I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to call Battletoads 2020. A long-awaited sequel? A spiritual reboot? A love letter to an old classic whose most memorable quality was that hardly anybody could beat it? In any event, it feels good to play in short bursts, but its humour and chaos overshadow it.
I wanted the new Battletoads, which came out today on Xbox One and PC, to feel like watching a Saturday morning cartoon in the ‘90s, complete with a sugary bowl of cereal and brief gaming sprints during commercial breaks. There are flashes of that in Dlala Studios’ homage to the arcadey beat’em up series — which Rare, the developer of the original games, assisted with — but more often it feels like the sort of soul-crushing day job the titular toads are trying to escape.
Battletoads is broken up into four acts and can be beaten in roughly three to five hours depending on how good you are at dodging obstacles and mashing together combos. In it, you play as three toads, Rash, Zitz, and Pimple, who were born to battle. Having just been freed from a computer simulation after nearly three decades, they must now beat things up while side-scrolling from left to right in order to bring meaning to their late-capitalist lives.
Like its predecessors, it certainly has jokes. Some of them occasionally land — for instance, after defeating a boss in the tutorial he says something to the effect of “I’ll see you in hell,” only to die to and then discover that there is no afterlife and this time on earth is all we get. “Yikes,” exclaims one of the toads, and yes, I chuckled.
But more often than not the hamfisted jokes feel more of the “get a load of these wild and crazy toads, folks” variety. Early on the toads rent hover bikes and then trash them while the owner throws a fit and threatens to review bomb them. Poor guy. The jokes also come so fast and so frequently that they pad out an otherwise short and sweet tale of redemption and saving the world into a Saturday morning chore. I wanted kicking, punching, and hopping, but I was also inundated with puns, topical gags, and meta-references.
But the kicking, punching, and hopping is good. It feels precise and muscular, from Pimple’s heavy thrashes to Zitz’s fast-paced pummelling, with every hit in a combo feeling responsive and registering like a fist of bang snaps crashing against the pavement. Toads can charge up their attacks to break enemy shields, or dash out of the way to dodge attacks. All that feels tight too. Every time I got out of a cutscene and back into smashing other anthropomorphized creatures, I felt good — at least at first. But Battletoads likes to just hose you with enemies willy-nilly, the same way it randomly springs long platforming, shoot’em up, and other minigames sequences on you throughout the adventure. The arcade nostalgia quickly turns to chaos, and then tedium, as the same loop of actions repeats itself from screen to screen, just with different, albeit lushly animated, cartoon scenery.
What I’m describing might sound like the quintessential conceit of a classic beat’em up, but it feels like other games this summer have nailed that retro experience better, from the unexpectedly substantial River City Girls to the gorgeous back-to-basics revival, Streets of Rage 4. Battletoads feels busy while lacking variety, and too in love with its own legacy to bring anything new to the table. There’s three-player coop, but it’s only local. While teaming up to chuck enemies back and forth at one another across the screen can be fun, it begins to fall apart when Battletoads’ infamously difficult riding levels or other challenging platforming comes into play.
If it was 1993 again and my grandparents had rented my cousins and me the new Battletoads on a Friday night, we would have quickly bailed and gone back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time. But it’s 2020, so instead people can try it for free if they’re already a paid Game Pass subscriber. I wish I could say without reservation that it was definitely worth a try even then. Maybe Battletoads just happens to nail the ‘90s arcade grind all too well. It’s fine for a few quarters, but I’m not planning on going back anytime soon.