A toad left in the sun dries and dies

You can bet your ass that Microsoft is not all that happy with the reception the upcoming reboot of Battletoads has gotten. Not only Microsoft’s official trailer on Youtube has gained 17 392 Dislikes against 7 888 likes, but also turns out people are actively avoiding the game whenever it is available for testing. From the word I’ve got, Microsoft did a special showcase in their new store in London for the game and about everyone who visited the store during that period actively avoided the game. That shouldn’t be surprising anyone who has looked how Battletoads has fared during developer and press events, where the game has been a flop, bombing in raising any notable interest.

This disinterest in Battletoads continued during the X02019 event in London earlier this week, where you could go and test the game itself. What better way to showcase how well the game plays and disinfect it from its visual disease by putting the best effort and light upon it. Well, history tends to rhyme, and the game ended up being the most avoided title on the show floor.

 

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Even Rare’s own Twitter feed regarding the game is rather sad.

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That is very, very disinterested ratio and amount of replies, likes and retweets. It should be very apparent to everyone that the consumers don’t want this game. The game has been delayed three times already and after the initial reveal, Rare’s name has been attached to it in a very visible way. Remember Rare, that one company you used to love because of Banjo Kazooie and Battletoads back in the day? Dlala Studios, the main developer of the game (Rare’s name is just tagged on because they originate the IP) is going to take a lot of heat when the game releases early 2020. The word on the street is that Microsoft wants to dump the game on Gamepass during some other larger release, which makes sense. A “small” digital release overshadowed by some major title often gets pity reviews. You can wholly expect the reviews of the game mention the backlash, call it unfair for the game to gain such negative reception just based on the visuals when it has (supposedly) pretty decent game play. Some will praise it to heavens high, some will push a political agenda, you know the drill how the game press already works. There are already slew of people saying that the game must have a fair shake and people must and should play it before judging the game.

Of course, that’s not how it works with consumers. The customer is your god.

Most of the backlash is very much based on failed consumer expectations. As I mentioned in my previous post about Battletoads, the franchise already had its visual tone established with Killer Instinct. Sure, different developers, different styles, different intentions. You could never expect this game to have 1:1 visual look with the KI iteration, but that was largely what people expected it to be. I don’t want to do a joke about the developers subverting expectations, because that’s not what they did. The design team simply misunderstood what was the core of Battletoad’s visual flavour, and rather than making it a mimicry of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with British flavour, they went with Ren & Stimpy instead. The consumers have made their voice already heard, this visual style is not wanted. You can argue about artistic integrity and intention as much as you want, but at the end of the day, making and selling games is a service job, and it their job to cater to wants of the customer. If you do something unwanted, you can expect diminished returns. It’s like a Pyrrhic victory; congratulations, you did what you wanted at the cost of everything else.

There could have been a chance for Battletoads to be Microsoft’s Devil May Cry, if they had wanted it to be. Three characters with three different kinds of approach to melee combat would’ve easily transitioned the gameplay into the third dimension, but relegating the game to be a 2D-beltscroller should give a hint what they wanted; a nostalgia cashgrab rather than a modern revival. The developer’s may have intended this game to be something special on its own rights, but at the end of the day, Battletoads could be a lot more than whatever we ended up with. Battletoads had a silver bullet how to make it a success among the consumers, but also how to take an oldy time classic and realise it in 3D.

Why 3D? Because there is s stigma of 2D games like this being something lesser than their big, full 3D environment games. Most 2D games are relegated as digital-only downloads. Maybe it’s because they tend to be shorter and smaller titles overall, or that the indie scene absolutely loves to do terrible pixel graphics games. It’s not just pixel graphics either, but also with titles like Mega Man 11, which was structured like a traditional Mega Man game. Completely perfect in every aspect, but somehow the overall feeling from the consumers, and even from some developers, was that this is archaic, somehow left behind and not up to date. Games overall sure have grown in size, but at the same time, most people don’t have the time to spend several tens or hundreds of hours playing one game that takes forever to get in and out. Games like Devil May Cry, however, have been a perfect blend of quick burst of action you can do per stage you can have and leave, then return to it a bit later for another burst session. Something like Yakuza or Red Dead Redemption are not like this, they require you sit on your ass properly and give them time.

Battletoads will see a bit more positive reception on its release. The press will see to it. The reviews will claim them to be more objective, which should be almost an antithesis for them. They will say the game doesn’t look all that bad, instead it looks pretty good, if not great, with terrific animation and solid game play. There will be amends to its faults, of course. However, considering game reviewers that live in the bogs of video and computer game media and press write for the developers and publishers rather than to their intended consumer audience, that’s just part of the game. You can’t get developers and publishers of this caliber mad at you, you’d lose all the perks.

