Released: 20 August 2020
Developers: Dlala Studios and Rare
Also Available For: PC and Xbox One X
Make no mistake about it, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) were hot shit back in the day; though the TMNT first began life as a ridiculous, dark, and gritty comic book, they shot to fame and into the cultural consciousness with the 1987 cartoon series and a line of action figures and the franchise was the hottest kids commodity at that time. That success also, inevitably, brought a slew of knock-offs and imitators, many of which, like the Battletoads, were reasonably popular in their own right.
Conceived of as a direct response to the TMNT, the Battletoads (Rash, Zitz, and Pimple) were space-faring adventurers who made their debut in the appropriately-titled Battletoads (Rare, 1991), a sidescrolling beat-‘em-up that is notorious for being one of the hardest titles in the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) library. Battletoads was fairly well received and a number of follow-ups were produced, including a pretty kick-ass arcade title in 1994, but the franchise quietly died off and remained dormant until Microsoft surprised everyone at the 2018 E3 with the announcement of an all-new entry in the beloved series. Perhaps bolstered by the reception of Rare Replay (ibid, 2015), Rare chose to revive their franchise as an Xbox One and PC exclusive, one not hampered by hardware restrictions, and effectively reintroduced the Battletoads to a whole new generation of gamers.
After being awoken from a fantasy simulation after twenty-six years, the Battletoads are dismayed to find that they are no longer intergalactic heroes. Seeking to reclaim their former glory, they set out to defeat their long-time nemesis, the Dark Queen, but end up joining forces with her to confront a greater threat, the evil alien race known as “Topians”.
Like its predecessors, Battletoads is a 2D, sidescrolling beat-‘em-up in which up to three players can battle across numerous stages spread between four chapters (referred to as “Acts”). When you begin a new game, you can select from three different difficulty levels (“Tadpole” being the “Easy” mode, “Toad” normal, and “Battletoad” being the hardest). Once you’ve selected a difficulty, you’re locked in to it and will need to create a new, separate save file to play on one of the other modes but you can switch between these save files easily enough by pressing X on the main menu.
There are three characters to pick from (Zitz, Rash, and Pimple) and, while each of the titular Battletoads controls the same, you’ll find that each one has their own strengths and weaknesses: Rash is the all-rounder, with decent speed and attack power; Zitz is the weakest but also the fastest, able to string combos together much quicker; and Pimple is the slowest but also the most powerful of the three. Unlike in the previous games, you can freely switch between any of the Battletoads on the fly by pressing left, up, or right on the directional-pad (D-pad) to “tag in”, allowing you to mix and match your attack strategies on the fly.
While there is no life system, this effectively gives you (in single player mode, at least) three lives since, if a Battletoad is defeated, you automatically switch to one of the other two and, after a short time, any toad that has been knocked out will regenerate a portion of their health and allow you to tag them back in. This adds another level of strategy to the game as you might want to favour Zitz for the majority of a stage and save Pimple for the boss battles but it’s important to not hog all the health-restoring flies for any one Battletoad as it could leave you at a disadvantage later down the line. Fortunately, the game is extremely generous with checkpoints, which refill and resurrect your team to full health, meaning you can easily jump right back into the action and you are even given the option of skipping ahead if you continuously die.
Being a sidescrolling beat-‘em-up, combat is obviously at the forefront of Battletoads’ gameplay; each character can unleash a quick combination of strikes with repeated presses of the X button, launch enemies into the air with Y, and charge up a powerful “Morph Attack” (which sees them transform into a variety of outlandish and amusing forms) by holding down the B button. You can also jump with A (revolutionary, I know), hold or press RT to run or evade, respectively, and hold down LT in conjunction with other button presses for different effects (press A and you’ll spit gum to render enemies immobile for a few seconds and press Y to pull enemies, flies, and collectables closer with your tongue). You can also wriggle the right analogue stick to perform a taunt, though I never discovered the point of this move beyond grandstanding.
