Personal Favorite: BATTLETOADS
Battletoads was my pick for “Personal Favorite” of the NES library. I could’ve also gone with Super Mario Bros. 3, my favorite game of all-time. But I play SMB3 every year, I haven’t played Battletoads in ages, so it was ripe for a playthrough.
Battletoads was developed by Rare, one of the best and brightest software developers of all-time. It was published by Tradewest, who also published another great NES era beat-em-up Double Dragon and who later merged into Midway Games. In 1991 it released to the NES late in the console’s life cycle and it has seen multiple re-releases on various consoles since. The player controls either Rash or Zitz, mutated fighting space frogs determined to defeat the Dark Queen and rescue Princess Angelica. Its a side scrolling “beat-em-up” style of play that features mostly melee attacks but mixes in the use of weapons and vehicles from time to time. The NES version is well known for its insane difficulty. Seldom will you ever seen a top 10, 5 or even 3 “hardest games of all-time” list without Battletoads being #1 or close to it. I’ve played a lot of difficult games in my day, but for my money there is no game more difficult than Battletoads.
I’ve always started with artwork on these blog posts/reviews. Battletoads‘ artwork, while nostalgia and joy inducing, actually isn’t anything special. It shows an accurate idea of the art style and personality of the game, but the artwork itself isn’t anything that stands out among early video game covers. The soundtrack is solid but also doesn’t stand out among the 8bit classics. Its typically mood-setting and catchy, but I did find it needed a bit more variety between level tracks. One feature I did really dig though is having a separate track to play while the game is paused, especially one so basic but so funky. Visually Battletoads again falls under mediocre. The use of color is nice, the pinks, blues and greens properly purvey the space theme. But the art style itself isn’t anything unique or catchy like say a Super Mario Bros. 3 or a Mega Man title in my opinion. Its gameplay is at its base your typical beat-em-up fare, including jumping attacks, picking up weapons, etc.
So if everything is so mediocre technically about the game why do I love it so much? Because the two things it does properly it does them to perfection: personality and difficulty. I consider the top-notch animations the game features to fall under the personality category by the way. The way a combo finishes with a giant cartoony fist never gets old. The shocked expression Rash makes when initially seeing a boss never gets old. The funky dance he does when he ducks under snowballs thrown by a villainous snowman, guess what, never gets old. What you would assume would get old but doesn’t is the difficulty of Battletoads. I don’t think there’s ever been or will be a game that nails difficulty as perfectly as Battletoads in my opinion (the closest might be the first two entries in the Souls series). I say this because Battletoads is very tough, requiring precise technical skill controlling your character as well as knowledge of enemy locations and game world, but it is at the same time built around a forgiving health system. You get plenty of health per life, which you start with three of. This isn’t like Bionic Commando‘s early game where every hit equals instant restart. Normal enemies can hit you 4 or 5 times before you would lose a life. You can also gain some health back by quickly catching flies before they fly away at specific parts of levels. If you do die off you will restart at the start of the current level, not the beginning of the entire game. The difficulty lies in jumping at just the right moment, ducking exactly when you needed to, knowing which part of the stage to run through and which to take your time on. It’s a game that rewards you for playing and that you can tangibly feel yourself getting better at. Nowhere else in the game is that more apparent than in the dreaded “Wind Tunnel” level, which is without a doubt the single hardest level or world I’ve ever played in any video game. It requires precise timing and knowledge to conquer. I got stuck on it for almost a full week. To beat it I had to write down the sequence on a piece of notebook paper. I had 6 rows of inputs with about 25 inputs per row of either “up”, “down”, “jump”, “ramp”, “jumpramp”, “dodge”. Keywords that made sense only to me. At least a dozen or so times a day for a week I’d pull the paper from my pocket and read the inputs to myself, then put it away and try to recall them back one line at a time. When I’d get home from work I’d load up a ROM of Battletoads I had set-up to start at the wind tunnel and I’d practice for a couple hours each night. Every time I died I could hit one button to quickly try again. Then once a night before bed I would play on NES, get back to the wind tunnel, and give her the old college try. On the fifth night I finally did it. For the next two days I did not turn the NES off because I didn’t wanna have to redo that damn level, my electric bill be damned I was not gonna have to beat it again. The rest of the game was easier, certainly not easy, but easier. The mouse level gave me fits for a few hours, and that damn snake level can kiss my grits, but eventually I did get to the final level of the game.
The final level has a cool 3D like effect that has Rash climbing up a spiral tower, pretty unique for its time. I don’t recall another game on the NES trying anything like that. The console itself wasn’t capable of doing motion in the Z-axis, but the developers set the level up in a way that made you feel like you were. It was quite clever. Final boss was cake compared to some of the previous challenges and I had finally done it. I had finally beaten Battletoads, for the first time in my life. As a kid I do not ever recall seeing anyone beat Battletoads in person. On two-player with some luck my friend and I could get past jet-bikes, but we never could conquer the snakes. Never in my life before now have I ever seen Battletoads be beaten. It’s one of my proudest gaming moments and one I won’t soon forget.
If you’ve never played this game, do yourself a service and check it out. But make sure you get the NES version, the ONLY version that matters. Chances are you won’t make it past the hover bikes level, but at least you can say you tried. When your gamer friends are reminiscing, sharing their Wind Tunnel war stories, you can tell them all about the time you made it two jumps from the end before dying that one time and how much you love to hate Battletoads.