Friday, September 4, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Emotional Scars - Memory Log #41


It's a shame, really, that I can't come on here and extol the virtues of Rare's Battletoads, which, all things considered, is truly one of the most ambitious, impressively crafted NES games ever made. I wish I could have used this space to explain to you why that matters; I would have loved to elaborate on why Battletoads is such a technical marvel and frame my memories of the game in terms of a long-lasting relationship born from my fondness and admiration for its creative spirit. 

But that simply isn't possible, because, you see, Battletoads isn't interested in forming relationships. It doesn't desire human companionship. It doesn't have any consideration for your wants and needs. It has no inclination to evoke feelings of love or happiness.

No--it was created for a single purpose: To inflict pain and suffering upon all those who dare to invite its company. It's a work of pure evil--the game, and indeed all of its concepts, no doubt dredged up from the depths of Hell by a pack of vile demons. Oh, it says "Rare" and "Tradewest" on the game's box cover and title screen, but don't be fooled; Battletoads was surely directed, produced and published by Satan and his minions. Beelzebub, Abaddon, Adramalech--they were all in on it, and I was one of the the poor, innocent victim of their ill-intentioned plot to destroy the childhoods of 80s kids everywhere.

Go ahead--look at it. Do you tremble at the sight of that crooked logo? Does thinking about what lies beyond that title screen evoke feelings of fear and trepidation? Do the conjured memories of Battletoads induce a state of emotional paralysis and leave you feeling like a helpless infant?

Well, good. I'm not alone, then.

The problem is that the 13-year-old me couldn't have known what he was getting himself into. Battletoads, as it was being portrayed in game magazines at the time, was too alluring a prospect for me to even consider that its creators might have been scheming to destroy my psyche.

It's really no wonder why I went out and bought the game just as soon as it hit store shelves: Its unfortunately named amphibious heroes, thanks to the marketing efforts of Tradewest (sorry--"Malebolgia"), were able to successfully (though shamelessly) grab onto the coattails of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who were still the rage with my friends and I. It had been talked up in Nintendo Power as the absolute pinnacle of NES game design. And I was still a pretty big fan of beat-'em-ups even though I was becoming increasingly wary of the 8-bit variety following poor experiences with shoddily designed brawlers like Bad Dudes, Target: Renegade and Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones.

And for at least the first few minutes, Battletoads was living up to the hype. Everything about it screamed quality, from its highly detailed graphics to its intricately composed, surprisingly emotive music to its attractive, creatively rendered landscapes. The exaggerated finishing moves, during which the Toads' limbs grew comically in size as they delivered a crushing parting shot, were an instantly appealing differentiator and did well to communicate to me the game's uniquely zany tone. The best example of its disregard for convention were the "Space Invaders" that suddenly appeared and attempted to steal my physical energy units, which was like nothing I'd ever seen in a game; it was weirdly fourth-wall material and kind of jarring for that reason, but it was one of those instances that worked to acclimate me to the game's absurdist nature.

Truthfully, I wasn't terribly excited for Battletoads before its release--more hypnotized by what it was purported to represent--but I was very impressed by what I was seeing from the Impact Crater and Chasm levels (helpfully identified for me on the between-stage map). The developers' ambition was palpable. This game was for real.

Of course, it turned out that these first two stages were merely a red herring--the calm before the violent storm that was quickly heading my way.

Yeah--I'm talkin' about the Turbo Tunnel, which initially belied its true nature with more in the way of Battletoad's managable brawling scenes before blindsiding me with one of the most challenging sequences I'd ever encountered in a game: A considerably fast, lengthy auto-scrolling section in which I was tasked with maneuvering a hover-bike as to avoid suddenly-appearing walls, their warning time ever-diminishing. I hadn't even reached the third checkpoint before the rate of acceleration started increasing faster than I could adjust to it, and it seemed as though the game was expecting me to exhibit some level of precognition. Ordinarily, I'd be fine with accept trial-and-error game design, but not when I only had three continues at my disposal. 

As my Toad crashed face-first into one stone slab after another, all I could was question this inexplicably swift spike in difficulty. The sequence was maddening enough on its own, but there was also an extra layer of aggravation in that the  result of ultimate death was having to repeat the first two stages before I could get another shot at it. It didn't help that the stage dragged on endlessly and gave me no indication as to whether or not I was close to finishing it (for all I knew, the fourth checkpoint might have been only the halfway point).

