Nostalgia is an amazing thing. Nostalgia can sometimes take the form of three anthropomorphic toads escaping from a bunker after 26 years. In the case of 2020's Battletoads, you might want to shove them right back in.
After decades of dormancy, the Battletoads are back, courtesy of original studio Rare and developer Dlala Studios. If you were around during their heyday, they might not look the way you remember them. (The funny thing is, readers can apply that exact same statement to Rare.) They don't exactly play the way you remember them, either. The original Battletoads games were beloved for what they were: beat 'em up brawlers with heavy platforming elements. This Battletoads game has no idea what it wants to be, but it doesn't excel at any of it.
The Battletoads story starts out like any other Battletoads game, putting players in a beat 'em up brawler. It feels much more like an arcade brawler than the original games, but nonetheless, it does start off with a mostly Battletoads atmosphere. But from the outset, you know you're in for a different kind of experience and that's often not in a good way.
Let's address the elephant in the room immediately. The Battletoads visual style looks very different. Instead of leaning towards their more traditional models, Rare has opted for a hand-drawn approach more in line with an animated series. It's different, it takes a lot of getting used to, but I wouldn't classify it as bad. A lot of the character art is well-done, even if Zitz and Pimple's faces look a little... strange. (What is up with their eyeballs?) It's jarring to see Rare go for such a different look, but I can't say it looks terrible.
What I can say that is that the reason for the art style change feels like the developers were trying harder to make an Adult Swim cartoon than a video game. They made an Adult Swim show alright. They made a bad one.
The story is that the Battletoads were stuck in a bunker for 26 years, only just now emerging into a world that has completely forgotten them. It turns out the same is true for their old nemesis, the Dark Queen. The Toads and the Queen conclude that extraterrestrial forces known as the Topians have kept them locked up as part of an effort to take over the universe. If it's a straightforward "save the universe" story, then it could be fine. However, it's more of a backdrop for the larger story, which is the Battletoads setting out to become relevant in 2020. The whole thing is played out much more like a comedy, which wouldn't be an issue if the story was funny.
The problem is that the whole "Battletoads are relics" angle gets played out fast. The Toads (outside of loyal-to-a-fault Pimple) shoot for exaggerated, egotistical humor, but often come across as unlikable jerks. The villains likewise shoot for humor, but are more obnoxious than anything else. And the jokes are just lame, whether it's the dumb one-liners or the dated references. Want an example? The first turbo bike mission has the turbo bike owners threatening the Toads to keep the bikes in one piece or he'll have his sons write mean things about them on social media? As a one-off joke, it's lame. But it goes on for the entire level.
As I'm writing this, I'm coming to realize how patient I was with this game, because I'm about to hit another "If 'X' was 'Y,' then it would be fine" statement. If the unfunny humor and the terrible story were just off in their own little corner, then Battletoads wouldn't be terrible. Unfortunately, it's heavily tied into the actual gameplay and that's where Battletoads gets really bad.
To reiterate a point from the start of this review, what was the original Battletoads? It was a beat 'em up brawler with heavy platforming elements. What is 2020's Battletoads? It tries to be a lot of things.
Is it a beat 'em up brawler? It's certainly that at the start of the game. Then it tries to be a lot of other things and that's where it falls apart. I'm not just talking about the turbo bikes, either. Although, let's talk about the turbo bikes. The turbo bikes are fondly remembered because they offered a sense of breakneck speed. They were frustrating, but in a fun kind of way, because these side-scrolling sections felt so fast. By comparison, this Battletoads game changes up the turbo bike sections by putting the camera behind players. Combine that with the animation style and the turbo bike sections feel oddly slow. They're still tough, but they aren't nearly as exhilerating as they used to be. I kept thinking after that first turbo bike section that maybe the later ones would feel better, but imagine my disappointment when I found out there was only one more turbo bike section in the rest of the game?
It's one thing to mix up the action, but Battletoads' pacing is a nightmare. There are entire levels that are just platforming puzzles. There are entire stages that are twin stick shooters. If they were one-off instances, that's not so bad. That's variety. Gotta mix up the action, right? But these tangent missions eat up entire acts in a game where there are only four acts. And they're not the worst offenders by a mile.
