The Forgotten: Battletoads on the go and in the arcades

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Battletoads is by no means an obscure game. I’ve played it. You’ve played it. Most of our buddies who grew up with an NES have played it. Despite the game’s brutal and unbalanced difficulty, it is remembered as one of the most beloved titles of the eight-bit generation. That the franchise was shelved seemingly for good after a scant few years is one of the greatest injustices in gaming history.

To call it a franchise, however … well, it technically was franchise, but whenever Battletoads is brought up in casual conversation it is almost always in reference to the original outing. I don’t doubt that you guys are aware of the other entries in the series, but aside from the rare spoken knowledge of their existence what other mention is made? As tasty as the original was, I’m positive that many of you at least sampled some of the other items on the menu. So what’s up?

In a way, this type of situation is far more disheartening than discovering some long-lost game from decades ago. For one reason or another, possibly waning consumer interest or lack of awareness brought on by limited marketing, one, two, or a handful of games in an otherwise beloved franchise are not given to proper recognition they deserve. Well, to hell with that! I will make you remember!

I’ve got two heaping spoonfuls of overlooked mean and green goodness to cure whatever ails ya!

Mad, bad, and crazy on the Game Boy!

Did you know that the Game Boy had the most Battletoads representation out of all the gaming platforms of the day? It somehow managed to run away with three different toad-tastic adventures including the pseudo-crossover Battletoads & Double Dragon and Battletoads in Ragnarok’s World. I honestly never cared much for the former and the latter is a two-years-late port of the NES classic with about half the levels chopped out. That leaves the first game, the self-titled Battletoads which was released mere months after its NES brother.


Mad, bad, and crazy on the Game Boy!

Did you know that the Game Boy had the most Battletoads representation out of all the gaming platforms of the day? It somehow managed to run away with three different toad-tastic adventures including the pseudo-crossover Battletoads & Double Dragon and Battletoads in Ragnarok’s World. I honestly never cared much for the former and the latter is a two-years-late port of the NES classic with about half the levels chopped out. That leaves the first game, the self-titled Battletoads which was released mere months after its NES brother.

Battletoads is a product of that wonderful era of early handheld gaming during which developers didn’t strive to recreate their home console hits but rather opted to design supplementary experiences that evoked the same spirit. That doesn’t necessarily mean that many Game Boy games were bad but rather different. In the case of Battletoads, “different” was good. “Different” meant a single-player adventure with a brisker pace compared to the original.

In the game, you take the role of ‘Toad leader Zitz on a mission to rescue your homeboys Rash and Pimple (gotta love those names!) from the slutty yet sultry Dark Queen. The levels are a mix of familiar elements from the NES game along with some new enemies and obstacles, none of which ever approach the insane size and scope of something like the Terra Tubes. In fact, the large sprites and small Game Boy screen give the impression that stages are over much quicker than the on the NES when the truth is that the difference isn’t that stark. However, that impression isn’t without merit. With eight levels in total, all under three minutes in length including boss encounters, the game has a total run time a mere fraction of that of the original.

Of course, that’s assuming you can survive that long. This game packs just as much challenge as its older brother in its tiny gray cartridge. That means more danger, more deaths, and more frustration per second than is probably necessary, but then again no one plays Battletoads looking for a spring breeze. Adding to the challenge is the remarkable ease in which your health can be drained. Enemies can halve your stamina in a blink of an eye while instant death obstacles appear with greater frequency than ever before.

Halfway through the game, you are forced to race through a maze of worm innards as a bouncing brain tails your ass. With no checkpoints to coddle you, lagging at any moment will send you back to the start. Because of how little of the playing field is visible, successful completion requires a healthy deal of foresight gained through repeated trial and error. I would go as far as to call it this game’s version of the Turbo Tunnel. Speaking of which, the trademark speeder bikes do not make an appearance in this game. If that news disappoints you, I have to ask what the hell is wrong with you.

Those who persevere and draw ever closer to the final encounter are no less susceptible to the game’s little problem spots than beginners. For example, I found my copy of the game the other day stored up in my brother’s closest and, despite having not played the game in nearly ten years, was surprised to find that I could make it to the second to last stage on my first playthrough. I could have gone farther had I not lost five lives in level four trying to make a careful leap across the water to a diving/resurfacing river stone. That is just one of many little niggling areas that impede your well-managed progress.

There is another feature that to all intents and purposes should make the adventure less aggravating. You begin with four lives and three continues, each life lost causing you to respawn in the spot where you died (or at the last checkpoint during obstacle stages). Where it differs from the NES original is that exhausting your lives doesn’t send you back to the start of a stage. Lost continues are treated just like lost lives, so you effectively have 16 lives with which to hack your way to the end. Unfortunately, there is no method to earn extra lives and it is quite easy to lose track of how many continues you have left. That and the speed at which the game rolls along give you a false sense of security, leading you to make unnecessary risks.

So if this game is that much more unforgiving than the original, is it a worthwhile tribulation? I say yes. The game feels like an endurance event, a portable decathlon that can be shared with friends. Who can make it the farthest? Who can avoid getting hit by the whirling axe blades in level eight? And because the game can either be won or lost in no time at all, the game will always be changing hands. You can have a competition with others. You can compete with yourself. Dedicate that next road trip to mastering Battletoads for the Game Boy!