"If this is how challenging the game is only the third stage," I wondered as my heart dropped, "then how much worse is it going to get from here?"

I tried clearing the Turbo Tunnel dozens of times, but I just couldn't do it. I was completely dispirited, which was sad because only minutes before I was enjoying one of the boldest, most inventive NES games I'd played in quite some time, and now I'd completely soured on the game. I couldn't envision any future in which I'd possess the skills necessary to make it the next stage or, less likely, witness the entirety of the game. Oh, I made several follow-up attempts in the weeks ahead, but I met the same fate each time. 

It wasn't even that I had bad reflexes; no--my reflexes were actually pretty well honed. It was more that the game disagreed with that assessment and specifically my rate of input. In particular, there were two parts that always did me in: The one where I forced to make my own jumps--which often led to my Toad inexplicably flying off into the foreground, to his death--and the final mach-speed zigzagging sequence, which I was certain I had down though the game insisted otherwise. I grew so frustrated with the Turbo Tunnel that it didn't seem worth it to continue trying to clear it, and I decided that it was probably best to shelve Battletoads for good.

It was an empty notion, naturally, and I found myself returning to Battletoads every couple of months or so for my next futile attempt at clearing the Turbo Tunnel. But in time, contrary to how I originally slotted myself, I actually became skilled enough to clear the Tunnel without dropping a single continue. From there, it was on to the Ice Tunnel, with which I struggled for the longest time; but I kept at, now fueled by the belief that I could conquer Battletoads one stage at a time if I could continue to advance.

Though, reality crashed down on me when I finally cleared the Ice Tunnel and got a load of what was waiting for me in the next the stage: The Water Rapids, which featured another series auto-scrolling vehicle sequences. "Nuh-uh, no way," I thought out loud as my experience with Rapids started to unfold similarly to the one I previously endured in the Turbo Tunnel--except this stage was somehow worse with its indiscernible shifting-log patterns and apparently unavoidable one-shot-kill whirlpools! I couldn't take any more, and this time I was serious about being done with Battletoads--at least in the terms of playing it legitimately.

That is, I was so determined to see the rest of the game that I resorted to using a Game Genie and an infinite-stock code. I figured this would put me on easy street, but no--I couldn't finish Battletoads even when cheating! The culprit in this instance--the object of my disdain--was the dreaded Clinger Winger, whose main mechanic was easy to figure but impossible to execute. I couldn't tell if the game was looking for directional input before, when, or after I'd reached a corner, and there was nothing to indicate which of them was causing me to slow down. Also, there were no checkpoints, and the game certainly had no intention of affording me any leeway; if I made one mistake--if I slowed down for a single second--the hypnotic orb would chase me down and kill me in one hit. It got me every time.

I couldn't tell if I simply missing something or if my controller was damaged (the d-pad had to be worn out from years of abuse, I considered).

I didn't know, and I didn't care. After all--I was too busy seething over the notion that some group of maniacs had created a game so unfathomably difficult that it was Game Genie-proof! I might have lost my mind had I not angrily switched off the NES after about an hour's-worth of failures. "How the hell do they expect me to make it this far and complete this ridiculously challenging stage with only three continues?" I wondered, exasperated. (I was aware of warps, but accessing them was a challenge all its own.)

It's still my opinion that Clinger Winger takes the cake for the most infuriating thing I've encountered in a video game.

The biggest tragedy in all of this is that Battletoad's extreme difficulty prevented the majority of players from seeing the game's final two-thirds, which are loaded with original, innovate ideas and the most ambitious graphical design ever seen in an NES game. What Rare was able to accomplish with the NES' increasingly obsolete hardware is nothing short of remarkable. I mean, consider the game's depth of variety and technical achievement: It featured a third-person-perspective boss battle in the same year the technologically superior Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time arcade game was trumpeting the same mechanic as an impressive new addition. It has mach-speed hover-biking. Snowball fights. In-transit giant-snake climbing. Jet-propelled bullet-hell sequences. A swimming stage in which you tangle with sharks, electric eels, and terrifying rubber ducks. Giant-rat races. And, most impressively, a cylindrical stage that actually rotates horizontally, its backside objects spinning into view as you move left or right (I wasn't able to see this stage for myself until the dawn of Internet video)!

And it does all this while supporting two players--somehow without the console exploding while trying to render all of it (though, I've read that early versions of the game suffer from a glitch that makes it impossible to finish the game in two-player mode; I can't confirm this to be true, since I only played it a handful of times in two-player mode, and we never got past Turbo Tunnel)! Indeed, Battletoads was much more than the simple beat-'em-up it appeared to be on the surface.

