The original Battletoads from 1991 is infamous for its insane difficulty, and its finer qualities often go overlooked. It was a challenging game and was often unfair, but this was par the course for many NES titles of its era that were intended to drive up rentals.
Battletoads came out at the height of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandising craze, and the Stamper brothers wanted a piece of the action. Rare’s iteration of humanoid amphibians had more going on than just being a knock-off; Zitz, Rash, and Pimple’s designs were capable of exaggerated morph-style attacks gave them identity. It also helped the setting was a strange cyberpunk dystopia.
As time passed and sequels went, Rare was eventually bought by Microsoft, and murmurs of the toads return lasted for over a decade. After a couple of cameos in Shovel Knight and Killer Instinct; Battletoads are finally in stock. Regretfully, Rare would not be the developer, and the identity of the toads would be deformed into something horrible.
Developer: Dlala Studios, Rare
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios, Rare
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox One (reviewed)
Release Date: August 20, 2020
When the 2020 Battletoads was first announced, there was much speculation over how the heroes would be depicted. Rare was still going to be involved, and their panache for impressive visuals never waned even after the Microsoft acquisition and the exodus of the original staff. Everyone expected impressive 3D graphics, and expressive animation that would capture the toads’ insane morphing.
The last thing most people expected was Battletoads to be a Unity Engine budget title, developed by a mediocre mobile developer. The shift to 2D art and animation was likely informed by the insane success of Cuphead‘s impressive display which won people over. The problem here is that Battletoads 2020 emulates a low-effort animation style with flat and lazy designs.
What is worse than the huge downgrade in art direction, is that the style and setting of Battletoads is completely wrong. It seems like the creators have no idea what Battletoads is, or what it is about beyond the common knowledge of the original NES game and the memes surrounding it.
The original Battletoads‘ aesthetic can be best described as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets 2000 AD comics. 2020 Battletoads disregards the established style, that is about four games’ worth (and one crossover), to make a mockery of the source material. It is like Rick and Morty have skinned Battletoads and are wearing its flesh like a skin-suit.
There is no reverence for the old games, and the writers are not even capable of being funny on their own merits. There is none of the coolness that made the original characters so enduring; instead everything is meant to be a cynical joke at the expense of the characters. Every character is made out to be a complete idiot.
The original Battletoads may not have been sophisticated, but it was never meant to be. It was intended to sell merchandise, and the byproduct of that was characters were cool and appealing. The simplicity was part of the charm, and was free of snark. Battletoads 2020 is rotten with irony poisoning, and is dense with tired Adult Swim-style humor.
The art style is an eye-sore. It is worse in cutscenes since they appear to be animated very cheaply, and don’t have the hand animated nuance in the beat ’em up sequences. Characters have awful pointy angles and are very flat looking. There are confusing choices with anatomy which are not limited to the toads; the Dark Queen is the one human character, and she highlights all the problems with the art.
Dark Queen’s redesign is intensely bland and boring. Her original design was nothing special, but at least it was sexy. If the artists are going to redesign something that worked and has always worked through all of remembered time- then it best be an improvement.
Dark Queen’s redesign is so violently unappealing, that it becomes a distraction. Her head looks really awkwardly drawn from some angles and she has the frighteningly large and floppy hands with droopy fingers. She doesn’t even come off as a queen anymore- more like a frumpy purple scientist lady.
Enemy designs are also woefully unimaginative and make no sense. This might be attributed to the writers coming up with moronic concepts and not taking the material seriously enough. The Battletoads arcade game had the heroes crotch-grab seven-foot tall mutant rat monsters and brawl with scary looking demon lizard guys.
Battletoads 2020, the boys throw-down with a sad looking ice-cream making guy who throws wimpy snow-balls. The alien lumber-jacks are drawn in such a sloppy and lazy way; it isn’t clear what they are supposed to be. The big threatening Topians are an incoherent mess of abstract shapes, that they resemble a design a child would make that got redrawn by an artist.
In cutscenes, framing and scene construction is done cheaply and efficiently to avoid to having artists to have to draw characters from interesting angles. Everything plays out like a low budget Adult Swim cartoon, with very basic wide and medium shots.
To compensate for the boring scenes, the artists went overboard with color. The pallet is often extremely garish and extremely busy. It is painful to look at during crowded shots, since the aliens in Battletoads are also typically over-colored. It is poorly composed, and becomes visual noise-vomit.
