Monday, April 14, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 4/06/14: Shin Nekketsu Kouha: Kunio-Tachi no Banka

at 6:30 PM
Everyone needs to let off a little steam sometimes. We here at GNG find that it helps to beat up as many people as possible at a regular interval. Luckily the video game medium has provided us with a safe, harmless environment in which to release our overflowing rage. That's why Golem and I are taking on one classic arcade-style beat-'em-up a week and bringing you this... questionnaire.

Game: Shin Nekketsu Kouha: Kunio-tachi no Banka (New Hot-blooded Tough-guy: Eulogy for Kunio and Friends)
Year: 1994
Developer: Almanic
Publisher: Technos Japan
Translator: Aeon Genesis
Platform: SNES

Here's something different for you faithful out there: an adventure beat-em-up. A narrative-driven actioner meant to be played over multiple sessions with an overarching story setting up individual beat-upping scenarios. Sure, lengthy action-adventures eventually succeeded the beat-em-up as the main place to get combat kicks, but in 1994 a beat-em-up was pretty explicitly a one-session (arcade-style) game. Console games like Super Double Dragon and Streets of Rage may have taken many sessions worth of practice before you earned the ending (rather than a bottomless stack of quarters), but they almost always needed to be conquered in a single sitting. By contrast, Shin Nekketsu Kouha provides a continue password after every single battle, always allowing the player to pick up from where they left off in the 3-5 hour playtime. This structure is actually closer to what we see in latter-day beat-em-ups like Double Dragon Neon and Castle Crashers (which adopted the action-adventure pacing of their contemporaries).

Of course, if you like your retro games, you can probably name one other adventure-style beat-em-up: River City Ransom. While it's not obvious from the names, Shin Nekketsu Kouha is one of a handful of sequels to River City. In Japan these are known as the Kunio-kun games after the main character, Kunio(-kun). There are quite a few, spanning platforms, genres, and even developers - Super Dodge Ball, Nintendo World Cup, and Crash n' the Boys are just a small sampling. The only Kunio beat-em-ups to make it to Western shores are RenegadeRiver City Ransom, and the Game Boy version of Double Dragon II (oddly enough, a localization of Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun: Bangai Rantou Hen), but the Japan-only SNES sequels continued to explore action/adventure/RPG territory in different ways. Shin Nekketsu Kouha is the last of that original six-game run, featuring fairly straightforward action gameplay (no shops or level-ups or anything) and instead focusing on a thoroughly-developed narrative.

While most of the Kunio games were developed by Technos (you'll remember they're one of the beat-em-up kings - the Double Dragon guys), this one was handled by Almanic. Almanic would be a total no-name were it not helmed by the very producer, director, and composer behind the Double Dragon and Kunio series. So this is a Technos game in all but name.

So does Shin Nekketsu Kouha manage to uniquely iterate the beat-em-up formula over a multi-session experience, or does it struggle to find content to justify its extra-arcade length? And can the Commune do a podcast about it? (yes, the Commune did a podcast about it, which is why we played it in the first place, which is why we're covering a game so far out of the normal arcade WBEU wheelhouse).

Pro-run: This is a console game, so there's no need for a pro-run. It has infinite continues and passwords, but death means being set back to a checkpoint, meaning there's no way to quarter-feed.

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Golem: As is the usual for a Kunio-kun game, characters tend to have very similar-looking faces. When riding a roller coaster, Kunio and his sidekick Riki have the exact same sprite, just with swapped colors. However, it's a style that has lots of exaggeratedly frowny faces and giant fists, giving everyone a menacing, or at least severely annoyed, look. I can't think of much to say on the settings--they look really good, but aren't noteworthy--but the soundtrack plays off of setting well. Roaming around the amusement park, you'll get a cheery tune that doesn't fit the mood of beating guys up.
Yourself: The game is bright and colorful, even if the graphics don't exactly scream SNES. Animations had a nice cartoony look that's fairly unique in the beat-em-up universe, even if it isn't as immediately eye-catching in screen-grabs as Final Fight. Thought the music was absolute top notch, I'm humming the title theme in my head right now.

