When I started this blog, I set down a few rules for myself. Among them:
1. No hyperbolic anger/rage. Yes, it’s fun for everybody to compare a game to an ass crapping on another ass and then the second ass eats up that crap and pukes it back onto the first ass in an infinite assplosion, but it’s way too easy to slide into that being a shtick that is applied to even the most minor of flaws. It cheapens the medium as a whole when something like Final Fantasy 13 is referred to as the “worst RPG ever” while we still live in a world that contains Hyperdimension Neptunia and its inexplicable myriad of sequels. Besides, if ROB ever chooses Beyond the Beyond, it will make my venom all the sweeter. I’ve been saving it in jars since 1996!
2. No beating dead horses. I’m coming into this video game blogging thing fairly late in the scope of the internet, so no posting the same old thing that has already been inscribed by every other blogger. Yes, Super Mario Bros. 3 is amazing. Yes, Deadly Towers is terrible. I can spend a thousand or so words saying what everyone else already has, but what’s the point unless I can provide something I haven’t seen elsewhere? Mark my words, there is a post about these games in the future, but it at least has to come from an angle that hasn’t been done to death.
Given you’re likely capable of reading the title, you probably see the issue: There’s only one thing to talk about with Battletoads, and that’s the difficulty. Sure, I could write a sonnet from the perspective of a captured Pimple, or perhaps something related to Turbo Tunnel PTSD, but it feels dishonest, as if I’m dodging an issue like so many pink walls.
So I’ve made up my mind: I’m going to talk about Battletoad’s difficulty really well.
Sit down and buckle in: I’m going to analyze this game’s difficulty curve on a level by level basis, and hopefully unearth exactly what happened here, and the why and how of Battletoads being the most difficult NES game out there.
Level 1 Ragnarok’s Canyon
What’s going on here? This is a remarkably straight beat ‘em up stage. There are grunts in the form of pudgy lil’ piggies, slightly stronger walking robot dome things, and the occasional flying dragon thrown in for a little variety. It’s all pretty normal, and, particularly with the ability to steal weapons from walkers, feels like a fantasy/sci-fi Double Dragon.
Difficulty? Assuming you’ve played a beat ‘em up before, you’re probably not going to have a problem here. If you figure out the ramming dash attack, it’s entirely likely you won’t even take a hit. This might be the most deceptive first level in all of gaming.
Boss? The Giant Walker boss might be the first sign that this game is going to go off the rails. The start of the fight immediately changes the view to feature your toad as seen through the boss’s vision, and the secret to winning is not using your traditional punching skills, but to return the boss’s projectiles right through its glass face. Interestingly, you won’t see another boss for a while, and this is the only boss in the game that is even a remote “puzzle”. At least it isn’t that difficult.
Anything else? Rash and Zitz can acquire a club from a defeated walker, and then hop onto a dragon ala Golden Axe and fly around shooting fireballs. These stackable powerups are rather interesting, and never appear in the game again. Ever.
Level 2 Wookie Hole
What’s going on here? The Toads descend through a vertical shaft while swinging from a thread overhead. The jump button is completely unused for this sequence, and movement is available in all directions. As a lovely, never seen again bonus, a toad may squeeze against either side of the cave, transform into a wrecking ball, and one-hit kill any unlucky foes in the way.
Difficulty? By and large, this area is similarly simple compared to later challenges. The first signs of Battletoads flashing its fangs is featured here, as crows with large beaks may sever the support string and send Zitz plummeting to an instant grave. For new players, there is very little indication that these crows are as dangerous as they are, but at least your immediate respawn will allow a player to notice the difference as opposed to a simple, “What the hell just happened?” The electrical barriers toward the end of the level are difficult almost exclusively because they spawn too late for a player to really see them coming without “knowing”, but at least they only cause damage, as opposed to instant death.
Boss? None. The level just kinda ends. Battletoads in Battlemaniacs closes its similar “descent” stage with a horrendous spiked wall gauntlet (which I’m happy isn’t here) that does make the end of the stage feel more significant.
