Battletoads (Rare, 1991)
Dear Santa: With Christmas right around the corner, I need to get something off my chest. I cheated. Plain and simple. Twenty-three years ago, I used a Game Genie to get past a difficult level of a video game. I was weak. I used the cheat codes to magically produce hundreds of lives, unlimited health, higher scores and, yes — shame. But have mercy, Santa. This wasn’t any ordinary video game.
This was “Battletoads.”
The game was supposed to be a simple knock-off of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” franchise. Instead of stuffy Renaissance artist monikers, the Battletoads had extreme names: Rash, Pimple and Zitz. Instead of a rat sensei, they had a bird professor. “Battletoads” was wildly different. It was also impossible.
“Battletoads” was created by British game developer Rare, and that should have been my first red flag. Rare was fostering eight-bit anxiety attacks when Reagan was still in the White House. Relatively easy, addicting early levels that quickly morphed into controller-throwing lessons in futility were hallmarks of their first two big hits, “R.C. Pro-Am” and “Marble Madness.”
But the pre-release buzz on “Battletoads” was huge. Gamers were discouraged with TMNT; the Turtles’ first entry was incredibly difficult and the gameplay stiff and unforgiving. “Battletoads” offered a more fluid, animated playing experience, a two-player upgrade, and a cosmic-rock soundtrack. “Battletoads” also offered the Dark Queen, one of the first female video game villains.
You can see, Santa, why we were immediately hooked. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, the video game industry saw almost unfathomable leaps in technology. Imagine jumping from the black and white silence of Charlie Chaplin to the computer-generated fakery of James Cameron’s “Avatar” in a decade and you’ll understand how alluring the three-dimensional graphics of “Battletoads” were to an audience that was joysticking Frogger across the road 10 years earlier.
Why aren’t we reminiscing about the box office magic of “Battletoads: The Movie”? Level three, that’s why. Say “Battletoads” to someone of a certain generation and you’ll see what true fear looks like. Throw in the word “hoverbikes” and you may see a grown adult reduced to tears. In level three, known as the “turbo tunnel,” players navigate a floating, jumping hoverbike across what looks like brain lava while pink blockades try to smash you, levitating ramps try to confuse you, and enemies try to kill you. There are marathons. If a person tells you she’s beaten level three of Battletoads without cheating, she is a filthy liar.
It’s too bad. The later levels are better — inventive, but still challenging. But the turbo tunnel killed “Battletoads.” A few weeks after its release, Sega revealed “Sonic the Hedgehog,” and then two months later, Nintendo released the Super NES, and frustrated gamers forgot “Battletoads.” Rare must have learned a lesson; their biggest hit, “Donkey Kong Country,” came out three years later and perfectly balanced fun mechanics with challenging gameplay.
I feel bad about cheating all those years ago, Santa. But I feel worse wasting all those hours of my youth when I could have been doing something important, like seeing “The Rocketeer” before it finally left theaters.
Hidden Jewel or Total Junk: