Friday, October 12, 2012

What Made Battletoads So Charming?

Battletoads for the NES has always been a favorite game of mine. Without ever playing it, the spread in Nintendo Power had me wanting it really bad. When I finally had it, it delivered on everything I hoped it to be. (Which happened to be awesomeness  the only thing a fifth grader can hope for.) Still, though, the game stuck with me through my college years and into adulthood. What is it about this game that has captured so much affection? Here are my thoughts.

First and foremost, it was a very diverse game. Most games have only one way to play it, and good games will explore every possibility of that one way. Battletoads, however is like playing 12 similarly themed games. The boss on the first level is played from the perspective of the boss and the rocks you throw crack the inside of your TV. Level two has you repelling down a pit. Levels three five and seven were "racing" levels, which means dodging obstacles at high speed. Levels four and eight were platformers; one with ice and one climbing. Level six, probably the most unique level, had you climbing on giant snakes that slid around the level. Sequels aside I've never seen anything like this in another game.

The final stretch, levels nine through twelve, are where things get really hard. Nine has you climbing and swimming through a tangled network of pipes. Periodically there will be giant gears chasing you. Level ten is a platforming/race level, but platforming is a bit of a misnomer. It's a race to the bottom and the more platforms you don't touch, the faster you get there. Level eleven has you hanging onto a clinger-winger. It's like a unicycle with handlebars instead of a seat and suction cups around the wheel. It travels so fast that your toad flaps in the wind behind it while you try to outrun an electric death orb. Level twelve, while just a platformer, is probably one of the most technically advanced levels in the game. You're climbing up a circular tower and can walk completely around it. The view rotates to keep you on screen. Unlike newer consoles, the NES didn't have enough horsepower to do much rotation. The whole thing was faked with graphical tricks and lookup tables for the math.

The technically advanced graphics didn't start at level twelve. Starting in level one, the animation of legs of the walker (only four in the entire game!) were beyond the basic capabilities of the NES and had to be faked with some programming magic. Then, starting in level two and continuing throughout the game, the backgrounds had parallax scrolling. Sure, parallax scrolling is really easy; you just scroll the second background slower than the first. But the NES only had one background layer! The scrolling was done with magic. Giant bosses? Yeah, Blaster Master did that by putting the boss on the background layer. But Battletoads? Big bosses AND backgrounds that parallax scroll: more magic.

The greatness of Battletoads doesn't stop at the graphics. The music was excellent; not just by NES standards. Even to this day I'll still get one of the tunes stuck in my head. The soundtrack is more than just good musically. It pairs up with the levels well, punctuating the mood. I could talk about all the levels again, but it's probably better to just watch a video. Merely listening to the soundtrack doesn't show off how good it is. The sound design was perfect for the game. The punchy, over the top sounds for the smash hits also made the best pause music ever.

The music and sounds of the game also set the rhythm of a game. Not many games try to align the rhythm of the music to the rhythm of the movements. Yes, DDR does it too, but that's the entire point of the DDR. In Battletoads it was optional, but by doing it they made the game all the more immersive. It's a good thing they did this, because it can help ease some of the challenge by helping with the muscle memory. (if only I had spent the time practicing surgery...)

Boy, was this game challenging. I remember drawing a crowd when I used to play it in college. "I always wondered what the rest of the game was like," someone said to me. I once saw a poll on a long lost fan site that asked, "Which level of Battletoads is the hardest?" The number one answer was level three by a long shot. I thought a better title for the poll should have been, "Whats the furthest level you've gotten to in Battletoads?" Because most people have never had the opportunity to realize that it only gets harder after level three. I always saw Battletoads' difficulty as a fun challenge. As one of my college professors told me, "If you can get a 100% on a test, I'll never know how good your really are." (then he curved my 27% up to an 85%)

Putting all the technical things aside, Battletoads is still a great game for it's character. You really can tell the developers paid attention to detail. There's little bits of smack talk from the Dark Queen during the level intermissions. A map screen that serves no purpose other than to look cool. Odd enemies that only show up once or twice. The dragon on level one was completely optional, yet not only was it a unique enemy but you could ride it after you knocked it down. The over-the-topness of the smash hits. Everything works together to make this quite the memorable game.