Battletoads is a very interesting beast in the NES library. It is regarded by some as one of the greatest games on the platform, by others as one of the most difficult games ever made, and by many as one of the most frustrating games they've ever played. Developed by Rare, who created (or ported) some of my most enjoyed titles on the NES (R.C. Pro-Am, Jeopardy!, California Games, Cobra Triangle, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Solar Jetman, Danny Sullivan's Indy Heat), Battletoads was envisioned as direct competition to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon. Released in the Summer of 1991 among the impending 16 bit generation of home consoles, Battletoads was able to take advantage of the later years of the NES to provide a noticeable step up in graphics over other titles on the platform. Although billed as a beat 'em up, the gameplay in Battletoads features a diverse mix of already established styles including traditional side scrolling platforming and high speed vehicle based action sequences. The bright colors, varied gameplay, and immense challenge won Battletoads many industry accolades and awards - becoming a favorite of many gamers.
On the flip side, the challenge would often border on absurd, earning Battletoads the reputation as one of the most difficult games ever created. More often than not the difficulty comes not from challenge but from high levels of frustration which only increase as the game rolls on. This is compounded with an extremely limited continue system and a two player option that severely punishes mistakes made in the high speed sections of the game. Those looking for a Ninja Turtles clone would end up with something far more than they expected, for both better and worse. Yet Battletoads continues to be on many "best of" lists concerning NES era video games and beat 'em ups in general.
Description: The Battletoads, a trio of intergalactic crime fighters, are en route to the Terran homeworld escorting Princess Angelica home. One of the Battletoads, Pimple, sets off in a smaller transport with the princess for some relaxation before continuing the journey. Along the way they are both captured by the Dark Queen and taken as prisoner on her home planet. It's up to Rash and Zitz, the remaining Battletoads, to infiltrate Ragnarok's World and rescue Princess Angelica and their captured comrade. The Battletoads repel down to the planet's surface from their ship, under the guidance of Professor T. Bird. As one can tell, the story doesn't really matter as it's the usual captured damsel fare. However the main villain here is also female and the third hero character is also being held prisoner so things start out just a bit different than they usually do in video games.
Doing things just a bit different is really the hallmark of Battletoads. Were as many games would follow the same gameplay formula from start to finish or possibly switch between two different styles, Battletoads strives to throw everything at you one level after another. This variety becomes both the biggest triumph and the greatest disappointment of the game but it does a good job to lure you in initially. The first stage plays like an arcade style beat 'em up, similar to Double Dragon or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade games. The stage ends with a very impressive looking boss battle shown from the perspective of the boss - a first person perspective. After that the second stage plays completely different, the Battletoads now repelling down a long shaft from a rope. It plays almost like a vertically scrolling shooter, except the screen is scrolling down and you use beat 'em up style controls rather than shooting. The third stage opens up with much of the same beat 'em up gameplay from the first stage but then moves to a game of high speed obstacle avoidance. These are often considered to be the most difficult parts of the game and while they're no cakewalk, there are more difficult areas to come later on. Most players however tend not to be able to get passed the third stage, especially those who were younger during the game's original release. It wouldn't be a stretch to call stage three the most initially frustrating area in all of video gaming, many NES control pads have been thrown across the room in disgust over this part of the game. The dirty secret is that the game will tend to repeat stages similar to these, always with a few changes such as different vehicles, a couple more times before the end - and they only get worse.
The snake level is very challenging but was my favorite stage in the game since it tested practical reaction and problem solving. I've heard people over the years that say this was the most difficult part of the game but I don't agree with them. If anything the challenge was at least enjoyable, the only issue being that of having to start at the very beginning after exhausting all extra lives. Toward the end of the stage there's just no way you can predict what the snakes are going to do without dying a few times to figure it out. The problem with that is starting all the way back at the beginning once you do die a few times.
