Battletoads’ unlikely revival is flawed but fantastic
With a heavy metal sound and a kids’ cartoon look, the almost-forgotten Battletoads franchise is back with a charming and hilarious genre-hopping adventure that’s a joy to play through despite some frustrating difficulty spikes and uneven pacing.
Ostensibly a side-scrolling beat-em-up for one to three players, you’ll spend around half the game fighting through waves of enemies in colourful and fun but ultimately fairly repetitive slugfests. It’s in the other half where this reboot really hits its stride; the sections between fighting levels where you play in a variety of different game styles and watch scenes of what is essentially a funny and very well executed animated short film.
The original 1991 Battletoads starred Ninja Turtle knock-offs Rash, Zitz and Pimple, and was infamous for its unfair difficulty. But the cool look and edgy vibe was enough to spawn a brief wave of popularity and three additional games by 1994.
This 2020 entry begins as though nothing’s changed in all that time — the trio is still kicking rats and pigs all over the screen and being hailed as heroes — but it’s soon revealed they’ve actually been trapped in a hole for 26 years and convinced of their ongoing relevance via virtual reality. Once returned to the real world — or rather to the strange sci-fi world of gross anthropomorphic animal aliens the series is set in — the Toads realise nobody remembers who they are.
It’s a clever premise that puts the characters in a similar “has-been” category as the series itself, and overall the narrative and presentation here are easily the best in the saga’s history. If a ’90s Nickelodeon show was remade in 4K there’s a good chance it would look like this — from the goofy and grotesque enemy design and the Toads’ bizarre transformation abilities to the goo-filled levels — and the riff-heavy soundtrack is dumb but effective.
Like its inspiration this is a difficult game, but it’s nowhere near as unfair as old-school Battletoads. Each beat-em-up level is a series of wave-based encounters that challenge you to string together huge combos of strikes, uppercuts, tongue-whips and body-morphing special attacks while keeping an eye out for enemy moves to dodge.
It plays a lot more like a fighting game than a standard beat-em-up like the excellent Streets of Rage 4, with the added complication of some weird controls and the need to fight up to a dozen enemies at once. It’s a steep learning curve, and just mashing the X button to punch won’t get you very far, but the game is generous enough with its auto-saving that failure doesn’t set you back too far.
Each Toad has its own special moves and combos, and its own level of speed and power, so some are more suited to fighting specific enemies than others. If you’re playing solo you’ll need to figure tagging between Toads into your combos, which takes some getting used to, while local multiplayer can make things a touch easier if the players are cooperating well. Unfortunately there’s no option for online play.
The hand-drawn animation is amazing and in a visual design sense there’s a good diversity of locations and enemies, but in practical terms all the fights feel pretty much the same with combinations of a handful of enemy types thrown at you throughout.
This is a brief game of around four hours, but even so I found it unevenly weighted towards drawn-out encounters, some of which bordered on the obnoxious. That said you can’t really get tired of turning Rash’s hands into a dead fish and slapping a bunch of ghost lumberjacks out of your face.
In-between levels range from a new (much more forgiving) take on the original game’s vehicle and sledding stages to riffs on other genres including shooters and platformers, and on the whole I enjoyed these interstitials a lot more than the standard brawling. They occasionally veer a bit too close to old-school-for-the-sake-of-old-school, but they’re all so creative and don’t overstay their welcome.
These off-beat challenges also integrate the game’s humour a lot more smoothly than the beat-em-up levels. An early example of this is in the first turbo bike segment, where Chet the bike hire guy keeps popping up on your communicator reminding you not to wreck his bikes and threatening to have his beautiful sons spread rumours about you on the internet.
In fact the humour is one of the most welcome and surprising aspects of this whole game, with the extended cutscenes giving off a similar wacky violence energy to cartoons like Teen Titans Go! or Regular Show. Each Toad has a defined personality, and the witty self aware commentary on games in general — and often the post-Battletoads history of original developer Rare in particular — is brilliant. I especially love the new more active role for antagonist Dark Queen. A lot of sad sacks on the internet may be loudly upset that she no longer looks like a BDSM Elvira (a fact that the character briefly but brilliantly addressses in the game), but here her evenly-measured evil genius is a great foil to the Toads’ manic heroism.
Overall this is a great 21st century reintroduction for the Battletoads. A bit too beholden to the difficult brawling action of the past it may be, but it’s also stylish, creative and funny in ways that so few 2020 games can match.
Battletoads is out now on Xbox One (reviewed) and PC.