Rare’s NES classic returns on Xbox One and PC, as Microsoft reinterprets the aging beat ‘em-up formula for the modern age.
We’ve had to handle a lot of difficult reviews in our time, with The Last Of Us Part 2 being a recent one that caused a lot of internal argument. Was it too long and bloated? Was the gameplay too generic? And did it matter that the storytelling was so uninteractive? All difficult questions with no right answers. The questions for Battletoads are equally irresolvable: who wanted it and is being so inane and vacuous a feature or a bug?
We’re not really being facetious when we ask those questions (well, okay, we are a bit) because we’ve never met anyone who gave two hoots about Battletoads, but then as the most famous entry was a NES exclusive that’s not surprising and we understand it was much better known in the US. Although we’re not really sure what someone that did care about it would want from a modern day, low budget sequel. Other than probably a high budget sequel.
The question of budget is an issue because Battletoads immediately runs into the problem many retro revivals do, where one of the core appeals of the original was that it had state-of-the-art graphics. Battletoads on the NES was one of the most technically advanced games on the system, but Battletoads on the Xbox One looks like a Flash game, and for the most part it plays like one too.
To be fair, the animation in this new Battletoads is very good, although the designs and abilities of the characters are portrayed in such an over-the-top manner that it’s often difficult to make out what’s going on or what exactly the things you’re fighting are meant to be. We realised after a while that they’re all aliens and that Battletoads was always set in outer space (even the Double Dragon crossover), so it was really only the main characters that were a knock-off of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The story for their revival gets forgotten for large chunks of the game but basically revolves around them wanting to be famous again, a quest which involves both regular villain the Dark Queen and some god-like galactic rulers. It’s all played for laughs, except it’s never funny – although the script is very far from the game’s biggest problem.
If you do remember anything of the original games it’ll probably be that they were primarily scrolling beat ‘em-ups, not unlike the Konami TMNT arcade game, interspersed with vehicle levels and various other mini-games. The strange thing about this reboot is it starts out with the same basic mix of elements, with three scrolling beat ‘em-up stages in the first act and a fairly complex set of moves that are different for each of the three toads.
But after that there’s only one proper beat ‘em-up stage in the second act and then… that’s it for the whole game, bar a few single-screen boss battles using the same controls. We think the game is trying to be daring and unpredictable but it just feels as if the developer (Dlala Studios, who don’t seem to have done anything major before) got bored of the whole concept early on and decided to go nuts. Or got lazy. Like we said, it’s hard to be sure.
Apart from a short set of QTEs (which is probably the funniest part of the game) the first non-fighting level is a reimagining of the infamous hover bike levels, which switches the perspective from side-on to into-the-screen but is the same basic idea as you try to avoid obstacles by relying on a combination of fast reflexes and rote memorisation. For some reason the obstacles are still portrayed as if they’re low-tech 2D sprites, even though that’s not what the levels used to look like, but it’s all mildly enjoyable until you realise it goes on forever.
The hover bike stages were the hardest part of the originals – essentially impossible for mere mortals – but while they’re far easier here on the default difficulty they’re never a breeze unless you give in and turn on invincibility (which only becomes an option if you die enough first). But to give you an idea of how long the level lasts the target to get a bonus achievement is 8 minutes and 30 seconds. It felt like it took us days.
After that the game turns into a bizarre collection of non sequitur mini-games that, if anything, is reminiscent of a distended version of WarioWare. There are two inane variants of rock paper scissors, that we still don’t know how we won; a roller-coaster style chase scene that oddly is the only 2D racing section; and some sports themed mini-games that are so aggravatingly clumsy that we seriously began to wonder whether the whole game wasn’t just a giant troll of the franchise’s fan(s).
After that the game goes completely off-the-rails with a series of single-screen bullet hell shoot ‘em-up sections, some 2D puzzle/platform levels, and some other stuff that we probably shouldn’t spoil here but is equally as random and non-entertaining.
The odd thing is that the scrolling beat ‘em-up levels are genuinely fun, if visually confusing, and could easily have been moulded into a game to rival Streets Of Rage 4. Everything else is mostly awful but we have to admit we were always curious about what would come next. Although that’s probably a privileged position that only comes from not having paid for the game.
There is one other important feature though and that’s that the whole game, including all the mini-games, can be played in three-player couch co-op. But even that option is hard to quantify in terms of its entertainment value as the game is confusing enough to make out what’s going on with one person, let alone three, which means other players usually just get in the way rather than helping with the difficult sections.
Theoretically, that should guarantee plenty of co-op rivalry as everyone enjoys blaming everyone else for their mistake. Except we had great trouble convincing anyone else to play the game for more than a few minutes, to the point where we genuinely considered tying them to the couch like the blood test scene from The Thing – complete with the same sense of mounting terror from those forced to participate.
Battletoads is a weird game and we mean that as 80% insult and 20% compliment. What baffles us the most though is where the obsession with ultra-simplistic mini-games comes from. Our memory of the originals was a bit hazy, so we started fast-forwarding through longplays on YouTube and there’s nothing there to explain it. Even the beat ‘em-up sections of the reboot are interspersed with horrible hacking mini-games and the like, which look like they’d be the sort of thing you’d get on the NES – except they weren’t.
The original games were actually highly imaginative, especially given the technology of the time, with the first one featuring the ability to swim and ride other creatures, as well as a boss battle with a rare second person viewpoint, a section that seems very likely to have been the inspiration for Unirally, and an ending that completely ripped off the cool rotating tower effect from Nebulus.
But there’s none of that in the reboot. Instead you get gems like a section where you’re playing mini-games on a Star Trek style console, that involve such taxing tasks as hitting the ‘A’ button as fast as possible.
In the end we’ve come to believe that maybe the trolling theory is accurate and that this is all one big joke carried out by Microsoft, Rare, and Dlala Studios. Either way, we spent the entire time being frustrated, bewildered, and only very occasionally entertained. We don’t think our experience would’ve been improved if we did happen to be big Battletoads groupies though, as this doesn’t seem like something fans, or indeed anyone else, would enjoy.
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