While many would say the high speed obstacle course levels are the most difficult, personally I find some of the later parts of the game far more frustrating. One stage in particular that is set up as a flooded maze with instant kill spikes, huge gears that appear at a moments notice, enemies that are almost impossible to defeat without taking damage, and some jumps that border on impossible was especially annoying to me. I must have spent at least three straight hours attempting to complete that stage. The problem was that rather than having an enjoyable, challenging gameplay experience, I only grew more frustrated with every death and continue - having to go back to the very start of the stage each time. This joy of a stage is followed up by yet another exercise in frustration where you must outrun a series of crazed rats that will set off explosives if they beat you to them. Beating on the currently running rat will slow it down but only slightly. I'm sure there are people out there that can get through this area without even breaking a sweat but for me the stage felt poorly tested, bordering on broken in terms of level design. That's a good way to sum up those two levels, nearly broken in design. Another stage that proved to be overly frustrating is one in which you use a vehicle that resembles the front wheel and handlebars off a bicycle with suction cups on the tires. You must direct the vehicle all over the stage, making sure that you make your turns efficiently as possible as deadly giant energy orbs give chase from start to finish. The more cornering mistakes you make, the closer the orb gets. This stage will wear your thumb down to the bone and your directional pad won't like it very much either.
However the final stage of the game proves to be the absolute most frustrating. I suppose it could be assumed that it would be, since it's the last stage after all. This stage involves a long, long, long tower climb in which missing a jump usually means death. The gameplay of the tower climb changes slightly as you ascend and the cylindrical design reminds me of the classic action / puzzle game Nebulus (better known as Tower Toppler or Castelian in the USA). The climb feels like a haphazard mash up between Nebulus and Double Dragon, with the game sometimes forgetting exactly what it's trying to do. If you don't believe me, run around the tower a few times and then try to change direction and see what happens. Also along the climb there are parts where you must hang onto poles sticking out of the tower and do nothing else to avoid being blown off. As with the rest of the game, this is all trial and error - with trial being hours of replaying the tower over and over and error being instant death and starting all over. The platforming here is also very loose, again, feeling like the game can't decide how it wants to proceed. Some platforms float around the tower in opposite directions and unless you jump in exactly the precise spot that the game wants to cooperate with, expect to fall through platforms or fly off in an unexpected vector. Add into this my most hated item in platforming games, the springboard, and anyone reading this should know that by the end I was at my wits end with this game. Then to add insult to injury, the battle at the top with the Dark Queen is a total piece of cake.
Graphics: For all the difficulty and frustration that Battletoads will dump on a player, at least the journey is stunning to look at. The 16 bit console era was in its earliest days and Battletoads showed that Nintendo's 8 bit workhorse still had a few visual tricks up its sleeve. Sprites are amazingly detailed, especially the Battletoads themselves. The most well-known examples are that of the Battletoads' finishing attacks with their hands becoming giant fists, a foot stretching out into a huge boot, ram horns morphing from their heads during a headbutt, or turning into a wrecking ball when hanging from a rope. These moves are done with smooth, slick animation that lends to a very comic book feel in each stage. Added to that are the large sprites that are used for almost everything in the game, with minimal flicker. Backgrounds and terrain are very colorful, bright, and also well animated where required. Cutscenes are very nicely done and as with everything else, well detailed. Again, the lack of flicker I think is what really pulls together the look. Sure, it's still there but only in it's most minimal form and it never gets in the way of the game. If there is one big letdown graphically it's the lack of polish during the final battle.
Sound: The attention given to the detailed look of the game sadly wasn't paid to the audio. While completely passable there really isn't much here that's very memorable. The main theme never really gets going and plays out more like a string of sound effects. Individual stage themes won't be sticking in your head, in fact it may be hard to recall them after a play session. Amazingly enough the music from Battletoads that everyone remembers is the beat heavy tune that plays when the game is paused. Even this can get extremely annoying after prolonged listening and with a game as difficult as Battletoads, pausing out to take a breather is near mandatory. Sound effects are decent, if not subdued, but do their job. A symphony for the eyes but not for the ears.