Anything else? This level is skipped if you take the warp from Level 1 to Level 3, but that almost feels like a trick, as this level is practically made for acquiring points and extra 1-ups from juggling crows. You don’t quite know why yet, but even the cheats in Battletoads are vaguely malicious.
Level 3 Turbo Tunnel
What’s going on here? And here’s where half the players quit. I am really disappointed that Rare Reply doesn’t provide an achievement for completing the Turbo Tunnel, as I’d be interested to see what percentage of players start the game, and then quit after a thousand head traumas. I digress. This stage starts with some basic, Level 1 beat ‘em up enemies, a brief cameo from space invaders, and then the eponymous Turbo Tunnel, where speeder bikes are ridden and toads break their spines.
Difficulty? It all sounds simple, but in practice, this level is absolutely insane. Your choices are, basically, up, down, and jump. Going up avoids a low wall, going down avoids a high wall, and jumping will get you over pits, short walls, dropped walls, and help with ramps. There’s never an attack from the rear, so the fact that you can move forwards and backwards is inconsequential. You receive a small preview of your next obstacle, so you have a window of opportunity to choose your lane or jump. Jump, jump, slide, slide, the end.
Unfortunately, the reason this level is such a brick wall (ha!) for so many players is that that window of opportunity is only opened a crack, and you’re likely to lose a finger as it closes. Every incorrect move is punished with death, and causes your toad to restart from the most recent checkpoint, allowing the chance for you to fail even earlier in the race, and never even see the milestone you’d reached previously. And, while I would say you simply need good reflexes to get through the first few areas, the final lap requires you to just plain know what’s coming, and snake between walls with absolute precision. And remember, if you lose all your lives, it’s back to the absolute beginning of the stage, and every single challenge involved must be completed anew.
Boss? The final deluge of walls is all this stage needs for a memorable finale. Though a polite game would pause after all that to allow you a moment to wipe the sweat from your paws.
Anything else? As an extra special bit of terrible, the ramps in this stage work by holding down the jump button when hitting the ramp, not using any kind of special timing like hitting A right at the moment of impact like I’ve apparently been doing wrong for years. This is another place where the instant death mechanic of the level works against the game itself: it is incredibly difficult to know when you are doing something right or wrong when damn near everything results in your immediate demise. You can only learn from a mistake if you know how you made the mistake.
Level 4 Arctic Caverns
What’s going on here? Alright, there’s a warp in the Turbo Tunnel that you may take to avoid the final bits of Level 3 (also, you may just hit it accidentally, like everything else in the Turbo Tunnel). If you take the warp, you’ll arrive in Level 6, and skip this level and the next. So, this often-missed level is the always fun ice stage. This is also the first stage where the faux 3-D of the first and third levels is nixed for some straightforward 2-D running and jumping. There’s a lot going on in this stage, but the three main things are…
- Ice is slippery, so your naked heroes just slide everywhere. Additionally, ice blocks and giant spiked turtle shells slide around, potentially tripping a toad.
- Frosty the Snowdope appears often to initiate snowball fights. These projectile based battles are pretty easy, and just require your toad to duck or jump before returning fire. A possible hang-up here is that this, the fourth level, is the first your toad has occasion or the ability to duck.
- Various “gates” appear throughout the level that must be smashed by some kind of opposing force, whether it be a sliding iceblock or luring a snowman into tossing snowballs at the obstacle. While these gates are normally permanently destroyed, towards the end of the stage there are gates that temporarily “pop up” at the touch of those giant spiked shells.
There’s just a lot going on here.
Difficulty? A lot of this stage is pretty fair, though it does expect expert reactions to “traps”. The real hell doesn’t appear until the latter parts of the stage, when the slippery stage is combined with moving platforms and instant death spikes above and below. It’s the first 2-D “platforming” stage in the game, and it basically requires a masters in physics that were just introduced. And, as an added jerk move, the previously mentioned “pop up gates” will squish a toad for an instant death if your timing is just a little off. Instant respawning was left back in the first section of the Turbo Tunnel, but at least the checkpoints are generous. Basically, if you’re already a master of Super Mario ice stages, this level might be fair, but if this is somehow your first video game, this is about where you should get off.
