Friday 15 April 2016

Mega Drive Review - Battletoads (Game 104)

What happens when you get a lazy port of a frustratingly hard NES game?

Developed by Rare / Arc SystemWorks
Published by Trade West / Sega
Release in 1993

It's weird what you can recall and what gets lost in the mist of memory. I can recall how to solve every puzzle in 'The Secret of Monkey Island'. I'm even able to reel off the witty retorts to the insult sword fighting without even playing the game. Yet I can't for the life of me remember why I ever wanted 'Battletoads' on the NES. It was given as a present either for birthday or Christmas and perhaps I only wanted the game after reading the glowing review in Total! magazine. "It's an Amazing-looking arcader that sets standards, break molds and does a lot of other groovy things too" their reviewer noted. " It's the best blast I've seen in a long time."

Alternatively maybe my parents bought it thinking it was a 'TeenageMutant Ninja Turtles' game. You can understand why they may think this. The original NES version of 'Battletoads' came out in 1991, a time when the U.K. was gripped by "Turtle Mania". Every schoolboy watched the TV series and a NES game based on it was actually considered a system seller. Companies wanted to capitalise on the public's desire for anything amphibian, mutated, adolescent or pizza eating (especially if they fought using an Asian fighting style). We had 'Samurai Pizza Cats' we had 'Street Sharks' we had 'Biker Mice from Mars' and we had 'Battletoads'. 

"Most kids will probably accept 'Battletoads' as a good-humored rip-off of 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'" Entertainment weekly noted reviewing the Mega Drive version. Indeed, There wasn't even an attempt to conceal the inspiration in the games print adverts. After all "compared to the Battletoads, Turtles seem like Pond Scum". Developers Rare even had a cartoon-ready back-story for their achingly nineties heroes. According to a comic strip in a 1991 issue of Nintendo Power, three teenage Californian video game testers became superhero amphibians after play-testing a new title late at night. The game goes wrong sucking the trio into the cartridge and into the world of 'Battletoads'. Here they meet up with a vulture scientist, rescue a princess named Angelica and battle with a Dark Queen which bares a striking resemblance to 'Elivia Mistress of the Dark'. There was even a pilot episode or an animated series written by David Wise, one of the key architects of the 'Turtles' animated series. 

The Stamper Brothers and their team at Rare clearly had lofty ambitions for the franchise, explaining why so much effort was put into the original NES game. EGM magazine certainly appreciated the effort Rare noting that "the amount of work that went into the game is phenomenal!" The 'Turtles' game that 'Battletoads' would compete against was undoubtedly a rushed job, criticised for being "boring" and having "inconsistent collision detection". This reaction explains why 'BattleToads' is a hotchpotch of gaming ideas. While at its heart it's a side scrolling 2D fighting game, most levels will offer a unique variation on the basic gameplay. This design choice rather divided critics though. "One of the greatest things about "'Battletoads' is the sheer variety" wrote Edward "Radion Automatic" Laurence for Mean Machines magazine. However, Rich Pelley was a little less complimentary. "Having such a varied line up of levels was stupid" he noted. "You can't help thinking if they'd got the beat 'em up bit right [the game] wouldn't be quite so bad".

In one stage you'll play the Toads as they abseil down a bird-filled cavern, another sees you escaping an ice cave throwing snowballs at snowmen. There's a surfboard obstacle course, a climb across speedy mechanical snakes and of course there's the frustrating speeder-bike third stage - the undoing of many a player.

Some have called the Turbo Tunnel "the hardest video game level of all-time", however maybe that's because the vast majority of those who play 'Battletoads' never make it past the speeder bikes. In actual fact there are two other racing-style levels in the game, both of which are harder than level three. If anything, the speeder bike stage that many consider so hard is actually a tutorial level, designed to prepare you for greater challenges later in the game. 

A hard game isn't a bad game, if it were I could hardly call myself a 'MegaMan' fan. Consequently, a player failing doesn't highlight a flaw of a game, unless it is avoidable. It's for this reason, 'Battletoads' is deeply deeply flawed. The levels may offer variety, but that simply means there are a variety of unavoidable deaths.
The tunnel decent stage for example has crows killing you by cutting through the ropes you're descending with. The problem is they can't be stopped when you are trapped below electricity bolts lower down the screen, which leads to unavoidable death. Even worse, the seventh stage "Volkmire’s Inferno" has randomised elements. As you pilot a craft between gaps in electricity wires, missiles rain down on you. Where they fall is down to chance, so survival is, again, out of your hands. You would think that playing the game co-op would make the game half as hard, since the number of enemies you come across doesn't increase despite there being two of you punching them. However, when one player dies you both get returned to a continue point. This obviously means that to complete the near impossible vehicle levels, both players need a perfect run.

