1991 was a significant year for me. It was the year I would graduate high school with writing honors – and very few friends in my graduating class. (I was rather unpopular then.) It was the year I truly discovered that working fast food was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, mainly because, well, evening manager at Subway doesn't exactly echo "dream career". But it was also the year I discovered many a great game, and truly showed just how far they had come from simple bleeps and bloops.
One would think that the SNES would be the escalating item in this matter, especially with Super Castlevania IV being as great as it was. But no, this time it was all about Battletoads, a simple, small, underhyped title from Rare Ltd. and Tradewest. A few people looked at this and wondered what it was all about, and whether it stood a chance against the likes of, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. But hardcore gamers, like myself, truly knew – this was something that was earth-shattering.
The game follows the Battletoads as they literally butt heads against the Dark Queen and her evil forces, who have kidnapped a pair of their allies, forcing them on a strenuous rescue mission. But this isn't just a side scroller in the same vein as Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and Turtles. No way. This is a game that diversified gameplay every chance it got, and while every segment may not have been for everyone (we're looking at you, speeder bikes), it was a mesmerizing experience – and 22 years later, remains so today.
What made a difference is how the gameplay changed up on nearly every single stage. One minute you were pounding guys with typical fighting moves; the next, you were rappelling into a dangerous ravine, smashing enemies with kicks and spin moves. But that was just the beginning. Later stages would include devastating snowball fights against evil snowmen, a surfing battle where you had to struggle just to avoid wiping out, and, of course, those speeder bikes.
The speeder bikes stand out in their own right, not just because they remind us lovingly of the ones from Return of the Jedi (minus the heavy foliage, obviously), but also because of the challenge. There were segments of that stage that relied on absolute split-second timing. Screw up once and, well, you've had it, starting back at the checkpoint. But nailing each segment was an accomplishment, one that kept pushing you to get through the next one. And even though the finale, involving a scattershot of tiles that must be dodged perfectly, was near impossible for some to get through, I made it, and moved on to the next stage. It was a moment of accomplishment – and a nice way to kick off summer, no less.
Along with the gameplay and heaping challenge that it brought with it (we haven't seen a game this hard since the Mega Man saga), Battletoads also came with a superb presentation, the likes of which would define the NES era. The graphics were truly something special, between the personable animation of the Battletoads themselves and the scrolling effects in each stage. Rare could've been fine just plastering backgrounds on here, but, instead, created an effect that made it seem like the game was seeping into the next generation. It almost resembled what Donkey Kong Country did for the SNES – it seemed a lot greater than the hardware it was manufactured for. And the way that the first stage concluded, with you taking the first-person perspective of the boss trying to crush the Battletoads, was sheer genius. Rarely had we seen a situation where we could see things from the point of view of our enemy. Very few games have managed to do that since, which is a shame – but maybe some day.
Then there was the music, which was a lot of fun. Each stage had some terrific little ditty to go along with it, and, what's more, the pause music was fantastic, made up of a foot-stomping little beat that, to this day, is the ringtone of many a hardcore gamer. Even the Angry Video Game Nerd admits his love for it – and that's saying something.
Best of all, Battletoads is a game you can play with a friend, either cooperatively or, in a hilarious manner, competitively. The two player option really sells a game like this, as having someone come along and joyfully trade jabs with you makes it all the more hilarious. Sure, you lose some lives in the process and have to start some stages over, but you have so much fun that it's all in good jest. It's just a shame that the game didn't get the recognition it deserved in today's market, with an HD release or a re-release on the Wii Virtual Console service. With online play, this thing would've been a spectacular reboot.
Granted, the Battletoads did live on for a while there. The original game got ported to the Genesis, though it didn't quite feel the same; the Game Boy game was very good, though it was a single player affair; and the Super Battletoads sequel, along with Battletoads/Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team, provided fun entertainment. (For that matter, anyone remember that awesome EA-licensed arcade game?)
But, when it comes down to it, nothing could beat the original. Rare and Tradewest really created some magic back in '91, stuff we haven't seen in the hardcore realm since. If Microsoft was smart, they'd chase after the franchise and have Rare work on it again for the next-gen Xbox. It needs all the weapons it can get in the next-gen war – and, just as they did back in those fresh days of gaming, the Battletoads mean business.
Now excuse me while I go enjoy that pause music.