Battletoads review: creative cartoon clobbering courtesy of some crusty croakers

By Luke Albigés,
I've played a ton of scary games, but it's been a long time since a game has given me The Fear quite like when the new Battletoads dropped a level called 'Nightmare Riders'. Anyone with any knowledge of the series should know exactly why such a thing might be terrifying, but it's worth clarifying for the rest of you, especially since the reason is some three decades old. The original NES Battletoads features a level called 'Turbo Tunnel', an infamously brutal jet-bike sequence which ruined childhoods and sent countless NES pads from hand to wall to landfill. When Nightmare Riders pops up near the end of 2020's Battletoads reboot, you've already had to suffer through one such level, which itself isn't exactly simple. But this one strips away checkpoints entirely, bombards you with insults, and really tests your memory, reactions, and patience like nothing else in the game. So yeah, Nightmare Riders lives up to its name (God help you if you're playing on the hardest setting, where the level is just straight-up rude), and it's far from the only difficulty spike in the game.

Battletoads review screens

Battletoads probably isn't the game you think it is. Trailers have tended to focus on the side-scrolling beat-'em-up stages but in reality, those make up only maybe a third of the game. It's a real variety piece, with platforming, chases, races, puzzles, mini-games, and more all layered on top of that combat aspect. Some ideas or genres pop up only once and are never returned to, which is rare in modern gaming and makes those levels feel really special in the grand scheme of things.

The closest reference point is probably something like Rayman Legends, but with even more variety in its assorted play styles. I love being kept on my toes by a game, and found Battletoads to be amazing for that – never knowing what's coming next gels really well with the game's quirky humour and sets up some brilliant curveballs, and the constant genre shifts mean that different players will find challenge in different areas based on what they're good at... and perhaps more importantly, what they're not. Fighting game purists, for instance, should spank the combat stages easy enough but might get tripped up by some of the others.

Battletoads review screens

Better yet is how interesting the transition into multiplayer is for some of Battletoads' non-standard gameplay types. The Geometry Wars-esque space shooter levels divide control of movement and weapon systems among players for some amusing chaos, while jet-bike levels respawn your fallen buddies on reaching a checkpoint, so only one player ever needs to make it through the gauntlet to keep the dream alive. Mini-game challenge stages also split the action between all players to give everyone something to do, and there's a late one of these which I won't spoil but that is utter quickfire madness, in the best possible way.

You're not punished for playing solo either, which is just as well since there's only local multiplayer available. Combat levels let you swap between the trio at will to add a little style to your combos or let the others' respawn clocks run down should they get messed up, some stages treat the other characters as extra lives, while the one-off experiences tend to just have the lone player fill in for all three roles. It's kind of frustrating, however, that so many of the Achievements are linked to couch co-op, and worse yet even three-player local co-op specifically for some. It'd harm completion rates for a lot of people at the best of times, so it's even more annoying to run into with the world in its current state. It's also rather questionable to ship not just without online multiplayer, but without online features of any kind. Lots of the levels have really cool score attack mechanics, such as racking up crazy combos in fighting segments or chaining Burnout-style near misses in the dreaded bike sections, but it's hard to get overly invested in them when so few people will ever see the fruits of your labour.

Battletoads review screens

The over-the-top art style of this Battletoads reimagining won't be to everyone's tastes, but I grew to really like it. Both in look and tone, it's got the feel of one of those slightly edgier late Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network shows, somewhere between the intense action of Samurai Jack and the wonderful stupidity of Invader Zim. The Battletoads sure do love to crack wise, and although not every gag sticks the landing, enough do to make for some laugh-out-loud-funny moments. Many of the jokes are at the trio's own expense, and even the plot itself is based around the fact that they're nobodies in this era and just want to be famous again. It’s all very silly, but it works. Even the combat embraces the craziness, with special attacks where the toads transform into all manner of weird and wonderful things in order to dish out the hurt.

As daft and playful as it may seem, Battletoads is not afraid to kick you in the teeth, particularly when you dive into Battletoad (read: Hard) difficulty. We managed to smash through Toad (Normal) mode in around six hours including cutscenes with only the occasional stumble, but the second Battletoad run took a bit longer, even skipping the story stuff. Checkpoints and respawns, which are pretty generous on lower settings, are taken away in places, lives reduced in others, and hazards get ramped up all over the place. Oddly, combat levels are the least impacted by the jump to a higher difficulty mode. Sure, enemies have more health and hit much harder, and it can be tougher to rack up a killer combo, but the encounters themselves aren’t changed up at all from the lower difficulties. There are still a few vicious screens packed with enemies and obstacles that make life hell for a toad, but it all still just comes down to prioritising the right targets and using everything at your disposal.

Battletoads review screens

Longevity is probably the weakest aspect of the Battletoads’ long-awaited return, and breaking the back of some of its trickier trials is going to make up most of your extended play time. Collectibles will only keep you busy for so long, and beyond that, things start to get pretty bleak. Lacking any kind of online component – even something as basic as leaderboards – is strangely poetic for a gaming trio last seen in the early dial-up days, but it really does hurt the game’s replayability all the same. As much fun as Battletoads is, you should comfortably see most of what it has to offer in a couple of days, and there’s little reason to return outside of the odd co-op giggle here and there.

Summary

Battletoads was a pleasant surprise for me, and it’s great to see it really lean into the variety angle with so many different kinds of gameplay crammed into such a relatively small package. Presentation is fantastically stylish, with chunky characters and lavish animations, especially for some of the toads’ signature attacks. Combat is fast-paced and responsive, bombastic enough to make the simple act of mashing buttons entertaining yet still just deep enough to keep it interesting in the longer term. Sadly, though, some cool co-op features will be lost on anyone unable to get a same-room gaming session on the go, and it’s that lack of online functionality that ends up hurting the game the most. If, as Battletoads loves to tease, we do indeed see a sequel, a simple improvement there could be all it takes to bump it up to being a truly outstanding game rather than a really good one with several glaring and frustrating issues.
4 / 5
Battletoads
Ethics
The reviewer spent around 15 hours punching, kicking, sliding and riding through two full playthroughs and some mop-up play, also dabbling in the co-op side of things. Achievement list was not live at the time of review, but we got most of 'em. Review code was provided by Microsoft.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Hey, I'm Luke! I've been playing games since way back in the 8-bit days, and have spent the last 15+ years writing and talking about them professionally for anyone and everyone who would let me. Monster Hunter fanatic, wearer of many fine hats, and always up for a raid.