Battletoads is the probably the most prominent of example of customers rejecting a title based on its visual style. This wouldn’t happen to a new IP. With Battletoads, consumers know what what it should look like, they feel its energy and enjoy the visual flavour the series and its appearances have offered to the audiences. It should’ve been easy to hit the sweet spot between a modern style and classical look. If nothing else comes from this game, at least there’s a lesson to be learned how not to ignore consumer expectations.

Battletoads is British Punk

I said I’d skip E3 this year and write nothing about it, but when something goes so wrong like Battletoads is being made into a modern Nickeledeon cartoon inspired style, something is really, really gone to the extreme wrong end. You know at what moment I got worried? Right from the start. Let’s just link the damn trailer and let’s continue from there.

 

Oh God. That’s chromatic aberration in the logo

Chromatic aberration is an error introduced by film in older animation and movies. In recent years it has made a resurgence in modern digital media as an effect, despite decades of work being done to eliminate it completely. Not only it looks distracting when overused, but its become a trope on its own already. It can be found almost everywhere and it almost never looks the part it was intended to. On top of that, it doesn’t help people with poorer eyesight or sight that gets crossed. It fucks ’em up even worse. Credit where credit is due, you can barely see it in the logo, but goddamn this leads into some hot neon pink shit I can already tell.

That’s a flipped double bird to the old guard in form of a fish

And this was the point where my first thought was They missed the cultural starting point for Battletoads and many of the fans will outright hate it. At this moment on the official Xbox Youtube video, it has 8,4k dislikes vs. 4,7k likes. However, what do I mean that the developers missed the cultural starting point with Battletoads? While everyone always touts and mentions how Battletoads is mostly a Teenage Mutant  Ninja Turtles knock-off with green skinned fighting frogs, the fact is that’s nothing unique. Late 1980’s and early-to-mid 1990’s saw numerous anthropomorphic animal mascots and franchises across the board, from Sonic the Hedgehog to The Mighty Ducks! and Bucky O’Hare. Biker Mice from Mars was pretty goddamn rad, and its Finnish dub made mediocre show into a masterpiece. It would be error to simply coincide Battletoads with its contemporaries just for convenience. TMNT might be seen as the starting point for the humanimal trend, but for Battletoads’ style, the roots are not across the pond, but in late 70’s and 80’s British pop- and punk-culture and tripzines.

Let’s use this Battletoads key art as a reference point. And oh, the main enemy mooks are goddamn punk rats

Much like many other NES game, Battletoads‘ art is amateurish, but at the same time so damn fine. It’s free, original and rough. Rough is the key here, as that serves as the main link to the tripzines. It might be rough looking, but that’s part of the charm. It’s not overly cute, is full of that early 90’s attitude and everyone’s pretty much colour coded how they’d appear in the game. The NES colour palette was limited, so designing character that in mind always helps. You can also tell the ‘toads apart from each other easily with little things like shades on Rash, dark eyeshade, belt and gloves on Zitz and Pimple just being bigass dude. Note how the names are part of the whole boys’ shock culture with their grossout names. All part of the charm.

The roughness of course comes from British cartoons like Danger Mouse and Count Duckula. This roughness is not exactly intended in itself, but unlike their American competitors, British animation houses had to work with tighter budgets and the end result often ended up being rougher than intended. This includes such shows as SuperTed as well, though at this point the Rare wasn’t bunch of kids anymore. Where the edge for Battletoads comes from are the numerous hard hitting tripzines, self-published comic strips analogous to Japanese doujinshi scene. UK Underground Comix! has numerous scanned copies, sometimes originals even. Some of them are rough, some of them are even great, and all of them are rowdy. Of course, I would be dismissive if I didn’t mention 2000 AD, the British science fiction comic from the British. Robo Magnus there in the middle, with its looming posture and metallic mask he wears.

Battletoads would fit with these guys just fine

I would also do a small crime against British comic publication if I didn’t mention The Beano, a Scottish children’s comic magazine that’s been running from 1938 to this very day. The Beano in many ways defined the British comic style for the century alongside with the aforementioned SF comic.

But of course, where would be in if we didn’t start with the royalty? The original Dark Queen was based on Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and it shows.

 

This being the UK, I bet having a small potshot at the royalty was there in the back of the head somewhere. The whole point of a design like this isn’t to objectify women, but rather give the dominant role over the ruled ones. The whole Dark Queen motif invites the ideas of things forbidden and evil pleasures. It’s a pretty generic but solid design, unlike her modern version.

And this one? This one looks like shit and here’s why; that it a dull outfit with a dull facial expression with dull colours. Sure, black suit isn’t exactly colourful in itself, yet it pops up better in a game that isn’t filled with pink and purple like the 2019 Battletoads’ trailer is. There’s nothing royal about her, she has no aura to rule with under that design. She looks more like some kind of communist general or a mad scientist than a Queen. To put it simply, this design has no power.