How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: The game puts the Final Fight standard to shame, making use of the entire SNES controller and even a couple special inputs on top of that. If you like pressing lots of different buttons, boy are you in for a treat. The basic attacks, each mapped to their own button, are punch, kick, and back-attack. The difference between the first two is subtle: punch is a bit quicker, kick is a bit longer, and kick stuns faster. Stunning is key, as a stunned enemy can be uppercut/dropkicked to the ground or grappled for some free hits and a throw. There's a pretty fair trade-off between the attacks, where I tended to use kick for playing cautiously, trying to poke enemies from afar to stun them before they had a chance to counter-attack, and switch to punches when the enemy had left themselves vulnerable after a miss or a diversion. Needing to choose between two superficially similar attacks like this caused me to think more about the strategic variables in play in both my and the enemy state rather than just waiting for cues. Every attack opportunity became a decision beyond just recognition of an opening, even if those opportunities did often come too fast to make the smartest choice every time.

The back-attack and the special attacks (performed by pressing block then any attack/jump button) were more situational. While some were basic heavy-damage-dealers (such as Riki's block+kick machine-gun punch), most had some performance detail or effect that allowed them to change the flow of battle. These included a tornado kick to knock enemies across the screen and create space, a jumping knee to instantly stun a foe in front, and the ever-useful back-attack to knock down anyone sneaking up from behind.

The game also belonged to that rare class of beat-em-ups with a block input. The block had to be timed to incoming hits - the button couldn't be held for a standing guard. The block didn't vastly change the fighting landscape - to be totally honest I had a hard time making use of it - but it did add a third basic answer (beyond "punch" or "kick") to the "an enemy is coming at me, what do I do?" question. While there didn't seem to be many reliable means to predict when an enemy would attack, the guard was still a safe bet: succeeding meant avoiding damage and getting an opportunity to attack, and failing just meant the enemy did nothing or you probably would have gotten hit anyway.

There was one control oddity that bothered me too much even throughout a second play to leave out here. Holding down and pressing kick did a stomp attack, even if you weren't standing on top of an enemy, and holding down over an enemy with either Riki or Kunio caused them to kneel over their victims chest and wale on them. These two moves created a lot of awkwardness - the former meant you couldn't kick while walking down (you had to stop for a moment first) and the latter meant that the stomp itself was extremely difficult to pull off without immediately sequencing into a kneel, a state that was much more vulnerable to counters.
Golem: The block allowed me to interact with enemies even when I wanted to avoid them; it gave me something to do other than stand outside of their attack range. Also, the special attacks were, for the most part, well balanced. You might use Kunio's forward-launching block+punch attack to take advantage of an enemy coming off of their own attack. Or, you could use the speedy block+jump to seize a small window of opportunity.

How was the player character variety?
Golem: At most, there are four characters. Kunio and Riki, the two male characters, share standard move sets (their punches and kicks are the same), and Misako and Kyouko, the two female characters, share standard move sets (with slaps instead of punches). Kunio and Misako share most of their special moves, as do Riki and Kyouko, aside from a few tweaks to make the female characters play faster but with less force. As a result, I had an easy time adapting strategies from one character to another--Misako is Kunio but faster, and Riki is Kunio with different special moves.

You can swap between characters on the fly, and each one has his or her own health bar. So, if you're about to run out of health on Kunio, you can switch to Riki to get a fresh health bar. Having such similar characters made it easy to adapt strategies from one to another while still retaining apparent differences between them.
Yourself: More specifically, the ladies can't do grapples or sit on downed foes, but they have a convenient finisher on their kick combo that knocks enemies down toward them, allowing a chance to get in more down-attacks than usual.

How was the pick-up variety?
Yourself: There were no pick-ups in the game. The total lack of items lent a clean, straightforward feeling to the fighting, leaving the player only the option of mastering the combat system to proceed. It kept the tone of the fighting consistent and put progress in the hands of enemy and state variety.

I don't know where else to mention this but there was a mid-game roller-coaster ride to restore the players' health. It was, in a word, spectacular.

