If you mention Battletoads to anyone who owned a NES 15 years ago, they probably went on about how amazing it was.
But here’s the thing, they are delusional. As delusional as your standard Greenpeace member. The cosy blanket of nostalgia has enveloped them in a comforting glaze of love for this cartridge based torture. Because think about it, in fact, go back and play it, because when you look past the kickass battle system, all that’s left is cheap level design and a difficulty level so severe you’d be more likely successful winning a real life fight with M.Bison.
Let me break it down and tell you why I think this game was designed by sadomasochists at Rare.
For those unschooled in the ways of the ‘toad, the game had a loose plot surrounding the kidnapping of a couple of what can only be described as toads covered in that ooze from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2. As a result of this kidnapping, you control one of the two other mutant frogs, “battling” through a ridiculous number of intricately designed levels from hell to save them. As the name suggests, the game is a two player beat-em-up, and for its sake, is actually a very good looking game, especially for the NES.
But once you look past the tasty mess of pixels, what you are left with is one of the most cheap and nasty games ever created. From the very first level, you are faced with an awkward control system, jumps to nowhere, and enemies that can hit almost metaphorically hard. Remember those games where you could jump “off” the screen? That’s what happens here too.
The first level is deceptively easy compared to the rest of the game. Aside from a few moments of getting used to the controls, you can generally mash through the enemies and fight quite an interestingly designed and generally entertaining boss. But even this simple level can be made slightly more irritating if you end up playing it with a second player. But why, I hear you say, wouldn’t it be easier to play with a buddy? Well yes, it would be, if Rare weren’t a pack of assholes.
This game, one of the first since Double Dragon, has friendly fire in it. Yes, friendly fire. So if you happen to start a punching combo and you happen to be anywhere NEAR your partner, you will beat the crap out of him. This happens a lot. Because the enemies tend to cluster around you, its difficult to be precise with your hits, so in some cases, you can actually be responsible for killing your team mate. And guess what, if one of you dies, you lose one of the three total continues.
I can’t tell you how infuriating and frankly, embarrassing, it is to get to the end of level one with only one continue left. As a self-confessed hardcore gamer, I consider myself reasonably competent at games, and I don’t like the fact I can be killed in one hit by a teammate. But in any case, the first level is a cakewalk compared to the rest of the game.
The second section has you abseiling down a cave filled with bats and other sorts of random supposedly cave dwelling enemies. But the issue isn’t the enemies, it’s again your goddamn teammate. Since you’re moving down a rope, most of your attacks consist of swing-kicking across the screen. And of course, most times, you hit your fellow toad constantly. Thus dying, eventually losing another continue and possibly starting all the way at the beginning of the game.
What the hell was in the mind of the developers when they made this? Did they never want anyone but the 1% of ridiculously narcissistic gamers to even get near the end? Why only 3 continues? Why no password or battery backup system? Why make the game twice as hard to complete with a friend?
But you kept trying, over and over and over. Even when you got to the third level, which has the be the most frustrating thing I’ve ever tried to complete in my life, and I’ve learnt how to snowboard. In this level, you jump on a motorbike-jetski hybrid and get flung on rails through another cave filled with jumps, vertical barriers, horizontal barriers and are made to dodge your way past all of it at superhuman speeds. This level is unadulterated torture. I flung my controller at the TV, screamed bloody murder and threw all sorts of tantrums all those years ago, and even as a 26yr old I actually did them again.
If you get hit, you die. If you miss a jump, you die. If you partner does either, you both die. If you continue, its back to the start of the level. If you run out of continues, you go back to the start of the whole game. Oh, and you will die. Constantly. I’d say 95% of people played up to this point then either burnt the cartridge or filled it away under “Fuck This”. It felt like a scientific experiment.
Once you get past this point, it just gets harder and harder. One level has you jumping on moving snakes where you need almost complete perfection to complete, you will need to die, again, constantly, to memorize the system and finish it. Not only that, but the US version of the game was littered with bugs. Thankfully, I had a PAL cart, but I couldn’t imagine something that would make the game even more difficult and cheap then it already is. I daresay people probably thought the glitches were part of the Antichrist experience.
There were a few ways to get an edge in this game. There were warp points, which allowed you to skip parts of the game, as well as a few tricks to getting extra lives. But in the end, playing Battletoads was an exercise in futility. If you could complete it, without cheating, I would consider you my nerd god. This was not a fun game for me, and for those who are preparing to flame me, I plead that you play it one more time then relying on memory.
Fun games are actually able to be played with some aspect of mercy. The player has absolutely no control over this game, and its almost impossible to complete without dying a couple of hundred times. Battletoads should have come with a bamboo torture kit, just so you could get the same experience when you were on the go.