Monday, October 1, 2012

Why Battletoads is a Great Game

If you've heard of Battletoads, you probably know it because of its notorious difficulty. Indeed, Battletoads is incredibly difficult, but this game deserves some more recognition for its other aspects as well, which are also quite impressive. So let's dig into this, piece by piece.

The Difficulty
I'll start with the difficulty since that's what it's known for, but instead of just saying "omg, I never finished level 3", let me tell you why the difficulty level in Battletoads is actually well designed. For one, the controls are pretty tight and responsive, even though it has a wide variety of gameplay, rarely are your deaths due to faulty controls. Unlike many classic beat 'em up games, in Battletoads, I almost never have trouble hitting enemies due to not being perfectly lined up with them or getting damaged from unclear contact boxes. If you get hit, it's usually your own fault. 

Just as importantly, the game gradually introduces you to new elements and doesn't just throw death at you unexpectedly. This game isn't like I Wanna Be the Guy which requires you to memorize every trap by trial and error; the difficulty in Battletoads is fair. It is such that for the most part you will know how the game works, know what you have to do, and theoretically, if you were good enough, you would be able to survive on your first try just by your skill. But don't feel too bad; no one in the world is good enough to beat this on their first try. Sure, there are a few points that may induce unexpected deaths, but for the most part, each obstacle is introduced slowly, so you know what you have to do when it gets harder later in the level. The infamous Level 3 is a perfect example. It doesn't just start throwing obstacles at you that you have to memorize; it starts off slow and quickly speeds up once you understand the basics. It even indicates where incoming obstacles will be, so all you have to blame for your death is your own lack of skill.

There are even fairly regular checkpoints in each level. The only points I'll concede are that the inability to save and limited continues are a bit unfair. There are also a few glitches, which certainly aren't representative of the game as a whole, and the fact that you can attack your partner while playing 2-player also detracts a bit from the experience. But for the time, that sort of thing was pretty standard. If the game had been released today, the glitches at least could have been patched and saving would be simple.

The Graphics
Looking back, the graphics in Battletoads may not be all that exciting, but they're actually some of the best on the NES. Not only are all the characters, enemies, objects, and backgrounds really detailed, but the art direction is unique and there's even some parallax scrolling going on (as seen in the Turbo Tunnel video above). As for the unique art direction, that comes in mostly with the toads' attacks, which often involve their arms and legs becoming comically huge as they smash the enemies or even them growing ram horns as they headbutt enemies. In some levels you can even pound enemies into the ground and then kick them and in another you can momentarily transform into a wrecking ball. It doesn't make any sense, but it makes destroying your enemies all the more satisfying.
Turning into a wrecking ball isn't normal. But on Battletoads it is.
Unlike other games which tend to recycle the same enemies and backgrounds for the whole game, Battletoads uses completely original stuff for every level and has a wide variety even within each level. Probably the most impressive is the last level, The Revolution, which I doubt many players have ever made it to without cheating; I sure didn't. This is a level you have to see in motion to understand why it's cool:
It spins! As you run side to side, the tower moves to give the impression that you're running around it! How cool is that!? The enemies and platforms move with it too for a believable effect that was way cool for the time. The only other place I had seen something like this was in Kirby's Adventure, which also had some of the best graphics on NES, but the effect in Battletoads goes above and beyond even Kirby in this case. That Kirby example wasn't even in the GBA remake of Kirby's Adventure, because they were either unable or unwilling to do the same awesome effect again on a new system. So that just shows how special and impressive it is.

The Music
The music... is also pretty good. It's original, it's catchy, and there's a fair bit of it too. And in a game this hard, it's extra important to have good music, because you'll be hearing it until you finish the level. At least while you're dying you can be bobbing your head to some good and memorable music. I guess I can't claim that it's all fantastic music, but I'd say about half of it is really good. Oh, and by the way, it's composed by David Wise, the same composer who made the music for the Donkey Kong Country games. 