How was the stage variety?
Golem: There are a decent number of levels here (eight brawling levels), and during the middle of the game, you'll get some motorcycle levels just for variety's sake. Checkpoint placement was unique to the level's pacing. So, you've got to marathon it up a few floors without checkpoints when fighting through a school, but every time you switch screens in the amusement park, you get a checkpoint. The campaign became its most intense towards the middle, featuring one stage in a disco that's just two boss fights in a row.
Yourself: Just about every screen of the game introduces either a new enemy or a unique playing field. It's easy to recall all of the fights individually because each had some identifying feature: the fight in the school where the floors fall out and slope down, the fight on the pier where enemies can be tossed into the drink, the fight on the Ferris wheel where you can ride the cars up into the air and battle your foes five stories high. The slight details are minor enough that you can still fight with bread-and-butter tactics, so you can mix in the gimmicks at whatever rate you prefer. Throwing every biker off the pier is a satisfying challenge, but I didn't ever bother to use the meat-hooks in the warehouse for stationary kicks.

How was the enemy variety?
Yourself: The enemy variety was heavily tied to the progress of the story - each new area meant a new foe to fight. There weren't any Donovans or Breds who stuck around for the entire length of the game. Each breed had an identifiable moveset - the early school hooligans fight with basic punches and kicks, while the subsequent bikers expanded beyond that with heavy use of blocking and dashing. Though the late game did have a few grunt-type enemies - most memorably, knifemen who could cut straight through your guard - after about the halfway mark, the game transitions into a sequence of unique boss battles dictated by the plot. Because of this, the line between 'normal' enemies and bosses was pretty blurry. Very few tactics were effective beyond a single type of enemy, as they all substantially shook up the core dynamics - any time you thought you landed on a win-all strategy like blocking-then-special-attacking or infinitely jump kicking, an enemy would show up with a specific counter that forced you to go back to the drawing board. 
Golem: The enemy set also did well to explore the nooks and crannies of variation. For instance, that disco stage has two boss fights, but they follow the same basic idea: a fast and weak character accompanied by an overpowered enemy with tons of health. In the first version, the powerful enemy is a little more aggressive in how he approaches you, but his attacks are easier to weave between (the second guy attacks less frequently but is more dangerous when he does). Even the basic high school grunts get some cool variation, seeing them upgrade to bikers in the warehouse and knife guys outside the pachinko parlor.

Shin Nekketsu Kouha finds a way to demand reinterpretation of its mechanics just by making small tweaks to how an enemy works, and I felt like I got a lot of variety out of my technique without the game having to do anything too crazy.

How were enemy groups formed?
Golem: Outside of the intro segment, you'll never see more than two enemies onscreen. Segments would focus on one or two types of enemies, often just one. They're often subtle differences, like between the two school goons (I'm not 100% sure they even have different behavior, they just look different) and the two yakuza members. The disco fight, when you get one fast enemy and one slow enemy, is the only time I recall there being a dramatic difference.

How did combat work one-on-one?
Yourself: Shin Nekketsu was all about intense one-on-one combat - it's such a textbook brawler that it may as well be the definition. With only a handful of boss exceptions, enemies' skill-sets exactly match the players' and fights are distinguished by the AI's behavior rather than enemy mechanics. To fight one of the bikers from the warehouse the player needs to know how to block/dodge/override basic punches and kicks, how to interrupt dash attacks, how to block jump-attacks, and how to respond when one of their own attacks is blocked. Learning how to defend against your own techniques like this highlights their vulnerabilities and how they sequence together. 

How did combat work against crowds?
Golem: During the warehouse stage, you'll face a stream of bikers in each room. It was definitely easier to manage one type of enemy at once, since I could keep to one strategy and either focus on one guy at a time or just regularly bounce between enemies. Even if there were two enemies on screen, if they were the same type of enemy, I could hone one strategy to handle them both.

When the two enemies onscreen were of different types, I had to manage them more carefully. For instance, in the disco boss fight, I'd try to take out the fast character first. However, as I did so, the slow character would advance on me, and I'd have to decide when to turn my attention to him. This uneven pacing between enemy characters made certain fights feel dynamic and hectic.
Yourself: Generally I really only wanted to fight one enemy at a time, so my strategy revolved around disabling half of a pair and then engaging the other as quickly as possible to take advantage of the one-on-one time. Back-attacks and jump-attacks - anything that did a quick knockdown - were the most useful for crowd control.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Yourself: The bosses were simply a continuation of the evolution of standard conflicts. I didn't need to substantially change my tactical approach or expect that they'd completely change the gameplay dynamics, though they did each have characteristic moves that provided personality to the fights.

