Back in the late eighties and early nineties, those pesky Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were everywhere. Comic books, cartoons, action figures, games and even movies. Those four deadly weapon wielding reptiles were hugely popular and still kind of are today, I guess. I lost interest in them pretty quickly to be honest. The whole TMNT phenomenon didn’t really grab me. I watched some of the cartoon, played a couple of the games and somewhat enjoyed the first film… and then got bored and moved on pretty quickly. By the time 1991 rolled around, I had pretty much forgotten all about Leo, Mikey, Don and the other one, Bob I think.
Part of the reason why TMNT had slipped away from me in 1991 was due to something similar, but with a bit more of an edge. I mean, I was fifteen/sixteen at the time, growing up, leaving school and preparing to enter the real world. Watching kids cartoons, playing kids games and so on just didn’t interest mid-teenage me then (yes I was an idiot). It was the summer of 1991 when I was first introduced to Battletoads, a more ‘grown up’ parody of TMNT. I say ‘grown up’, using that as loosely as I can, because we all know now just how puerile Battletoads was.
The brainchild of Rare founders, Tim and Chris Stamper (read my book), Battletoads was unleashed onto the public in June, 1991. Seeing as a new game is released today, I thought I’d do a retrospective on the entire Battletoads franchise starting with that first game, up to the latest today and everything in-between, warts and all.
As previously mentioned, this is where it all started. It was June, 1991 when the first Battletoads game was released for the NES. Developed by Rare and published by Tradewest, Battletoads is a mix of scrolling beat ’em up/platformer and even a little vehicle action thrown in too. The plot of the game is that Professor T. Bird and the titular Battletoads, Rash, Zitz, and Pimple, are on a mission to escort Princess Angelica home on their spaceship. However, Pimple and Angelica take a detour on Pimple’s flying space-car when they are kidnapped by the Dark Queen and taken to a planet called Ragnarok. Professor T. Bird receives a call from the Dark Queen, daring Rash and Zitz to come and save their friend and Princess Angelica.
And so the game kicks off proper as a one or two-player affair with you controlling either Rash or Zitz of the titular toads. Battletoads is typical scrolling beat ’em up stuff. Simple enough controls with a jump and attack, various weapons to pick up so you can beat the bad guys with and so on. If you ever played Double Dragon, Golden Axe, Final Fight, etc, then you know what to expect here. But what separated Battletoads from other titles of its ilk back then was its humour and variety. Given the name of the heroes, you can be assured this game does not take itself seriously at all. It’s silly, puerile and yet utterly charming at the same time. There’s a real cartoony feel, not just with the overall presentation but also with the fighting itself. Knocking down bad guys with a huge boot, smashing into them with ram horns and so on. But then, each level feels different and fresh, there’s typical side scrolling action, abseiling down a canyon, even vehicle based levels (just say the words ‘turbo tunnel’ to a Battletoads fan and watch them break out in a cold sweat) to platforming sections. Battletoads really throws a lot into the mix… and it works very well too in all honesty.
Often thought of as one of the finest games in the NES library, Battletoads was and still is very much loved among gamers. But as much loved and respected Battletoads is, it’s also known for it’s punishing difficulty. If you could finish the game on the NES, original, no emulation, no save states, then you could easily be considered a gaming legend. Then if you could do it in two-player… which was even harder, then you were a God. The game still holds up very well today too, if you can get past it’s difficulty, there’s a genuinely great title here. One that is easy to pick up, but very hard to play and master.
The original game eventually saw ports to all sorts of machines over the years including the Mega Drive/Genesis, Game Boy, Game Gear and the Amiga and Amiga CD32. The various ports have their good and bad points, for example the Amiga CD32 version has some really great cut-scenes… but it pays terribly. Of all the versions, the NES original is still the best.
1991 also saw the release of Battletoads the LCD game from Tiger. I don’t really need to go into details over this one do I? You all remember those terrible Tiger LCD games with pretty much zero gameplay. If you really, really want to see what it was like, then here’s a YouTube clip you can watch. Then just to finish, the Game Boy port was released in 1993 with a slight title change. Battletoads in Ragnarok’s World, aside from it’s obvious monochrome colour palette, single-player only mode, smaller screen and stripped down levels, it’s actually a pretty damn good port of the original.