While the majority of the game involves simple, arcade-style fighting, the monotony is broken up in a variety of ways; you can use LT and B to latch on to special hooks and battle in the background and foreground, for instance, and you’ll be required to press switches to open doors or raise and lower lifts at various points. You’ll also have to drag crates around to reach higher levels and use these techniques in lieu of your fighting abilities to solve various puzzles. In the game’s third Act, the Battletoads split up and Pimple is left to perform some rudimentary platforming, dodging spikes and other hazards, and climbing a mountain by pressing switches in the right order to clear a path. Similarly, when controlling the Dark Queen, you’re asked to run as quickly as possible through an all-too-familiar maze-like stage using her dash and unique ability to float to get past the many spiked hazards in your way rather than fighting.
You’ll also have to complete a couple of different mini games to open up electronic doors either by completing an electronic circuit or hacking your way. The first is relatively simple, involving the rotation of wires to allow a current to travel from one point to another but it gets a little trickier as you progress by introducing dead ends and different directions. The second is quite a unique little mini game that sees you moving an 8-bit Battletoads icon across a horizontal grid while avoiding moving red hazards; this can be tricky when playing with others as one touch of these hazards will reset the grid for all players but, if you struggle and fail enough times, the game gives you the option to automatically hack the door.
Other times, you’ll have to complete a number of quirky quick-time events (QTEs), the most prominent of which is an eccentric version of rock/paper/scissors, but you’ll also be completing menial tasks such as massages, sending e-mails, and signing autographs with rotations of the analogue sticks and repeated button presses. Later, you’ll need to use these skills as Pimple to fight off besmirched cult members and be sure to keep your wits about you after defeating the game’s final boss as you’ll need to perform a few QTEs before the battle is officially over. Some of the mini games, however, aren’t as much fun or easy to understand; at one point you have to complete three in a row with hardly any time to register what you actually have to do but by far the worst and most frustrating part of the game was when you have to reboot the systems of your space ship. The mini game displays a number of symbols, each one relating to a different mini game, and you have a very short space of time to find the game you need and complete it, all with the most vague of onscreen prompts to direct you. The worst part is that this section just keeps going and going, is very unforgiving, and it can be really difficult to see where you’re supposed to be looking as the mini games are all quite small by the end.
Finally, gameplay is mixed up further by the return of the Turbo Tunnel, panic-inducing chase sequences, and some overhead shooting stages. Thankfully, the Turbo Tunnel is nowhere near as harrowing as in the NES game; for one thing, your view is from behind, which makes it much easier to see oncoming hazards. Each hit or mistake costs you a Battletoad but checkpoints are generous and, while it goes on for some time, it’s actually more exhilarating than frustrating. The Turbo Tunnel returns at the end of the game but, while it is harder, it’s a much shorter section; the spirit of the old tunnel is evoked in the sledging sequence, though, which has you holding X, Y, or B to grind along different platforms and that can be very difficult when you’re also required to jump with A. One of the most harrowing sequences from the NES game, the rat race, is recreated when you, as the Dark Queen, have to outrun falling stomach acid but, thanks to her dash and barge attacks and, again, many generous checkpoints, it’s nowhere near as impossible or demanding as the original game. Finally, the space shooting sections, while also a lot of fun, see the screen literally fill with enemy ships and projectiles to become one of the most elaborate “bullet hell” shooters I’ve ever played and these stages do tend to drag on a bit and are probably the most “unfair” of the game’s stages at times.
Graphics and Sound:
Battletoads is a fantastic throwback to a simpler time in gaming; like Streets of Rage 4 (Dotemu/Lizardcube/Guard Crush Games, 2020), the game favours brought, vibrant graphics and backgrounds and a rockin’ soundtrack that includes remixes of classic Battletoads tracks. Unlike that game, however, Battletoads is far more over the top and cartoony; the toads themselves are full of life and wacky antics and these is best seen through their zany attacks that see them growing comically enlarged feet, fists, or transforming into sharks, bulls, jackhammers, and even whipping out a Battletoads (Rare, 1994) arcade cabinet to damage enemies.