For instance, the charging bull Misuzu had a special running slam that allowed her to cross space diagonally and do heavy damage much more quickly than other opponents. She was too dangerous to fight head-to-head, as head-to-head combat always meant taking a few hits and Misuzu's were so strong that her intermittent counters would kill you far before you could kill her. Without direct combat available, aerial attacks were typically the next option - Misuzu easily swatted those down as well. That's where her charging attack came into play - by that point in the game it was clear that a dashing enemy was locked into his/her pattern and had no means of counter. So the trick was taking advantage of that locked period, and it turned out that by keeping far away from her and circling around, it was possible to get behind her immediately after her charge and land some safe hits. The battle gives repeatable concrete feedback to your tactics and feels like a strategic puzzle to solve - there might not be a singular right answer, but there are clearly wrong ones.

As for the variety, the bosses built up on a similar scale to the standard conflicts - the large bosses were built from a similar set of moves with charge attacks, jump-kick blocks, and instant knock-downs, differing mostly in their tactical approach. Joe put on constant pressure with his charging attacks but was vulnerable interrupting counters, while Kinji played more defensively with his quick and deadly stationary kicks, requiring you to match his reflexes. The penultimate boss is a Kunio mirror-fight, a culmination of the near-equal-footing battles that make up the entire game, and the finale in the textbook beat-em-up Fist Vs. Gun. 
Golem: Bosses typically had more impressive attacks, such as Misuzu's charge and Shinji's hurricane kick. While this meant they did more damage, this also gave them more visible cues to attack, since you could spot vulnerabilities in their special attacks. The final boss fight takes this to its extreme, since his main attack kills you in but a few hits, but you can rush under it during a pretty generous window to knock him down.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: Even at eight stages, it manages a few twists. The first several stages go from mindless grunts and drill down to intense, focused enemy encounters, but after that sequence, it plays around with both modes. I can't say anything too meaningful about the difficulty curve, but I definitely got the sense that it was always getting harder (aside from one memorable portion at the start of the final stage). The knife guys were generic grunts introduced right after an intense boss fight, but even these knife guys did well to upend my strategies by cutting through my block. I'll say this: the game found ways to develop difficulty by using clever variations on what it had already developed, and some of the later enemies were deceptively tricky.
Yourself: The game was pretty tough throughout, though that's somewhat dependent on how willing you were to take advantage of looped jump-kicks and special moves. Around the warehouse (mid-game), the difficulty hits a level where you really have to be taking advantage of all of your moves. It doesn't get significantly harder from there except for one or two boss fight spikes, but since moving forward always means there's a new enemy to learn, you can never rest easy.

The all-time famous line
Play again or recommend?
Yourself: I highly recommend Shin Nekketsu Kouha to fans of action-adventures, beat-em-ups, and Shenmue 2. It has a rich set of combat options and a great set of unique enemies that could even provide a backbone for a fighting game. This is a game that constantly presents the player with new challenges, making it perfect for replay. The dialogue drags down the pace a little (especially later on when losing a boss fight means re-reading the pre-boss cut-scene), but there's no reason anyone who likes a good brawl should miss this one.
Golem: Easy recommend. Because enemies are so hearty and feature so many moves, each fight feels significant. And, because there's a password system, you end up with shorter, more manageable sessions. That does mean there's not a lot of brainless fodder to toss around, though--by my reckoning, this is the farthest the genre gets from button mashing.

Hey look. Someone made this. Even though they were some kinda weirdo Russian.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 3/30/14: Battletoads

at 5:56 PM
Everyone needs to let off a little steam sometimes. We here at GNG find that it helps to beat up as many people as possible at a regular interval. Luckily the video game medium has provided us with a safe, harmless environment in which to release our overflowing rage. That's why Golem and I are taking on one classic arcade-style beat-'em-up a week and bringing you this... questionnaire.

Game: Battletoads
Year: 1994
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform: Arcade

Yes, what better way to follow the Ninjaturtles than their British counterparts, the Battletoads? Battletoads is perhaps the dweebiest creation of all time: the video game story of three video game programmers (coincidence?) who've obtained visually unappealing but unstoppable super-powers and have to save an innocent girl from a mean fetishized woman who's bullying them. Hm. No subtext there. The property managed to transcend (or perhaps capitalize upon) this dorky setup to become a cult favorite of a generation of repressed misogynistic nerds more likely to resent a woman for liking the same things as them (while being a woman) than thrill at the discovery of a girl-nerd.

