The new Battletoads game is short but never boring.
Battletoads is one of Rare’s classic IPs, mostly remembered for an excruciatingly tough NES game and GameStop meme. Microsoft has revived the series for Xbox One with the help of indie developer Dlala Studios, creating a bright spot in a first-party Xbox lineup of games that mostly consists of more mature titles.
This quest to make the Battletoads' relevant again is at play even in the game’s story where the titular toads are eager to become famous again after being locked away by an alien race called the Topians for many years. Interestingly, the adventure includes several wildly different gameplay styles.
While most levels play out like a Streets of Rage 4-style beat 'em up, Battletoads also includes several reaction-based mini-games, shoot-'em-up gameplay reminiscent of Ikaruga, and fast-paced action platforming akin to Celeste.
While this jack-of-all-trades approach and its absence from July’s Xbox Game Showcase initially felt like cause for concern, Dlala Studios pulls it off. While the quality of each represented style of gameplay varies, they at least feel distinct from one another in a refreshing way. The level of passion for the franchise that the developers have is evident throughout.
Even though Battletoads has its flaws, it is easily the most unique and interesting first-party title to arrive on Xbox in this current generation.
Out of Time
For anyone unfamiliar with the Battletoads franchise, 2020’s new game is willing to cut you some slack. The game starts with the Battletoads having been locked away for over 20 years, and when they reemerge, no one remembers who they are. So the game helps the player catch up by introducing these characters all over again.
The franchise has been dormant since Battletoads Arcade’s release in 1994. Because of this and the fact that Dlala Studios, a smaller indie team outside of Rare, is handling the game, this reboot could have easily lost what makes the IP special, but Dlala gets it.
The story of Battletoads retains the series’ irreverent charm, but contemporary tech allows for more defined character designs, personality traits, and voices for all of the Battletoads and even the villainous Dark Queen. The Battletoads’ wacky adventure cleverly reintroduces them to a new generation of gamers who might not be familiar with them. While the game may initially seem like it's made for kids, the humor has a darker edge that’s more Adult Swim than Saturday-morning cartoon.
While not all of the jokes land, there are still plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, especially with some weirder lines that almost feel snuck-in. It even addresses some of the controversies around the character redesigns and style of the game in clever ways, using the criticism against Dark Queen’s redesign to create an empowering moment for the character.
The cartoonish art style reminiscent of something like Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is also a perfect fit. Stellar 2D-animation in a modern Xbox game is a welcome sight, and the animations remain slick during gameplay as the Toads occasionally morph into different objects or contort their bodies. While the new art style and tone of Battletoads prompted some early criticism, it’s a fantastic match with this modern take on the franchise that makes it more than just a retro rehash.
Jack-of-all-trades, master of most
Battletoads’ varied approach to level design is risky but makes more sense when you remember that the NES game also incorporated levels that broke the typical mold. Unlike that game, pretty much every form of gameplay that Battletoads throws at players works really well, though some could’ve been a bit more polished.
The most common style is a beat ‘em up reminiscent of games like Streets of Rage 4. You’ll punch through hordes of enemies as Rash, Pimple, and Zitz, switching between normal attacks and attacks where the toads’ bodies transform into jackhammers, trains, and more wacky contraptions to show off the game’s slick animation.
Our heroes’ handy tongues can be used to pull enemies or to pick up health. Each Battletoad plays slightly differently — Rash is balanced, Pimple is strong and bulky, and Zitz is fast but frail — so it’s fun to switch between them or play with others.
Each of the game’s four acts will also have more mini-games where the toads do everything from playing Rock, Paper, Scissors, competing in an athletic tournament, to working menial jobs. These had the potential to be frustrating, but they’re all forgiving enough once you get the hang of the gimmicks.
Battletoads’ infamously aggravating speeder bike stages return too, though they’re a lot more manageable as this game doesn’t have a strict life system, and they place the camera behind the characters. In Act 3, the game goes full shoot 'em up for three stages, tasking players with navigating through bullet hell when trying to enforce SPACE JUSTICE.
These sections could’ve used more polish, as some of the enemies were more frustrating than fun to take down. An accompanying ship repair mini-game is the weakest of the bunch, overloading the player with an excess of information and tasks. It isn’t immediately clear how it all works.
Finally, there are both fast- and slow-paced side-scrolling segments that work well enough, even if the controls aren’t as tight as the likes of Celeste or Hollow Knight. While some of the jumps and puzzles in these levels are initially tough due to controls that are just okay, forgiving checkpoints and their short length preventing them from getting overly frustrating.
If one of Battletoads’ gameplay styles ever starts to feel tired or cumbersome, the game almost always switches to something new soon thereafter. With a short runtime of around five hours, this means the experience never gets old.
All of these sections support co-op too, making this a great game to play with friends or family. Bafflingly for a game from Xbox, online co-op is not included. Battletoads is at its best when being played with others, so it’s really disappointing that this isn’t included in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Overall, the game is definitely easier than the brutal NES ancestor, though the hardest difficulty does make things very tough. On the lower difficulties, you can turn on invincibility, which should help ease younger players into Battletoads. It’s a setup that fixes the biggest flaw of the original, showing that the developers really knew which areas to improve upon when returning to the franchise.
While its jack-of-all-trades game design approach has its drawbacks, and the lack of co-op is odd, Battletoads is one of Xbox One’s most memorable games, thanks to its quirky sense of humor, eclectic mix of gameplay, and consistent level of fun over its short 4 to 5-hour runtime.
Its irreverent style understands the appeal of this long-dormant franchise, and one can only hope Xbox’s future revivals work like this too. Xbox is sitting on a lot of cool IP, like Perfect Dark and Banjo-Kazooie from Rare. If the announcement of Fable is any indication, Xbox is very interested in bringing back some of its forgotten franchises; hopefully, those revivals are made with the same passion that clearly inspired Battletoads. 8/10
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