Battletoads Review – A Shallow Swamp

The Battletoads were products of a strange era, sitting at the intersection of 90s cartoons, disgusting cartoons, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon. It’s a peculiar cocktail for a side-scrolling brawler, and a difficult cocktail to reinvent for a modern audience. Does this reboot strike a successful balance between the old and the new? That’s a good question, but it’s so far down the list of issues that it’s not relevant either. The biggest and most common problem is much simpler: Battletoads just isn’t fun. Classic Battletoads games are traditionally seen as brawlers, but they’ve experimented with other styles of play as well, like the infamous Turbo Bike Tunnel. This reboot adopts the same philosophy, bouncing players between different activities for brief mini-games or entire levels. But this variety does not translate into entertainment; whether you beat aliens, shoot spaceships, or hack door locks, Battletoads is deeply uninteresting. Instead of establishing mechanics and relying on them, the game sends you through a series of shallow detours. For example, the third act (out of four acts in total) has you alternating between two types of stages: one is a top-down space shooter and the other is a 2D platformer. Both types are sterile and naked representations of their respective genera; you blow up oncoming ships, then push boxes into simple puzzles. They’re simple and boring, and they last a lot longer than their simplistic designs can handle. Most of the gameplay variations feel this way, from riding on turbo bikes to passing an acid wave. You immediately understand what these sections are, but they wear out as they get more difficult without offering any interesting twists. Brawl stages are what Battletoads do best, although that’s not exactly a compliment. Each toad has a slightly different playstyle with unique moves, but varying your character’s speed or strength doesn’t elevate the average combat. The action is familiar but functional; you hit and hit bad guys, and sometimes your toad body turns into weird objects. A handful of boss fights punctuate the action, but they do more to expose weaknesses in the mechanics (like trying to hit specific targets with your lick) than to profit from them. Some enemies have complementary attacks and work together, but it usually feels like free-for-all. The screen fills with villains, projectiles, and other dangers, which can make the action difficult to analyze. This is where teamwork comes in handy, since three players can play in local co-op (online is not available). While the extra help is useful during big brawls, playing co-op can be a handicap during other stages. For example, a partner’s stupid mistake in avoiding oncoming obstacles on turbo bikes limits the number of chances you have of passing the glove. While there are some elements of the gameplay that may test your skills, the story is definitely not intended for seasoned players. I wasn’t expecting a great tale from Battletoads, but I wasn’t prepared for how hopelessly lame it could be. The Toad Adventure is full of sparse or incomplete scenes full of boring characters and silly jokes. This is not a “some gags just don’t land” situation; the attempts at humor are so aggressively funny that I winced at every cutscene. As the art style suggests, it might be aimed at the Saturday morning cartoon crowd … but kids probably aren’t the best audience for a tough 25-year series reboot. In this confusion over who the game is actually targeted at, it ends up being nobody’s business. The nicest thing I can say about Battletoads is this: it works. The controls are fine, I haven’t encountered any major technical issues, and an optional invincibility feature lets you easily remove the sections that give you too much trouble. Simply being playable from start to finish is a tragically low bar to erase, but it’s the main thing Battletoads has to offer. Otherwise, this baffling experience travels decades of the game’s history to unearth the name Battletoads only to drag it through the mud.

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