Man why am I being such a dick? What does that have to do with Battletoads?

No, Battletoads (NES) is the clarion call of a generation weaned on games almost as hard as the Dark Queen made their pubescent genitals. It's one of those games where you considered a run a success if you made it to level 4 (of 12). It sucked. In fact it was such a sure thing you'd lose that there was more fun to be had beating the tar out of your buddies than trying to beat the game. But this isn't that Battletoads, because with only two or three beat-em-up stages, the original doesn't really qualify for a WBEU. This is Battletoads: The Arcade Game (it's not actually called that), the sorta sequel that finally brought the arcade gameplay to the forefront for an arcade release.

Pro-run: We didn't do a pro-run because getting three people to sit through a game twice is hard.

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself: The game certainly starts off on the right flipper (toads don't have flippers but I think they have feet so I couldn't really make a pun) with a giant lazer space battle the likes of Return of the Jedi or the more famous Battletoads & Double Dragon. The bombast doesn't stop there, with a jingle-jangly Christmas-themed level and then a... space hallway... and then another space hallway.... There were definitely some cool details along the way (like portraits of the bosses in the final brawling stage), but generally speaking the backgrounds felt weirdly repetitive, like they were cycling way too frequently (as in the first stage where the backdrop advises the player "Double-tap the joystick to dash!"... about a thousand times). That's a nitpick though, in general at least Battletoads has a very distinctive grungy comic book look.

The distorted finishing moves that the 'Toads do are more awesome than ever, especially with the amped up gore we get here.

Golem: The best part of Battletoads is watching your on-screen avatar throw around and smash enemies both big and small. 

As for the music, played in reverse order, the stage themes get progressively more melodic. Stage 5 spotlights a synthesized guitar player that is reluctant to move its hands from one spot to another; you get a lot of repeated strums. (In the boss theme, the bass takes front and center with its repetition.) Stage 3 features some nice mood, though, and it kind of channels Donkey Kong Country 2's Mining Melancholy, at least by instrumentation. (It's got those industrial-sounding percussion instruments, I don't know the name for them.) 

Actually, instrumentation seems to be composer David Wise's biggest enemy here. When the song focuses on guitar, it tends to be repetitive. Stage 2, on the other hand, puts organs at the front of the mix--the same organs that are in the rest of the soundtrack--and it comes out with a hummable wintry melody. Which isn't to say the guitars don't have their place, since they back up the organs and lend a pretty awesome I'm-a-preteen-and-it's-the-90s edge. Throw in some sleigh bells, and it's definitely what you would play if the Battletoads crashed your Christmas party.

The only guitar-centric theme that comes out well is stage 1, but that's because it features the Battletoads series theme. 

EzioBattletoads is a charmingly ugly game. The game's juxtaposition of the awesome and the filthy has the ability to enhance both aspects of the games aesthetics. The exaggerated finishing moves exemplify this because on one hand you are turning your arm into a drill or your foot into a comically over-sized weight (which are both pretty sweet), but on the other hand you are repeatedly and gruesomely smashing rats to death with a '90s amount of gore (which scientists have theorized is the maximum amount of gore). However, this duality between cartooniness and disgusting could also detract from the game. This certainly happened with the music, where you had pretty jamming tunes but played in the style of that quintessential '90s synth/grunge with fake bass sound. Ultimately, the music was forgettable, and I focused much more on the interesting visuals rather than the audio. 

How was the control and move variety?
Golem: Your standard melee combo knocks an enemy around for a bit, and once that enemy is prone, tapping the attack button once more will hurl them offscreen with a comical attack featuring your hands turning into a giant bulldozer or something like that. Keeping an eye out for these effects is important because it means your kill count just went up, and it made the action kind of hard to follow with three players doing it on separate enemies all at once. Anyway, it's always nice to see a double tap to run, which had its own ramming attack. Most smaller enemies were also grabbable, but this delayed killing them and didn't have much use (outside of the ability to toss them into Rare bottomless pits--Rare as in twice in the entire game, by my reckoning).

