The three Toads have spent the last 26 years thinking they’re galactic superheroes. It’s not long before they realize they’ve been trapped in a sort of “fantasy bunker” for almost three decades and their heroic celebrity lives were a lie. The game is almost worth it for the visual gag of seeing three ugly-as-sin, buff-as-hell toads, wrapped in towels like they were lost and rescued boaters. When hit with the reality of the situation, the toads decide they need to do good, honest office work.
But they hate it. Their egos refuse to deny the fantasy they’ve lived. They’re addicted to the fame. They need to be heroes again. And then they realize that the Dark Queen is also hiding somewhere in this world. They figure if they kick her butt (again), they’ll be recognized as the heroes that only exist in their lizard brains. It’s once they find the delightfully vulgar Dark Queen that things get truly interesting, and surprisingly hilarious. A few gags don’t land, but they fly so frequently and so quickly that I find myself laughing out loud anyway.
This is a brawler dotted with minigames, just like most of the old “Battletoads” games for the 16-bit systems and arcade cabinets of the 1990s. Those games were hard. This version is still pretty tough, though it comes with difficulty settings for those new to the brawler genre.
“Battletoads” also arrives on the heels of probably the greatest brawler ever developed, Dotemu’s “Streets of Rage 4,” a title I personally rank as a game of the year contender. Compared to that earlier effort, “Battletoads" is slower and sloppier. But that’s the Toads’ identity. The games were always a visual mess of bizarre alien creatures and planets, as well as the the unique Toad power of morphing your body parts into anything they envision. They’re like body horror Green Lanterns.
If there’s one thing “Battletoads” has over “Streets,” its the visual fidelity and animation work. The three Toads — Rash, Zitz and Pimple — may be ugly, but the game will tickle your eyes with movement, color and surprising depth in its level design. The level backdrops make gorgeous use of parallax scrolling, a technique used since the original Nintendo days, and fit perfectly with the Adult Swim aesthetic.
But while the art direction is fun, it’s also distracting. While the fist-morphing powers of the Toads are great and a key part of the series’ identity, the enemy design leaves a lot to be desired. I often have no idea what I’m looking at or punching. And the game floods the screen with enemies. Combined with the busy backgrounds, the mighty-morphing Toads and projectile-spewing Dadaist enemy design, the graphics can go from the aforementioned tickle to a bit of a headache.
The levels also last an unusually long time. It doesn’t help that the butt rock riffs fade out whenever the action does. The silence can feel like a drag, until a dozen enemies pop up and the entire screen explodes with slapstick nonsense and cheesy riffs again.
The combat takes some getting used to, especially its slower pace. A single player can choose and flip between the three Toads, or you can play cooperatively with friends locally. Pimple is the big bruiser, Zitz is fast, while Rash is a balance between the two. The characters feel floatier than those in most other brawlers, but a great dodge button can keep the action moving if you use it enough. There’s also some nice freedom in how you string together combos, resembling the “Devil May Cry” series more than something like “Streets of Rage.”
You also have Toad Abilities like tonguing flies for health and enemies to drag them closer to you, or chewing and spitting gum at opponents to incapacitate them. It’s a lot to juggle — more moves than these games used to have — but it’s welcome and necessary in hectic fights.
The first “Battletoads,” by Rare for the first Nintendo console, is also infamous for its “Turbo Bike” second level. One of YouTube’s original stars, the James “Angry Video Game Nerd” Rolfe, perfectly illustrated all of its problems.
The “Turbo Bike” levels return in 2020, though they’re not nearly as frustrating. But like the brawler levels, they last a bit too long, and they’re far less engaging. I struggled to stay awake during these sequences.
The game also has pace-killing minigames to unlock doors. These hacking minigames, popularized by titles like “Bioshock,” have become prevalent in video games. It’s off-putting to see them in an arcade-style brawler. The hacking minigames should have been left on the cutting room floor — a decision that would have done so much to keep the levels fresh and fast. Instead, we’ve got the brawler game equivalent of stop-and-go traffic.
The reason to play the game at all though is because the story is delightful, featuring two new hilarious villains, UTO and PIA, an omnipotent god couple who can’t resist a good pun, even during their cartoon torture sessions.
“Forgive me,” squeaks the first boss monster The Guardian.
“Forgive? More like, four-hundred lashes,” muses UTO, shaking a martini glass. “Yes and hear that pun in your NIGHTMARES.”
When another minion says they still haven’t found the Toads, PIA snarks, “Oh my God, what kind of an update is that?"
“Yeah. Restaurants don’t say, 'Excuse me we haven’t started making your food yet,” UTO says.
“Oh, you know, that one place did," PIA responds.
They punish the minion by making him three inches shorter. “It doesn’t seem like much, but his entire life will change,” UTO muses.
It’s that kind of dialogue and energy that will keep you and the Toads going. I found myself actually relieved that some levels were over, because I knew I was going to get treated to what amounts to a pretty good cartoon show.
This reboot of the Toads is more kid-friendly than we last saw the series. The arcade game wasn’t shy about violence, and the Battletoads did team up once with Jimmy and Billy from the classic brawler series “Double Dragon."
Xbox Game Pass subscribers can download the game anytime, which makes it a perfect match for the subscription service. I’d recommend going that route before you decide to buy, particularly if you have no one else in the house to play with.
Outside of the overlong bike levels, the game was never boring. The hilarious, rewatchable story is worth the budget $20 admission alone, and you get a pretty good brawler experience, doused in nostalgia and gorgeous (if confusing) art. Like the infamous GameStop prank of 2008 said, “Battletoads" is back and better than ever.