld entry, Stranger’s Wrath, was created with the intention of separating itself from Munch’s Oddysee as much as possible.
That was the end of the line for Oddworld for a good while. The series would end up having more cancelled and unrealized games than it did actual releases. Squeek’s Oddysee, the planned third entry in the Quintology, was never released, nor were multiplayer title The Hand of Odd or the spiritual sequel to Stranger’s Wrath, The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot. It wasn’t until 2014 with the release of Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty – a remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee – that the series would return. At that point, Oddworld Inhabitants chose to reboot the series, using the remake as a launching pad to start things over. 2021 will see the release of SoulStorm, a “complete re-imagining” of Abe’s Exoddus which is now being reworked as the second installment of the Quintology, effectively making Munch’s Oddysee completely non-canon (Stranger has hopefully escaped this fate, given how little it had to do with the previous games anyway).
It probably didn’t help the game’s reputation when the four Oddworld titles were bundled together on Steam in 2010, with the port of Munch suffering from so many bugs and glitches that it continued to receive patches and updates all the way into 2016.
Playing Munch’s Oddysee today, twenty years after it debuted alongside the original XBox in 2001, its shortcomings have only been magnified. It’s a shame, because in terms of ideas, Munch’s Oddysee has no shortage of creativity. But it’s now more obvious than ever at how all these ideas were only partly realized. The sacrifices made in its development make Munch’s Oddysee feel like a series of missed opportunities and lost potential.
The titular Munch of the game is a Gabbit, an amphibious creature with a large head and a single leg. Actually, Munch is believed to be the very last Gabbit, as the species became popular hunting game for their eggs (considered a delicacy by the Glukkons, Oddworld’s dominant species of businessmen), and for their powerful lungs, which are compatible with most of Oddworld’s other species (with Glukkons being such heavy smokers, Gabbit lungs come in handy). Gabbits were also used for experimentations by Vykkers (who are under Glukkons but above most other creatures in the Oddworld pecking order, filling the roles of scientists and doctors).
Unfortunately for Munch, he ends up kidnapped by a couple of Vykkers, who perform a series of experiments on the poor Gabbit, installing a sonar device onto his head. Munch manages to escape the lab with the help of the Fuzzles – small, round creatures that look like fuzzy versions of those old chicken McNuggets characters – another popular subject of Vykker experimentation.
Meanwhile, original Oddworld hero Abe returns, being instructed by a being known as “The Almighty Raisin” to find the last Gabbit. With the help of Munch, Abe can rescue more of his enslaved Mudokon brothers. And with Abe’s help, Munch might just be able to track down the last known can of “Gabbiar” (Gabbit eggs), and save his species from extinction.
Munch’s Oddysee obviously continues the series’ environmental themes, but it’s pretty apparent early on that much of the story didn’t make it into the final game, with a number of plot elements feeling rushed or forgotten. The plot also gets a little silly later on, with Abe and Munch trying to make a particularly “lazy and incompetent Glukkon” wealthy, so that Abe can use his telepathy on said Glukkon to win the Gabbit eggs at an auction (why Abe and Munch can’t just sneak into the auction and possess whoever happened to win it is a detail that maybe needed some explanation).
It seems Munch’s Oddysee fully embraces the more comical and cartoonish aspects of Oddworld, which isn’t a bad thing in an of itself, but it’s a bit sad to see the series’ darker and more gruesome elements disappear, as it’s that combination of grimness and cartoonish antics that help make Oddworld feel so unique. Even the environments look brighter and more colorful than in Abe’s solo outings.
Whereas the “Abe” titles were 2D puzzle-platformers, Munch’s Oddysee took things into the 3D platformer route. Perhaps the shift to 3D was another hurdle for Oddworld Inhabitants (aside from Nintendo with Super Mario 64, can you name a developer who got 3D right in their first go?), though credit where it’s due, Munch’s Oddysee had some innovative ideas for the genre that still feel unique all these years later.
