With Handling Great Memories, Comes Great Responsibility
As a child of the 80’s and early 90’s, many of my most powerful memories were built around 2D gaming. Despite enjoying the gaming industries growth and maturity as an art form, I find myself welcoming callbacks to memories or feelings from simpler, more carefree times. Enter Battletoads, Dlala Studio’s reboot of a franchise we haven’t seen since 1994. Working with Rare, Dlala takes on a task of creating something that is relevant to modern gamers while having to contend with the challenge of taking on a beloved IP. Made for Xbox One, PC and Game Pass, Battletoads attempts to re-imagine Rare’s 1991 effort which was mis-mash of unrelated genres and gametypes with the beat-em-up mode being it’s heart. So is this reboot worth your time? The answer to this question depends largely on why you’re here in the first place.
If Nostalgia is a Hell of a Drug, Then 2020’s Battletoads Says No to Drugs
The first aspect I considered when evaluating this classic IP revival is how well it pays homage to the franchise. After all, if it doesn’t leverage the opportunity for fan service or nostalgia, why use a classic IP at all? This first consideration will be my largest criticism of the game. Before playing the 2020 version of Battletoads, I revisited the old franchises with a focus on gameplay and art style. The original 1991 Battletoads was a mashup of genres with brawling being the foundation much like this one. Ascetically both the 1991 original and 1994 arcade version had a different tone and color scheme than this one. Specifically looking at 1994’s Battletoads Arcade, we could see a darker, grittier trend to the style. My imagination of what Battletoads could look like with a reboot were only further established when one of the characters, Rash, appeared in the 2015 Killer Instinct expansion.
Rather than being the Ninja Turtle superhero knockoff that we remember, the 2020 toads are a softer, more awkward, self deprecating version of their classic counterparts. These Battletoads aren’t trying to be cool looking heroes and miss the mark on nostalgia and fan service as a result.
Story of Good Intentions
Fans of Rick and Morty or Channel 101 should take note that some of the same people who contributed to writing and voice acting on those shows also did the same for Battletoads. Their participation peaked my interest for this game as production values are generally low for retro genres by today’s standards. Even Lizardcube’s excellent and well received Streets of Rage 4 turned in a throw-away story and cutscenes. By contrast, Dlala makes an effort, such as having cut-scene quality that could pass for a network TV cartoon. Where the game excels in production value, it struggles with inconsistent writing. While I acknowledge humor is one of the most difficult things to subjectively critique, much of the humor will likely be too on the nose for most adults. It instead appears to target adolescents which is miss for an IP that will resonate best with people over 30. Sometimes Battletoads attempts to break the 4th wall but succeeds in doing little more than acknowledging it exists.
While most of the individual jokes didn’t have me laughing out loud, this cartoon did have me smiling by the end. Early on, our protagonists discover that they were living a simulation and weren’t the Superheros they thought they were. This set’s them out on an adventure driven by their desire to become popular. It transforms into a romp across the galaxy in which the story beats are as non-sequitur as it’s game design. One moment doesn’t feel like a setup for another and the fact that the story felt abruptly disjointed is also what kept me interested. By the end, I wondered if the writers intended to create a story that mirrored the game where you don’t know what crazy they will try next. Whatever the intention, it worked to keep me engaged.
This May Not Look Like Dad’s Battletoads but…
As mentioned, the most disappointing aspect of how Battletoads looks is that it subverted my artistic expectations. Once I got past that, what I found was a well animated, varied and interesting looking game. That’s not to say that Battletoads deserves to rank up there with the Cuphead or Ori class of 2D visuals. It doesn’t. It does however modernize animations for 2D brawlers. This game is fluid and plays like a cartoon in motion. The color pallets are vibrant and vary from level to level. All 3 toads have a variety of their own moves and every character animates differently. Their transformations are smooth and seamless. Extra credit goes to their attention to detail, for example during the sledding section, when the toads pull out an umbrella during high jumps to catch more air. Best of all, Battletoads achieves these animations without getting in the way of it’s gameplay.
Can a Jack of All Trades Master Some?
This brings me to the primary reason I enjoyed games from the 2D era. Before storytelling and immersion matured in gaming, most games were judged based on how much fun you had figuring out how to beat them. In this area, Battletoads mostly met the mark.
I went in expecting Battletoads to be a brawler with a small side of mini games. To level set expectations, gamers going in should know this game has a broad mix in which brawling makes up approximately 1/3rd of the game. Battletoads has a meaty campaign consisting of 4 Acts for a total of 25 parts. Those parts broke out as the following: 6 brawling missions, 7 random and distinct mini-games, 4 top down shooters, 4 platforming levels and 2 brawling boss fights.
The best of all these modes are the brawling sections. Battletoads attemps to establish it’s own identity, meaning old school brawler fans should not go in expecting anything in the vein of a Streets of Rage. There are no grapples and achieving combos is not based on juggles or trying to chain hits together within short periods of time. Instead Battletoad’s identity difference is based on defense and the ability to tag in any Battletoad on the fly. You’ll use your right trigger to evade, with the evade being a quick move that covers a lot of ground. I found myself able to boost from one side of the arena to the other in quick order. This allows for fights to move fast and being quick with evasion will allow you to keep combos going until you get hit. Sometimes I would use my faster toads to get into position of enemies and then tag in the heavy to drop on them for damage. Other aspects that make it unique are the toads ability to use their tongues to pull opponents towards them or use spit balls to freeze enemies. Overall I found the hit detection to be consistent. By the end of the game, the most disappointing aspect about the brawling is that there wasn’t more of it.
The most surprising aspect of Battletoads gameplay was just how quickly I could progress through the game. While the originals were known for their notorious difficulty, this version’s default difficulty never stumped me at one place for too long. Most gamers shouldn’t be over-challenged with the games default settings. There are 3 levels of difficulty for gamers wanting to boost or lower the challenge.
Battletoads most glaring omission is the lack of online co-op. This feature is almost essential, especially in a time when people are socially distancing, and it’s hard to give a pass for this to a Microsoft published game. With Game Pass providing an immediate built in audience, I can only imagine how much fun it would’ve been to grab a couple buddies and work out combos together. This is a game with strong co-op potential and hopefully Microsoft will continue to support it with an online patch in the future.
Additional drawbacks to the gameplay included most of the puzzle platforming levels feeling uninspired and tedious. There was also some inconsistency among the varied mini-games. While some some of them were creative pallet cleansers, others should’ve been left on the editing floor.
A Sum that is Greater than it’s Parts
When it was all said and done, Battletoads isn’t going to win awards for writing, doesn’t set a new bar for any single genre, and none of their mini games should be spun off into full fledged games. Yet Dlala created something fun here, kept me engaged and offered a good amount of content without over-staying its welcome. This is a good effort for a new studio and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do in the future. In these troubled times we live in, I welcome a game that exists solely to be bright, over the top, and fun. Battletoads may not be the best retro reboot this year, but it’s a good time nonetheless.
Review Code for BattleToads was provided to XboxEra by Microsoft.
- Varied high quality animations
- Variety of modes
- Responsive and intuitive brawler controls
- High production values
- Lot of content for this genre
- Does not make good use of IP or offer much fan service
- Inconsistent writing and humor
- Platforming levels unimaginative
- No online co-op