Last week, I invited my longtime friend Bennett Foddy into Kotaku Headquarters to play the hardest part of Battletoads. I did this because Bennett Foddy made Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy, and therefore deserves this. He gave two hours of his valuable time to the task of traversing the Turbo Tunnel. Did he make it? Well, here's a video. Warning: It might burn your brain.
You may or may not agree that the Turbo Tunnel is "the hardest part" of Battletoads. However, I do not believe I'm wrong. Let me explain myself.
I spent $50 to buy Battletoads brand new at a Babbage's at the Glen Burnie Mall in Glen Burnie, Maryland on Saturday, 15 June 1991. This was the only $50 I had. Heck, this was the only $50 I'd have anywhere near my sticky 12-year-old fingers for the next six months. I'd just turned 12, actually, eight days before buying Battletoads. Like clockwork, a $25 check from my grandmother arrived two days before my birthday. I added this to $25 I'd scrounged out of I-don't-know-where, and together it all added up to $50 of hot, moist, sweaty, sticky money. All I wanted was Battletoads, because I was an idiot who believed everything I read in video game magazines.
For nearly a year, Electronic Gaming Monthly had rooftop-shouted much loud enthusiasm pertaining to this particular video game cartridge. Their pages glowed with the hot colours of full stage maps. They might have exhausted their exclamation mark key in the task of reporting how varied the levels were. I was so pumped I was practically a blimp. My brother and I would crouch over an issue. Thinking aloud, rubbing his hands together like a greedy thief, he schemed:
"Dude, it's gonna be so awesome when we ride the surfboards, dude."
He was right. I knew he was right.
The previews in the game magazines discussed Battletoads' first two stages in personal detail. They described how incredible it was when the characters' hands and feet inflated to monster size, or turned into powerful cartoon objects. You could virtually feel the text tremble as the writer described the process of fighting the first boss in second person. You picked up rocks and threw them at the screen itself. Then they gushed about the second stage, in which the toads rappel down a deep hole. The toads could turn into wrecking balls. The game sounded gleeful. It sounded like everything a video ever could possibly be.
I will admit: When I heard that in the fourth stage - the Ice Cave - you could throw snowballs at a snowman, I did not immediately recoil. I thought, "Hmm, OK." If I knew then what I know now, what I would have thought would have been more like "... Dad?"
It's telling, now, that I can't remember any of the effusive praise in video game magazines mentioning any particular anecdotal details of any level past the Turbo Tunnel.
The Turbo Tunnel is the third of Battletoads' 12 stages. In its opening screens, you pummel a few grunt enemies. This is pleasant. It lasts a minute. Now you get on a hovering jet bike thing. It goes too fast. You hit a wall. You die. You repeat this a lot. You run out of continues. You start the whole game over again. You enjoy the first two levels. They're fun. You enjoy the breezy brawler style of the first stage, and you delight at the weird vertical pendulum action of the second stage at least the first eight times you replay them. Before your first day as a 12-year-old with Battletoads in 1991 is complete, however, you hate everything about the first two levels. (Hopefully, you've discovered the warp from stage one to stage three. I had.)
I spent 10 days in the summer of 1991 stuck on the Turbo Tunnel. My brother gave up on the task on the first day. It quickly became apparent to him that playing two players simultaneously was not the best way to learn the patterns. He bowed out. He watched me. He coached me. By "he coached me" I mean, mostly, he yelled at me. In his nicer moments, he phrased his yells like this: "Dude, it's gonna be so awesome when we ride the surfboards, dude."
So I'll tell you what: In 10 days, I learned the Turbo Tunnel. Well, most of it.
It turned out there's a warp directly to stage five near the end of the Turbo Tunnel. I discovered it by accident. My brother ripped the controller from my hand when he realised that, suddenly, shockingly, out of nowhere, we were at The Surfboard Level. He lost all of his lives as immediately as one could. He lost all those lives like it was his job, and he was good at his job.
I learned to complete the whole level right up to the warp with two NES controllers lying flat on the floor, using my thumb and pinky finger on both hands. The first step, of course, is to line the two bikes up so they perfectly overlap one another. Then I could do it blindfolded.
Reliably, I could get my brother and I to The Surfboard Level together. We completed it, together, on our third try. We didn't like The Snake Level so much.
One day, my brother presented a new idea: "Dude, we gotta do the Ice Cave Level, dude."
So I learned how to get us to the Ice Cave. My brother threw one snowball at one snowman.
He never touched the game again.
I went on to beat the entire game. If I can compliment one thing about Battletoads, 26-and-a-half years later, it's that the game had guts to make every darn stage a completely different genre of game. What other game does that? That's sort of a staggering risk to take. It's like 12 totally different games. I mean, none of them are great games, though it sure is a bunch of them.
Several commenters in the Facebook chat during my and Foddy's stream scoffed at the idea of The Turbo Tunnel being "The Hardest Part" of Battletoads. They said that some levels are "way harder". I agree - and I disagree.
If one presented a freshly minted 12-year-old today with all 12 of Battletoads' stages to dabble in at their leisure, I'm sure that jumping directly into some would prove more controller-shattering than jumping directly into others.
Having said that, as a person who can - OK, let's face it, "could at one point in time" - beat all 12 of Battletoads' rock-hard levels in a row, I am confident when I declare The Turbo Tunnel "The Hardest Part". Confronting that sick challenge that early in the game rewired my brain. It rewrote my expectation of difficulty in games. Nothing else was ever quite so difficult after that.
The Turbo Tunnel made me The Video Game Expert of my neighbourhood. I nurtured this expertise until I was working professionally in video games. I made a nice video about Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy. Two months later, that game sold over a million copies. Am I saying these things are related? I'm probably not! Though for a moment let's imagine they are related. If they are, Foddy owes me something. No, not money. I don't want your money, Foddy. All I want is litres of the blood of your suffering.
Bennett Foddy, who made QWOP, GIRP and Getting Over It, had never so much as touched Battletoads. Well, I just had to do what I could. I put him under it. It was a pleasure watching him fail again and again. It was an exceptional pleasure to hear him moan, late into the evening, "It's too hard!"
Yes, Mister QWOP. It is.