Even if you defeat these odds, due to a glitch, level eleven can't be beaten at all in two player mode at all. One player always starts a section in a position that makes death unavoidable, meaning neither player can progress beyond this point. You would think that a bug this significant would have been noticed in play testing, but evidently the developers never imagined players to reach that far. If they did they certainly would have put more effort into the games ending sequence. After an uninspiring last boss that's bizarrely easy to beat, all you see is the same cut scene you've seen between every stage, only this time it informs you that you've saved the princess. It's on screen for a few seconds too, so after hours and hours or replaying levels, if you blink you could literally miss the game's conclusion. 

The NES game sold well, so of course Rare wanted to see their 'Battletoads' on as many consoles as possible. While Snes owner's were treated to a brand new adventure optimised for the system, Mega Drive owners were not as lucky. All they got was a near straight port of the ageing NES game and critics were not impressed."this Genesis game is almost a pixel-for-pixel duplication of the original NES 'Battletoads'" criticised Bob Strauss for Entertainment Weekly. Save for a few level changes the bulk of the game is identical, and some may argue that the Mega Drive game actually looks worse than the Nintendo original. The NES has a screen resolution 256 pixels wide but the Mega Drive screen is 320 pixels.
To solve this 64 pixel difference rather than redraw the graphics, Arc System Works (who were in charge of teh conversion) simply stretched the NES sprites with hideous distorted results. It's a far cry from better NES to 16 bit console conversions like 'Super Mario All Stars' or 'Mega Man the Wily Wars'. CVG magazine said the NES version of 'Battletoads' was "the best looking games for absolutely ages." The problem is an attractive game on the NES isn't an attractive game on the MegaDrive, it's after all a system that can do so much more. Yes there are more colours per character and there maybe parallax scrolling on the stages but 'Battletoads' on the MegaDrive still looks primitive compare to games like 'Sonic The Hedgehog' or 'Castle of Illusion' released years earlier. "The sprites are tiny with only three frames of animation" Rich Pelly noticed "the scrolling brings tears to the eyes, [you'll want to] throw a brick through the screen in disgust at the appalling backdrops".

Rare have a reputation for excellence but that is often because people remember their greatest hits and ignore the rest. 'Battletoads' is a blot on their reputation and it's short comings really were exposed when it was included in Rare's recent anniversary collection. more significant than the game itself though are the wheels that 'Battletoads' set in motion. This game (along with 'RC Pro AM' ) caught the attention of Nintendo which in turn led to them working with Rare. Without 'Battletoads' there may not be 'Donkey Kong Country' and when you look for it there are echoes of their earlier game in their later one. Both games certainly share a ridiculous level of difficulty. The frantic mine cart levels of 'Donkey Kong Country' (though far fairer) certainly seem similar to the "Turbo Tunnel" stage of 'Battletoads'. 

However the 'Donkey Kong Country' games aren't the only ones to owe some gratitude to 'Battletoads'. Ironically (given that 'Battletoads' clearly was aesthetically and thematically inspired by the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' series) a Snes Turtles game has some startlingly familiar moments to anyone who has played Rare's game. At the end of one level in 'Turtles in Time' the four Ninjas face off against their nemesis Shredder. However, the fight is viewed from over the shoulder of the enemy and to defeat him the player must throw things directly into the screen. It's hard to believe that Konami hasn't played 'Battletoads' when the end of the first stage has a fight viewed from the boss' perspective and to win the battle the Battletoads must throw rocks towards the screen. A case of Turtles imitating Toads that were originally inspired by Turtles perhaps. 

Thanks to 'Battletoads' I now worry for my memory; not because I can't remember why I wanted the game but because I remember it being good. I thought I loved this game but now I wonder if I played it simply because, at the time, I had so few NES games to pick between. This Mega Drive version is certainly an awful conversion, with truncated introduction and ending sequences, but was the original game that good to begin with? Memory says yes, but recent experience suggests otherwise. In all honesty, playing 'Battletoads' is a horrible experience. Arbitrarily hard, but with unavoidable deaths any success feels more like a relief than a victory. Never have I felt so tense playing a game and with no reward in sight it's hard to see why anyone would want to play this. If my brain once erased the memory of why I originally wanted this game, I hope one day it will erase ever going back to it. 

Where did I get this game from?
Like the bulk of my Mega Drive games I got 'Battletoads' in a bulk buy which you can read about here should you wish. The game physically fared worse than others, with a heavily faded cover and a foul smelling smokey crinkled manual. With fond memories of the original NES version there would have been a time when I sought this game out. Now I'm very relieved I paid so little for it. 

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