It’s no surprise that nostalgia is big business these days. People love to cast their minds back to beloved childhood memories and dig out games, films, and toys from the attic, even in the best of times. I’ve certainly spent more time with my vintage Star Wars collection than in the past couple of decades. Gaming is certainly not immune to this outbreak of nostalgia as reboots, remasters, and remakes seem to dominate most of the release schedule.
One of the most surprising, and eagerly anticipated amongst retro circles, was the return of the Battletoads. This amphibious trio had a glorious few years in the early 1990s, finding infamy for unforgiving games featuring cutting edge graphics and a refreshing variety of genres. Well, the series’ revival certainly looks, feels, and plays like a Battletoads game but is this a good thing in 2020?
Seeing the Rare logo on bootup still evokes fond memories of N64 greats for me, especially as I haven’t really played their more recent Microsoft output. Though Dlala Studios handled the game’s development, it was done in partnership with Rare, and it’s great to see such a storied developer able to revisit one of their foundational series.
Graphically, Battletoads really hits the ambition of playing a cartoon that we all dreamed of way back when. Character design, backgrounds, and animations are slick and colourful, levels are bursting with character, and the story cutscenes suggest that the swiftly cancelled animated series is still fresh in the team’s minds. The only downside is that the bright and bulky characters can lead to the screen becoming overly busy at times, which can in turn lead to taking unfair damage.
Just like the original titles, Battletoads contains a wide range of different genres across its four acts. The mix of game styles helps to keep things feeling fresh, but does have the unintended side-effect of making much of the game feel somewhat throwaway at times.
The core scrolling beat ’em up gameplay is clearly the main focus, and where you’ll be spending most of your time. Combos and special moves are nicely varied and pretty easy to pull off, whilst enemy combinations are well judged to force you to mix things up. If this had been released last year it would have felt like a real breath of fresh air in a relatively under-appreciated genre, but it doesn’t stand up to Streets of Rage 4. Obviously they are not direct competition but Axel and co really show up the relative limitations of the Battletoads.
How much you enjoy your time with the Toads will heavily depend on how you find the humour. Combining a heavy dose of ironic 90s attitude with a fair few gross out jokes and some knowing digs at the series’ legacy produces a heady mix that certainly isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself. I did feel that there was a strange disconnect between the game’s presumably adult audience and the very child-friendly aesthetics, but looking back this is actually quite close to the originals (and peers like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). I’ve been playing the game with my 8-year-old son as well, and he’s enjoying it on his own level too. The multiplayer works well most of the time, although it did want to auto-select the keyboard which caused issues skipping through tutorial messages.
The adventures of Rash, Pimple, and Zitz take you through a wide range of the aforementioned genre shifts, some more successful than others. A few are disposable and do little more than continue the story, whilst a couple are just plain annoying. Thankfully none overstay their welcome too much, aside perhaps from a couple of jetbike levels that feel as if they are deliberately hard as an injoke at the earlier game’s expense. These sections proved clunky to control, with irregularly spaced checkpoints and too much trial and error involved.
These levels may be enough to turn some players off, so it’s good to see that some more contemporary quality of life features have been included. Dying lots of times unlocks an invincibility mode (optional for the more stubborn players) that can help you get through the occasional roadblocks, whilst some fiddly puzzles can be skipped after several failures, which is particularly handy playing with youngsters. They’re is a welcome addition, although it almost feels like a betrayal of all that the series stands for.
Ironically, it is these quality of life improvements that expose how relatively slight the game itself is. I’ll always take an enjoyable short game over hours of unnecessary frustration, but four hours doesn’t feel like long at all. There is replayability through difficulty levels and the local multiplayer but I’m not sure that this entry will achieve the notoriety and fame of the earlier series.