It’s been nearly 30 years since the original Battletoads, and my memory of it boils down to three things: 1) It was made like an Arcade coin-muncher even though it came out on the NES. 2) The toads’ eyes bulged out of their heads when you got to a boss. 3) There are hoverbikes, and they are loads of fun right up until the moment you start screaming. The 2020 version of Battletoads isn’t afraid to mix things up. It’s a nostalgia bomb that takes one of the original’s core tenets, switching between beat-’em-up and platforming gameplay, and expands on it, while adding cartoon visuals and some story that introduces extra depth. Some aspects of the reinvention fall flat, but Battletoads is playful and inventive, and worth checking in on for old time’s sake.
The new Battletoads deftly channels its original vibe and silly conceit into self-referential ‘90’s-style cartoon. The cel-shaded art and neon graphics are a pitch-perfect throwback to the Saturday morning cartoons a ’90s kid would remember watching before and/or after playing some of the original game.
And like a Saturday morning cartoon, Battletoads is driven by a simple but energetic story. The toads discover they’ve been trapped in a hologram for decades and the universe has forgotten them. The story sets the stage for a lot of self-parody, which makes for some fun sequences early on, like a series of quick-time events where the toads get mundane, work-a-day jobs. But the self-owns wear thin quickly. There are some witty one-liners, but they often come off as more fun than funny. Occasionally, they just fall flat by being unnecessarily crass, like a scene with a gag involving a member of the trio wearing a saggy diaper. The ’90s gross-out toy phenomenon was always part of Battletoads aesthetic–the toads’ names, for the uninitiated, are Zitz, Pimple, and Rash–but it is one part I wish the series would have left in the past.
Still, the tightly woven story and gameplay ultimately work out in Battletoads’ favor, as almost every level transitions to a different genre. The classic beat-’em-up levels are the most common style, but you’ll also bounce to puzzle-platforming levels, short QTE minigames, and some bullet-hell shoot-’em-up sequences, to name a few. And yes, there are hoverbike levels, too. Each new type of gameplay comes as a welcome surprise, and the story flows naturally from level to cutscenes to make it feel like you’re organically picking up where the video left off. When it works best–like the moment the toads settle an argument with a “Toadshambo” and the scene cuts to a rock-paper-scissors-style minigame–it feels like you’re controlling a cartoon show.
That gameplay variety has its drawbacks, though. While I loved the feeling of bouncing from one game genre to another, I found myself wishing there were more classic brawling levels. Beat-’em-up is the game’s bread and butter, but comprises fewer than half of the levels. It’s a much larger percentage of the actual gameplay time, though, as a fair number of minigame “levels” take just a minute or two. Even so, given the game’s short runtime of less than five hours, you don’t spend all that much time with the style of gameplay I associate with most Battletoads.
And that’s a shame, because the beat-’em-up sections are entertaining. Though mixing and mashing the toads’ two basic punches and charge attack can feel repetitive, there are also tactical maneuvers like a dodge and the ability to pull enemies close with their tongues, which create a road to improvement. Bashing your way through waves of enemies feels good, like a beat-’em-up should, and you have enough combat options so that there’s always a way to change up what you’re doing. Many of the enemies have abilities or defenses that require lock-and-key attacks to take down, like shielded enemies with a charged attack or spitting on teleporters to keep them from moving, which keeps the fighting from feeling mindless.
And while all the game types control well and feel good to play, the other gameplay styles aren’t as complex as the fighting, and some overstay their welcome. There are three of the aforementioned shoot-’em-up levels in the back half of the game and, though they’re broken up with other types of levels, it feels like the game returns to it too often and too frequently.
No matter what you’re doing, Battletoads offers three-way drop-in, drop-out co-op at any time. Not every style of gameplay seems equally conducive to multiplayer, but since you’re frequently bouncing from one game type to the next, you’ll never be stuck in one type of experience for too long. That said, other than a few collectibles, or working towards a higher score and combat rating, there aren’t any incentives for replaying the game multiple times or in co-op.
Despite that, I walked away wishing there was a lot more Battletoads. Most of the game’s foundation is solid. The beat-’em-up combat, the art, and a lot of secondary gameplay is surprising and fun. Though its blend of gameplay variations feels unbalanced at times, and it isn’t always the laugh-riot it tries to be, Battletoads is an entertaining little romp.
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