Boss? Thankfully no, unless you want to count those snowdopes.
Anything else? This is true of most levels in this game, but it’s worth noting here: after the mastering the Turbo Tunnel, the following level utilizes basically none of the skills you would have acquired during your speeder bike tenure. And, as you may have guessed, you’ll never see icy conditions or snowball fights again. Thanks for playing!
Level 5 – Surf City
What’s going on here? Immediately after the ice stage is the summery beach stage, naturally. Half of this stage is back to level one-esque beat ‘em up rules, and the other half involves surfing, which controls similarly to the speeder bike incident, but minus the ability to jump. Hang ten with the radical toads, dudes!
Difficulty? Let’s lead with the obvious: this is an easier version of the Turbo Tunnel, and there is no reason Level 3 and Level 5 shouldn’t switch spots. The surfing segments of this level never reach even half the speed and necessary skill as the previous speeder challenge, and the general layout/setting is much more welcoming than the lava ball pit of Level 3. I guarantee that, given the chance, a Battletoads neophyte would be able to complete Surf City much faster than Turbo Tunnel. Hell, the opening surfing “walls” aren’t even instant kills! It makes all the difference!
Boss? About 75% of the way through the stage, you’ll encounter Battletoads’ second boss. Big Blag is a gigantic, ugly rat that generally attacks by attempting to stomp on a chosen toad, which will lead to an instant death. Aside from this obviously powerful move, he’s pretty straightforward, and can be juggled infinitely for an easy win. This is, in Level 5, the first boss in the game that features traditional gameplay.
Anything else? If I had to guess, I’d say this level is a “reward” for not taking the warp in Level 3 and then proceeding to complete Level 4. While it’s still likely to drain your lives, it’s the only real reprieve in the game. We won’t see a level like this again.
Level 6 – Karnath’s Lair
What’s going on here? The level where a toad rides a bunch of snakes. For whatever reason, the snakes are nonpoisonous, they just zoom around, defying gravity without a care in their snakey little heads. It’s your job to guide your Battletoad toward riding and climbing these procrastinating predators.
Difficulty? This one kinda depends on your own precognitive abilities. This is our second 2-D platforming stage, and it actually plays easier than Level 4, but with the caveat that you know where to jump when. It’s easy enough to guess where most of these snakes are going and then follow along, but the final area of the level gets very tricky with confusing the player as to what snake will emerge from which hole. Once you know what’s happening, it’s easy as pie, but you’ll probably lose a few lives guessing wrong. “Guessing” is a bad thing for most any skill based game, and it’s not the last we’ll see of that concept.
Boss? Another one where the level just ends.
Anything else? Karnath is not actually seen in his lair, but he does appear in the arcade version as… a giant snake. I guess he’s just hibernating during this game.
Level 7 – Volkmire’s Inferno
What’s going on here? And here’s the direct sequel to the infamous Turbo Tunnels. Much like Level 3 or Level 5, this stage has a few beat ‘em up sections, follows it with a few tricky jumps, and then sticks your toad on a vehicle for the remainder of the stage. This time, you have a plane that allows flying in all 8 directions (the first that’s been seen since Level 2), and another fun time dodging obstacles lest you experience instant death.
Difficulty? The… speed plane? Yeah, let’s call it that. The speed plane is like a more advanced speeder bike, in that your vertical movement has expanded from a third of the screen to the entire thing, and there are a number of places where your horizontal location will make an impact on your continued breathing. On the other hand, again, nothing approaches the insanity of the final Turbo Tunnel segment, so even this level could comfortably sit before Level 3. You’re going to die, of course, but it’s a lot easier to approach the traps of this stage than expertly serpentine through pink walls. Your speed plane mileage may vary, though.
Boss? Nope. The way the level trumps up the speed plane segment prior to hopping in the cockpit seems to present half the stage as a “boss”, though.
Anything else? This is the last natural “cave” stage, as everything past here is inside something manmade, whether it be one continuous structure or a series of interconnected, underground buildings. I’d say the final leg of this game has excellent geography after stuff like ice cave ➡ beach ➡ snake pit ➡ inferno.