Notably, both Abe and Munch are distinct characters not just in appearance, but in gameplay as well. Abe can move faster and jump higher on land, but is unable to swim. Meanwhile, Munch may be slower by default, but he can find wheelchairs to move faster, and is a capable swimmer to boot. Abe can once again possess enemies, while Munch – using the sonar device in his head – can hack into machines to control them. Abe still communicates with his fellow Mudokons, with the native Mudokons becoming soldiers that can go into battle in place of the defenseless Abe, and can even be upgraded to have melee and ranged weapons (giving the game a light RTS twist). Munch, meanwhile, can free Fuzzles from their cages, and can similarly command the vicious creatures against enemies.
I love all of the gameplay ideas in concept. Sadly, none of them feel like they reach their full potential. What’s even worse is that, despite being Munch’s game, he definitely feels like he gets the short end of the stick between the playable duo.
Due to the shift in 3D, Abe’s chanting now works differently here, requiring the use of “Spooce Shrubs” to produce a telepathic light, which the player then controls until it finds an enemy or runs out of time (you can use up to 10 Spooce to make the light last longer). Not only is the Spooce found everywhere, but Abe can instantly regrow a shrub after picking it up, which Munch can’t do. And even though there are still moments that prevent Abe from chanting, there are far more opportunities for him to possess enemies than there are for Munch to hack into machines, which only happens on a few occasions. There are even more than a few moments where you can cheese your way through a stage by using Abe’s possession abilities to clear an area of its foes, instead of working through the level the way I think it was intended given the layout (I can’t help but feel Oddworld Inhabitants intended to include the drones that prevent Abe’s chanting in these segments, but just forgot to include them).
There are also more levels that include Mudokon soldiers than Fuzzles, and as stated, you can upgrade the Mudokons (once again using Spooce), but the Fuzzles lack variety or advancements. The Fuzzles also have trouble keeping up with Munch when he’s on his wheelchair, nor can they follow him into the water, effectively making his soldiers much less useful than Abe’s, on top of already being less interesting.
It’s things like this that make Munch feel underdeveloped from a gameplay standpoint. He’s a cute little fella (well, as cute as anything in Oddworld could possibly be, anyway), but I feel like Oddworld Inhabitants could have done the character better had they settled on one idea for him, like his preference for water. If Munch had some kind of aquatic soldiers and had water-based puzzles to solve, his gameplay would probably feel a lot more fleshed out. The developers should have leaned into the idea of Munch’s amphibian nature, instead of throwing in the sonar device and hacking and Fuzzles. Munch is a Jack of all trades, but a master of none, whereas Abe’s gameplay is more concrete (albeit his jumping feels pretty awkward this time around). As a result, Munch feels like the sidekick of his own game.
Of course, the concept of “too many ideas and not knowing what to do with them” kind of sums up Munch’s Oddysee as a whole. Abe’s Exoddus also had a rushed development, but because Oddworld Inhabitants knew what it was (a bigger, better sequel to Abe’s Oddysee), the end result was fantastic. Munch’s Oddysee feels like Lorne Lanning and company had a lot of ideas for the game, but didn’t settle on any one of them by the time development was pressured into meeting the XBox’s launch.
I can’t help but feel the way to go for Munch’s Oddysee was to build on the “3D platformer meets RTS” aspect (with Abe on land and Munch in water). The game just isn’t nearly as interesting in the levels that are absent of the Mudokon and Fuzzle soldiers. It tries to implement puzzles like in Abe’s titles, but these puzzles quickly become repetitious. One notably lackluster stage is literally just Abe doing some platforming to reach switches to open doors so Munch can pass through repeatedly. Another requires Abe to possess a “Big Bro Slig” to take out the other Slig soldiers in the stage, without informing the player that the Sligs in this particular stage respawn numerous times, and you have to exhaust their respawns in order to make things safe for Abe and Munch. That’s just tedious and cryptic.
There are other examples of shortcuts and cut corners taken: Paramites and Scrabs reappear for one level apiece, but they feel like token appearances this time around, instead of part of Oddworld’s unique setting (they even act identical in this game, further devaluing their appearance). Even the stages and their progression feel unfinished, with levels ending simply by having Abe and Munch stand on pads with their faces on them, which takes players directly into a loading screen and then immediately throwing them into the next stage (I have nothing against linear structures in games, but surely a world map at the very least would make the game feel far less fragmented).
