When Battletoads arrived on the Nintendo Entertainment System in June 1991, it rode on a wave of limited-time momentum in the West. Ninja Turtles fever was still a thing. The NES ruled the charts, even though Sega’s own attitude-filled mascot was about to emerge. And Nintendo’s official US magazine devoted page after page to a new, weirdly named toad trio: Zitz, Rash, and Pimple.
As an early ’90s pre-teen, I was convinced that Battletoads was absolutely massive. I later realized that wasn’t the case; a lot of people hated how hard the first game was, while subsequent games flopped. But I’ll always be fond of the original game’s graphical tricks, over-the-top combat, and wacky mix of genres.
Nothing—not even this week’s inspired-yet-messy series rebirth—can take that away from me. For all of its good moments, this year’s 10GB version of Battletoads is somehow less diverse and exciting than the 256KB original.
The Looney Tunes-caliber stuff
The new game, simply titled Battletoads, sees the series’ corporate handlers at Rare Ltd. hand their web-toed fighters to Dlala Studios, an English developer with an eye for hand-drawn 2D art. You can tell why they got the job after playing the first two levels. The game’s best bits are a delight to play, either solo or with friends.
Sadly, Dlala picked the series’ first game as its inspiration, as opposed to 1994’s more straightforward Battletoads Arcade (which Xbox owners can play on the Rare Replay anthology). Times have changed since Rare’s crack programmers squished so many genres into a tiny cartridge, and by the time I got through the crushingly short game (only 2.5 hours), I realized Dlala was not up to the same task.
We’ve seen some killer 2D beat-’em-up revivals as of late, and in great news, Battletoads‘ combat portions are up there with the likes of Streets of Rage 4 and River City Girls. Each of the starring ‘toads has a unique and accessible move set, and their variety of punches, “launchers,” and sweeping attacks strikes a satisfying balance between quickness, power, and ridiculous animations. You’re here for the Looney Tunes-caliber stuff, after all, and it’s not just fists and feet turning super-sized when a punch combo reaches its climax. Each character has a few particularly over-the-top “heavy” attacks, as well, like when Rash conjures the series’ original arcade cabinet and uses it to whack his enemies.
This isn’t an endless animation parade of new maneuvers, mind you; you’ll see each character’s complete attack arsenal after completing the first level. But the basic attacks do well to strike an appropriate balance between hilarious and unobtrusive.
Great humor, rough color saturation
The same cannot be said for the enemies’ art style, which revolves around invented races of aliens who come in anatomically unsound shapes and colors. Their attack patterns and animations are actually quite awesome, and the basic act of kicking their weirdly shaped butts feels good. But by and large, the backgrounds’ color saturation matches poorly with the foes’ acid-trip designs. While you’ll have to strategize in focusing on particular foes to survive (and using the Battletoads’ clever new tongue-spit system to deal with anything on the other side of the screen), you’ll also possibly need to pause the game and furiously blink on occasion.
Also, heads-up: the general formula has been tweaked to add a “quick-dodge” maneuver, and while it fits nicely with this game’s combat, that means the classic “run-and-tackle” attacks of yore aren’t here. And neither can you expect to bash a robot, pick up its legs, and use it as a weapon for future battles. (In fact, there’s no wielding or throwing any weapons in Dlala’s version of Battletoads.)
The thing is, those wacky, unreadable character designs are a sheer delight outside of combat, because they fill a serious acid trip of a plot. Between levels, fully animated sequences tell the story of exactly why Zitz, Rash, and Pimple disappeared for 26 years and how they intend to claw their way back to superhero status on a new alien planet. All through the course of the game, the dialogue and voice acting do a wonderful job of erring on the side of cheese, camp, and absurdity, and even when the results veer dangerously into “try-hard” territory, they still range from amusing to roaringly hilarious. (With one exception, which I’ll get to.)
Variety is not the spice of these ‘toads
In the original NES game, however, combat was but one part of the package. Dlala appears to have missed the memo on exactly what made that game’s variety so special.
In the NES game’s case, Rare pushed the NES to its limits in tweaking the side-scroller formula. Some of these were clear homages to Super Mario Bros. (swim through spikes, slide through ice), while others were wholly unique (grab onto and ride massive snakes, pilot speeder bikes, climb a “3D” tower). Dlala has only paid one of these original concepts forward in the form of the speeder bikes, and their 3D transformation is fine enough, with the same emphasis on tricky, last-second dodging and jumping (made easier in the game’s “default” difficulty).
Unlike the NES game, Dlala has a few quick-time event levels that exist entirely for comedy’s sake. I won’t spoil exactly how these play out, other than to say that they start out as hilarious surprises and eventually become time-wasting, button-tapping frustrations.
This year’s game also has some side-scrolling, Mario-styled levels without combat, but compared to the edge of the 1991 game’s snake-riding, ice-sliding, or surfboard-bouncing zones, these newer platforming levels feel toothless and generic. Their art style’s aggressively flat staging compares unfavorably to the likes of Rayman Legends, while their rolling-momentum jumps feel really clumsy compared to Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. In a larger game, one or two of these levels might be fine, but by the fourth, I was pretty worn out.
In addition, one level has players ride a mine cart (of sorts) and press buttons to “grind” on various surfaces, while another three levels put players in control of a twin-stick shooter, where they have to shoot at aliens. Both of these are cute diversions worthy of the “what genre is coming next” appeal of Battletoads, but the latter lasts for far too long. The NES game knew better than to make players repeat certain level types over and over.
Scrambling to make jokes out of tragedy
Then again, the NES game had more variety to work with. Everything I just mentioned is it for the 2020 game. Standard combat; speeder bikes; one type of non-combat platforming; a mine cart; shoot-’em-up battles; and QTEs.
Earlier this year, I breathlessly recommended Streets of Rage 4 because its similarly brief runtime was dedicated to a finely honed brawling system. You can get an easy 10 hours out of that game, if not more, by replaying with wildly different characters and teaming up with friends. Battletoads, on the other hand, is the worst of both worlds: it struggles with pacing between a series of uneven gameplay modes yet somehow also doesn’t deliver enough of them. Did other series homages get cut during its production? Did Dlala spend too much time nailing the combat instead of fleshing out the variety?
One hint comes from Battletoads‘ mostly funny plot. During my testing, I was confused by a few lapses in continuity, whether because the characters riffed on a fourth-wall-breaking story of something missing in the game or because a few plot circumstances emerged with zero explanation. Now that I’ve played the whole thing, I’m convinced that Dlala cut entire chunks of the game, perhaps late in production, and the script’s writers were left scrambling to make a joke out of that tragedy.
Arguably, I’m more heartbroken than most potential Battletoads players. Unlike the NES original, this new game benefits from milder default difficulty, particularly thanks to respawn and checkpoint options during the most brutal sequences (which can be disabled, should you seek more challenge). And many of the above comparisons won’t register for people who barely remember this series’ brief place in the Nintendo Power spotlight.
The larger issue, arguably, is the lack of online multiplayer. Unlike Streets of Rage 4, Battletoads is offline-only, so if your ideal playmate can’t get to your couch as of late, I’d recommend other superior beat-’em-up options. Should you have a good two- or three-person posse on your couch, and you already pay for Xbox Game Pass, expect a funny, brief, 10-and-older cartoon romp. But Dlala has implemented just enough obnoxious stuff between Battletoads‘ good bits to stop me, a pretty freakish Battletoads fan, from recommending that anyone buy it outright.