In 1989, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the hottest thing since pepperoni pizza. There were comic books, action figures, trading cards, video games, a TV show, and a feature film on the way. Kids could even buy little jars of Ooze, and they were as disgusting as they sounded. The slimy stuff quickly gathered lint, hair, and dirt, and when it dried out, it stunk like mildew.
Then, the creative well started running dry. There are only so many action figures that one can create before things start to get stupid. In 1990, the world was introduced to Pizza Face, a half-human, half-pizza:
Yeah. Shit got weird. TMNT had hit its cultural saturation point, and the Power Rangers were still a good three years off - kids were in need of newer, cooler cartoon role models.
In 1991, Rare stepped up to the plate. They released Battletoads, the first NES game in a planned franchise. It starred three, beach bum, anthropomorphic toads – Rash, Zitz, and Pimple. They fought to save the galaxy from The Dark Queen, an intergalactic dominatrix in thigh high boots.
Battletoads for the NES was the closest that anyone came to recapturing that old Turtle magic. Although the bigger franchise never gained momentum, the original game is an undisputed classic, renowned for its unforgiving nature.
Battletoads is obscenely difficult, but surprisingly, it doesn’t begin that way. Instead, Level 1 was the ultimate bait and switch – a cartoony, fun, beat ‘em up level, with no foreshadowing of what was to come. When a Toad punched an opponent, his fist became massive. When a Toad kicked an opponent, his foot turned into a gigantic boot. In the instruction manual, these over-the-top finishing moves were given catchy names, like ‘Kiss My Fist,’ the ‘Big Bad Boot’ and ‘Nuclear Knuckles.’
There were these, and other charming touches – if a Toad caught a fly with his tongue, it filled a section of his life bar. If a Toad knocked out a dragon, he could take it for a joy ride, and turn those axe-wielding pigs into crispy bacon.
Level 2 was different, but also awesome. The Toads descended down a massive hole, taking out crows that tried to cut their lifelines, and massive robots that shot bolts of electricity. The Toads also got a new special move – they turned into giant wrecking balls that could one-shot any enemy on the screen.
Thus far, Battletoads was fun, without being too corny, and challenging, without being too tricky. Then, halfway through Level 3, this happened:
For those of you who played this game back in the day, you know how sadistic, how cheap, and how cruelly unfair this section was. On the off chance, however, that you didn’t spend hours of your childhood banging your head against a wall (lucky you), place yourself back in 1991. This was pre-emulator. There were no save-states. There was no easy mode to slow down the bike. There were limited chances to beat the section – the wall was a one-hit kill, and if you lost a life, you returned to the last checkpoint.
There were five checkpoints in all, which prevented you from coldly memorizing the pattern. If you lost all your lives, you restarted the entire level. And, if you ran out of continues, the game was over. Even if you managed to memorize the pattern, it was no guarantee of success. The final, crucial section came down to frames of animation, and you needed razor sharp reflexes and luck to emerge victorious.
Even a Game Genie couldn’t help all that much – sure, it gave you an unlimited number of lives, but even that lost its appeal after a while. Have you ever been to the carnival? You know that game where you have to toss the red rings onto the soda bottle? They give you a whole bucket of rings, and you start to feel cocky – hell, all you need is one lucky shot. Your odds, however, are hilariously slim, and as the bucket slowly drains, you get depressed, and you start reflecting on the futility of it all. That’s what it was like to play Battletoads – no matter the number of chances, the odds were still against you. You weren’t winning any time soon.
And this was only Level 3. There were nine levels left. Nine. And most of the levels were just as hard, if not harder, than this one. A truly dedicated gamer could beat Level 3 with enough practice, but to maintain that level of perfect play for another nine levels? That was a tall order to fill.
Take Level Six for example, where you rode on massive, twisting snakes to the end of each section. It required, as with Level 3, split second timing – the spikes were instant death, and each snake had a different pace, preventing a player from consistently timing his or her jumps:
Or, take Level 10, also known as “The Rat Race.” You raced a suicidal rat to a bomb in each section, and if he got to it before you could defuse it, he would set it off, killing you, and presumably, himself, in the process. Crazy people, let alone crazy rats, couldn’t be reasoned with, and this level was proof.
What if you wanted to play with a friend? As if the game wasn’t difficult enough, the developers made it so that you could hit and kill your friend. This led to a lot of accidents and laughs – sometimes, the game would devolve into toad-on-toad violence – but it also rendered the game unbeatable. If one player died, both players would have to go back to the last checkpoint.
Despite all of this, Battletoads is fondly remembered by most people who played it. It’s a shared trauma, and pain unites people. Everyone can laugh about it now and remember where he or she gave up and simply said, “To hell with it.”
Gamers today complain that games aren’t difficult enough – that learning curves are too gradual, that tutorials are too babyish, that checkpoints are too forgiving. There is, however, a difference between hard and masochistic, and Battletoads crosses that line. It is gaming’s Mount Everest, and every gamer, no matter what his or her skill level, should attempt it at least once.