Despite the years of fixes and patches the PC version of Munch’s Oddysee went through, I still experienced some notable bugs during my playthrough for this review. Three in particular stood out: the camera in the game is already more than a little messy, but when it was meant to focus on a particular object for a key moment in a stage (like unlocking a door after solving a puzzle), it would seemingly lose all control before only kind of focusing on the intended object. The second involved possessing enemies, as the ball of light that Abe conjures when he chants would sometimes (not all the time, but sometimes) only move when jumping. Finally, the most confusing bug involved the run button. Normally Abe and Munch just walk when using the control stick, and you need to hold a button to make them run. But in some stages, it was the opposite, and the characters ran by default, and walked when I held the run button.
Whether or not bugs such as those were present in the original Xbox release, I can’t remember. Either Munch’s Oddysee was always a much more technically flawed game than I remembered, or the PC port is still a mess after years of fixes. Either way, it doesn’t help the game’s reputation as the low point in the Oddworld series.
I love Oddworld. It’s one of gaming’s most unique settings, as interesting as its creatures are ugly. And it delved into deeper lore and worldbuilding long before that became commonplace in popular culture. But it’s also a series whose creative ambitions have often been out of reach for what its developers could realistically achieve (and what its publishers were willing to do). That’s evidenced by the unfinished nature of the original Quintology, and the numerous cancelled games besides. But it’s perhaps epitomized through Munch’s Oddysee, a game chock-full of brilliant concepts that end up haphazardly realized.
With my recent overhaul of Wizard Dojo (with a new overall look and new scoring system), I figured I’d ring in this new era of Wizard Dojo-ing with a revised version of the very first ‘top list’ I ever posted here at the Dojo; Top Video Game Launch Titles!
The first time around, I listed five games, plus some runners-up. This time around, I’m upping things to a top 10!
Video game consoles are defined by their best games. Sometimes, a console doesn’t have to wait very long to receive its first masterpiece, with a number of consoles getting one of their definitive games right out the gate. Although it used to be more commonplace for a console to receive a launch title that would go down as one of its best games, the idea of a killer launch title is becoming a rarer occurrence in gaming.
Still, launch games have more than left their mark on the industry. Here are, in my opinion, the 10 most significant video games to have launched their console.
*Review based on Banjo-Kazooie’s release as part of Rare Replay*
In the wake of Super Mario 64 came a new kind of platformer. Differing from the 2D sidescrollers of the past and earlier, more linear 3D platformers such as Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario 64 ushered in a more open-world style for the genre, one that had a greater focus on collecting specific key items at the player’s own leisure, as opposed to simply making it to the end of a stage. Of all the ‘collect-a-thon’ 3D platformers that were born in Super Mario 64’s wake, there’s perhaps no more beloved example of this sub-genre than Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie.
Released in 1998 – a mere two years after Mario took his revolutionary first steps into the third-dimension – Rare sought to accomplish the seemingly impossible, and beat Mario at his own game. Rare’s bear and bird duo nearly pulled off that feat, delivering one of the N64’s best offerings, and one of the few games for the console that’s still a whole lot of fun to play today.
In Banjo-Kazooie, players take control of the titular duo: Banjo, the lazy honey bear, and Kazooie, the sarcastic bird who lives in Banjo’s backpack. The player primarily controls Banjo for movement, with Kazooie boasting most of the special abilities.
The story is simple stuff, with an evil witch named Gruntilda kidnapping Banjo’s younger sister Tooty in an attempt to steal her beauty. Unfortunately for Gruntilda, her henchman Klungo is a bit of a bungler, and his beauty-extracting machine is on the fritz, giving Banjo and Kazooie ample time to set off to Gruntilda’s Lair on a rescue mission. It’s your typical damsel in distress plot, but the game’s consistently charming characters and often hilarious dialogue make it a unique adventure.
Speaking of dialogue, Banjo-Kazooie’s “garbled speech” is one of its most iconic attributes, with each character having their own distinct gibberish noises playing over dialogue instead of any kind of traditional voiceovers. Some of these “voices” may be a little irritating, but they’ve become somewhat iconic in the years since the game’s release, as they’ve added to the game’s already stellar sound work, with an unforgettable soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope that captures Banjo-Kazooie’s unique sense of charm and whimsy.
