It's 2020 and the Battletoads are back – ready to bash, beat and brawl their way into our hearts all over again, despite it being a staggering 26 years since their last full appearance. But what exactly have they been up to in all that time? Well, aside from making the odd cameo appearance in other games and changing hands from Rare to Microsoft, it doesn't seem like a whole lot. Fret not, however, because this is the soft reboot aiming to change that, combining retro beat-em-up mechanics with a modern sense of cheekiness and humour. There might be the odd annoying difficulty spike laced in, but overall Battletoads is a rambunctious return for the anthropomorphic trio.
The first thing you’ll notice about this new incarnation of Battletoads is just how drop-dead gorgeous it is. You see, rather than go the expected route and throw back to the pixelated graphics of the early ‘90s, Xbox Game Studios has instead realised the classic designs of Rash, Zitz and Pimple using a 21st century hand-drawn art style. What’s here essentially looks and feels like a playable Saturday morning Kids’ TV show, complete with fully voiced cutscenes, imaginative animation and a boatload of colourfully creative stages to fight through. Much like Streets of Rage 4, Battlestoads successfully evolves the beat-em-up format while still remaining faithful to the 1991 original game.
As already alluded to, and despite there being plenty of mini-games laced throughout, Battletoads is primarily a beat-em-up brawler. This means you’ll spend most of your time smashing and bashing bad guys across a 2D plane, but what sounds rather basic thankfully isn’t due to the unique moves of all three battletoads. Playing on an Xbox One controller, keeping enemies at bay generally means dishing out a good mix of light attacks, launch manoeuvres and what’s called morph attacks, dashing out of the way using RT should ever you get cornered or need to dodge.
Rash, Zitz and Pimple all play similarly in this way, but each battletoad handles slightly differently in traditional stages. For example, Rash as the leader of the group is a great all-rounder. The hulking Pimple, meanwhile, is slow getting places but deals a lot more damage. Then you have Zitz, which, as his name might suggest is the smallest of the three – making him perfect for players that want to bounce between enemies fast to keep the pressure on. Battletoads fully supports three-player local co-operative play, but if you’re just playing alone you can rest easy knowing that all three can be tagged in and tagged out on the fly.
Adding an extra layer of depth are the battletoads’ secondary abilities accessed with a tap of the left trigger. These enable you to perform such manoeuvres as pulling enemies towards you using a tongue whip, swinging across stages with ease and even sticking enemies to just one spot using a ball of gum. Getting to grips with using these in addition to your main melee attacks takes time, but is worth it for how many combat options it opens up.
Because Battletoads is a beat-em-up, you might naturally think that there isn’t much attention paid to story here. Well, think again. Battletoads is actually very meta and self-deprecating when it comes to its narrative, recognising that our eponymous heroes have been absent for two decades and making this a primary thrust for this cartoony tale. We’re only allowed to discuss up until the end of Act 1 in this review, yet it isn’t spoilery to say that a bombastic opening level soon leads the team craving a way to recapture their former fame.
When you’re not smashing bad guys from pillar to post, Battletoads knows when to mix up its gameplay through slight puzzle elements and other mission types. Sometimes this means having to hack a terminal by guiding your icon past obstacles. Others it means engaging in a completely random game of Toad-Sham-Bo (the Battletoads version of rock-paper-scissors) to settle a brotherly dispute. The main way fighting is shaking up, though, is through on-rails levels, in which you must guide the toads towards the screen at high-speeds as they ride their appropriately named turbocycles.
There’s a great degree of flexibility here in terms of how you’d prefer to play. As mentioned earlier you can choose to play Battletoads alone or with up to two other friends, but three difficulty modes do their best to ensure a fair amount of challenge – even if they don’t always succeed (more on that later). Then, as if that weren’t enough, if you are playing alone any battletoad not currently being utilised is readily accessible with just a tap of the D-pad, essentially giving you up to two extra lives. Should Any of the trio die in battle a timer by their health bar will begin to count down, letting you size up how long you need to last before they can get back into the action.
So presentation, humour, and gameplay in Battletoads is top notch for the most part. However, there were a few times during my 6-8-hour playthrough where some substantial difficulty spikes occurred. This mainly cropped up whenever too many of a particularly irritating enemy type came into the fray, such as the snow cone-shooting ice cream salesmen that can knock you on your back with just one hit. Battletoads does give you some tools to get out of these sticky situations, such as the ability to swing between background and foreground or spitballing gum to make enemies stick, but playing solo there were definite instances where the challenge wasn’t quite fair.
Other than that, Battletoads is yet another big win for the growing catalogue of Xbox One exclusives this year. Following on from the success of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Gears Tactics and others, Battletoads proves what excellence can be achieved when you nail the mechanics of a genre and provide it with a creative 21st century spin. Some levels might drag on a bit and the odd clash with enemies might feel unfair, but overall this is a toad-ally excellent return for this cult-classic franchise.