There were a few context-sensitive aspects of control, as well. In order to deal large amounts of damage on certain big enemies, the toads would grab them by the zipper on their pants. Plus, there were a few stage-specific controls available.

EzioWith the three of us playing, we took down enemies so quickly that all I really was able to use were my dash attack (GIANT HELMET SMASSSSSSH!) to gap close and my wailing on an enemy on a ground combo to finish enemies off. The game also had a throw, which inconvenienced me more than anything when I would accidentally use it. 

Yourself: An unusual aspect of Battletoads' control is the momentum/deceleration on the movement - or what we in the biz call "floatiness". This gives you the feeling that you're slip-slidin' around like a real life toad. It's pretty frustrating in the platformier NES game, but in this iteration I didn't mind coastin' into a big punch - it gives the game a nice smooth feel and makes the timing more challenging (and thus more rewarding). 

How was the player character variety?
Ezio: When the three of us played, we all chose one character and stuck with it throughout the entire game. I was matched with Pimple, formerly George Pie, the large and burly one. Yourself claims that all the 'Toads played the same in terms of speed/power, but Pimple played so agonizingly slow sometimes that I find this hard to believe. The characters were really differentiated by their finishing attacks. Getting to see all of the different moves is probably reason enough to play with all three characters, even if the moves functionally do the same thing. Pimple was also the best character apparently, since I did get the most kills out of everybody, and that is certainly not due to skill at beat-'em-ups.

Yourself: He's wrong, they all played the same. I fuckin' demoed the game for exactly the purpose of discerning whether the characters are different. I'm still laughing about "George Pie" though.

How was the pick-up variety?
Yourself: Naught but a pair of weapons that showed up frankly a little too often for my taste. The Clubammer totally took over the flow of gameplay and turned all enemies (and toadallies!) into defenseless peons. I'll let Golem talk about the sub-machine gun because he has a poster on the wall of our apartment that says "I really love when beat-em-ups have guns". The 'Toads naturally slurp up flies to restore health - I particularly like that the flies zip around the screen and require the player to mash the attack button to sling out their tongue and snap in their prey. It's little things like that that give the game personality. Of course, be careful what you wish for - contemporary action games have misunderstood why that was cool and now have you mashing a button or spinning a stick any time you want to turn a doorknob.

Golem: In a game with lots of really satisfying, really meaty hits, the guns feel out of place. Smashing an enemy or ally flat with a giant club gives great feedback, since you watch your toad wind up and then suddenly slam down the club. By comparison, pew-pewing enemies with a gun makes them recoil a bit while the toad stands there and holds down a trigger. While they were useful in terms of tactics, I had no interest in using the guns. Luckily, they were relatively Rare.

EzioThe giant mallet/debris thing was the only way to have any friendly fire in this game. You better believe that every time I picked one up that I was going after Yourself and Golem with it so that I could pancake them. Hitting enemies with it was incidental. The other pickup, the blaster, saddened me because I could not shoot my teammates with it. 

How was the stage variety?
Golem: The majority of the game was spent beating up rats in standard brawler stages. Between those came stages that lacked the depth axis (as in, you can't walk towards or away from the screen). One featured an icy platforming stage, where down on the joystick became a ducking move to evade oncoming snowballs. In another, the toads wore jetpacks and flew around the room at will, spinning to attack enemies (but not each other, for better or worse). For the final variety stage, the toads operated laser guns aboard a spaceship, where we had 8-directional fire on obstacles approaching from every angle.

EzioThe first two stages were rather memorable. The first one had a huge space battle in the background and served as an almost acceptable tutorial stage with its ONE tip on the displays within the stage. The second snow level mixed things up with sliding and snowmen sequences in which you had to avoid their snowballs and wait until the blizzard died down to attack. The rest of the standard stages blended together for me because being inside a hallway does not exactly grab my attention and lend itself to differentiation. The jetpack level and shmup style levels were nice reprieves from the standard brawling.

Yourself: The final brawler stage had a bit of internal variety - the kinds of death traps we've seen in a lot of beat-em-ups and most memorably a gigantic bowling alley where screen-tall 3D bowling balls flew at our heads and we had to run left and right into the tiny safe spots left on the screen.