The visuals fare so much better during gameplay. The backgrounds are clean and have a unified pallet and there is some painterly flair to add some needed grit. The environments make use of some 3D elements, which adds some depth to the setting.
The gameplay portions and the cinematics were likely handled by separate crews which is a shame since the game artists seem much more capable than the cartoonists. The cutscenes should have had the same attention to make the visuals more exciting to look at.
As a beat ’em up, Battletoads 2020 is very basic. The face buttons are basic attack, a launch and unblockable charge. There are a few special moves that can be done and a little bit of air-juggling, but this is no more complex than Battletoads in Battlemaniacs from 1993. Dashing and reading enemy tells are the biggest notable additions to the franchise.
Rash, Pimple and Zitz have been made more unique than ever. Rash is the all-around fighter, Pimple is the heavy-hitter, and Zitz is the fastest. The boys can morph their extremities into all kinds of things like buzzsaws or arcade cabinets from the start, and nothing is even expanded upon after level one.
What Battletoads lacks in depth, it tries to make up for in variety; which is something that made the original NES game very memorable. When a beat ’em up section goes for too long, it shifts gears into either a brief puzzle or an entirely different kind of game.
The original NES game had infamous “turbo tunnel” sequences where the toads rode hover bikes through courses at insane velocities and had to perfectly time jumps to avoid instant death. Battletoads 2020 re-imagines these from a rear perspective, adding a bit of leeway to having to avoid collisions.
There are two of these through the entire game. The first is very forgiving and is generous with check-points. The second one comes towards the finale and there are no check-points at all; easily making it the hardest part of the entire game. The only saving grace is the respawn mechanic that will revive a dead toad after a few seconds. If all three toads die within their respawn time, it is game over.
The respawn system is brilliant. It helps balance the experience so enemies can hit really hard, but the gameplay can be fairly forgiving at the same time.
Things only get cheap when the screen is cluttered with obnoxiously colored enemies that are all attacking one after another. At this point the only strategy is too dash around the field, avoiding damage, and sneaking in a few sucker punches while a dead toad revives.
Other mini-games that break up the combat are a really bare-bones twin-stick shooter, a single Donkey Kong Country style mine-cart level, and some non-violent puzzle platforming. These all speak for themselves, but what is not well defined are the timed spaceship console sequences.
Rash, Zitz, and Dark Queen will have to follow a sequence of WarioWare-style mini-games, but all mini-games will be on the screen at once, and they will have to be done in a specific order. At first it is utterly bewildering, and you’ll feel like a dog trying to bake a souffle.
It is not hard to complete, but trying to complete the mini-games in the allotted time will prove to be frustrating, since each sequence is randomly designated to a symbol. Having to stare at the screen to find the next sequence while the timer ticks is what will inevitably lead to failure, again and again. It is randomized every time, so relying on memory is not viable.
Most of the gameplay mix-ups are back-loaded into the game, with most of the first half being a traditional beat ’em up. It feels as if the developers knew their brawling gameplay was kiddie-pool shallow, and that it could not carry the experience for more than a couple of hours. The original Battletoads was more confident in its design, with more varied set-pieces.
The beat ’em up sequences are padded out with empty hallways of doing nothing, and only when entering the designated arena do battles begin. These empty areas should have some obstacles or enemies to fight, but a challenging game is not what Dlala Studios was going for.
At least the voice actors for the toads are great. The material they are given is questionable and rarely funny, but these guys do try their best to make it work. Some line deliveries almost become funny, and it is largely due to Eric Bauza’s reading as Rash.
Most of the characters do sound like the kind of voice acting and performances heard in Adult Swim cartoons; sardonic and dry. The music also lacks the punch and grittiness of the music David Wise made for the older and superior games.
The soundtrack is still shredding guitar, but it lacks any bite or warmth to the sound. The gaudy and garish imagery ultimately matches the soulless riffs by some band who is probably a friend of the developers.
Battletoads 2020 is for fans of Rick and Morty, and for those who enjoy insufferable hipster humor. The joke is that Rash and the boys are outdated, and the writers constantly reinforce this agenda of theirs; robbing Battletoads of its identity and making it indistinguishable from the endless dreck that oozes from Adult Swim’s sewer.
Battletoads was reviewed on Xbox One X using a personal copy. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.