Level 8 – Intruder Excluder
What’s going on here? Back to 2-D platforming, here’s an entirely vertical stage with a boss at the tippy top. This might be Battletoad’s most straightforward, video game-y level, and it’s only eight levels in.
Difficulty? Assuming you have some familiarity with platforming games, this one isn’t too bad. You have to jump precisely, as you’re dealing with the kind of scroll that will leave you finished if you drop slightly lower than your current altitude, but if you have those skills, there isn’t much in the way of Battletoads trademark gotcha moments to knock you back down. I mean, of course there’s blasts of gas that will just instantly kill you, and there’s fans that are meant to push you off platforms, or suck you into their whirling blades of instant death, but, overall, you’ll probably have an easier time here than in the Arctic Caverns.
Boss? The mechanized Robo-Manus stands at the top of this tower. This is the first time a Battletoads boss really feels at home in Battletoads, as his bullets will hit-stun you into death after the slightest tap, and he borrows the instant death jump/stomp of Big Blag. Assuming you don’t just ram juggle this bot into oblivion, you’re probably going to have a tough time of it.
Anything else? In many ways, this level feels like a training stage for the finale, a mere four levels away. Of course, by the time you reach that tower, you’ll have long forgotten these sunnier days. C’est la vie.
Level 9 – Terra Tubes
What’s going on here? Welcome to hell! Battletoads pulls out all the stops for its sewer level, a 2-D platforming affair that features homicidal robots, useless propellers, gear racing, swimming, and even a murderous rubber ducky. I want to say this is the longest stage in the game, but it just might feel that way because it’s even more difficult and random than usual.
Difficulty: Here’s a detailed list of what you’re up against:
- This entire stage is a series of tight corridors, simulating actual sewer tunnels. There’s a number of instant kill spikes and robots that, for whatever reason, are also instantly deadly when approached.
- Occasionally, there’ll be a vertical segment where you descend with a dinky propeller slowing your fall. It may feel like a return to Wookie Hole style gameplay, but there’s no enemies, just spikes to be avoided and a scroll that usually doesn’t reveal the spikes until it’s too late. So, back to guessing for survival.
- This is the first and only stage the Battletoads encounter (non deadly) water. When waist deep, it merely slows a toad to a crawl, and disables the run (and ram) ability. When submerged, the level becomes an actual “water level” complete with precision swimming around more instant kill spikes. Also, there are a few random enemies, like fish and sharks, swimming around, and, no, the designers didn’t feel like equipping Zitz and Rash with any dedicated submerged attacks. Just punch air (water?) like usual, and hope for the best.
- And most fun are the horror gears, which dominate the corridors and require your toad to race ahead. The first few gears are pretty straightforward, but later gears require you not only know exactly where you’re going, but also have complete knowledge of how various minor obstacles work. So, your toad is in a puddle of water: does he move faster when “water running” or hopping? Guess wrong and die.
- And then toward the end of the level? All of the above.
I’m gonna go ahead and put this stage in the “difficult” column.
Boss? Oh thank God, no. Last time I get to say that.
Anything else? Oh yeah, those rubber duckies that float along simulating background elements, and then spring to life and go all Chica on you until you are very dead. Did I mention they first appear toward the very end of the level? I want to reiterate that I have no idea how anyone ever got through this game with their sanity intact.
Level 10- Rat Race
What’s going on here? On paper, it’s very simple. This is another 2-D stage (actually, they’re all 2-D starting with Level 8, just noticed that) where Mr. Toad has a wild ride trying to outrace a giant rat named Giblet. It’s a vertical descent, and the “trick” is that you’re trying to touch the ground as little as possible and “fall” through the stage to your goal. Complete with the palette swap decorating, it’s like Level 8 in reverse. Except…
Difficulty: … This is a dreadful level. The first two races are, at best, deceptive. Yes, you may lose at first, but you’ll eventually win, likely without noticing the nuances of the race, like that your Battletoad will automatically run, unlike the entire rest of the game where running requires the ol’ double tap. This is essential knowledge for the third and final race, where the slightest error will result in Giblet far outracing Zitz and, sorry mate, you may as well give up five seconds after the start if you hit the wrong wall.