No, the worst offenders are missions made up entirely of quick-time events. The entirety of the second level is the Battletoads going about their mundane jobs, requiring players to respond to button prompts. There's a stage later that's just rock-paper-scissors. This is played up for comedy, but it's barely funny as a cutscene. As the entirety of a playable stage, it's the absolute pits.
Do the Toads at least battle?
At this point, you might be ready to ask, "Is the beat 'em up action at least good?" You'll be relieved to hear that it is. Battletoads feels like an arcade brawler and contains a complex combo system. There are light jabs, launching hits, heavy attacks that break enemy blocking stances, and even attacks using your Toad's tongue or a wad of bubble gum. There are even more thought-provoking encounters when you find electricity-based enemies and you need to take them out before they electrify a good chunk of the ground. There is a solid foundation here. If the game is just this with a few turbo bike sections or platforming sequences sprinkled in, then it's a decent effort.
Instead, the pacing is so terrible that you almost forget entirely about the beat 'em up gameplay for most of the game's second half. The opening acts introduce elements like swinging to the background and foreground to fight enemies, only to never use them again in the second half. There are some cool boss fights in the first half of the game, each with their own fun gimmicks. But you go from fighting a handful of them in the first half to not seeing any until the end of the game.
If there's a redeeming quality to this, it's that despite appearances to the contrary on some of these missions, Battletoads is designed entirely for three-player co-op from start to finish. Even some of the missions that appear designed for solo outings have a place for a second and third player. It doesn't always work, with the co-op twin stick shooter specifically feeling clunky, but I'm taking my wins where I can get them with this game. And if there's a plus side compared to the old Battletoads games, it's that if a co-op partner dies, you don't have to start the whole level over.
Sadly, there's no online co-op available, so if you don't have a second or third toad in your house, you're out of luck. Worse, if you want to bring the difficulty level up or down to accommodate a partner, you can't do it without starting a brand new save file. You are where you are until you start over, despite there being a Stage Select feature where you can play levels a la carte.
There's a good Battletoads game in here somewhere. After playing through the brawling sections, I'm convinced of this. And even though the turbo bike sections felt a little wonky, they still felt like Battletoads. Unfortunately, there aren't as many beat 'em up sections as one might be led to believe and there are even fewer turbo bike sections. Battletoads gets very experimental and it's often to its detriment, feeling like it's more focused on being a D-tier Cartoon Network show than a video game.
But Battletoads does have its good moments, between its beat 'em up gameplay, metal-heavy soundtrack, and strong boss design. It's just drowned out by its awful pacing and poor comedy that gets maybe a couple of chuckles from the entirety of its brief five-hour adventure. Maybe they'll do better with their next reboot, but for now, the Battletoads would be better off back in their bunker remembering the good old days.
This review is based on an Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Battletoads (2020) will be available on Thursday, August 20 on Steam and the Microsoft Store for $19.99. The game is rated E10+.
- Art style grows on you
- Beat 'em up gameplay builds on the arcade formula
- Boss design is strong
- Co-op play adds to the experience
- Outstanding soundtrack
- Story is miserable with horribly unfunny comedy and obnoxious characters
- Pacing is wretched, skipping out on beat 'em up stages for almost the entire second half
- There are entire levels with only quick-time events
- The turbo bike stages feel oddly slow
- No online multiplayer
- Can't change difficulty without starting over
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Battletoads (2020) review: Toad-al bummer
Is it, though? I'm in the "Battletoads was never anything special" camp. The original game had style, but was obnoxiously difficult, and the IP didn't really go anywhere after that other than mash-ups with Double Dragon.
This is one of those retro revivals that people asked for, but I wasn't one of them and have no idea why anyone asked for it in the first place.
"Bazoo Kazooie: Nuts n' Bolts" is probably the pinnacle of "waste of a good IP". Core game had not one iota to do with prior games and we know that they slapped the B&K characters on a wholly different game idea to make it sell.
At least here with the Battletoads game, it started off as a Battletoads game, just went in a weird direction.
Honestly I think part of it was a bizarre misreading of the increase in popularity of "Battletoads" due to the Internet meme from years back where people from 4chan would prank call Pawn Stars and ask about Battletoads.
While I don't think it's worth the asking price, the OG NES game is getting reissued:
I got my NES DEV hardware from Infinite NES Lives and it was solid stuff, so I have no real concerns about the quality of the goods.