Stages are varied and have a lot of depth, with some fun things to see in the background; you’ll travel through futuristic neon streets, a disused carnival, and wacky alien landscapes. Sadly, though, there is no “moving elevator” stage and there aren’t many chances to interact with your environment; there are no barrels to smash, no weapons to acquire, and your interactions are generally limited to activating switches or spitting bubblegum at various targets. Still, the simplicity of the interactivity in no way renders the environments lifeless or boring as they’re packed full of little details and things to see and distract you.
Battletoads is very big on story and features a number of cutscenes and lots of voice acting; the titular heroes are pretty funny, being out of touch superheroes obsessed with becoming relevant in a world that has passed them by, and everyone has distinct and amusing personalities, from the exasperated Dark Queen to the flamboyant Tobians, Uto and Pia. While I enjoyed these cutscenes, which reminded me a lot of Rick and Morty (2013 to present) and were full of Rare’s signature, quirky sense of humour, it was a bit annoying that you aren’t always given the option of skipping them on subsequent playthroughs.
Enemies and Bosses:
As you make your way through the game’s stages, you’ll come up against a host of weird enemies; many of them, like the different coloured anthropomorphic rats, Topian cops, and disgruntled lumberjacks, are mostly disposable cannon fodder for you to go to town on. Some of their variants, though, will block your attacks with a guard or shield that can only be broken with your charged Morph attack, and will also toss projectiles your way. When in the space shooting sections, you’ll come up against a number of different ships, some which fill the screen with projectiles of all kinds that will truly test your reaction skills and patience.
Other enemies can be a bit more troublesome: Kernel will charge up an electrical attack that electrifies nearby water and can cause massive damage; Fewcharge will unleash a laser beam that covers a large portion of the screen; and be sure to dash out of the way of Brucey when its about to charge at you. As you progress, you end up having to face multiple variations of these enemies at once, which can be very difficult and requires a lot of strategy and awareness on your part as your health will be drained quite quickly if you’re not careful.
It’s a good job Battletoads has so much enemy variant and challenge involved in its combat since it’s surprisingly light on boss battles. The first boss you face, Porkshank, is a gigantic pig whom you fight three times in the first stage. The first encounter requires you to evade his combo of attacks, the second sees him try to charge at you head-first, and the third sees him split into two and do both attacks at the same time. While he can absorb a great deal of damage, as long as you dodge out of the way and charge up a Morph attack or quickly switch to Pimple, it’s pretty simple to get past him without any real trouble.
The enormous Guardian boss requires a little more strategy on your past; the entire arena continuously fills with Blinkeys, pink eyes (hah!) that try to distract you from dragging the Summoner Eye out of its protective field. Each time you damage the Summoner Eye, the Guardian tries to crush you with its massive fists and then you have to smack a piece of debris into the gargantuan creature; the cycle then repeats twice more but with more Summoner Eyes to attack and more fists to damage.
One of the game’s most difficult and frustrating bosses is Axeley, a crazed lumberjack who fills the arena with bombs that are very difficult to avoid before leaping into the arena and causing shockwaves with each impact. When his giant axe gets stuck, you can attack with extreme prejudice but, for his next two phases, he starts rolling logs at you that are extremely hard to jump over, tossing in more bombs, and performing far more jumping attacks to keep you constantly on guard while you wait for your brief window to attack. I would recommend using Zitz for the most part and keeping track of Axeley’s movements so you can switch to Pimple and get the most out of that brief window of opportunity.
Dirtbag can also be quite the tricky encounter; like with Porkshanks, you’ll encounter him in a couple of different confrontations in the space shooting sections but the difference is that Dirtbag likes to attack with a variety of projectiles that you have to squeeze between and relentlessly fire at his ship while using your shield and evade to escape from harm. What makes this difficult is that you’ll most likely get to this boss with very little health left because of the gauntlet of enemies you have to blast through first and it seems like only parts of Dirtbag’s ship are vulnerable. Although you don’t actually fight against the Dark Queen this time around, she does actually help you in a penultimate battle before the final boss; her version of help, however, involves conjuring tornados that are just as likely to hurt or kill you as they are to toss enemies from the stage so be sure to stay away from them wherever possible.
