When Battletoads was announced, I was cautious about a new Battletoads game being created. I’ve played all the games, even the bizarre Game Boy port, and Double Dragon crossover, but I’d never really adored them like I felt I should. To this day, you hear about how difficult the games were, to the point where it became the game’s identity. With Dlala Studio’s reimagining of Battletoads, the tried and true gameplay returned and been updated with gusto, but I’d go as far as to say that this is the best rendition of the trio yet.
The plot of the game is surprisingly front and center, following Rash, Zits, and Pimple as they attempt to live normal lives following their last adventure over twenty years ago. Everybody seems to be coping well except Rash, who cannot stand out of the limelight, longing to return to his glory years. After some existential realisations, Rash convinces his friends to go after the Dark Queen again, before embroiling himself in a war with beings greater than he’s ever known.
It’s a surprisingly effective plot, without a doubt because of how deliciously meta it is. Rash has concerns that he’s quickly becoming less and less irrelevant – and those thoughts honestly echo my own before I jumped in. Unsurprisingly, this interpretation of the ‘toads is written by a group of Rick & Morty writers who’ve never worked on a video game before. The result is a plot that’s unexpected and yet surprisingly effective.
Battletoads even having a plot is bound to surprise many, even more so that the writing is actually funny. All humour is subjective, obviously, but the characterisation of the ‘toads makes them feel like actual characters, and not some crude caricatures stuck in the nineties. And boy are they funny. It’s been a while since I’ve played a game, and it’s made me chuckle; the dialogue is excellent, and the characters have all been brought to life fantastically with cutscenes that feel like they’ve been plucked from a late-night Adult Swim special.
As a game, though, Battletoads is almost what you would expect. Three of the game’s four acts have you beating up enemies as you stroll through garish environments before facing a gnarly boss. While Battletoads, by design, is straightforward, there are some attempts to liven up this classic gameplay style. This is done in two major ways in this years’ reboot – by augmenting it’ sits combat with character action game sensibilities and branching out into other, similarly difficult genres.
The combat is more or less how you would remember classic Battletoads – each of the toads can pull off a barrage of kicks and punches before transforming their limbs into something large and painful to finish them off. It’s a bit gross and outlandish, but it works with the over the top aesthetic that the Battletoads are all about. What has changed is the general flow of combat. You can still play it the way you used to, but a combo ranking system encourages you to do better. To get a better rank in each battle, you have to use your whole range of moves, avoid damage, and cycle through the ‘toads mid-combo.
Each of the toads feels a little bit more distinct from each other. Rash is the all-rounder, performing best in most situations. Zitz clearly attacks quicker but doesn’t dole out as much damage. Pimple is the biggest, and hits the hardest, but is easily the slowest of the three’ toads. Each of the three aren’t required to finish the game, but switching between them to capitalise on their unique properties can be the difference between a tedious battle and an enjoyable one.
While the ranking system liberally borrows from character action games like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, its encouragement to change up your battle style keeps things from getting stale. This is important because the ‘toad you start with won’t unlock any new abilities throughout the adventure. Battletoads feels decidedly “old school” in that way, though it does try to change up its approach about halfway through the journey.
Ostensibly paying tribute to other “classic” difficult genres of years passed, Battletoads changes everything up in the third act to varying effect. Some levels you’ll be engaging in bullet hell style shoot ’em up similar to games like Raiden. Others will have you playing in Donkey Kong Country-style platforming sections as well. I appreciate the effort to change things up and expand Battletoads into something more than what it once was. After all, there was even some challenging platforming in the original game, so it makes sense to do that here too.
But there’s something a little bit off about how the game relegates these newer segments to one act only, something that brings the pacing of the game down a little bit. I was enjoying these moments, but they also only made me want to get back to the beat em’ up sections at the same time. They just weren’t as strong as the rest of the game, and they bring things down before the climactic finale.
Given that difficulty forms such a large part of the original Battletoads identity, the question must be asked if the reboot is just as challenging. Returning to the original game made me realise that a lot of the original game’s difficulty, especially during the platforming, is rooted in archaic game design. The new Battletoads still manages to capture the challenging nature of the original game but doesn’t feel unfair or difficult as an unexpected by-product of shoddy controls or merely old age.
Of course, if you’re struggling, you can bring in up to two other mates to help you out, as the whole game is playable from beginning to end in co-op. But let’s address the elephant in the room – there’s absolutely zero online functionality. From a design perspective, I’ve tried to speculate as to why this is the case. Especially given that Streets of Rage 4, a similar game (that I didn’t enjoy as much as this) has such functionality. It feels like a huge missed opportunity, especially given how enjoyable and funny this take on the ‘toads is and how great it’d be to experience it with friends.
Putting that aside, the game’s brevity means you could easily finish it with your mates visiting over a weekend without feeling short-changed. On my first run on the standard difficulty, the game took around five to six hours to finish. Of course, there’s collectibles to find and better rankings to earn too. Still, these don’t seem to reward players with anything other than bragging rights and achievements. Which are a strong motivator for myself, but not for everyone.
Visually speaking, Battletoads has already proven to be divisive. At first, I wasn’t sure I was a fan of the more garish Saturday morning cartoon art direction. But any issues I had with the game’s presentation fell away as soon as I saw it all come together. Not only is the game colourful and vibrant, but the crisp hand-drawn style also helps give the ‘toads new and unique life. The cinematics’ art direction carries across to the gameplay, which is thankfully as smooth as butter too. Playing a game that is this much of a vibrant visual feast in 4K is a real pleasure.
The voice work is similarly top-notch – at first, I found it a bit jarring that the ‘toads didn’t sound as bodacious as I’d imagined all those years ago but, once again, that quickly fell away as it all came together. Rash, Zitz, and Pimple are three of the most charming characters in the Xbox canon now, and it’s all because of how effortlessly they’re brought to life here. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the music – which while serviceable, feels largely forgettable even if most of it is sampling or reworking the old stuff. A shame, really.
Battletoads looks excellent. It plays great. It sounds okay. It’s even got a funny and well written story. It does everything you’d want from a reboot and offers the best interpretation of the Battletoads yet.
BATTLETOADS IS OUT TODAY ON XBOX ONE/WINDOWS 10 PC. THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Battletoads is a victory for Microsoft, Dlala Studios and Rare. It successfully takes a brand that’s been dormant for over two decades, breathing new life into it and updating it for the modern generation ardently. While it’s a huge shame that Battletoads isn’t playable online, and makes some missteps in it’s third act, it’s hard to deny that this is the most charming rendition of our favourite videogame amphibians. But most of all it's funny, and that's refreshing.