In terms of gameplay, Banjo-Kazooie is incredibly similar to the Mario adventure that inspired it. After completing a tutorial in Banjo’s home of Spiral Mountain, you traverse the chambers of Gruntilda’s Lair, which serves as something of a more sinister contrast to Peach’s Castle from Super Mario 64. Golden jigsaw pieces – called “Jiggies” – serve as the equivalent of Mario’s Power Stars, and a set amount are required to unlock each of the game’s nine proper stages. Meanwhile, music notes more or less take the place of coins, but have an added usage in unlocking further chambers within Gruntilda’s Lair.
Each of the stages house 10 Jiggies and 100 musical notes, while the Lair itself has an additional 10 Jiggies to collect, for a grand total of 100 Jiggies and 900 music notes. Not every collectible needs to be obtained to complete the game, however, and all of these items can be gathered at the player’s own pace.
This is where Banjo-Kazooie begins to deviate away from Mario 64’s influence and becomes its own beast. While Super Mario 64’s levels were presented in a sequence of missions (with players only able to go off the path and collect alternate stars from the selected mission on occasion), Banjo-Kazooie’s stages serve as wide-open sandboxes, with players able to gather the collectibles in whatever order at almost any time.
Perhaps an even bigger change to Mario’s formula is that Banjo and Kazooie progressively learn more moves throughout their adventure, provided they can find Bottles the mole hiding in one of his molehills on the first few stages. These moves range from using Kazooie’s legs to walk faster and climb steep slopes to shooting eggs from Kazooie’s mouth and rear. These moves are not only used to navigate through levels and defeat enemies, but many of them are required to find new sections of Gruntilda’s Lair and to reach specific Jiggies, giving the game a small dose of a Metroidvania element.
Along with Bottles, the most important side character is Mumbo Jumbo, a mystical shaman who transforms Banjo and Kazooie into a variety of forms, ranging from termites to pumpkins to bees. Just find some Mumbo Tokens and take them to Mumbo’s Hut to be able to achieve a level’s transformation at any given time.
There is a downside to both the progressing moveset and transformations, however, in that both features can feel a bit underutilized. While the prospect of revisiting levels with new moves to reach previously inaccessible places and items may sound enticing, chances are you’ll find every molehill in your first go around of one level and have everything you need for the next. Only two of the levels (the snow/Christmas-themed Freezeezy Peak and the desert stage of Gobi’s Valley) are particularly interchangeable, as both are unlocked close together, and each features one Jiggie that can only be accessed with a move learned in the other. As for the transformations, you’ll only change forms in five of the nine levels. And when you do get to transform, the different transformations are more or less just used to squeeze into a particular area Banjo himself can’t reach, all to obtain a single Jiggie.
The fact that such elements are present at all is a joy, as they’re a testament to the inventiveness that went into Banjo-Kazooie’s creation. But perhaps they were ideas ahead of what Rare could handle at the time, with both concepts of revisiting levels with new moves and the transformations fulfilling much more of their potential in the game’s 2000 sequel, Banjo-Tooie. By comparison, time has shown that Banjo-Kazooie couldn’t quite reach its ambitions.
If that is the case, it’s simply another testament to just how creative Rare was during Banjo-Kazooie’s development. The gameplay itself is some of the best on the Nintendo 64 and, much like Mario 64, remains a joy to play even today (though Mario 64’s sometimes clunky camera is still present). And the nine featured levels may just outdo Mario’s famed N64 outing, with some truly ingenious obstacles created to take advantage of Banjo and Kazooie’s versatile moves; and they feature themes that add new twists to platforming norms (such as the aforementioned ice world also being built around Christmas, or a sewer stage that houses a mechanical shark as its centerpiece. And Rare was wise to save their most creative level for last; a giant tree that can be visited in all four seasons of the year, with each season changing both the level’s challenges and its inhabitants). If that weren’t enough, Banjo-Kazooie’s playful spirit is perhaps most present after every level is completed, where the heroic duo take part in a quiz show/board game against the evil witch, in which players have to remember details about the game and their playthrough.
Banjo-Kazooie is simply a great time from beginning to end. That so many other games from its era – including beloved titles like Goldeneye 007 – feel so outdated by today’s standards while Banjo-Kazooie still remains one of the best games in the 3D platforming genre is telling of just how much creative energy went into the game, and how well it executed it. It may not always achieve its lofty ambitions, but Banjo-Kazooie is creative, fun and charming enough to stand the test of time.