So, things get a little complicated here as in 1991 there was another game called Battletoads for the Game Boy… only it wasn’t a port of the previous NES version, this was a whole new game. This is why the Game Boy port of the NES version from 1993 had a different title, because this completely different and exclusive game for the Game Boy was released first in 1991. See, it all makes perfect sense… I think? So the plot is that Rash, Zitz, and Pimple are taking a break from their adventures. An exotic dancer entertains them, but the dancer is actually the Dark Queen, she and her henchmen ambush the toads and a fight ensues. Both Rash and Pimple are taken away, leaving only Zitz to rescue his toady partners.
Again, this is Battletoads and very much like the original game, but with an all new story and levels. It’s still that mix of scrolling beat ’em up/platformer and vehicle action. It plays just like the original too and yes, it’s still bloody hard as nails difficult. The limitations of the Game Boy do show here though as the game is very short and can be completed in less than twenty minutes, plus each level is restrictive and can be finished in a minute or two. What is here is a good Battletoads game, but compared to the latter and previously mentioned Battletoads in Ragnarok’s World, the port of the NES original, it just feels like it’s lacking somewhat.
No, the titles are not changing very much so far are they? But the medium is, as this is not a game. In 1992 and after the success of the game(s), the idea was to try and TMNT the franchise with a cartoon. So production company DiC (Inspector Gadget, M.A.S.K., The Real Ghostbusters, to name a few) secured the rights to make an all new Battletoads animated TV show. The story of the show was to be a prequel to the game(s) and followed three high-school students who are given the power to transform into anthropomorphic toads with superhuman strength and abilities by Professor T. Bird. The trio of toads are tasked with protecting Princess Angelica from the Dark Queen.
Unlike the TMNT attempt of breaking into animation, Battletoads failed. Only one episode was ever made, a pilot. The pilot was aired on Thanksgiving weekend, 1992, but the show was never picked up to make a full series. You can actually watch the pilot on YouTube as it was officially released. You can see it’s a bit rough, the animation isn’t great, even for the time and it just feels very flat. DiC made some great animated shows back in the eighties and nineties, Battletoads wasn’t one of them. It just felt too ‘kiddy’, I know Battletoads was silly and puerile, but it still had a bit more of an edge to it. The animated show completely missed that and tried to market itself to ten and twelve year-olds, when it should’ve been aimed towards mid-teens. It just wasn’t Battletoads, it was a poor quality Saturday morning cartoon that really miss the style and tone of its source material.
Battletoads in Battlemaniacs
1993 saw the latest title in the franchise hit the shelves. Originally released on the SNES before seeing a port to the Master System. So this time, the toads are invited to the Gyachung-La fortress in northern Tibet. Professor T. Bird shows them T.R.I.P.S (Total Reality Integrated Playing System), a new virtual reality game system made by the Psicone Corporation. While demonstrating the system’s digital world, a dragon riding pig leaps out kidnaps the daughter of the Psicone Corporation’s CEO, Michiko Tashoku. Zitz steps forward to defend her, but is knocked out and taken into the virtual world, along with Michiko. Of course, the Dark Queen appears and has teamed up with new villain, Silas Volkmire in a plan to turn the real word into the virtual world in the VR system. So it’s up to Rash and Pimple to enter the game to stop the Dark Queen and Silas Volkmire, as well as save Michiko Tashoku and their friend, Zitz.
Battletoads in Battlemaniacs is pretty much more of the same as the previous titles… which isn’t a bad thing. The obvious graphic upgrade form the NES to the SNES is really quite impressive. The Battletoads themselves are far better animated and bring a lot of humour to the game. The levels are bigger, more colourful and varied than ever before. As with the previous games, Battletoads in Battlemaniacs offers a lot of variation for each level, yes there is the classic scrolling beat ’em up stuff, more vehicle action and platforming too. It really is typical Battletoads, in many ways, this feels more like a remake or reworking of the original game over an all new title. Many of the levels are the same, just with slight variations on the NES game. And yes, in typical Rare style, the game is harder than a male porn star on Viagra. It also featured two different endings.
Interesting little tit-bit to finish up on. The Master System version was heavily advertised and even reviewed in gaming magazines at the time here in Europe… but ultimately, it was never officially released. For some unknown reason, the European version was scrapped at the last minute. The Master System port did eventually see a release in 1996… in Brazil. It was released unfinished too with several glitches and other notable issues. You can watch a play through of the Master System version right here.
