Despite hours of mind-numbing effort, I could not conquer “Battletoads” as a kid. The 1991 beat-’em up is notorious for its difficulty. It’s a game that requires superhuman reflexes and monkish levels of patience.
Taking on the classic on the NES or Xbox One is torture. Thumbs will ache, controllers will be thrown, tears will be shed and curses will reverberate through the house. It’s a horrible experience, yet “Battletoads” is still revered among core gamers. Half the allure was its advanced visuals for the 8-bit age and the other part was that challenge. It was fun and rewarding to burgeoning masochists.
Almost 26 years after the latest entry, “Battletoads Arcade,” a follow-up has finally launched, rebooting the franchise. Developed by Dlala Studios and Rare, it has a drastically different look and updated gameplay. To some fans it could be apocryphal with its voiced characters and hand-drawn graphics, but after dying a few times on a turbo bike level and yelling expletives, they’ll feel at home.
“Battletoads” (2020) looks like a playable cartoon in the style of “Ren and Stimpy” or the “Fairy OddParents.” Rash, Zitz and Pimple each have exaggerated features that separate them on screen. They also have unique sets of moves and attributes. Pimple, the burly one, moves slower but packs a punch while Rash is more agile and relies on splashier moves. Zitz is the best all-around fighter.
The campaign begins with the Battletoads walking down the red carpet like celebrities, beating up the occasional ne’er-do-well. This introduction teaches players new moves, as well as the basics. Soon after, the trio realizes that they’ve been stuck in a virtual dome for more than two decades. The world has changed, and they’re now nobodies who have to get a day job. It’s a far cry from the Battletoads’ heyday, when they were knocking the Dark Queen into outer space and saving the galaxy.
“Battletoads” (2020) is self-aware of what it is and the developers play off that to excellent effect. It has a wry sense of humor as it puts the washed-up warriors in menial jobs, which are essentially mini games. It seems as if the amphibian warriors will fade into obscurity, until a series of events pits them against the Topians — Uto and Pia.
The two are comparable to the Celestials in the Marvel Universe and they are responsible for the Battletoads’ long imprisonment. With that in mind, Rash, Zitz and Pimple head out to battle them after visiting a familiar foe.
The adventure isn’t a straight line to revenge though; instead, it takes several halting detours across four acts. They’re jarring and more often played for forced laughs. Players will run into an episode that resembles “Weekend at Bernie’s,” while others are an excuse to bring puzzle elements and “Galaga”-style levels into the gameplay.
Although “Battletoads” (2020) ends up sidetracked with these stages, Dlala and Rare do a surprisingly good job of mimicking the challenge of the original. The combat is more complex with the trio having light, heavy and morph attacks. Players will rely on an evasion button to dodge punches, while another button lets Zitz, Rash and Pimple spit gum to slow foes or lash a tongue out to eat health-giving flies.
Overall, the fisticuffs are more complex, testing players’ strategy as they figure out what adversaries to prioritize and how to use the new moves to finish foes off quickly. In the single-player mode, a gamer can cycle through each Battletoad during combat. If one loses all its health, it’s defeated for a short time and players have to stay alive for that countdown to use the hero again. If all three faint, they must start over from a checkpoint.
With all its complexity, the new moves don’t always work well. Punching and kicking are fine, but the gum and tongue lash become unwieldy. As the screen fills with 15 foes, it’s tough to target a specific one. Players will fire blindly, hoping somethings sticks. In the multiplayer mode, teammates can revive each other, but it also puts pressure on the whole squad to be great at combat. If one ally falls, they’ll have to revive them and stay alive. The anarchy on screen makes the game harder.
The other element that feels right is the vehicle and obstacle stages. This is where old “Battletoads” tested players’ skill, and the new carries that same DNA. Players will jump aboard turbo bikes to race to a theme park by dodging walls and jumping over pits. It’s an echo of the infamous Turbo Tunnel, but the difference here is that this challenge comes from a vertical perspective. It may look different, but it still requires split-second timing.
That vibe carries over to the difficult Mis-treatied stage, which requires precise button presses as the toads glide and grind rails using an, ahem, makeshift sled. It’s the campaign’s hardest level. Other challenges come from outracing a pit of acid as players make their way down an obstacle course, or doing several timed puzzles in a row to save a ship from exploding.
These stages are challenging, but with generous checkpoints and some perseverance, players can complete it. In the original, success was rewarded by a glimpse of what the next level looked like. In the reboot, the payoff comes from watching a long, animated cut-scene that could be mistaken for a Nickelodeon cartoon.
“Battletoads” (2020) is nowhere near perfect, but it captures the essence of the original. The attempts to modernize it with more complex combat don’t always work, just like the sidetracked adventures, but fans will appreciate the creativity involved. The game crackles with energy. Unfortunately, the developers couldn’t harness that enthusiasm enough to put more of it in the right place.