I'm not a fan of their game, no, but I can't deny that Rare's developers stood among the industry's most technically proficient. In fact, I find Battletoads to be so impressively crafted that I simply had to endure it in full, against my better judgment, for the purpose of snapping these screenshots and paying tribute to their efforts! 

Put that on the list of things I'll never be insane enough to do again.

Theirs was an extra-mile effort whose influence can be observed everywhere in the game. There's a catchy beat that plays whenever you pause the game. Why? Because other game creators didn't think to do it. You can juggle crow carcasses for extra points. You can lift lift up your partner and hold him over your head while he, himself, is already holding an enemy. You can pluck the protruding pipes from the cylindrical tower and use them as weapons. During the Impact Crater stage, you can ride on a dragon after immobilizing it, which I didn't even know you could do until maybe, say, 2008. Battletoads is filled with a great deal of neat little touches--many of which will sadly continue to go unnoticed by those who have been scared away by its crazy difficulty.

Though, they'll hopefully listen to the rest of its soundtrack, which is damned good. This isn't a surprise considering that it composed by David Wise, who is a legend in his field.

As for the game, itself: I can understand why some people never want to look upon Battletoads again. With any amount of restraint, it could have been an all-time-great action game, but its creators, as was unfortunately their m.o., decided that it should instead compete for the title of "most tortuously difficult creation in the medium's history." I don't know who their game is supposed to be for or why the company's level designers didn't want players to live long enough to wander upon their most impressive set pieces. I'm not shocked to learn that Nintendo, in response to Rare's practices, instituted a policy of not licensing a game if its developers weren't able to actually finish it. If only it'd been initiated prior to June of 1991.

As is, Battletoads finds itself grouped together with games like Ghost 'n Goblins, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Silver Surfer and others that are remembered mainly for how difficult they were, and that's unfortunate because there's so much more to it--so much that would have been worth seeing had Rare thought to reconsider its design philosophy. But that's the way it was back then, I guess. You had your beloved trendsetters, your memorably bad dreck, and those that sought to qualify as legendarily difficult. Battletoads, with its unwavering adherence to the old quarter-munching arcade values, was the undisputed king of NES-hard games--an absolute nightmare of a video game to which I hope to never again subject myself.

Battletoads--I cast thee back to Hell. Truly, we here on Earth have suffered enough.


  1. Great post as always, Mr. P. Though this is the first time I comment here, I've been a fan of both you Castlevania site and this blog for quite a loooong time now.

    Regarding the glitch that you mention on the text, it pertains to no other than the dreaded Clinger Winger. The thing is that player 2's controller becomes completely inactive, as if it was unplugged from the console, rendering that toad unable to move. As a result of this, he gets hit by the orb right away every time until the player runs out of lives.

    The level can still be completed with one player, and player 2 can rejoin at the next and last stage... at the cost of several lives and one credit, that is, which is a HUGE handicap in this game.

    1. Well, thanks for reading them both! I didn't think anyone still went to my Castlevania site. I know *I* don't (have you seen that place?! Yeesh!).

      Anyway: I hope to see you around again. Feel free to engage me in discussion in any of these posts.

  2. Like a lot of people, I was never able to beat Battletoads without Game Genie cheating. It boggles the mind that Rare put such quality into that title and then made it nearly impossible to finish. The farthest I ever got, under my own steam, was the level after all those giant snakes. I've read that, in a rare (pun intended) moment of wisdom, they did make the Japanese Famicom localization easier, so that might be worth a look someday.

    Did you ever try the Gameboy Battletoads (I'm talking about the first one, with mostly all-new content, not the second one, Ragnarok World, which is just a port of the NES game with some of the levels cut)? It's still tough, with similar gameplay shenanigans (i.e., crazy auto-scrolling vehicle sequences), but I actually managed to beat that one legitimately (albeit once) and it has top-notch production values (for a gray-scale Gameboy game that is), just like its' NES forefather.

    1. I've seen the Game Boy 'Toads game in action (one of my Youtube subs--a fellow named RoundtheWheel--played it fairly recently), but that's the limit of my interaction with it. From what I remember, it looked more straightforward and action-focused.

      '90s-era me wouldn't have considered going near it due to the deep mental scarring left by the NES game.

      I'll keep it in mind for a future piece, though, since I've been making a list of games I'd like to "discover."