If you’re familiar with “$@!$# #$$#% $$#@!” and other less family friendly exclamations in the early-to-mid-90’s, then you’ve probably played Battletoads. First launched in 1991 on the NES, the fighting amphibians battled across the 8 and 16 bit landscape, standing out amongst a deluge of mascot side-scrollers.
Long before Donkey Kong Country, Perfect Dark, and their current status as a Kinect developer lost in the bowels of Microsoft, Rare Ltd. designed the first installment of the brawler franchise to stand up against the soon-to-release Genesis and SNES with some of the best graphics to be found on the system, and a difficulty that would ensure this wasn’t a game you could pick up and beat in a couple days. Standing next to graphically dumbed-down arcade ports like TMNT: The Arcade Game and a glut of cartoon licensed ineptitude, Battletoads was able to stand as a solid original that would be one of the best remembered games (and later franchises) of the era.
The gameplay, as with most similar games in the age, was fairly simple. In most levels you, and a friend if you so wished, would move across the screen, punching jumping and kicking and finishing off with various finishing moves including turning into a wrecking ball as part of your combo. Special to the franchise and inspiring others were a variety of climbing mazes. But most remembered was the obstacle courses. Driving at extremely high speeds down narrow corridors, dodging enemies and badly-placed walls, these sections showed what was meant by “Nintendo Hard”. It wasn’t enough to have good reflexes, you had to have a great memory as well. It was why GameTrailers gave it an award for “Hardest game ever made”.
One of the other reasons for the success is for the memorable characters that were created, despite the limited power of the NES. The titular toads, Rash, Zitz, and Pimple (Strategically placed so you can only play as two of them), the princess always in need of rescuing, and the sexy-for-Nintendo Dark Queen. Sadly the toads would never be able to defeat their greatest enemy: sub-standard NES storytelling and the same old tropes. The wonderful art was able to distract from “Save the princess/brother/device/thing” #475, however.
This first game proved it was possible for a game with no license and no franchise behind it to break out as long as it was well made and provided reasons to keep coming back to it. It’s success caused a series of ports of questionable quality to every system available, including the IBM-PC and Amiga. The Gameboy received an adaption instead of a port, with good graphics for the platform, but without multiplayer.
The next entry for the toads was not a sequel as would have been expected, but instead a crossover. Rare’s publisher, Tradewest, also had the rights to the Double Dragon series, and in the midst of some truly random franchise moves decided to mix the two together. While the genre was similar this was a bit head-scratching, as Double Dragon was a mostly down-to-earth beat-em-up, and Battletoads were about humanoid toads fighting an empire of evil. Nevertheless, the game released in 1993, allowing you to choose between five characters including all three toads to fight against the Dark Queen and the Shadow Warriors.
While the matchup was confusing, it was well reviewed, and straddled the generations nicely with both 16 bit and 8 bit releases. The franchise was at a high, and while it paled next to more far-reaching licenses, the toads did try branching out a bit with a Saturday Morning cartoon pilot which attempted to explain their origins as three kids with the power to transform into toads. Yes, there’s a reason you’ve never heard about this. Trivia note: It was from the lead writer of TMNT. The pilot did not take off. but the Battletoads would come back one more time to home consoles.
Battletoads in Battlemaniacs released in 1994 for the SNES (And later, to the Sega Master System for some reason.) As would be expected, the graphics were beyond anything that had been seen before in the series, and the gameplay was up to it’s usual high standard, at least as side-scrollers went in that age. It was well received, but the bell was tolling for the 3, as they had just one more game in them that year, an arcade game at that.
Super Battletoads was unique in the series as you and your friends could play as all 3 toads at the same time. It took full advantage of the capabilities of the arcades, increasing the violence significantly and showed off Rare’s love of raunchy humor, later to be seen in games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day. It, like the rest of the franchise, was loved in the few locations the game appeared at.
But this was to be the end for Battletoads. Soon after, Nintendo purchased Rare completely, folding them into the company and putting them to work on the Donkey Kong Country games and Killer Instinct. While there was talk of a GBA adaption, the series never materialized on another platform. But the fans continue to wish and hope for another entry, and Battletoads love continues to this day in some rather random ways.
In 2007, 4chan began a campaign targeting dozens of Gamestops, pranking them and asking for pre-orders of Battletoads. There was a website set up for the fake preorder, with a number belonging to the Church of Scientology.
Will Battletoads ever reappear? Time will tell. Rare’s Killer Instinct franchise is coming back, albeit under another developer, so never say never. While the 2D side scrolling brawler’s age may have passed, there will always be room for three smart ass amphibians, ready to save the princess and fight whatever evil queens that may appear. I don’t believe them to be gone, I believe them to be waiting.