Rare’s history in the gaming industry has been one of the most fascinating stories of the past 30 years. They rose from humble beginnings to one of the most powerful developers in the world, and have had some of gaming’s biggest names under their watch. Their original creations have included classics like Banjo-Kazooi, but one of their first early console hits was Battletoads. Coming hot on the heels of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles riding high throughout the late-’80s and early ’90s, the ‘toads came into the mix as the company’s own badass anthropomorphic mascots, and did so with beat ‘em ups that did more than most did then or even now. It’s a testament to the craftsmanship of that game where 30 years later, it still challenges players and has a level of versatility that few others in the genre have had. A SNES pseudo-remake, a Double Dragon crossover game, and a kick-ass arcade game hit and then…nothing.
In the 26 years since the arcade game, the Battletoads have had cameos in games – most notably in the Xbox One version of Shovel Knight and in Killer Instinct’s reboot, but haven’t been seen in their own game in far too long. The announcement of their return in their own game was met with skepticism as many didn’t think that a modern-day brawler could work, seemingly forgetting that the series has melded several genres together before. The original game was mainly a brawler, but it also had some shooting, platforming-esque turbo bike stages, and more variety than most beat ‘em ups of its day and as a result of that genre largely stagnating, more than most now even three decades after its release.
Now, with a new premise powering it, Dlala Studios brings Rash, Pimple, and Zitz back to a new generation of players. After being stuck in a bunker for 26 years, the group finds that their delusional visions of enemy beating have been a dream – and now they have to fend for themselves in the real world. Instead of a heroes’ welcome from defeating evil, they’re in dead-end jobs that players get to enjoy through QTE-style mini-games. Right away, Battletoads keeps the franchise’s tradition alive of keeping you on your toes because you never know what to expect from area to area. The series was always more cutscene and story-driven than most, and its SNES art in particular would hold up nicely to this day.
However, the devs went for a more traditional cartoon animation style for both the game and cutscenes, and it winds up working out nicely. While much has been made of the redesigns, each character now has a distinct face, personality, and overall look that wasn’t present before. Each moves differently and they keep the trend alive of all fighting differently as well, with Pimple as the bruiser, Rash as a faster, longer-range fighter, and Zitz being a blend of the two. Like prior games, you can transform body parts into different things. So while in Battlemaniacs, you might have your hands turn into a giant hammer – now, you can turn into a train or a jackhammer to take enemies out.
Combat has both more variety and a bit less than before. The original games had unique one-on-two attacks where you’d do the splits and attack a foe on each side. That’s gone now, and in its place are a few new abilities. You can launch foes into the air ala a fighting game after a combo to take them out – or just do it to give yourself more time to fight a group of foes off. You also have the ability to dash around the screen and evade with the right trigger – adding a surprising amount of strategy to not only the offensive side of things, but the defensive as well.
Most brawlers don’t do anything for defense beyond blocking, but here, you can block and avoid damage and then land combos or do a tongue pull where you can bring enemies to you ala Scorpion and uppercut them into oblivion. While the original series was known for being brutally difficult, Battletoads comes loaded with multiple difficulty levels and several anti-frustration features baked into its design. You can tag allies in with the d-pad and that allows you to start with a fresh health bar while still being able to pick up life-restoring flies during your travels. The control scheme does tend to use a two-button setup for a few too many things, and that can make things a bit cumbersome during battle. Luckily, all of the core commands are easy to remember – but some of the more advanced ones may take some time to into the groove on due to this.
The variety of gameplay styles is impressive as you not only have the return of (now-rented) turbo bikes from a behind the back perspective, but the addition of puzzle-solving, puzzle-platforming, auto-scrolling (which itself was featured in a vertical setup before in the series), and even a twin-stick shooter. The most impressive thing is that everything has a high level of polish to it and you could legit expand each sub-genre featured into their own game. It’s a testament to the level of care that went into the project that everything works as well as it does. Brawlers alone are hard to get right in a modern-day gaming environment, and this gets the pacing of those down pat and succeeds at other genres alongside it.
Visually, Battletoads features lush animation for its gameplay that moves into the cinematics seamlessly. The usage of an art style that works for both helps the presentation as a whole and it’s impressive to see so much story in a brawler. Beyond that, the environments are varied and they get a lot of mileage out of each stage thanks to the multi-layered gameplay setup where you can wind up with a brawler section, turbo bikes and a twin-stick shooter in a similar-looking world that all manage to feel different thanks to the gameplay shift keeping the setting fresh for each style of play. The animation is fast-moving and matches the quick pace of the action.
Similarly, the game’s acting steals the show – and I can’t recall a beat ‘em up where that would ever be the case. Each voice actor fits the role well and injects life and personality into characters that didn’t really stand out on their own before. Now, they each give off their own vibes and that helps you care about the story as it goes on. The music is also strong, but isn’t quite on-par with the more rock-influenced tunes of prior games. It’s all solid, but isn’t really memorable. Some of the goofier muzak featured in the QTEs is enjoyable though, and works quite well at creating a lighter tone to the adventure.
Overall, Battletoads succeeds far more than I ever could have imagined going in. It’s a great time for beat ‘em up revivals with both Streets of Rage 4 and now Battletoads bringing the goods. Battletoads is packed with even more variety than the original series and features smoother action, with a couple of small caveats that hurt the gameplay slightly. Still, it’s a gorgeous-looking and sounding game with top-shelf voice work and a surprisingly successful turn to a comedy-heavy story that works far better than prior, more serious tales. The revival of the Battletoads is a huge success when it comes to offering up a high-quality experience, and it’s a fitting entry in a beloved series that winds up being one of the best brawlers ever.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
This review is based on a digital copy of Battletoads for the Xbox One provided by Xbox Game Studios.