This creates an interesting quandary: what’s worse? Instant death upon the tiniest failure, ala the Turbo Tunnel, or entering a failure state seconds into a sequence that can take minutes, and having to wait out your inevitable demise? I’m fond of the Turbo Tunnel, as it doesn’t waste any time indicating that you suck, but the advantage of the Giblet race is that if you fail early, at least you have the time to “explore” what’s coming, so maybe you’ll get past what killed you the first time and avoid issues that you never knew existed down the line. Battletoads: how would you like to die today?
Boss? Oh and on top of everything there’s a boss, General Slaughter, whose sprite appears to be a rhino, but he was a bull in the animated series, and then popped up as a total boar in later Battletoads games. What’s important is that he’s got horns, and he’s the first enemy to turn the Toads’ ram skill against them. Aside from having to avoid a frontal assault, he’s basically the same as Robo-Manus, minus the gun, so he’s not a trying fight. Though the idea of beating every last race and then having to repeat it all after falling to an ill-timed stomp attack… shudder…
Anything else? This stage features the first of two game breaking bugs: on rare occasions, you may beat Giblet in his infernal race, but the sore loser never makes it to the finish line himself, and your poor toad will wait dutifully in the now empty room forever, and, with no timer or enemies around, the game must simply be reset. I cannot even imagine getting this far back in the 90s and then having to start over thanks to some improperly placed code. Like, I’m pretty sure you’d be legally allowed to murder the design staff at that point.
Level 11 – Clinger-Wingers
What’s going on here? The toads must ride motorized unicycles called clinger-wingers along an oddly shaped course while outrunning the Hypno Orb. All glory to the Hypno Orb!
Difficulty: This is Battletoads: Master Class. The way this vehicle works is that you must, at all times, be holding the proper cardinal direction on the control pad, else the Hypno Orb will catch you, and it’s life over. No jumping, no dodging, just hold the right…err… correct arrow at all times (and no diagonals to try to fudge two direction at once, that will just get you killed). If you fail, even inches from the finish line, you’re back at the start all over again. And, like Rat Race, you can have a bad couple of opening seconds, perfectly take every twist and turn afterwards, and you’re still pushing up daisies inches from the goal thanks to youthful transgressions. Oh, and the final area deliberately burns any “lead” you might have on the orb before throwing you the most successive turns in the course. Good bloody luck!
Boss? Oh, and at the end of it all, you must fight the orb in hand-to-hand combat, presumably because the boss budget ran out a long time ago, so Proto-Ozma is all anyone could come up with. This fight is very similar to the previous battle against General Slaughter, except Hypno Orb has a wonky hitbox that means you’ll be taking damage if you touch it at juuuust the wrong angle. What is that angle? Who’s to say?
Anything else? And here’s the second completely absurd, game-breaking glitch: it is completely impossible to beat this level with two players. Player two just immediately fails upon entering this stage, and that’s all she wrote, you won’t be seeing the Dark Queen tonight, toads. This is, if you think about it, fascinating, as such an obvious glitch means that not a single playtester team ever got to Level 11 with two players. Ever. Either that, or it did happen, the designers were aware of it, and they just ignored it, because what are the odds of two people that are that good at Battletoads ever being in the same room? The world just isn’t big enough for that kind of coincidence.
Level 12 – The Revolution
What’s going on here? The finale, the coup de grâce, the… golden… fly? I don’t know, this game is kind of exhausting in body and soul. As far as I’ve ever cared, this stage is a victory lap after the true final challenge that is Clinger-Wingers. Here’s a pretty straightforward ascent up the Dark Queen’s tower to a final battle with the mistress herself. The graphics are pretty impressive for a NES title, which is a shame, as probably a whole six people saw this level before the advent of emulators. Hop, skip, and jump up the tower of death, traversing disappearing platforms, springs, and occasionally grabbing poles to hang on for deadly hurricane force winds. Also, fight a cloud every once in a while. Weirdly, the whole thing feels like it was built for Wizards and Warriors.
