(Review archived from August 25, 2018)
I can’t accurately sum up in words the feeling of unadulterated elation I felt upon beating BattleToads. I have been playing this game on and off for decades, and yet I only just beat it this year. Much to my chagrin I can accurately say that I’ve played this game on and off for 30 years, and I’ve beaten it a grand total of one time. Still, what a brilliantly conceived work of interactive digital entertainment.
I can’t accurately sum up in words the feeling of peaceful resolve that I don’t’ ever have to play this game again unless purely by some purely masochistic whim. I’ve played it on and off for 30 years and only beaten it once! What an utter piece of miserable shite!
And thus sums up my experience with BattleToads. It’s purely a love/hate affair. I have recently described BattleToads on a couple of occasions as being a bi-polar game, and for my part at least, that’s the description that sticks. BattleToads is an amalgamation of some really great ideas some of which are almost wholly unique to this game. Unfortunately (by my reckoning at least) these ideas encapsulate a bitter core of spiteful difficulty, hell bent on trolling the player at nearly every turn.
Let’s first talk about some of those good points. The presentation in BattleToads is on point. This is a nice looking game, particularly for an 8-bit title. The graphics aren’t’ quite up to 16 bit standards, but they’re also not far off. The music, if not particularly memorable, is likewise competent and well executed. BattleToads is also in no way short on game play ideas, in fact almost every level has some unique hook. Some levels play it fairly straight as a platforming beat em’ up, but these are in the minority. One level has you racing vertically downward against an impossibly fast rat in an effort to reach and defuse bombs before the rat can detonate them. Another level has you riding a menagerie of giant snakes who route you through trap filled segments and otherwise attempt to dislodge you. In another level you ride a ‘clinger-cycle’ across floors, walls, and ceilings in a race against a ball of energy that’s at least 1.5X as fast as you are. The final level is another vertically oriented level that has you climbing a tall spinning tower. Some sections of the tower spin under their own power whereas other sections require you to run on tower’s platforms in order to make it spin via your own locomotion.
And then there are the notorious auto-scrolling ‘turbo tunnel’ levels (actually only one of these levels is actually called ‘turbo tunnel’, but as a kid I called all of them ‘turbo tunnels’ and that’s what stuck). In these levels you’ll be riding on some sort of vehicle while you dodge obstacles and jump over gaps. In order of appearance the vehicles appearing in this sort of level are a hoverbike, a surf board, and a miniature fighter jet(?). Admittedly the surfboard level is considerably easier than the other two, but it also actually plays a bit differently as well. The remaining two levels are often cited as the hardest in the game. They both start off reasonably enough but by the end, each of them has you moving through obstacles at breakneck speed requiring perfect timing of inputs. The folks who cite these levels as being the most difficult in the game aren’t necessarily wrong … but it’s also not the whole picture. Even aside from the ‘turbo tunnels’, Battletoads is a game that takes great sadistic joy in trolling its’ players. Personally I struggled hardest on the rat race and clinger winger levels. Rote repetition, memorization of level placements, and (nearly) perfect timing are all required to clear the levels in Battletoads. A dash of luck certainly doesn’t hurt either. It’s as if Rare took all those great gameplay ideas and kept on turning up the intensity until the game starts to become decidedly un-fun. It would be like slowly turning up the volume on your favorite song until blood starts to trickle from your ears. It’s still a great song, but holy crap, enough is enough!
Your enjoyment of Battletoads will boil down to your patience for difficult gameplay, frequent deaths, and limited continues. If you possess that sort of skill and patience, Battletoads will reward you for it in the form of interesting new ideas and mechanics. If you don’t have the necessary patience (and often even if you do) Battletoads will continually test it almost from the word go. I cautiously recommend this game on the basis of its historical legacy and spectacle, but just know that its reputation as one of the most difficult games on NES is well earned.