The problem with the stage variety for me was that I found the normal stages way too repetitive and the unique stages far too unique - the vertical jetpack corridor in particular feels extremely out of place and doesn't develop any sense of gameplay depth so much as just shouting at the player "hey! dodge stuff!" The variety felt shallow.

The snow stage, which blended slippery slopes, ranged enemies, and giant crowds, was EXACTLY what a variety stage should be - and in fact was what I wanted the whole game to be. Each gimmick was tied to the core gameplay mechanics (being good at timing punches helps defeat everything) and each was developed with increasing challenge throughout the level. As the second stage, it showed a lot of promise, and ultimately left me disappointed that the game didn't follow through. 

How was the enemy variety?
Ezio: There were two rat-based enemies that made up about 90% of what we fought in the game. You had the mice which served as the traditional grunts that are a staple of this genre. They had different palette swaps and occasionally one would be using one of the blaster pick-ups, but other than that, they remained a static threat. The larger rats provided some variety when they first appeared, but became stale rather quickly. They had much more health than the other foes and focused their efforts on grabbing the player. Functionally this meant that combat with them boiled down to grabbing them first, dick-punching them until they threw you off, and then repeating for what seemed like forever because of their huge amount of HP. Other enemies tended to be more interesting than these two main foes, such as the snowmen in the second stage and the electro-mace wielding enemies in the first stage.

Yourself: What else is there to say. This isn't a game that has enemy variety. It has level variety. Each level type had it's own according enemies, but there was no cross-level development. So you basically had some type of grunt and some type of more annoying enemy in each stage.

How were enemy groups formed?
Yourself: With lots and lots of rats. With so few enemy types, there weren't a lot of variations the game could offer. Though the snow stage offered some interestingly clear groups (a swarm of dozens of midget ice-skaters, flanking gunmen, one snowman at a time), I honestly can't think of a single time in the rest of the game when we weren't fighting against a cluster of wimpy rats with a couple strongmen to support them.

Golem: Battletoads knows when it's got an interesting idea for an enemy; for instance, dodging a snowman's snowballs is satisfying, and snowmen were often on their own. Otherwise, it relies on the strength of its presentation: the satisfaction of tossing enemies around and drilling into rats. Having a bunch of guys run around plays well into that, making things look really hectic.

EzioThe game is more fun when the groups are smaller and you can focus on eliminating a couple of threats while still advancing in the stage. 

How did combat work one-on-one?
Golem: I can't say I noticed this too well. Normally, even the fatter enemies could be dispatched reasonably quickly if caught in the standard combo of a few punches followed by a finisher. The trick was to get in the finisher during the available window. On the other hand, if you had to deal with a large muscle-bound enemy, that meant grabbing their crotch and going through several cycles of punching.

Ezio1 vs 1 combat revolved around the big rat enemy. The goal was to avoid him during his attack pattern then gap close with a dash attack and then grab him and punch the lights out of his dick. When he tossed you away, you repeated this process until he was dead. 

Yourself: Look enough about dicks everyone, this is the most groin-oriented piece we've ever written. 

How did combat work against crowds?
Ezio: Battletoads was hampered somewhat by its cramped crowd combat. With three players all having exaggerated attacks that took up half the screen after you completed a basic combo, jump attack, or dash attack, enemies were constantly flying everywhere around the screen. It was hard to get a basic combo off in time before the mouse you were wailing on was blasted to the other side of the screen by a bulldozer bash. This also created the problem of cleaning up the wounded enemies. Dash attacks and jump attacks were effective in hitting enemies all over the place, but less so in terms of damage, which was plentiful in the combo attacks. Being as hard as it was to finish a normal combo, the best way to finish an enemy off was the inescapable ground finishing move. So that one got a lot of play, and as much as I love watching Battletoads curbstomp rats, even I got bored by doing it every battle over and over again. Theoretically the grab move was supposed to clear space, but that was hardly ever a pressing need in this game.

Yourself: Yeah, there was really just no way to get a handle on the space without relying on the auto-smash dash attack, and that just scattered everything and led to ground attack clean-up.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?