Cuphead certainly looks unlike any game that came before it, replicating the distinct look of a 1930s cartoon down pat, right down to the grainy picture quality and surrealistic character designs. The music and sounds also have that muffled, “in a tunnel” quality of the slapstick cartoons of the era. Cuphead is brought to life through completely hand-drawn visuals. From its shockingly fluid character sprites to its cel animated backgrounds, Cuphead is a wonder to see in action. It may not be the first game to use hand-drawn visuals, but no video game has earned the right to be called an interactive cartoon quite like Cuphead.
Simply put, Cuphead is on an aesthetic level that’s all its own, and it may be a good number of years before another game showcases a similar level of visual inventiveness.
Of course, all the aesthetic pleasures in the world wouldn’t mean much if the game they contained couldn’t stand on its own two feet. Thankfully, Cuphead is a more than capable gameplay experience, even if its action can’t quite capture the same magic as its eye-popping visuals.
Players take control of Cuphead, an old-timey cartoon figure who – as his name implies – has a cup for a head; while a second player can take control of his brother, Mugman. These two characters live on Inkwell Isle, under the watchful eye of Elder Kettle. One day, while Elder Kettle is asleep, the two mischievous brothers sneak into a casino. After at first securing a winning streak, the casino’s owner is revealed to be the Devil, who raises the stakes on Cuphead’s gambling. After Cuphead makes a bad roll, the Devil demands their souls as payment. The brothers plea for another way out of the mess, and the Devil promises he’ll let them go, if they can secure the souls of others who owe the Devil a debt. So Cuphead and Mugman set out to defeat the debtors, and find a way to get out of their contract with the Devil.
It’s a silly plot, but perfectly in tune with the 1930s cartoons that inspired it. People often seem to misremember old cartoons as being more innocent than they actually were. Many old cartoons, even those starring the “squeaky clean” Mickey Mouse, often saw their cute characters go through some extreme circumstances before they learned a lesson, and it’s great to see how Cuphead manages to capture the tone of its inspirations, and that the 1930s cartoon feel doesn’t stop at the visuals.
In regards to gameplay, Cuphead is a run and gun platformer, with a particular emphasis on its boss fights. Cuphead and Mugman can shoot magic from their fingers, and can perform a “parry” action by pressing the jump button against pink objects while in midair. The more damage the heroes do to enemies, the more a special meter builds up in the form of playing cards, with a successful parry automatically achieving a full card. Cuphead can use stronger attacks by using a single card, but if you wait until you have a full five cards, you can unleash a super attack.
Along the adventure, Cuphead can purchase new types of guns (or magic blasts, whatever you want to call them). You can equip two such guns at a time, and can swap between those equipped by the press of a button. Additionally, you can also buy items that provide other benefits, such as additional hitpoints (the standard is three, but you can up it to four or five), or the ability to hit an automatic parry during a jump. To prevent the heroes from becoming overpowered, however, you can only equip one such item at a time.
There are three types of levels in Cuphead: the standard run and gun platforming stages, boss stages, and bullet hell boss stages (differentiated by Cuphead and Mugman piloting an airplane in an autoscrolling level).
The boss fights are the meat of the game, with most stages being gauntlets of either multiple bosses, or individual boss enemies who go through multiple phases. Perhaps most notable is how creative many of these boss fights are. Despite Cuphead’s simplistic gameplay mechanics, the creativity on display with every boss fight makes them constantly surprising, and every last boss is distinct from the others.
On the downside of things, the platforming stages aren’t remotely as fun, and it seems that the developers were well aware of that, seeing as there are only six of them in the entire game. I wouldn’t say these stages are flat-out bad, but they fail to replicate the quality and creativity found in the boss battles, and feel really bland by comparison.
In terms of challenge, Cuphead is as deceptively sinister as the cartoons that inspired it. Its opening tutorial is perhaps the easiest I’ve ever played, but once you step into the actual game, it can get incredibly punishing. Cuphead’s steep difficulty curve means it certainly isn’t a game for everyone. You won’t find any checkpoints in the boss fights or the levels, so if you die, it’s back to the starting line. And some of the bosses are unrelenting in the amount of alternate forms they take and how many projectiles they throw at you at once. Thankfully, as challenging as it is, the difficulty is mostly fair (I only felt there were two boss fights where it seemed like there were a distracting amount of going-on on screen).
