GameSpite Journal 11 | Battletoads

Rare | Tradewest | NES | June 1991

For years, Battletoads has been my go-to example of a bad game. Any playthrough I attempted as a kid ended with my friends and me killing one another, fighting over who to blame for the game over. I figured I was just bad at the game, but time hardened my opinion as I realized everyone had the same experience, particularly with the infamous Turbo Tunnel, which I was convinced no one could ever beat. The world of the Internet, of message board apologists and Let’s Plays, did little to change my opinion: Everyone who beat the Turbo Tunnel did so through emulator tricks or sheer memorization.

I realized, though, that I could not really explain why I thought Battletoads was bad, other than “it’s super hard.” Battletoads is super hard, but now that I’m older and actually enjoy difficult games, I thought that maybe I could see it in a different light. I also had never played the game solo, where the bothersome mutual player-killing would not be a problem.

I found, to my surprise, that Battletoads has praiseworthy qualities. Chief among them is a desire to surprise the player with fresh ideas at every turn. I also found, ironically, that what I came to like about the game is the source of its problems. I still believe Battletoads is a failure, but not because it is hard. Battletoads fails because it wants to be both hard and surprising, two qualities that cannot coexist.

This issue is not apparent at first. Battletoads does not know what kind of game it wants to be, but the disparate ideas it throws at the player are only a problem when the difficulty kicks in. The first level is genuinely entertaining and filled with fun ideas. The context-sensitive finishing moves which made the game stand out on NES are still neat, if a bit arbitrary. Beating up baby mechs and using their legs as blunt weapons is satisfying (the whole idea of baby mechs is just plain fun). And the boss fight, which switches the viewpoint to that of a giant daddy mech, is still a cool idea, and a lot of fun to fight. Whatever else you can say about this game, the first level is great.

Even the Wookie Tunnel, where most two-player games crash and burn with the ’toads murdering one another, works just fine solo. Battletoads is probably the only two-player cooperative game which is better in one player. Though not as compelling as the first level, the Wookie Tunnel is certainly fair. I had forgotten this level completely, but was able to find my way through almost unscathed. Every mistake was my fault, which I appreciate. The razor-beak ravens, for instance, telegraph the threat they pose to your wire. Battletoads is still in “good game “territory here.

Unfortunately, the Turbo Tunnel is where the game falls apart, and it’s where my second chance came to an end. Things go sour almost immediately. The opening of the stage is dull, with a parade of easy enemies followed by some of the worst pits I’ve ever encountered in a game. Holding up or down while jumping causes your ’toad to fall off-screen for no reason at all. And, of course, you have the turbo bikes.

The turbo bike sequence is more or less emblematic of Battletoads, and for good reason, as it highlights everything wrong with the game. The turbo bike track is hard. Incredibly hard. But the difficulty is not the chief problem with this sequence. When I first jumped on the bike, I was surprised at how fair the level was. The game methodically taught me each of the various obstacles, with more than enough time for reaction. Pink objects are on the ground. Blue objects are in the air. High walls should be avoided. Low walls should be jumped. The walls and ramps blink for about half a second before coming at the player, giving me a chance to plan ahead. For the first couple of segments I was actually enjoying the Turbo Tunnel.

But the developers were not content with creating a simple, challenging level. In the last turbo bike segment the game does something no game should ever do: It changes its vocabulary. The climax of the turbo bike track features walls coming faster and faster at the player—so fast that they no longer blink before coming on the screen. Suddenly I found the reflexes reinforced up to this point no longer applied. The game arbitrarily broke its own rules. Then, out of nowhere, a low wall came at me, but this time it blinked before coming at me. Except now I was expecting obstacles to come without warning and jumped too soon. I eventually finished the level -- just to see if I could -- but I knew my second chance was over. The game had basically bested me by lying to me.

Therein lay Battletoads’ fatal flaw. It wants to be a smorgasborg of ideas while also being difficult. But games which succeed at one of those things typically do so at the expense of the other. A Kirby game featuring thirty separate movesets is easy enough that the player can experiment without feeling punished. A Mega Man game featuring tricky level design is consistent enough that the player knows precisely why he or she failed. Battletoads changes itself constantly, with no room for error, requiring the player to memorize what comes next. Rare wanted a game which looked cool, rather than a game which played well.

Battletoads’ failure is a terrible shame, because the first two levels show that it could have been great. I think that potential may be what made it so symbolic for me in the first place. A bad game that could have been good stands out more than a game which is bad through and through. No matter how you look at it, though, Battletoads is a mess. The level design shows good instincts then throws them away. The game throws more and more surprises at the player, then punishes them for being surprised. I have a better opinion of Battleloads now, but my basic position is the same: Battletoads is a bad game.

By Tyler Lindner? | April 14, 2012 | Previous: GameSpite Journal 11? | Next: Black Sigil