Yourself: The boss fights were almost hilariously monotonous. I think each of them had exactly one attack. I don't even know if I can qualify it as a pattern when, for instance, the first boss menaced us from the foreground, did a leaping attack onto the field of play that left him stunned and vulnerable, then hopped back into the foreground after taking his licks. In fact, the second boss was identical except that he preferred the background and had a much faster lunge. These built up to a shocking final gun duel with none other than Brain Bot (yes, THE Brain Bot) who slid back and forth across the bottom of the screen while shooting volleys of three slow-moving equi-spaced projectiles upwards for about seventy minutes. Honestly it's a contender for lamest final boss I've ever played. There's something to be said for brutally unfair baddies compared to one as comically easy as this. It just left the game on a very flat note.

Golem: It's pretty hard to care about any of the bosses here, but the infamous snake boss was at least memorable for its brutality. It reminded me of the optional dragon boss from Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, Flamewing, only it wasn't optional and it was absurdly early in the game. I wonder how many players slogged through it using real quarters. It's also the coolest scene in the game, featuring a cliff overlooking a giant rib cage through which the snake snakes.

Yourself: Come on don't bring Flamewing into this. That's like comparing prime rib to some garbage boss battle no one should ever play.  Flamewing had patterns and multiple vulnerabilities and there was strategy to predicting and dodging his attacks, even the one-hit kill. Snakesky here just tracks one player and snaps at them like an asshole.

EzioI am still confused why the primary antagonist, the Dark Queen, was not a fight in any form. The snake boss in level 2 scarred me for life. Its attack of reaching out its head and grabbing one of the frogs was successful on me an implausible number of times, it also felt like it went on for about 5 minutes too long.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: The game had just enough enemy variety to progress challenge over the course of the normal brawler stages. Plus, the variety stages were well enough charted that they also gave increasing difficulty. The snow stage was pretty comparable to the normal brawling; the jetpack stage controlled differently from the rest of the game, but at least it offered a standard melee attack and a full range of motion; and finally, the spaceship stage offered little room for dodging--survival was mostly dependent upon stopping a hazard with laser fire.

EzioI died a whole heck of a lot of times. I blame that mostly on the misleading health bar that makes it seem like you can take a bunch of hits before dying. In actuality, just about one hit of anything kills you. I acted a lot more brashly than I otherwise would have because of that and it cost me a lot of lives since it took me a while to figure out. 

Yourself: Was there any real incline in challenge in the beat-em-up-proper stages or did they just increase the enemy count? I was left pretty bored with those by the end of the game. And while the variety stages worked internally (again, the snow stage was great) they were so long that they sorta broke the overall pace of the game. It feels weird to spend ten minutes learning how to descend a chasm with a jetpack and then never having to do it again, as if the game ends where it did just because it was out of ideas, not because it had reached a climax.

Play again or recommend?
Ezio: Battletoads has a few levels that I would like to revisit, but despite its short length (we beat it in under 50 minutes), I would be unlikely to play it again. The later stages fell flat for me and the change-of-pace levels while nice at the time, do not seem very appealing in hindsight. Coupled with the fact that the characters are all the same and the combat got a bit repetitive on the first playthrough, you will not see me playing this again anytime soon. For those who have not played it, I would give a mild recommendation, but a much stronger one to watch the pilot of the never picked-up cartoon of Battletoads.

Yourself: I'm honestly a bit surprised how small Battletoads felt. It simply didn't earn the degree of variety it tried to introduce - the lack of reprises and a compelling main gameplay arc left it feeling scattered. Also, I'm just not a fan of games that end on a lengthy stage of a different type than the rest of the game. That's pretty much outright abandoning your identity. And that's exactly my problem with Battletoads: I don't know what the hell it is or what the hell I'm supposed to want to play. If you're a fan of the series check it out, but I won't be surprised if you never play it again in favor of your NES treasure. For anyone else it's a lesson in how not to do variety. But it's not for beat-em-up fans.

Golem: While this is definitely the most refined Battletoads game, maybe that's a bad thing; without the trademark frustration and the killing-the-other-player-by-accident accidents, Battletoads has pretty boring combat and okay I guess variety stages. The most notable thing about the game is that it keeps track of how many enemies you kill. It counts them up individually at the end of each stage, pitting the three players against each other for a high score. Also, it has blood, but if you don't like that, you can turn it off with one of the dip switches.