Difficulty: It’s really not that bad. Sure, that statement is relative at this point, but it’s still a fair kind of difficulty, where even the disappearing blocks don’t feel as difficult as trying to guess snake trajectories earlier. The only major Battletoads jerk move I can see is the occasional appearance of the instant kill winds, but usually you have a little warning by seeing the poles you need to access ahead of time, so, generally, survival is assured.
Boss? The evil Dark Queen herself challenges the Battletoads at the apex. At this point, you should be pretty good at Battletoads bosses, as they’ve all been the same since Level 5, just make sure you don’t get too close when she inexplicably turns into a human tornado (unless you brought along Kain, who should just use Jump), and use your ram attack and juggle to your heart’s content. She’ll sully your victory by escaping, but at least you’ll have rescued Pimple and Princess Angelica, about whom we know nothing.
Anything else? Some cultures believe completing Battletoads is a rite of passage: a time when you are no longer a child, but have become a neo maxi zoom dweebie. Wear your newfound standing with pride, and let no one tell you that you know nothing of hardship.
I’ll Get You Next Time, Toads! (Conclusion)
No one ever had a chance. Battletoads may as well have been created, published, and then placed in a little box labeled “do not open until save states”. The rules change too often, the gameplay is all over the map, and entire levels require amazing luck or rote memorization. Skills are learned, honed to perfection, and then discarded, never to be seen again. The very idea that someone could complete this game in less than a year’s time and without dedicating 100% of their brain to the task is laughable. Achieving seeing just a quarter of this game on its original hardware would require a level of effort akin to torture.
But, oh man, does it feel good when you cross that finish line. I’ll see you in Hell, Giblet.
FGC #24 Battletoads
- System: NES and Xbox One. It’s got a variety of quasi-sequels across other systems, but right here is the real McCoy.
- Number of players: Two, right up until Level 11. I suppose this glitch was fixed in international and modern versions, but I’m standing by the idea that no two people are going to beat Level 11 simultaneously anyway.
- Would you say this game is well done? Nah, I think it’s pretty Rare.
- You mentioned an arcade version? Yes, and it features The Great Karnath in all his nightmare fuel glory. Take a look!
The arcade version is also, to my knowledge, the only pure Battletoads game where all three toads are actually playable. Hey, Rare, why create a trio when you know all the systems you’re designing for have only two controller ports?
- You mentioned an animated series? Well, more like animated serie. Is that a thing? It was only one episode (the failed pilot, I suppose), and it features three random teens that are transformed into The Battletoads in an effort to appease a cranky bird and rescue a princess from another dimension. The Dark Queen, in all her dom glory, is pretty much unchanged, and The Battletoads all retain their “wacky” combat skills, which is appropriate for an animated series. The show’s tone seemed to be very similar to the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon of the time… the daily, silly one, not the deathly serious one that aired on weekends. God, that was a weird time to be watching cartoons. Oh, and I obviously own a VHS copy. Why the hell wouldn’t I?
- Battletoads to the Future: Will we ever see the Battletoads in a game made after the 16-bit generation?
The world may never know.
- Did you know? Geez, haven’t we covered enough Battletoads trivia at this point? Fine, let’s squeeze some blood out of this stone… oh, I know: The original Battletoads origin story, as seen in Nintendo Power, paints the Battletoads as three humans who were playing a virtual reality game, and then whooooa got sucked into the game and, like, it’s totally real, man! Nowadays, that would probably be seen as charmingly meta, but back in the 90’s, I’m pretty sure this was the plot of every third game. There was a lot of fear about being sucked into video games back in the day…
- Would I play again? I beat Battletoads frontwards and backwards to write this little screed, and I am glad to be rid of it. Never again. Except if someone wants to play two players, in which case, just give me a ring.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Dinocity for the Super Nintendo. That’s… that’s like Jurassic Park, right? Yeah, it’s probably just like that, but I guess we’ll confirm it. Please look forward to it!