It’s a clever premise that puts the characters in a similar “has-been” category as the series itself, and overall the narrative and presentation here are easily the best in the saga’s history. If a ’90s Nickelodeon show was remade in 4K there’s a good chance it would look like this — from the goofy and grotesque enemy design and the Toads’ bizarre transformation abilities to the goo-filled levels — and the riff-heavy soundtrack is dumb but effective.
Like its inspiration this is a difficult game, but it’s nowhere near as unfair as old-school Battletoads. Each beat-em-up level is a series of wave-based encounters that challenge you to string together huge combos of strikes, uppercuts, tongue-whips and body-morphing special attacks while keeping an eye out for enemy moves to dodge.
It plays a lot more like a fighting game than a standard beat-em-up like the excellent Streets of Rage 4, with the added complication of some weird controls and the need to fight up to a dozen enemies at once. It’s a steep learning curve, and just mashing the X button to punch won’t get you very far, but the game is generous enough with its auto-saving that failure doesn’t set you back too far.
Each Toad has its own special moves and combos, and its own level of speed and power, so some are more suited to fighting specific enemies than others. If you’re playing solo you’ll need to figure tagging between Toads into your combos, which takes some getting used to, while local multiplayer can make things a touch easier if the players are cooperating well. Unfortunately there’s no option for online play.
The hand-drawn animation is amazing and in a visual design sense there’s a good diversity of locations and enemies, but in practical terms all the fights feel pretty much the same with combinations of a handful of enemy types thrown at you throughout.
This is a brief game of around four hours, but even so I found it unevenly weighted towards drawn-out encounters, some of which bordered on the obnoxious. That said you can’t really get tired of turning Rash’s hands into a dead fish and slapping a bunch of ghost lumberjacks out of your face.
In-between levels range from a new (much more forgiving) take on the original game’s vehicle and sledding stages to riffs on other genres including shooters and platformers, and on the whole I enjoyed these interstitials a lot more than the standard brawling. They occasionally veer a bit too close to old-school-for-the-sake-of-old-school, but they’re all so creative and don’t overstay their welcome.
These off-beat challenges also integrate the game’s humour a lot more smoothly than the beat-em-up levels. An early example of this is in the first turbo bike segment, where Chet the bike hire guy keeps popping up on your communicator reminding you not to wreck his bikes and threatening to have his beautiful sons spread rumours about you on the internet.
In fact the humour is one of the most welcome and surprising aspects of this whole game, with the extended cutscenes giving off a similar wacky violence energy to cartoons like Teen Titans Go! or Regular Show. Each Toad has a defined personality, and the witty self aware commentary on games in general — and often the post-Battletoads history of original developer Rare in particular — is brilliant. I especially love the new more active role for antagonist Dark Queen. A lot of sad sacks on the internet may be loudly upset that she no longer looks like a BDSM Elvira (a fact that the character briefly but brilliantly addressses in the game), but here her evenly-measured evil genius is a great foil to the Toads’ manic heroism.
Overall this is a great 21st century reintroduction for the Battletoads. A bit too beholden to the difficult brawling action of the past it may be, but it’s also stylish, creative and funny in ways that so few 2020 games can match.
Battletoads is out now on Xbox One (reviewed) and PC.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.