Battletoads/Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team
I really was a bit of a Battletoads fan in that early-mid nineties era. You know what else I loved? Double Dragon, in fact Double Dragon was the first arcade game I ever finished in the eighties, and I became obsessed with the game since. So when this crossover was released in 1993, seventeen year-old me was beyond excited. You got to chose from five playable characters, any of the three Battletoads and Billy and Jimmy Lee from Double Dragon. The story this time has the Dark Queen team up with the Shadow Warriors gang from Double Dragon to take over the universe. So, of course, the toads step up to stop them along with help from the Lee twins.
This one is a brilliant mixing of the two franchises. Both series are represented fairly with in-jokes and references a-plenty. Plus from a gameplay perspective, both Battletoads and Double Dragon get treated with respect. There is the variety of levels from the toad’s games, vehicle stuff and abseiling, etc, but there’s a bigger focus on the beat ’em up action too that feels more Double Dragon. Battletoads/Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team is one of the best titles in both of the respective franchises and still well worth playing today too. It’s worth noting that this was the first time all three Battletoads could be selected in a game. If you hadn’t noticed, all the previous games, one (or more) of the toads was always knocked out/kidnapped and needed saving within the story.
For me personally, Battletoads didn’t get any better then this. Released in 1994, Battletoads Arcade was… wait for it… and arcade game. The first time the toads had seen a game not released on consoles (not counting the Rare Replay version). I’m not even sure of there’s a story this time around. I know the Dark Queen is back and you have to stop her… but I’m not exactly sure what you are stopping her from doing to be honest. It’s an arcade game and they rarely had stories, they were about eating up as many coins from punters as they could and Battletoads Arcade was no different.
Being an arcade game over a console one meant that developers, Rare, were able to push the boundaries a bit more. Battletoads Arcade is far more bombastic and visceral than any of the other games. The graphics are bigger and bolder than ever before, there’s blood and gore, the humour is pushed further and so on. There’s even some cleverly hidden in plain sight swearing using puns. Then from a gameplay perspective, this is balls to the wall action. There’s still a hint of the trademark Battletoads variety with the levels, but the emphasis here is most definitely on the fisticuffs more so than ever before. Battletoads Arcade is stupidly ridiculous, loud and brash, fabulously over the top… and I adore it. It also features some really great graphics and ideas using sprite-scaling and perspective. Even now, Battletoads Arcade is a very attractive, good looking game. If there is one negative, then it is that you never fight the Dark Queen, the toads main adversary, nor does she make an appearance (aside from a small cameo on the third level). She’s mentioned in the game, she’s even said to have been defeated in the ending… but you never see or directly fight her. Why was there no Dark Queen? Still, this is Battletoads as its finest. If they ever want to try and make another Battletoads cartoon (I can dream), then this game is where they should draw their influence from.
And that was it for the Battletoads, they had no more games for twenty-six years… until…
All of which brings up right up to date with this latest game in the franchise. After two and a half decades, Rash, Zitz, Pimple and the Dark Queen are back! Now, before I get into this one, I just want to address something. There’s been some harsh fan-backlash over the art style of this new game. Just to be perfectly clear… I really don’t like it either. It just doesn’t feel or look like a Battletoads game. You know what it looks like? A bad Saturday morning kids cartoon… and we know how that turned out for Battletoads (see above). Nope, I really, really do not like the art style of this game. But, there is more to a game than how it looks, and its gameplay is what’s important here. So, the game it quite literally just a few hours old. I stayed up late to give it a play at midnight this morning and I put in a few more hours while finishing this article and did manage to complete the game.
Well, I guess the big question is, was it worth the twenty-six year wait? One of those years being a delay as the game was originally planned for a 2019 release. It’s also worth noting that this is the first Battletoads game not developed by series creator, Rare. Instead, the IP was outsourced to Dlala Studios.
Was it worth the wait? No. This game is terrible. It’s not even a proper Battletoads game. One of the things I’ve always praised the series for is its variety, but at heart, the franchise is still a scrolling beat ’em up. Here, the main action and draw of the franchise takes a back seat, don’t let the carefully edited trailers fool you as there is very little beat ’em up action here. What Battletoads is, is a collection of very poor mini-games. In fact, most of the game is everything except beat ’em up action that the franchise is famed for.
Yes the game starts out with classic Battletoads action, but it soon just becomes the kind of shallow flash games you used to find on Newgrounds.com. You’ll be playing a dull twin-stick shooter, a platformer with a hippy-like character, then there’s even a mini-game that has several mini-games within one mini-game… the part when your ship breaks down and it needs to be rebooted. Trust me, when you play it, you’ll know just how tedious it is. Oh and there’s even a bit where you take photos with a phone. There’s annoying button pressing/QTE games, press switches to make a circuit connections and more mediocrity. This is not Battletoads! Rock, paper, scissors… there’s a rock, paper, scissors mini-game… more than once. Even Alex Kid is shaking his head in disbelief at that.
