The other week saw the release of Rare Replay for Xbox One, a compilation of 30 titles celebrating the 30-year anniversary of acclaimed developer Rare. Although exclusive to Xbox One, unsurprisingly many of the included titles were originally released on Nintendo consoles, during a time when Rare enjoyed a close and profitable relationship with Nintendo. However, in 2002 Microsoft famously purchased Rare and still owns the studio to this day. As an unfortunate result of this acquisition, games included in the bundle such as Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, and Perfect Dark are not presented in their original N64 versions; Microsoft sadly opted for the games’ Xbox 360 counterparts instead.
But wait! There is one particular title that I was pleased to see in its original 8-bit form, untouched (apart from the removal of “Licensed by Nintendo of America Inc.” on the title screen), and still playing as good as ever: Battletoads.
Originally released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991, Rare and Microsoft have thankfully included a direct port of the NES original for Rare Replay, retaining all of its charm and charisma, and of course that bad ass difficulty curve that just went skyward around about level three, but more on that later.
Battletoads was the brain child of Rare founders Tim and Chris Stamper, who were looking to create a set of characters in a game that would allow them to create huge merchandise on the back of their popularity. Tim Burton’s Batman had just been released in 1989 and both Tim and Chris were inspired by the merchandising that followed the massive Hollywood blockbuster. Alongside this, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had taken the world by storm and gave Tim a foundation to build upon with their character designs, creating what was supposed to be a tongue in cheek version of the heroes in a half shell.
The games three protagonists, Rash, Zitz, and Pimple, were soon created, and the NES game that followed had a more mature, edgy, and violent feel to it compared to the TMNT. What was also unique about Battletoads was, unlike TMNT and most of the other superheroes of the day, Rash, Zitz, and Pimple didn’t carry weapons. They relied on pure brute strength and the ability to transform their limbs or entire body into different comical items such as a giant fist or boot, a wrecking ball, or even huge horns to amplify that devastating head-butt of theirs.
The game’s genre was, and still is, hard to define. Initially you would be forgiven in thinking this was your average side scrolling beat-’em-up, as you make your way through the first level in Ragnarok’s Canyon. Move on to level two, Wookie Hole, and you are suddenly descending into large chasm by a single rope, but still with the beat’em up element playing its part. Then level three’s Turbo Tunnel kicks in. This level leads you into a false sense of security, having you believe you are back on sidescrolling beat-’em-up territory for the first part. Cue two Speeder Bikes, parked conveniently in front of a start ribbon and you are suddenly thrown into one of Battletoads’ many relentless, unforgiving vehicle levels. Later levels also include racing a large rat to the bottom of an elevator shaft in order to defuse a bomb; climbing a dark tower in one of the most difficult platforming sections I’ve ever encountered; and riding a unicycle that defies gravity but will only maintain its speed as long as you are pushing the D-pad in the corresponding direction. So the game is basically a beat-’em-up, platforming, racing, puzzle game. There– easy!
Speaking of the game’s difficulty, the NES version of Battletoads has been voted on countless occasions as one of the hardest games ever made and still stands at number eight in IGN’s ten hardest games to beat. The game’s fast-paced vehicle levels are enough to test any hardcore gamer’s reflexes, requiring pinpoint, split-second timing to make it through to the end of the level. The game was considered so difficult that ports to home computers and other consoles, particularly handheld versions, either toned down its difficulty or removed the offending levels entirely, sometimes replacing them with completely new, re-designed levels. Even the Japanese Famicom version of the game was given several tweaks to give gamers a slightly easier experience.
Regardless of its insane difficulty and the frustration it evokes from all who play it, Battletoads still remains one of NES’s finest and most beloved games. It was a graphical masterpiece at the time, and stretched the console’s tiny 8-bit processor to its limit. Bearing in mind that this was at a time when the market was in a transition to 16-bit consoles, Rare could have easily held out and produced the game for the upcoming SNES. The decision to keep this on NES as intended, essentially giving the console its last hoorah, was an absolute masterstroke.
A number of sequels where produced following the success of the original game, but these were only destined for the new 16-bit era, and SNES enjoyed two iterations: Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, and the wonderfully surreal Battletoads & Double Dragon. Game Boy also had its own separate series. This was mainly due to the original Battletoads Game Boy game being significantly different to that of its big brother NES version, resulting in the sequel Battletoads in Ragnarok’s World, a more faithful conversion of the original, albeit with some key boss levels removed due to system constraints.
As you may have guessed, Battletoads was and still is one of my favorite games, not just of the 8-bit era, but of all time. The inclusion of the NES classic and also Battletoads Arcade on Rare Replay were the only two real reasons I purchased the title; everything else was just a bonus. Back upon its original release I remember completing the game without using any of the warp cheats, and breezing the Turbo Tunnel without losing a life. As I play Battletoads now, I can’t begin to imagine how the heck I did this! I feel like I’ve gone full circle and I’m back at the beginning, playing the game for the first time and having to learn everything from scratch.
If there is one word that sums up the game for me, then this would be “frantic!” Just look up the word and its definition and you get everything that Battletoads has put me through over the years: “distraught with fear, anxiety, or other emotion” or “panic-stricken, overwrought, agitated, distressed, worked up.” Yes, I’d call that a fair assessment! But you know what… I love it!