The original Battletoads – which was released on Nintendo’s 8-bit console the NES back in 1991 – is infamously challenging, with a number of levels that are so tough that they can feel incredibly unfair at times – it’s a game that’s often fondly remembered until you try it again, at which point you realise how frustratingly difficult it is and then just play something that’s less likely to see you throwing the controller at your TV in anger.
The 2020 reboot is – for the most part – a bit more balanced in terms of the difficulty, and certainly a lot more appealing from a presentation point of view. Though a lot of players have expressed dismay at the visual style and Teen Titans Go-esque humour I actually found it to be one of the stronger aspects of the Xbox One game.
Things start off strongly with some superb beat ’em up action; there’s a reasonably well featured moveset and the gameplay is great. The cartoon sections are well animated, have a very meta sense of humour – which gets even more meta towards the end of the first act – and the soundtrack, with some tracks based on the original music from the NES game, is excellent.
Yet it’s not all rosy, unfortunately. The beat ’em up sections are oddly paced, seeing you sometimes walking for more time than you’d expect through sparsely populated sections of level that appear to be there only to extend the game’s very short running time. Though there’s a massive amount of variety in the non-beat ’em up stages – with plenty of platforming, shmup and into-the-screen hoverbike riding amongst other things – quite often these sections are dull and vastly outstay their welcome. The first hoverbike level, for example, goes on for far longer than you’d expect and is incredibly tedious as a result.
And this is a huge problem; for a game that’s expected to be mostly a beat ’em up, by the end of its 3-4 hour span you’ll barely feel like you’ve played any beat ’em up sections at all. They’re by far the most memorable and enjoyable stages, but the developers chuck in so many different genres and styles that it just ends up feeling like a collection of random, not very inspiring mini games. Time and time again, goodwill is squandered by levels just dragging on and on, or by levels feeling just as unfair as those in the original (one section, which sees you trying to manoeuvre through small gaps between spiked branches, is both dull and infuriating), which is a huge faux pas in my opinion. Though it may recall the high challenge of the 1991 Battletoads, game design has come a long way in the last 30 years – it’s not a problem for a game to be highly challenging as such, but when it feels like failure isn’t your fault, it’s a real issue.
Even the script and plot wear very thin by the end, unfortunately, with the early meta shenanigans of the first few chapters never really developing into anything particularly interesting or amusing.
It’s a real shame; had the team simply had more faith in just a few styles or game genres instead of trying to overstuff it with variety, it could have been fantastic. Though the original game is known for being a mashup of various genres, back in 1991 it was a huge novelty to see such a mixture of mechanics – in 2020, with so many games combining driving, shooting, exploration and more, it doesn’t feel as if it was necessary to go quite so overboard with the different stage styles. As it is, Battletoads feels paradoxically too short – even with an awful lot of failing at various stages, I ended up with just over three hours of play – and too long, with the final mini-game stages (given their drawn out length, it almost feels false calling them mini-games) just being tedious exercises in memorising patterns or precision platforming.
The game ends with the potential for a sequel; should this materialise, I hope that it focuses more on the excellent beat ’em up sections than trying desperately hard to fit so many mechanics into one game, with almost all of them feeling half-baked. Battletoads isn’t a total disaster, but it’s unfortunately pretty far from an unqualified success.
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