When Rare was absorbed into the Xbox ecosystem back in 2002, the fate of many beloved franchises became uncertain. From the harsh censoring of Conker’s potty mouth to the bastardisation of everyone’s favourite bear and bird duo, it seemed like it was game over for the Leicestershire based studio. Fast forward 17 years and Rare have managed to transition from an old school developer known for their classics to pioneers of modern gaming, with projects like Sea of Thieves and the upcoming Everwild. So, what about Battletoads?
Well, after being initially back in 2018, Rare’s retro series has finally hopped out of the shadows into the modern world and plopped into the hands of new developer Dlala Studios. The question is, can these violent old amphibians prove their worth in a pond that’s changed drastically since their genesis?
For those who remember, Battletoads originally debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1991, the same year of which the NES was to be succeeded by its super successor. Despite this, these feisty toads managed to spend four years featuring in sequels and ports that helped grow their popularity, cementing their place within Rare’s catalogue of cult classics. It’s needless to say that Rare’s new rendition of Battletoads has a big lilypad to fill, making its critical dissection all the more interesting.
Straight off the bat, it’s clear to see that newcomers Dlala has poured a lot of love into their Battletoads reinvigoration, which is immediately apparent through the Saturday Morning direction the game has taken. It’d be easy to say that Battletoads has simply followed the path of other classic comebacks such as Streets of Rage 4 with a slick hand-drawn aesthetic. Yet, Battletoads somehow manages to stand out within the ever-growing ‘drawn to life’ design genre, with detailed visuals that could’ve escaped from a Cartoon Network caper.
While opting for a hand-drawn style doesn’t grant you a get out of jail card in terms of design, which is evident based on reactions to the recent Earthworm Jim teaser, Battletoads manages to pull it off with a flawless grace. Ultimately, Battletoads succeeds with its chosen art style due to a clear sense of identity. It’s vibrant colour palettes and absurd character designs are matched with wacky animations that stand out clearly in densely detailed 2D stages populated with unique and ludicrous inhabitants. We’re talking electrified pop-corn makers and punk-rock pig men here!
Battletoads is a product of the ‘90s through and through, which is evident within the game’s sense of humour and plot. As it turns out, the once-famous Battletoads haven’t been doing much battling since their last outing. In fact, they’ve been trapped in a bunker for the past 26 years proving that these heroes can battle the greatest enemy of all – the passage of time.
Defying against the monotony of ordinary life, our toads decide that they don’t want to be has-beens, instead opting to do what they do best – find the bad guy and smash them with their oversized fists.
A ridiculous amount of self-awareness is what drives Battletoads, with the whole affair acting as a commentary on the franchise and its reluctance to fade into obscurity. Not only are the gags and sequences exceptionally well written, but they’re enhanced with some hilarious instances of player intervention, such as having you press controller buttons to make the toads perform their temporary day jobs during a cutscene. Being able to make you smile is what gives Battletoads an edge, even before you get to experience the core gameplay, which is of course the real reason you’re playing.
As a 2D beat-em-up, Battletoads is a fairly standard affair, beautifully exaggerated by its theatrical animation. Players can assume the webbed feet of Rash, Zitz, and Pimple, with the ability to swap between each toad at any time using the d-pad. The trio ties their physical prowess to their cliched personalities, with Pimple being fast and nerdy, Zitz having brutish strength and Rash being somewhere in between. Despite drawing from the same core combat mechanics, every battling toad feels unique enough.
Considering the simplicity of the genre, Battletoads manages to keep you on your toes, infusing its combat mechanics with a ruleset that deters mashing buttons to succeed. For one, you’ll have to focus on pulling off combos to deal with the ridiculous amount of enemies on screen, as failing to deal with every threat on-screen swiftly can lead to overwhelming carnage. Enemies also have specific attack patterns, ranging from charge attacks to shockwaves, which requires an element of caution. Button bashers might feel slightly uneasy playing Battletoads, but implementing specific combat rules helps keep the tedium of throwing punches at bay, something that is commonplace within the genre.
Some weirdo aggressors also like to put their guard up, which means they can’t be damaged until you use your toad’s block-breaking move, which looks a bit like a Looney Tunes inspired Mortal Kombat finisher. While this might sound like a barrel of laughs, it’s easily one of the most frustrating aspects of combat, especially since it’s your only option for getting rid of these cretins. Failing to smash through an enemies block quickly can also leave you open to a pot shot, which is sure to cause some rather explosive rage quits.
As well as being able to pound enemies into submission, our frog-like friends can also use their extended tongues to grab items, enemies and move to different platforms using the left trigger followed by a specific face button. What should be fun becomes frustrating: pulling an enemy towards you requires pressing different buttons to grabbing an item, often causing confusion in the midst of combat. It doesn’t help that the same trigger also activates the ability to spit at enemies. There’s nothing worse than spitting at someone when you meant to envelop them with your 5″10 tongue.
In terms of overall difficulty, Battletoads isn’t as brutal as its predecessors, which are notorious for being ‘NES hard’. In single-phase, the trio protagonists are used as a life support system, with each toad gradually regenerating half a bar of health back if they fall in battle. Despite being asked to choose your preferred toad before playing, you’ll find you’ll have to use all three unless you manage to take minimal damage. The critical thing to remember is that it’s three toads and you’re out, so look after your angry green friends.
Laced in between combat intervals are instances of puzzles and mini-games, which honestly feel more like a chore than a fun break from breaking faces. Luckily, if you didn’t enjoy the kind of puzzles found in the likes of Bioshock, a fail-safe can be triggered that allows you to bypass them, which then makes them feel somewhat pointless. Some levels also feature a different style of gameplay altogether, something that aligns with the original NES release. There’s a ‘Turbo-Tunnel’ inspired level that is sure to spark sound nostalgia and a level that dives into the shoot-em-up genre. Depending on your own personal tastes, these levels will either feel like a drag or a fun challenge in between the madness of combat.
Battletoads could have survived by doing a lot less, yet Dlala has gone above and beyond what would have been required to grab the attention of hardcore fans. The result is a challenging, yet accessible, ‘90s inspired beat-em-up that doesn’t rely on nostalgia to be charming, fun and engaging. Sure, there’s some aspects of the game that feel a bit lacklustre or frustrating, but at its core, Battletoads is full of heart. This revival has put the toads back in the spotlight, giving them more of a chance to shine than ever before. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rash, Zitz, and Pimple end up with their own TV show.