At least they kept her gloves.

Then again, the combat amphibians themselves don’t fare much better.

Hoo boy. Sure, the original Battletoads cast didn’t have the most dynamic idle stance, but Rash just standing there like some lanky bitch simply irritates. You’ll also notice that the ‘toads are of different colour than in the keyart above, and that’s because they went through colour changes until they set with these colours. Though why the hell they messed otherwise perfectly good designs to make them worse is anyone’s guess.

However, the visual history is of American comics and cartoons, which does not fit the already established visual style of the franchise. It goes to the opposite direction, choosing to be family safe and effectively disregards what the previous games wanted to convey. Killer Instinct may have brought Rash into 3D, but holy shit it shows respect towards the series and its spirit in every single way this new game doesn’t.

You know what makes this incarnation of a Battletoad so damn great? It’s fun and cartoony, its mischeavous, it showcases childish humour and yet its rough, raw and has edge to it. There are no flip flopping with a goddamn fish, what you get is massive fisting and spiky booting. There are actual spikes, not whatever shit green shit Pimple’s redesign has on its wrists and belt.

They also use flipped sprites in an era where memory should not be a goddamn problem. This is best seen with Zitz’s, the middle one’s, arm thingies

That’s all good Aalt, but Battletoads was always kiddy stuff. That’s what many may want to think, but the arcade Battletoads showcases what Rare would do if they had pretty much no limitations regarding censorship.

This game shows perhaps the best what sort of core Battletoads have in terms of visual themes. Visceral violence and hard hitting head bashing with nothing held back. You smash your enemies heads in, you cut them off with an Axe kick, you split them with a spiky slam or kick them off the screen as they scurry off. It’s everything your mother would hate in games that look like they’re for kids. All that is lacking from the new Battletoads game and that is why there is a large portion disliking it. Rather than looking and feeling like a Battletoads game, it looks like a cheap knock-off.

It’s also so goddamn purple. It’s more or less clear that the game is being made for the new retro audience rather than to the people who played the originals and have been rooting for a new game for few decades. And what we get? A game that looks, and I echo so many others, like a bad FLASH game.

Credit given where deserved, the graphics look slick  in their intended way, animation is pretty good and all that, but it doesn’t look the part. The gameplay looks like an incoherent mess with plastic, cartoony deformation everywhere. Of course, can’t say much about the game play without playing it first, but this being Xbox One exclusive means that chances are I’ll never play it.

It’s really pathetic a game this awaited, especially by its fans, ends up looking nothing like it should have. That is not say that a more cartoony version of a classic belt scrolling action game could work, it just needs to be made in the same spirit with some damn respect for the source material. Like Streets of Rage 4.

Microsoft registers Battletoads trademark

Battletoads is an often discussed game when it comes to old, hardass games. There’s not much one can say nowadays about it without repeating the words that have been coined at it multiple times over. That kind of comes with the territory of NES games, after all. But news struck with some somewhat astonishing news; Microsoft did register Battletoads as a trademark and Phil Spencer tweeted something about uniquely Rare game. There may or may not be connections.

Let’s assume that we are getting a new Battletoads game for the sake of argument. After all, it’s something that was getting a GBA remake at one point, but thank God was soon dismissed after three weeks. That doesn’t fill me with too much confidence alone, as most new instalments, or remakes, have been less than satisfactory. Then again, there are the good ones that come once every ten blue moon, like Killer Instinct. Of course, everyone has their own mileage. Anyways, the Battletoads remake on GBA never went too far and only had few levels that looked anywhere near finished, which is good as the game even in its less than 10% finished state had so many things off. Disregarding the design of the ‘toad on screen, which look like they were ripped from the Punk Toads of the 1987 TMNTurtles cartoon, there’s some baffling stuff in there like the Lifebar being hidden behind the Battletoads logo on the upper left and the damn voice acting. Battletoads has an edge to it, a rough style that reflects the attitude most mascots of that era were to be known for, Sonic being the most famous example.

I’ve got a serious history with Battletoads having it somewhat soon after its release (relatively speaking in the early 90’s) and it being my go-to game to test any of my NES hardware. I’ve managed to finish the game once without a GameGenie, a feat I most likely won’t repeat anytime soon, because Intruder Excluder, Terra Tubes and Rat Race just kick my ass back to Wednesday. I have some rage filled memories of the game as well as some interesting ones. For example, my brother was the first one to see Arctic Cavern because he kicked the table where the NES was, causing the game to glitch. Can’t do that on modern consoles anymore.