Anyway, here are a couple samples, since listening to it will serve you better than my description:

Also, the pause screen has music. It doesn't get much better than this:

The Variety of Gameplay
Just as almost every level has original music and art, they also have a wide variety of gameplay. This game is only partially a beat em' up game; the rest is swinging on rope, riding hoverbikes, throwing snowballs, racing rats, riding snakes, flying a jet, surfing, and defying gravity on a one-wheeled vehicle while being chased by a ball of energy. Any other NES game would've taken just one of these ideas and made a whole game out of it, but Battletoads explores each, makes them challenging, and then swiftly moves on to something new before anything becomes too stale. Many of the levels introduce small new things too that are used only in that level, like springboards or ice blocks that slide. These new elements are consistently well executed and are the biggest factor that makes Battletoads so great. When you finish a level, you deserve something for your trouble, and what you get is practically a new game in itself. 


Then there's really neat and clever things throughout, like the boss of the first level which is fought in 2nd person, that is, from the boss's perspective. I can't say for certain that this doesn't exist in any other game, but I certainly don't remember it from any other games I've played. There's also an enemy that looks like a classic Space Invader that actually steals your health directly from your health bar. In order to regain the stolen health, you have to hit them before they get away and then catch the squares of health they drop to make them go back up to the health bar where they belong. It's really unique and interesting stuff and it makes the game even more fun to play.

The Final Word
Battletoads may only have 12 levels (13 if you count the final boss), but they are absolutely packed with content. With tons of unique graphics, enemies, gameplay, music, and challenges that are rarely unfair, Battletoads deserves to have a reputation as a great game rather than just a hard game. Here's hoping for another sequel someday.


If you like Battletoads, check out:
5 Ridiculous Couples That Could Totally Work (A Battletoads character is featured!)
TheMexicanRunner, one of the best Battletoads players in the world who speedruns the game on Twitch. Thanks for linking to this post!

3 comments:

  1. Okay I love this game but I'm gonna have to disagree about nearly every point you made in the section marked 'difficulty'. I can give many examples of traps that are literally unavoidable without prior knowledge of exactly which pixels on the map your toad can't be on when the trap becomes visible. I agree it's not as bad as I Wanna Be the Guy where EVERY trap is designed to make you die like this, but it's not like raw skill can help you all the time in Battletoads either. The example you gave, level 3, has a checkpoint with no telegraphs. If you start too far up in the final checkpoint, that first wall is impossible to dodge, even if you have the reflexes to start moving the exact frame it becomes visible on the right side of the screen. You have to know to BE on the lower half before the wall comes out. Other examples are the mines on level 5 coming out randomly in a way that unavoidably sandwiches your toad, and Robo-Manus is a boss who can randomly change his pattern and jump early, right in the midst of your toad's pound attack, causing him to land immediately and your toad to be unavoidably smashed.
    The controls are good, but the sprinting is very wonky sometimes. They can glitch and cause you to sprint off the edge from a single input of a direction, not a double-tap (particularly after you headbutt an enemy and time the next directional input JUST right).
    The swimming mechanics on level 9 are good, but you have to get WAY too close to the upper/lower edge of the screen in order to make the screen scroll vertically, which is an unfair problem leading to instant death on the random electric eels should they suddenly shift themselves directly toward you before they have appeared on screen after you've already made that input to swim upward and can't move or punch fast enough.
    The hit detection isn't that great either. The jabs are okay, but the headbutts can go directly through the enemy without the prior knowledge that there's a certain few-frame window during the very middle of the headbutt where it simply won't touch certain enemies.
    And the platform detection, even though I do truly love this game, I have to say is some of the worst platform detection I've ever seen in any video game. I've gotten it down to a science by now, but based on the angle of your jump, a high-angled jump landing on the same area near the the edge of a platform compared to a less-angled or standstill jump will result in you going right through the platform, usually killing you.

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    1. Yeah, if there's one thing I regret about this article, it's being too easy on the cheap traps and deaths. For the most part it does ease you into new challenges, but I agree that there still are a lot of things you wouldn't know to avoid the first time.

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