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Battletoads (NES) artwork

Battletoads (NES) review

"Most people have trouble enjoying this game nowadays. In related news, most people have trouble getting past the third level..."

The third level in Battletoads is the only one that most people seem to remember. It commences as one or two mutant toads land on the first of a series of islands that protrude from a massive lava lake. Armed with comically oversized fists and combat boots, the heroes pound scrawny rats and a few other enemies into submission while taking daring jumps over the boiling soup. Then they mount speed pods and everything goes crazy. Suddenly, the toads are cruising along the wasteland, weaving back and forth to avoid walls, leaping over rocket pods, launching from ramps and moving at such a brisk pace that you can’t help but wonder how the NES hardware manages to keep up with all the action.

There’s a lot to see and do in that third stage, but the real reason people remember it so frequently is that it’s all too often the last one they ever played. By the time many gamers reach the level’s final leg--an unforgiving gauntlet consisting of around twenty walls that must be negotiated in only a handful of seconds--they’ve been broken and they’re ready to call it a day. It’s a shame that area is such a slog, because the creative developers at Rare were only just getting started.

Battletoads made its debut in the summer of 1991, just ahead of the Super Nintendo’s arrival. The timing meant of that release meant that many of the 8-bit title’s accomplishments would be rendered obsolete by games set to arrive only a few months later, titles that took advantage of superior hardware. For a brief time, though, the toads occupied a world that easily ranked among the most beautiful ones that Nintendo fans had ever seen. Each new area was a fresh treat, and some brave souls were willing to endure all manner of punishment just to see what surprise the development team had in store for them next.

Most of the game’s early stages are quite enjoyable, if you have the skill to reach them. The very first one begins simply, with a relatively subdued jaunt along a series of cliffs. Players knock around rats and pigs and even ride on swooping, fire-breathing dragons before they reach the end of the area and do battle with a unique contraption that moves around on metal poles and fires streams of ammo from a motion-tracking turret. The only way to bring down that threat is to grab boulders strewn about the area and hurl them directly toward the screen. A few direct hits will save the day.

From there, the toads must descend a vertical shaft in the game’s second stage. As they drop, the oversized amphibians battle chomping piranha plants and square off with ravens. The vicious foul have steel beaks that they’ll use to sever support lines if given the opportunity. There also are plenty of other hazards, all of which makes for a harrowing drop to the first of the aforementioned ledges within the third stage’s sea of lava.

Another reason so many gamers remember that third stage--while conveniently forgetting the bulk of the first area and the entire second one--is that it’s possible to skip to it from practically the first screen. Players can quickly defeat the first two enemies and then dash to the right and leap onto a nearby ledge, where a glowing warp leads directly to the familiar lava lake. The convenient shortcut makes it all too easy to practice the section with the speed pods as often as you like (which may not be all that long, if you’re not a fan of old school abuse). Not only that, but there are also other warps spread throughout the adventure. If you know what you’re doing, you can opt out of roughly a third of the game.

And just what did so many players miss seeing when they gave up near the end of that infamous third stage? For starters, they never had the opportunity to slip and slide through a spike-lined ice cavern, complete with huge snowballs that roll after them like boulders in an Indiana Jones movie. They never hopped on surfboards and rode along a raging river, dodging explosive mines and whirlpools and leaping to distant waterfalls… with a stop partway through to give them a chance to pound the snot out of a giant rat with inky spiked hair. They never hitched a ride on giant snakes that launched themselves from walls and zipped around lethal spikes in stage six, and they never rode rockets through a lava storm. The question many gamers had to answer for themselves was whether it’s worth putting in the time required to memorize the speed pod stage, just so they could take a stab at everything that follows.

Even if you set aside the unfortunately placed speed pod area (it really should have been saved for much later in the game), many of the levels are too challenging for their own good. Enemy and spike placement is often quite devious, and instant deaths in general are far too common in a game that offers only a few continues before booting the player back to the title screen. Some of the later levels are exasperating to an extreme, including one where you must race a rat to the bottom of an elevator shaft and diffuse a bomb, and the follow-up area that features a ride along a twisting corridor with a lethal orb in hot pursuit. Failure comes far too easily at each turn, and then you have to do everything all over again when you lose your last life. That’s a brutal routine that can prove quite disheartening.

A two-player cooperative mode should have made things much better, but you’ll probably have a difficult time finding a friend who will play with you past that problematic third stage. Unless your pal has memorized all of the same obstacles that you have, he or she will just keep running into walls or dropping into the lava until the “Game Over” screen finally appears. Either that tends to happen, or you’ll start punching your buddy’s toad and throwing him into the lava (which is fun for one of you, at least). By the time any two players are good enough at the game to survive and perhaps even enjoy a cooperative run through its various challenges, both of them will probably be ready to spend their time with some other title that is more immediately rewarding.

Battletoads featured beautiful visuals, a rocking soundtrack, great character design, innovative stages and even cooperative play, but none of those factors were more important in 1991 than the soul-crushing difficulty was. As you might expect, those positive qualities are a great deal less impressive now that more than two decades have passed. The unrelenting challenge might be bearable even now if it had been confined to the game’s final moments, but the developers cranked the dial up to “ridiculous” in only the third stage. The result is a generally brilliant but frequently inaccessible game that unfortunately is difficult to recommend to any but the most determined (and perhaps masochistic) of retro gamers. It’s no wonder so many people remember that pesky speed pod stage…


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (March 09, 2013)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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