The bosses do include a “simple” option where you’ll only face off against their first few phases at the expense of not getting their soul contract and, subsequently, being unable to progress until you try the actual thing (making the simple mode more of a practice mode than anything).
With how painstakingly long it takes to create hand-drawn animation, Cuphead is an understandably short game, with only three “proper” worlds and a fourth world that consists of one particularly lengthy gauntlet and a battle with the Devil himself. But for the most part, Cuphead is a blast while it lasts. The standard stages may be a little bland, but the boss encounters are one delight after another. And in terms of style, Cuphead is second to none.
*Review based on Blast Corp’s release as part of Rare Replay*
I mean this in the best possible way; Blast Corps feels like it was conjured up by an eight-year old boy who has run amok with his Hot Wheels toys. The concept goes like this: a runaway truck carrying nuclear warheads needs an escort to take it to safety. You’re in charge of getting said truck to safety. But there’s a catch; the truck is on auto-pilot, and its fixed path means it will crash into anything blocking its way, which will set off the nukes. So you have to demolish everything in the truck’s path in order to complete your mission.
Using an array of vehicles, you’ll break every building and construct that stands in the truck’s path; whether it be farm, factory, or even houses. Break everything that stands in the truck’s way, and you unlock the next few stages (which can be played in whatever order the player wishes). There are additional objectives in the stages, like rescuing every civilian from danger, and finding satellites hidden in every stage. There are also the occasional racing levels, and a few bonus stages which give you more unique objectives, like destroying a certain amount of buildings in a set time, or using a particular vehicle’s special ability on a set number of objects.
Blast Corps features a wide variety of vehicles to play as. Some are more simple, like a sports car that’s used to speed between areas, or a dump truck that knocks down buildings by swerving into them. Others are more extravagant, such as a missile-firing speeder bike, a truck that launches fists from both sides to punch objects, and even a few anime-style giant robots (one of which causes destruction by performing acrobatic flips).
When it comes to which vehicles you play as, there are three different kind of stages: many levels are built around a specific vehicle’s mechanics, and you must use that vehicle. Other levels will have you start out in a particular vehicle, but you’ll have to transfer to others in order to solve the level’s puzzles. Finally, there are levels where you are fixed to one vehicle, but have a selection to choose from before the level starts.
The simple concept behind Blast Corps allowed Rare to get really creative with how to expand it, with the different vehicles providing many different twists to the gameplay, and the level designs bringing out everything they can out of them. While the similar setup being reused for the majority of stages may have grown stale under less capable hands, Rare kept Blast Corps a game that consistently delights players with new ideas in its already original concept.
There is a downside to this, however, in that not every vehicle brings out the best of the game. The aforementioned dump truck can be particularly tricky to use effectively, as swerving it just right so that its back smashes into buildings never really gets any easier. And yet, the dump truck seems to be the vehicle that you are forced to play as the most. The speeder bike can also be a bit unwieldy to control. Another downside comes in the form of the camera which, like many N64 titles, is less-than ideal.
All of these are ultimately small complaints, however, as the sheer fun and originality of Blast Corps elevate it to being one of those rare Nintendo 64 titles that’s a pure joy to revisit. What could have been a pretty mindless game about destruction quickly evolves into an engaging puzzler that will really test your skills. It’s really only a shame that it never received a sequel (especially considering a certain 2008 sequel to a certain other Rare franchise focused on vehicle construction, and probably would have been more warmly received as a follow-up to Blast Corps).
Though it was made by a small team of developers (four at minimum, seven at maximum), Blast Corps has the same sense of fun and charm as the biggest and best games of Rare’s heyday back in the mid-to-late 1990s. It may not be pretty to look at by modern standards, but Blast Corps is so entertaining and original you probably won’t care.
After all, this is a game in which an acrobatic anime robot can backflip buildings into oblivion to prevent a nuclear disaster. Doesn’t that just say it all?