But even if you can make it through the utterly boring mini-games and do stick it out for the beat ’em up action (what little there is), even that is horrendous thanks to some really obnoxious controls. Some buttons have to do double duty… but neither of the shoulder buttons are used at all. That makes no sense, you’ve got two perfectly good buttons not doing anything, but then force multiple button presses to do something that should take only one button. That’s bad game design. The toads also control really sluggish too, the way they walk is as if they’re knee deep in treacle. There is a run button and when that is used, that’s a much more playable speed… but you have to keep the run button pressed and on top of the other buttons you need to press (as mentioned, some having to do double duty), the control scheme of the beat ’em up section is just so backward and counter-intuitive. I’ve not played a game with such a convoluted and awkward control scheme since Red Dead Redemption II.
I know I said before I didn’t like the art style, and I don’t. But here, it’s more then just not looking nice, it ruins the game when the action does kick off. The screen just becomes this blur of garish colours and it’s really hard to make out what is going on. I mean…
… what is going on up there there? Who is doing what to who? How many enemies are there? It just looks like a three year-old has eaten too much sugar and thrown up on the screen.
You want to know how slow the game is? Remember the infamous turbo tunnel section in the original? That fast-paced, action packed, heart-pumping level that gets the pulse racing and the sweat pouring? Well it’s back here… only it’s really, really, really slow. Now given a third person view, you can see the obstacles coming from half a mile away and it moves along at a snail pace. Don’t believe me? Let me put it this way, the target time to finish the level is over eight minutes…. eight fucking minutes to play turbo tunnel? I was falling asleep trying to get to the end.
Battletoads is a sluggish, dull, convoluted, disjointed, disappointment. A confusing mess of a game where the developers clearly had no idea what kind of game to make, so just threw everything in… and it’s a mess It’s a very average flash game, the kind of thing you’d d’load for free on your phone and delete it after ten minutes of play. How/Why this was delayed I don’t know, it could’ve been knocked up in Flash in three months.
I pushed my way though to the end and uninstalled the game, quickly loaded up Rare Reply so I could cleanse my soul with some Battletoads Arcade. The game is ‘free’ on Game Pass and if curiously really gets the better of you, I guess you can give it a go. But to pay hard earned cash for this is an insult. By far the worse Battletoads game made so far… okay, so it’s not as bad as the LCD thing, but for a ‘proper’ console game, this is terrible.
You want to know how to do a classic beat ’em up revival? Go play Streets of Rage 4. I don’t even like the Streets of Rage franchise at all and I am very much a Battletoads fan, but I have to admit that Streets of Rage 4 got right what Battletoads go so very wrong. I’d rather watch that awful animated pilot again then play this game, that’s how bad it is.
Other Battletoads Bits
A Battletoads game was in development for the Game Boy Advance sometime in the early two-thousands, but the title was ultimately cancelled. Very little is known about the game, whether it was going to be a sequel or an remake of the original, or even an all new title is anyone’s guess. But, a ROM for the unfinished version was leaked onto the interwebs and some gameplay can bee seen right here.
The toads have made several cameos elsewhere too. The 8-bit homage action/platformer Shovel Knight features Rash, Zitz and Pimple as a boss fight, but only for the Xbox and PC versions of the game. It’s actually a great and quite lengthy fight that pays respects and offers many references to the original game. Check out a play-through of the fight right here.
Rash became a playable character in Rare’s popular fighter Killer Instinct, well in the 2013 reboot anyway. Rash also appears as a landmark in action figure form in the new survival game on the Xbox, Grounded. Of course, the original and the arcade games were both included in the amazing Rare Replay collection from 2015.
Overall, Battletoads has been a solid franchise…. until this new game. The original NES game still holds up almost thirty years later. That Double Dragon crossover was and still is brilliant. It’s a shame that licencing issues prevent it being re-released. This new game is an atrocity to gaming. It’s a shame they messed up this badly, took what was a good franchise and screwed over the fans like that to create a flash mini-game instead. I was hoping that the new Battletoads could be a revival for the series, but it’s a nail in the coffin. We fans will never see a Battletoads Arcade 2 now.