Battletoads is a sequel to one of the most divisive NES games of all time — a game well-known for its extreme difficulty, seen as a rite of passage on the playground.
But the new Battletoads on Xbox One and Windows PC has none of the charm found in its predecessors. I gladly put Battletoads down after only a few hours, and hope never to touch it again.
The Battletoads formula
Battletoads is a self-aware, 2.5d brawler that mixes traditional beat-’em-ups with vehicle levels and bizarre story vignettes.
I recruited my wife, Jamie, to play co-op with me. In the character select, I picked Pimple, the big Battletoad, while Jamie grabbed Zitz, the leader. We left Rash, the Michelangelo of the toads, on the bench most of the time — only switching to him when one of our main toads died. We brawled through some futuristic streets, punching bad guys into the sky with our uppercuts — or at least high enough to juggle out a combo.
Battletoads taught us a variety of different techniques. There’s the standard punch, an uppercut to finish near-death enemies or juggle them, a charge attack to break shields, a tongue lasso to pull enemies nearby or pull me to them, and the ability to slow enemies by spitting gum. After we’d learned the basics, the first mission tossed us into a battle against a giant pink pig that we nearly mistook for TMNT’s Bebop.
Stage 2 wasn’t much of a stage at all, opting for a silly storytelling vignette of the Battletoads doing menial jobs to make ends meet — which just forces some simple button presses to finish the minigame. The third stage took us into a flying motorcycle level. The two of us rode at high speeds through a long tunnel, jumping over and dodging between obstacles. And thus, the Battletoads formula cemented itself.
As we progressed through the rest of the game’s first act — which took about two hours — we played a few more beat-’em-up levels, another silly minigame, and a boss fight. The animations, enemies, and toads are all silly, absurdist, and weird, with each toad transforming into various animals, machines, or robots mid-combo.
But the game’s over-complicated mechanics and oppressive art style tried too hard to keep my attention. It exhausted me, and despite all the effort, I never found Battletoads fun.
Battletoads tries too hard for its own good
From the second I started Battletoads, it was trying to get a laugh from me — throwing numerous jokes my way before I’d even have a chance to laugh at the first. During my few hours, a line or two got me, but the funniest part of the game had less to do with the game’s writing and more with Jamie’s inability to stay alive during the motorcycle level. The combination of her frustration, and the very good sound/animation of a Battletoad hitting a wall had me laughing so hard I needed to pause to avoid crashing myself.
I remember that laugh vividly, but I couldn’t tell you a single written joke. My wife and I found more fun via our own failures on the goofy bike section than exploring new levels and progressing the story. And, by the end, I was still relieved to get off the bike and move on.
The combat is also too much. The beat-’em-up genre has always been inherently simple, but Battletoads adds a host of mechanics, making the game’s combat more in-depth than its predecessors. But the new complexity ultimately breeds chaos, with too many enemy types to juggle and traps to avoid.
Combined with Battletoads’ extremely punishing difficulty in some sections — about three shots from a cannon enemy early in the game killed one of my toads — the combat becomes more frustrating than satisfying. Numerous different enemy types force different approaches in a single fight, making it easy to get shot while you’re winding up to break a shield. It’s less about managing an army of disposable henchpeople and more about waiting for the “tank” enemy to trip so you can deal damage. It feels cheap, making it a little too difficult to take out one enemy without getting nearly killed by another.
The original Battletoads was a hyper-difficult nightmare, beloved by some and hated by others. Battletoads tries to bring back the titular heroes in grand fashion, but over-complicates both the action and story, making me wonder if anything original Battletoads fans love is still intact.
To get two hours into The Simpsons arcade game, you needed to refinance your home to afford the lives. But Battletoads offers a much easier in — and subsequent out. Being on Xbox Game Pass, Battletoads is low stakes for subscribers. You should know pretty quickly how you feel about it — I did.
I stopped playing Battletoads with a sigh of relief. The difficulty and the relentless, tiresome jokes were too much. I’ll never see the ending of Zitz, Pimple, and Rash’s latest adventure, and my wife will never let me forget the night I made her play Battletoads.
Battletoads launches Aug. 20 for Windows PC and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on Xbox using a download code provided by Xbox Game Studios. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.