In 1991, a wacky, inventive, and brutally difficult game known as Battletoads was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Starring the eponymous Battletoads, Rash, Zits, and Pimple, the game quickly grew a cult following for its unapologetic and original game design. The series would eventually fade into obscurity after only four games, and for a while it seemed that the Battletoads would remain relics of the past. Now, 26 years later, Dlala Studios have released their own take on the warty adventurers in an attempt to revitalize the franchise as an Xbox One and PC exclusive. So, are the toads over the hill? Should the series have stayed in the 90’s? The answer is a resounding no.
Sharing its title with the first game in the series, Dlala Studios’ Battletoads is an action-packed blast. Game director Aj Grand-Scrutton describes it as a “cartoon, genre-mashup.” This makes it tricky to classify what type of game Battletoads is. Some stages will have you romping through the best side-scrolling beat ‘em up action I think I have ever played, some will hurl you down highways to dodge obstacles on the series’ infamous turbo bikes, some will be a frantic bullet-hell shooter, and some will consist of wacky and inventive minigames. Battletoads cannot be defined as anything other than unadulterated fun.
You experience the genre-hopping adventure by joining Rash, Zits, and Pimple as they realize that they have not been the famous heroes they thought they were. In an attempt to build themselves a new audience, they embark on a quest to find and defeat their old rival the Dark Queen. Complications arise, and it becomes the Battletoads’ responsibility to save the galaxy. This entire story is hilarious. I play a lot of video games, and it is incredibly rare for me to be howling with laughter when the game actually wants me to. The writing and animation are top-notch when it comes to delivering goofy, irreverent jokes that make every cutscene a wonderful reward. The toads, of course, are the stars of the show with hilarious personalities brought forth by wonderful animation and pitch-perfect voice acting. The voice work for smaller characters is not great, but it is only noticeable because of the incredible performances of the main characters.
Cutscenes are not the only bit of the game that highlight the toads’ personalities. Every single ounce of animation is dripping with style and character. From their attacks, to their idle poses, to their death animations, each Battletoad has more characterization in a single wart than most game protagonists could ever dream of. As an animation-enthusiast, I cannot express enough that the work on display here is simply gorgeous. Form and function are both achieved beautifully. Reading the action on screen is easy, and it looks amazing at the same time. That goes for the beat ‘em up portions, which make up the majority of the game, and for all of the other genres that are mashed in as well.
Let us talk a bit more about the brawling beat ‘em up sections, shall we? Gameplay-wise, they are easily the highlight of the experience. I find that too many games with this type of combat feel sluggish and awkward. Oh, how I have now been spoiled. Combat in Battletoads is kinetic, fast, and satisfying as hell. With some incredibly thoughtful controls, pulling off insane combos is a breeze. You can smack a few baddies around, launch them into the air, jump up to smack them back down to the ground, use your tongue to pull one back up to you, do a different attack to slam that one back down, and dash your way to another enemy before getting smacked in order to keep your score and combo high. The dash move is an absolute godsend. Especially, since you can dash out of any attack you are unleashing instead of having to be pinned to the spot for enemies to smack you in the back.
Although the action-packed fisticuffs are the game’s true highlight, the turbo bikes, rail-grinding section, and bullet-hell shooting are all incredible as well. During each one of these moments, nothing could wipe the smile off my face. Last minute dodges on a turbo bike feel amazing to pull off. Matching up the correct sequence of buttons in order to safely rail-grind is intensely gratifying, and the bullet-hell mechanics are so well implemented that they could stand on their own as an entire game. With all of these insanely fun ways the game mixes up the action, the levels that are nothing but platforming feel pretty underwhelming. Though they are still fun, it would have been great to see a more “Battletoads” approach to platforming that really took advantage of the characters. It was the only portion of the game where I found myself thinking, “I wish I was playing any of the other genres that the game has introduced already.” On their own, they are not terrible. I have played plenty of platformers which are not nearly as fun, but these stages pale in comparison to the rest of the game’s spectacular adventure.
When it comes to the rest of the game modes, some may find them difficult. Fortunately, there are three different difficulty settings to choose from, and even an invincibility option for players that just want to chill out and enjoy some great gameplay. If you find it to be too much of a challenge, but do not want to use the invincibility option, local co-op is also available for you and two friends. Tragically, you cannot play the game with friends online, but, in a way, I feel that is for the best. A lot of the on-screen action depends on super fast responses to what is happening. Even a tiny bit of lag would feel pretty rough.
Not only that, but several of the game’s genres gain a new level of complexity and fun when playing with someone right next to you. It feels more like a party game where you can work with your friends or intentionally mess them up for a good laugh. As an example, the bullet-hell stages divvy up the gameplay responsibilities between three players. Player One controls the movement of the ship, while the second and third each control a separate cannon. It is a great way to include multiple players within the game, and it highlights the specific couch co-op feel that the game strives for.
I have been blown away by Battletoads. I had been eagerly anticipating its release for years, but I never expected to love playing it this much. As soon as I finished the game, I started playing it all over again. In their attempt to create a game that evokes the spirit of the classic originals, Dlala Studios has made a stupendous hit for the Xbox One library. Not only does Battletoads pay homage to the series entries that came before, it surpasses them.