*Review based on Killer Instinct Gold’s release as part of Rare Replay*
Killer Instinct was Rare’s answer to the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat craze of the 1990s. Though it never reached the same popularity of those two series, Killer Instinct was a worthy third piece in this equation, with a strong emphasis on combos over its competing series (thus “C-C-C-Combo Breaker!” was born). However, Killer Instinct’s popularity was not to last. While Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have seen many iterations over the years, Killer Instinct only had two titles to its name back in the day (though the 2013 reboot has helped revive interest in the brand).
The first installment went from arcades to the SNES, while Killer Instinct II made its way to the Nintendo 64 in the form of Killer Instinct Gold. While Killer Instinct Gold can still provide some solid fighting gameplay, it does suffer from many of the shortcomings the genre suffered in the wake of Mortal Kombat’s influence.
In terms of mechanics, Killer Instinct Gold has many of the elements you would expect from the genre: characters have light attacks, heavy attacks, projectiles and special moves, which can be performed with a variety of button presses and combinations. The main draw to Killer Instinct, of course, was its emphasis on combos, with pretty much every characters’ moves being able to be linked together if the player can perform them quick enough.
The moves themselves are easy enough to use, though the game does suffer a bit from the stiff character movements that were frequently seen in fighters of the day (floaty jumps, some slowly-performed moves, etc.). The fighting can be fun, but its sense of character control certainly has a “for its day” feel to it.
Killer Instinct Gold, like most fighting games, is better played with a human opponent. You can certainly have more fun trying out combos and doing battle with a friend than you can against a computer AI. Especially since Killer Instinct Gold follows Mortal Kombat’s lead in having AI opponents who can seemingly go against the game’s own rules, making single player bouts often feeling more unfair than fun.
If you’re playing Arcade mode, you may find that the computer opponents can interrupt your combos with ease, while you can’t seem to do anything about it if you get caught in your opponent doing the same thing. You’ll frequently be in the middle of an attack, only for the AI’s attack to take priority and render your move useless.
I even lowered the difficulty settings so I could try out different combos easier, and the computer was still able to to have its way more times than I’d like to admit. I’d get an opponent down to the tiniest shred of health, only for them to get a second wind and immediately bombard me with life-depleting combos. It’s one thing for a fighting game to be difficult, but in the case of Killer Instinct Gold, it seems like the rules just don’t apply to the AI. I have a friend who’s a big fan of Mortal Kombat, and even he admits that, in that game “the computer cheats.” And it’s basically the same story here in Killer Instinct Gold.
The single player modes greatly suffer due to this AI problem, but Killer Instinct Gold does have enough depth in its combat to help elevate the gameplay higher than it otherwise would be.
The character roster is a little bit of a mixed bag. Though the non-human characters standout – such as Spinal, a skeletal pirate; and Glacius, an alien being with ice powers – the human character designs feel downright uninspired and boring. Tusk, for example, looks like a first draft for a Conan the Barbarian type character, and the other humans look equally as rushed.
This inconsistency isn’t just found in the art direction, but in the visuals as well. While the character models use a similar pre-rendered look to the original game and Donkey Kong Country, and hold up pretty well, the 3D backgrounds have that glaringly dated N64 look. Of course, it’s hard to be too critical on the graphical limitations in the games of yesteryear, but the fact that the character models still look relatively impressive while the backgrounds look so ugly does make you wish Rare had just used one cohesive visual look.
While Killer Instinct Gold may provide some old-school fighting fun if you have another player by your side, the more dated elements do prevent it from being as timeless of a fighter as the Street Fighter games. Though I suppose it does boast more depth than the early Mortal Kombats, so you could say Killer Instinct falls in the middle of the 90s fighting trifecta.
*Review based on Battletoads Arcade’s release as part of Rare Replay*
Battletoads had all the makings of a solid franchise. From its distinct characters and attitude to its notable gameplay and difficulty, Battletoads should have went further than it did. Though the disgustingly-named toads Rash, Pimple and Zits have started popping up in games like Shovel Knight and the 2013 Killer Instinct reboot as of late, the Battletoads only had five total games, all of which were released in the first half of the 1990s.
The 1991 NES original is the most famous entry in the franchise, notorious for its excruciating difficulty. A watered-down Gameboy port soon followed. And in 1993 the Battletoads starred in two more games; Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, and the unique crossover title Battletoads & Double Dragon, both of which were on 16-bit platforms. Then in 1994, the currently-final entry in the series, the aptly-named Battletoads Arcade, made its way to arcades… and it bombed.