Why is that Battletoads, glitch ridden as it is in certain ways, is remembered by so many? Much like other NES games, it’s a rough game that doesn’t hold back. The controls are spot on; the ‘toads do what you wish them to do and by abusing that the game design pits the player against odds that by all means would be deemed unfair. I’d argue that Battletoads is a hard game due to it relying the player to be good at it, to have rather high execution skills in order to oppose the whatever is thrown at them. Battletoads also has a change in the game, where in the beginning the player most likely will be using the punch-punch-punch combos quite often, before things changing later on. Of course, power players know how to initiate running instant kills wherever needed. As such, Battletoads is a gauntlet. It requires the player to be able to handle pin-point accuracy at times and leaves no room for mistakes. Learning some of the stages certainly helps, but in all fairness everything in this game is telegraphed enough to a person to react to, even in Turbo Tunnels.

That said, not everyone loved Battletoads. It’s very nature separates men from boys, so to speak. It doesn’t hold the players hand at all. Most negative reviews I remember reading emphasize the very same things as negatives I’ve described above. Super Mario Bros. isn’t Battletoads, but Super Mario Bros. is no Battletoads either. The other region releases did address some of the criticism given to the game, one of which was actually a level of game breaking glitch. In Clinger Winger, the Player 2 would freeze due to a bug. This was fixed in PAL and JPN release. JPN release also saw further changes, making the game easier and slower at certain segments. Some stages saw slight remodelling, like Karnath’s Lair’s patterns the snakes move in. The later Mega Drive release seems to use the JPN Battletoads as its basis, but the general rule of thumb is that all other versions of the NES original are absolutely garbage and it’s good idea to stay away from them. If you’ve ever felt that Battletoads is an unfair piece of shit, give the JPN version a try. Even Arino of GCCX agreed it’s a hard and fun game.

That’s perhaps the crux where modern Battletoads lies. Much like Earthworm Jim, Battletoads is remembered only the only people and younger gamers simply know it from the fables. They’ve only played it via emulation and have not faced the game first hand with friends on a Saturday afternoon. EWJ saw a modern remake that left something to be desired of, but perhaps that sort of game would be the best thing for Battletoads, at first at least. With that the staff at Rare could address all the given criticism while creating a more difficult gauntlet to those who deem Battletoads an easy game.

Much like EWJ, it would be a flash in the pan, a momentary revival just waiting to be ignored after a month.

Modern Battletoads feels like something that can’t exist in modern electronic game industry. Much of what Battletoads is can’t work nowadays. The industry and press would frown upon a game that’s about pure, undiluted gameplay. Story would be forced in there and it would be forced to drive somebody’s agenda. Then you would have to revise the outlook of the franchise. The GBA remake had ‘toads in casual clothes, which is weak as all hell when it comes to character designs in games like this. Battletoads had some level of British edginess in there, most evident in the selection of animals used. The designs these characters have would not fly nowadays. Dark Queen would no longer be a S&M mistress, Big Blag wouldn’t be just a huge, fat rat, General Slaughter would be something else than an ox in spiked biker gear, not to mention how the Scuzzes mirror some of the lower class punk culture. To reflect TMNT further, take a look how their designs have been updated through the years and how characters like the Rat King has seen some facelifts. Battletoads could go the same route; keep the player character designs at their core the same while giving them a more modern feel, while redesigning some of the enemies with a heavy hand. Robo Manus and Big Blag would definitely require complete change while still staying true to the core idea, whereas something like Dark Queen merely demands a slight facelift. Much like Shredder has seen in each iteration of TMNT.

As a oneshot game Battletoads works extremely well, but as a franchise it failed. The arcade game was too edgy for its own good with the upped violence and gore. While the more adult fans enjoyed it, the arcade game feels a bit too inconsistent to garner further playthroughs. Battlemaniacs shows how the franchise already needed a facelift in character design, having pigs in pink leotards as one of its enemies. They didn’t look good back then and they still don’t. The arcade game had oomph to it, every hit was satisfying and deliver just as satisfying effect, much like how the NES Battletoads had that CRACK when you beat up an enemy. There’s something off with Battlemaniacs, but I’ve never sat down with the game and give it a proper plythrough to give it a fair assessment.

Perhaps it’s that NES roughness that served Battletoads so well.

Battletoads would need similar level of handling as the TMNT has seen, but in different areas. Conker’s Bad Fur Day handled seemingly childish characters with an adult flavour to certain degree of success, and I could see a modern Battletoads be done in a similar fashion. However, that would also require more clips and plot shoved into the game, which would also show all the weak points of Battletoads, which is that is basically has none. Most of the characters are archetypes and they function only as the player avatars with an added attitude and that works. Then there’s the fact that RARE has not done anything of worth since 2007 or so, when they began to churn out Kinect games.

Battletoads done in modern fashion wouldn’t be good as its fame would bog it down. I’m not sure if a Battletoads game done in the vein of the original would see success, but at least then the production costs wouldn’t need to be in the millions. I’m fearfully hopeful to wait any news on Microsoft-Rare Battletoads. I hope it’ll just be be a port of the arcade game.