Ball-bustin’ in your local arcade!

When I was about nine or ten, my family visited this amusement center called Boomers! that just opened up. It had everything from go-karts to miniature golf, from laser tag to arcade games. As I wound my way through the forest of pulsating lights and shrill noises, I spotted a familiar logo from my Famicom escapades. I thought, “Naw! Couldn’t be!” Sure enough, it was! An honest-to-God Battletoads arcade game! Immediately, it became my favorite arcade game ever! Every time I revisited Boomers!, I would find that cabinet and tackle the forces of the Dark Queen once again. I was crushed when the cabinet was eventually removed, but as fate would have it, I would run into the game again a few short years later in the back of a new BBQ joint named Park Avenue right in my own neighborhood!

Battletoads was the final hurrah for the boys in green and is the most unique entry in the series. For starters, it is the only game in the franchise to offer three-player co-op. Secondly, whereas its predecessors focused heavily on obstacle courses and ever-changing gimmicks, the arcade version plays as a straight-up brawler in the vein of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Without the need to worry about fickle platforming mechanics and illogical death traps, players are free to smash heads in the most creative fashion possible. Once again, we are saved from the nightmare that is the Turbo Tunnel!

Make no mistake, the game still retains the legendary Battletoads difficulty. The extra power of the arcade motherboard means that more baddies flank your party than ever before. As in the Game Boy game, health can be depleted in no time flat. Every bit a quarter muncher, Battletoads is a far more challenging experience than either Ninja Turtles arcade campaign. Thankfully, the game is much more manageable with a couple of friends in tow, a welcome step up from the broken NES multiplayer.

But the real reason this game stands apart from its brethren is its level of mature content. Unencumbered by the censorship policies of the home console space, the team at Rare was free to make a game that was every bit as raunchy as a story about anthropomorphic amphibians named after skin diseases battling armies of greasy swine and filthy vermin would imply. Enemies blow chunks after hard punches to the gut, the ‘Toads belch deeply after consuming flies, Rash celebrates minor victories by thrusting his pelvis, and an unfortunate rodent grunt struggles with a touch of IBS in a space station bathroom stall. You could say that the game is a precursor to the beloved brand of toilet humor that made Conker’s Bad Fur Day a cult classic.

The game is violent, too. One of the ‘Toads’ signatures is the ability to morph their appendages into deadly weapons like anvils and giant boots in order to deal the coup de grâce. This time around, the ‘Toads have eschewed blunt implements for fare with a bit of an edge. Those boots from before now sport cleats the size of train spikes. Zitz can transform his fist into a power drill and rearrange the faces of fallen victims. Jump attacks become guillotine kicks that separate heads from their hapless owners. No matter how you choose to maim your opponents, attacks produce a satisfying spray of blood before reducing your targets to piles of skulls and bones à la Ghosts ‘n Goblins.

You could only imagine the path of pain you blazed on the NES. In the arcade, every action leaves a visceral mark. The whole thing is raw and unrestrained as though the ‘Toads have finally been freed from their shackles. My God, you get to punch ten-foot-tall bipedal rats square in the nads! If that doesn’t give you a boner then what about a holographic projection of the Dark Queen with jiggling boobs and nipples erect from violent pleasure poking through her spandex? Man, I think a third testicle just dropped!

However. However, all the blood and potty jokes don’t make up for the fact that the game is less varied than the adventures before. By the time you’ve conquered level three, you’ve pretty much seen all the game has had to offer. There are six stages in total, the final shaking the gameplay formula up a bit by playing like Contra in a flying limousine, but unless you have deep pockets you won’t be making it that far. In the end, the game will grow stale before you muster the motivation to power on through.

But then I remember that this is motherfuckin’ Battletoads in the motherfuckin’ arcade and everything is all right again.

Why aren’t you playing these games?

In the case of the Game Boy title, it’s the aforementioned stigma of Game Boy games being typically considered supplemental experiences. Even if a game exceeded your expectations, you never felt compelled to gush about it during playground chatter. When there were awesome NES and SNES games to discuss, what room did the latest handheld adventure have in the conversation? But I know a bunch of you have played it! I’ve seen the game listed in a few of your collections! Should you have missed this game, a quick trip to your local used games retailer could yield results as would a visit to Amazon or eBay. You can snag this puppy on the cheap easily.

If you missed the arcade game, I’m afraid you are out of luck. I don’t think it was produced in large numbers; aside from my two encounters, I have yet to see another cabinet anywhere else. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that it was the same cabinet moved from one location to the other. There is always… well, you know… but you can hardly call that an authentic arcade experience. Plus, such a setup is not conducive to multiplayer shenanigans. If you must, though, who am I to stop ya? And hey, wouldn’t this game be an excellent candidate for an XBLA port? Rare can make it happen!

If anything, I hope this remembrance has enlightened some of you of the Battletoads legacy. I also hope you are inspired to seek out oft-overlooked games from your favorite franchises. Please, don’t let another Battletoads tragedy take place!

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Tony Ponce
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