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Is 2020’s Battletoads The Retro Callback We Deserve?
Platform(s): PC, Xbox One
Genre: 2D beat-em-up with a LOT of racing and minigame bits spliced in
Throwbacks to 90s games can be tricky to design. You don’t want to alienate your fanbase with your recreation of a wayback title, yet you kinda want to accommodate newbies who are curious at best.
Some titles do it well like this year’s Streets of Rage 4 where the difficult bits are tucked in the game’s options. Others just feel like half-assed cash grabs and misguided attempts, like that one Bionic Commando remake with the main character in dreadlocks and other terrible story ideas.
Special cases just say “eff it”, covers its game with a divisive aesthetic, but retain the spirit of its franchise. Seems like Dlala Studios is doing this with 2020’s Battletoads for the Xbox One and PC. This sequel-slash-remake is just as action-packed, genre-“rojaking” mish-mash, and tough as the previous games but comes with a generous checkpoint system and a logical life system, for better or worse.
Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
See, Battletoads will always have you control a party of three either in single-player mode or co-op mode ( up to three players with drop-out functionality). Half of the game requires you to beat up enemies with your morphing hand toad powers in 2D left-to-right sidescrolling glory.
Let’s talk more about that part I remember most about the series because it’s presented and done up really, really well here. Smooth controls and a neat dodging and “grapple” system (ala the ‘Toad’s tongue) makes these segments fun and meaty.
However, it’s far from a cakewalk, especially when you have a ton of enemies filling up the screen and some of them have super-fast projectiles that knock you down. Co-op here, with up to three players, makes these segments slightly easier.
You’ll be getting a rank A or S combo just by grappling and pulling enemies your way, and then launching and juggling them to kingdom come while deftly avoiding enemy fire and cheap jabs. You’re far from defenseless in this segment thanks to your tools, but these bits require you to use everything you have to stand a chance. I do wish there were some more callback fights like with the walkers and shrinking/enlargening giant rat boss, but what I ended up fighting here is still noteworthy.
The other half of the game blends in 3D racing, 2D racing, platforming, 2D shmup segments with analog shooting controls (ala Geometry Wars), and a few quick-time events for levity’s sake. The Battletoads series is renowned for its multiple genres of games, and this 2020 iteration is no exception. The 2D shmup sections give you an evade button that gives you brief invincibility, but the bullet-hell nature of the fights balances it all out. The platforming sections aren’t timed, but they do present some tricky head-scratching puzzles and precise jumping, as well as “air rolling” ala the Donkey Kong Country series.
They’re challenging, but they come with great controls and a fair difficulty curve. Mostly.
We should address the elephant in the room: the art style may not look like much when it’s static. But in motion, it’s actually decent and looks great. Some people may not be fans of some of the changes, or even care much about the game’s plot and cartoony character development, but as a PG cartoon, I’m alright with it.
The story is as such: the Battletoads have been in a hero simulator machine for 20+ years where their world is under rule by the Topians. Struggling to adjust to the new life they’re in, the trio (Rash, Pimple, Zitz) have to team up with former nemesis The Dark Queen to take the godly Topian leaders and army down while also trying to get famous.
I honestly find myself chuckling at the Saturday Morning vibe and silly banter/jokes that keep coming in. Yes, there are a few low-hanging fruits involving adult diapers, but seeing as the Battletoads are originally rip-offs of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the early 90s, the whole plot and the jabs at its self-absorbed heroes and former villain warrant a few giggles at the very least.
Rash is the bro chasing for stardom, while Zitz is the leader with an inferiority complex. Pimple gets his own arc where he’s trying to be a gentle giant with hilarious consequences. British accent Dark Queen somehow is the much-needed voice of “reason” for the toad trio; the dynamic between them works given the 5-hour-or-less length the team is given. The Topian villains have their moments, but the overall tone and story arcs are harmless and good fun.
What isn’t harmless is the way some of these aforementioned minigames work. While most of them are good, some of them do sour the experience. There’s a section where you race from a horde of aliens in the second Act that requires you to “grind” onto colour-coded rails. The second half of that stage will make you break a controller or three, especially if you’re not adept at precisely pressing the grind button.
There is also one segment in the third Act that is incredibly annoying and aggravating. It requires you to scan the screen, find an interactive segment, finish that segment quick, then repeat until the game tells you you’re done for the round. This segment will give you the order in which to approach each section on the panel (look up at the panel), but you won’t have time to do that for the last two rounds of this minigame. You basically have to mash buttons and move your d-pads and analogues until something blinks first. Thankfully this only happens once and there are checkpoints for each round.
And while the game brings back the turbo cycle segments, the first one you play is tough and fair, with generous checkpoints. However, there’s ANOTHER turbo cycle segment that has no checkpoints whatsoever and requires split-second and precise dodging. You’ll know if you made it far enough in the game. It’s true to its Nightmare namesake, I’ll tell you that.
Oh, and good luck playing these segments with two of your buddies. The beat-em-up segments are fine, but the aforementioned segments will be a handful to coordinate to.
If you want a smooth cruise with hand-holding for the first half of the game, this isn’t the place. But for everyone else who long for a late 80s and 90s challenge that’s made somewhat fair and tailored for this generation, Battletoads (2020) is a surprising effort if you think this era’s crop of games aren’t hardcore enough.
You’ll be tested just like last time, but your time will not be wasted and you’ll be a better score-hunting and achievement-grinding player for it. As for others, it’s pretty fun until the second, third, and/or fourth Act curveballs stomp you to oblivion. The rest of you: dock off 20 points from the final score below because this isn’t going to change your mind about old-school games and what they offer.
Handle with care, is all I’m saying.
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