The game’s final bosses are the Topians, Uto and Pia, essentially two intergalactic beings who stole the Dark Queen’s power and are practically Gods. When you fight them, they will take it in turns to launch attacks such as spherical projectiles that bounce across the arena and protect them and a giant laser beam that’s particularly difficult to avoid, turn invisible and intangible, and come crashing down onto the stage, all of which cause massive damage. Once they’re injured enough, they’ll team up for real for their final phase but, luckily, only one of their health bars needs to be whittled down. Still, I recommend taking advantage of the invincibility option that becomes available after a few deaths or when you’re close to failure.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
I mentioned this earlier but, strangely, there are no power-ups or weapons to pick up in Battletoads; while you can’t grab barrels (…or enemies) to throw around and there’s no score-increasing items, you do accrue a high score as you progress. Each fight that isn’t a boss battle receives a grade; the better your combo and the less hits you take, the higher your score becomes and, at the end of every stage, you receive a grade based on your performance and will earn an extra collectable if you manage to get at least an A ranking for every fight in each stage. When in the shooting stages, the scoring system continues but you can actually pick up power-ups that improve your ships weaponry for a limited time, turning it into a spread shot, a high-powered laser, or bolts of magenta energy to cause massive damage against your relentless enemies.
Battletoads has sixty-one Achievements for you to earn; many of these are tied to the game’s story and can’t be missed but you’ll also get ones for defeating a number of enemies, breaking through their block attacks, finding collectables, or using your various toad abilities. Others are a little more obscure or challenging, like entering a button code in the credits, finding every collectable, or finishing the game on the highest difficulty. Of course, you can also play Battletoads with up to two friends; in co-op mode, you can revive your team mates when they’re defeated and you can go head-to-head to get the highest score but there’s not really anything on offer once you finish the game. You can play as a couple of different characters in the game’s story but they aren’t added to the roster for replays, there’s no one-on-one fighting mode, and no boss rush or skins to unlock, which is a shame since it would have been a good way to put the points you earn to good use to unlock classic 8- and 16-bit skins. You can, however, unlock a special Battletoads themed ship for Sea of Thieves (ibid, 2018) once you complete all of Act 1…so there’s that, I guess.
I was somewhat apprehensive going into Battletoads; I’ve played the original NES game on Rare Replay and couldn’t get past the Goddamn Clinger-Winger stage but I did have a lot of fun with the arcade version of the game. Thankfully, this version of Battletoads is much, much easier than its NES counterpart; I was worried Rare were going to pull a troll move on us and make a ridiculous frustrating throwback to that era of nigh-impossible videogames but, instead, they delivered an extremely enjoyable beat-‘em-up with just the right level of challenge and variety to keep things interesting.
I was genuinely surprised at how much Battletoads had to offer; calling it a simple beat-‘em-up is probably doing the game a disservice and this may go a long way to explaining why many of the clichés and traditions of beat-‘em-ups are missing. It’s more like a combat-heavy action/platformer and it never lets any one mechanic last long enough to become monotonous or repetitive. While a lot of these gameplay mechanics might have been annoying and frustrating at times (that damn system reboot sequence, for example), once you’ve gotten past them you can focus on a different section that more than makes up for those challenging moments. Perhaps best of all, it makes the Turbo Tunnel actually doable and I never ran into a truly game-breaking roadblock; it’s a shame that there’s not more to it in terms on unlockables and stuff but I can forgive that for the more enjoyable aspects of the game.
How did you find Battletoads? Which of the three Battletoads was your preferred character? What did you think to the game’s mechanics and presentation and how did you find it as a revival of the franchise? Are you a fan of the franchise and, if so, which game is your favourite? Did you find the original game as difficult as its reputation or were you able to clear it without any real difficulty? Which of the TMNT knock-offs was your favourite and would like to see more revivals of old franchises? Whatever your thoughts on Battletoads, or memories of the franchise, feel free to leave them in the comments below.