Play Control: My biggest gripe with Battletoads is how the play control can go from rock solid to nearly completely falling apart, sometimes within the same stage. The beat 'em up based portions of the game play spectacularly. Control is solid, fast, the Battletoads do exactly what you want them to do. Even during the high speed parts of the game, the control is right where it should be and is fairly precise. Where the game tends to have problems is during the traditional side scrolling platform levels. This is most apparent in level nine, the flooded maze. There are jumps in this stage that I must have done over one hundred times when I was playing the game. So many times, regardless of my input, positioning, enemy placement - everything being exactly the same, the outcome would vary wildly. Whether this is due to poor level design, programming issues, lack of enough playtesting or too much playtesting to the point where the issues were accepted and overlooked - it makes the game far too frustrating on these stages. This also applies to the tower climb at the end of the game but to less of an extent there. That whole stage just seems like it's different parts stitched together without any warning. If you can call the play control in Battletoads anything, it would be a mixed bag.
Replay: If you really love this game then you'll play it over and over again. If you found it a frustrating exercise and had to beat the game into submission to finally complete it, then you probably won't touch it again for years. I'm in the later group. There's nothing here to be done in additional playthroughs that wouldn't have been done the first time around. The arcade style drop in two player mode may add some replay but due to the tight extra life and continue setup the game uses, don't expect to have a very good time. If anything it makes the game even more difficult. Perhaps the replayability of this game is in that it would be a game to pull out every few years to realize why you don't play it that often.
Final Verdict: Do you want to have even a reasonable amount of enjoyment with this game? Then you need to use the Game Genie with it. I wouldn't consider using Game Genie with Battletoads as cheating, rather it helps fix some of the broken challenge issues. The unlimited lives code will allow you to keep playing the sub area that you're having trouble with, instead of going all the way back to the very start of the stage, or the beginning of the game if you're out of continues. This is especially useful if you're playing the game for the first time or simply want to get better at the more difficult areas. Also unlimited lives is the only way to play the two player mode and remain friends with the person you're playing with, trust me on this. Unlimited lives removes the issue of the severely limited allowance of continues all together.
Without using a Game Genie code, once you're out of extra lives you'll only have three continues for the entire game. That's just not enough for a game of this size and brutal difficulty, even if you're skipping levels by warping. Which begs the question why even have warp points in there in an action game? The better idea from square one was to make continues unlimited or at the very least implement a password feature. Honestly that's how the game should have shipped, allowing you to continue as many times as needed. Again, you have THREE continues to complete the entire game. Exhaust those THREE continues and it's like pressing the reset button on the NES. Do yourself a favor, put in the unlimited lives code before you even consider playing Battletoads without it. All the challenge will still be there, just with a bit less frustration and a whole lot less repetition.
Now I know I sound very harsh in my criticisms of this game but I think that is more because it's a game that I really wanted to like. It has a lot going for it - beautiful graphics, a detailed world, tons of variety. However the problem with Battletoads is it can't decide what type of game it wants to be. There are some parts that are simply excellent and others that are frustrating to the point where you want to stop playing and turn the game off. Any game that makes you want to stop playing games, not just change to something else but actually end your gaming session, should not be considered a good game. While I didn't care for the SNES sequel "Battletoads in Battlemaniacs" I did enjoy both the first follow-up "Battletoads & Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team" and the Battletoads arcade game. Both of those mainly stick to the beat 'em style and feel consistently designed start to finish.
I suppose all I can really say about Battletoads
is if you have a couple days to kill doing nothing but playing a tough
as nails classic NES game, and you own a Game Genie, then you'll find some
entertainment here. Otherwise you'll play a couple stages in, get
frustrated, and put the game on a shelf and never come back to it.
If you know what you're getting yourself into and can pick up Battletoads
on the cheap, then you shouldn't be too frustrated. Battletoads is
one of those NES games that holds solid value for a loose cartridge, nothing
crazy but don't expect to find it for two bucks. So if you see it
and it's cheap, pick it up with caution. However for anything other
than graphics, this game deserves no place on any "best of" lists in my
Written on 06-12-2011 by David, firstname.lastname@example.org
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