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Battletoads arrives at a wonderful time for beat-em-ups. After years of relative dormancy, fans of the genre have recently been spoilt for choice.
Amongst the selection of excellent indie brawlers like River City Girls and The Ninja Saviors, earlier this year we were graced by the triumphant return of a Sega classic with Streets of Rage 4. The bar is high, then. But thankfully, Battletoads grabs that bar and beats you to death with it, then spits bug-flavoured bubblegum on your corpse. In other words, it lives up.
According to the wonderfully self-aware intro sequence, the Battletoads have spent the last 26 years – the exact amount of time since their last outing, 1994’s Battletoads Arcade – fighting evil for the good of the people. But, it turns out, they’ve been unknowingly trapped inside a virtual world down in a VR bunker; all of their heroic acts were completely fake.
And so, in a turn of fourth-wall-breaking fate, the Battletoads have faded into obscurity. Now, they seek to regain their fame by finding the most infamous villain around, and punching them until they stop breathing. Sounds like a plan.
At first, it’s all very run-of-the-mill. Battletoads allows you to plough through the first level of rudimentary minions for just about long enough to get your head around the most basic controls. Then it slaps players with the full breadth of its fight system, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is no simplistic button-masher, but a complex, strategic brawler with nuance and a steep learning curve. Oh, and a level of challenge that’ll make Dark Souls fans look like professional Just Dance players.
Let’s give you some idea of what we’re dealing with: The basic combo is a flurry of simple attacks followed by a finisher move for a massive final blow. Time your finisher correctly and you’ll perform an even more powerful move. Finish with the uppercut instead, however, and that sends enemies flying, giving you a window to jump up and hit them with some mid-air jugglers and another final smash.
Then you tap the R-trigger to dash a couple times to avoid landing right in the middle of the mosh pit of enemies that have gathered below. Each Toad has their own attributes and fighting style too, so in single-player you can switch them out mid-combo with a tap of the corresponding D-pad direction to add variety. All very manageable, right? But wait.
Hold the L-trigger and now, each of the four face buttons take on a secondary function. You can spit gum at enemies to stun them momentarily, grapple and pull yourself towards your foes, or pull them toward you. You can harpoon flies to regain health, or swing from hooks in the level to reach background platforms as fights take place over two separate plains.
“For better or for worse, the game isn’t shy about overwhelming you with sheer numbers; one minute you’re solving a simple connect-the-dots puzzle to unlock a door, the next you’re surrounded by a dozen weird and wacky goons.”
And here’s the thing; you’ll have to do absolutely all of that in the heat of battle to have a chance in hell of surviving. It’s a lot to chew on, and unlike other brawlers, Battletoads won’t let players settle into using a small subset of these systems. It forces you to deploy each and every technique in the book, or die.
There are enemies that won’t take damage unless you charge up a big power-hit. Others will dodge out of harm’s way unless you spit gum in their faces first. Ranged enemies will force you to evade and grapple effectively, while others try their best to pin you down. And some enemies have attacks so dangerous you’ll be dodging everyone else just to pound them first.
For better or for worse, the game isn’t shy about overwhelming you with sheer numbers; one minute you’re solving a simple connect-the-dots puzzle to unlock a door, the next you’re surrounded by a dozen weird and wacky goons. The broody, ambient music transforms to thrashing metal riffs, and all hell breaks loose.
Its unrelenting brutality will no doubt infuriate players who fail to grasp its concepts or take issue with its complexity. Admittedly, giving every button two functions feels like overkill in the systems department. And some battles throw so many enemies at you it’s almost egregious. But the magic is in grasping these systems and mastering their deployment.
To the untrained eye, what ensues is a constant barrage of desperate flailing, but like Neo seeing the Matrix, you will learn to adapt to the chaos, deploy the right toad, pick your windows to attack and how to use what little space is available to you.
At that point, your failures will feel fair. Enemies attack in unique but obvious patterns with clear tells that can be learned and circumvented. If you make a pig’s ear of a situation, you get your head kicked in. But you take a moment. You learn. You re-strategise. And then you return to the action to put fist to alien face.
“Having two additional players on hand is a hoot, with each toad serving as a valued member of the team given their varying combat styles, and the carnage elevated by the three of you beating the snot out of enemies all at once.”
Battletoads is also mightily forgiving with its checkpoint system, for a game with its roots set in a punishing NES classic. In Streets of Rage 4, for example, a visit to the Game Over screen sends players back to the start of the level. In Battletoads, you’ll only ever have to backtrack one fight or two. And Game Over only comes once all three toads – which have their own replenishable life bars – are knocked out.
That said, you will absolutely have an easier time in co-op mode, with local support only for up to three players. Having two additional players on hand is a hoot, with each toad serving as a valued member of the team given their varying combat styles, and the carnage elevated by the three of you beating the snot out of enemies all at once.
The game also mixes things up with all manner of weird and wonderful variant stages. Long time Battletoad fans will be excited (or utterly terrified) to try their hand at the 3D rendition of that infamous Turbo Tunnel level from the NES original, this time charging into the screen instead of sideways. It’s brilliant. And that’s just the start of it.
In keeping with the original game’s penchant for differing gameplay, there’s a level reminiscent of the Donkey Kong Country Minecart Madness stage, with the added mechanic of having to switch vehicles mid-jump to match the surface type. Another level feels like a cross between a bullet hell shooter and Geometry Wars – and is so good it could be its own game. Others, each more bizarre than the last, are best kept a surprise.
This is what keeps Battletoads consistently entertaining throughout, no matter how hard it gets. While beat-em-ups often suffer from the curse of repetition – using the same small set of moves to defeat waves of repetitive, samey enemies – Battletoads fends off any hint of monotony by mixing things up with a diverse and complex fight system, wonderfully varied and bonkers enemies, interesting levels full of obstacles and puzzles, and entirely new and inventive variant stages with gameplay that spans entirely different genres.
The slapstick humor is intentionally corny, but its characters end up being genuinely lovable, the plot is nonsensical but charmingly self-aware and doesn’t take itself seriously, and the soundtrack is absolutely banging. Battletoads isn’t just a worthy reboot, it’s one of the best beat-em-ups in a brilliant year for the genre.
Much like the NES original, Battletoads is an epic adventure with heaps of charm, fun combat and brutal challenge. While its fight system may be a little over convoluted, mastering it pays off with satisfying, hard-fought, snot-covered victory.
- Playful, funny slapstick story
- Fun and varied enemy types and levels
- Satisfying combat loop
- Controls can feel over-complicated