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.

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