Yes, despite the popularity of the franchise, the Battletoads’ debut in arcade cabinets was a financial failure for Rare. So much so, that the game’s planned home console ports were cancelled. Battletoads Arcade’s disappointing sales may have even been the reason for Rare putting the franchise on the back-burner, where it still remains to this day.
That’s a damn shame, because Battletoads Arcade is a whole lot of fun, which more and more people have realized after the game made its quite-delayed home console debut as part of Rare Replay.
Battletoads Arcade, much like other entries in the series, is a beat-em-up. Even more so than the NES original, Battletoads Arcade is all about laying the smacketh down on hordes of enemies. You just go from one end of a stage to the other, pummeling any and all foes who stand in your way. It’s pure, unadulterated beat-em-up. It’s simple stuff, but very fun.
This arcade original is also notable for being one of the few games where players can actually play as all three toads (the other being the Double Dragon crossover). What’s even better is that the game supports three players, so all three toads can partake in the mayhem at the same time. All three toads play identically, through they each have their own animations for their attacks.
Another aspect that sets Battletoads Arcade apart from its predecessors is that, being self-published by Rare onto arcade cabinets as opposed to another company’s home consoles, the game gets away with a lot more violence and gross-out humor. Blood now flies out of enemy rats as the toads punch them around and stomp them into oblivion, and Pimple has an attack in which he crushes a downed opponent’s head when his foot transforms into an anvil. There are also enemy rats that puke after getting punched in the gut, and in one stage, you can even find some rats using the toilet in the background (complete with sound effects). This is certainly the crudest and most violent Battletoads game, and may even feel like something of a precursor to Conker’s Bad Fur Day in terms of tone.
The gameplay is a whole lot of fun, and unlike the original Battletoads, very much welcomes additional players, with some of the stages feeling tailor-made with two and three players in mind. The graphics and animations are another highlight, with the Battletoads’ signature cartoonish transformations looking better than ever. And once again, the series is livened up with a killer score by David Wise.
There is, however, a bit of a drawback in that the game is only six stages long (that’s half as many as the NES original). Now, you expect an arcade beat-em-up to be on the short side, but Battletoads Arcade ends all too abruptly. After a comically lengthy boss fight against Robo Manus, one of the Dark Queen’s henchmen, the game ends. You don’t even get to fight the Dark Queen herself. I’m guessing the short length is due to the game’s difficulty, which in an arcade cabinet would surely gorge on coins or tokens. But the sudden end does kind of seem disappointing, and perhaps two or three additional levels could have added some extra heft and variety, with only the existing fourth and sixth stages changing up the gameplay styles as it is (the fourth level seeing the toads descending down a cavern via jetpacks, and the sixth stage having the toads taking part in a shoot-em-up with machine guns).
I mentioned that the game is difficult, and though I stand by that due to the epic boss fights, waves of enemies, and health-depleting mid-bosses. But, due to the game’s transition to a console, it’s also – strange as this may sound – kind of easy.
By that I mean that, although the game itself is quite challenging, you have infinite continues, and come back to life exactly where you died. Thankfully, you don’t have to fork over hard-earned cash to continue playing like you would in an arcade, but there really is no real penalty for dying. You’ll still die a lot, to be sure. But when enemies get the jump on you, you’re basically just slightly slowed down, without ever suffering a real defeat. But I suppose I’ll take that over the needlessly punishing quality of the original Battletoads any day.
Battletoads Arcade is an excellent beat-em-up. Though it’s all too short and all too easy to beat (despite its moment-to-moment challenge), it provides a great deal of fun, and manages to squeeze a decent amount of variety in the few stages it has. Top it of with crazy animations, a great soundtrack, and Battletoads co-op that’s actually enjoyable, you have a great, pick up and play experience on your hands.
The facts that it tanked in arcades and is still the last Battletoads game may be a bit disheartening, but its inclusion as part of Rare Replay has now brought the game to a wider audience, and its inclusion is one of the best pieces of the Rare Replay lineup.
Between you and me, I like it better than Turtles in Time.
*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.