April 12, 2014

Battletoads - A One and Done Special

The Game


Rare's NES output tended to consistently make great use of the NES's sound chip and limited color palette to produce games that felt like they should be outside of the system's capabilities. Battletoads was no exception - the detailed sprites, colorful dithering, and unique tone of the music are what I remember first when the name is brought up.

Their NES library also tended to suffer from uneven gameplay, and Battletoads was something of the poster child for this. The first level's side-scroller brawling was fun, with a really cool villain's-eye-view boss fight, and the second level's downward auto-scroll dodge-and-brawl was a good variation of the genre that kept it interesting while still in the same tree. It's back to brawling in the third level for a couple of minutes, and then suddenly you jump on a speeder bike and now it's a twitch memorization game that punishes anything less than precision. Like many people, I didn't have the patience to practice enough to pass that part - for me, it was because I didn't want to play that sort of game.

Using the Game Genie, I was able to check out the other levels, and they were consistent in varying wildly in play style. I've read and heard many people complain about the difficulty, and it was definitely a very hard game, though that's not where the game fails for me. If it wasn't so scattershot in its approach, I have a feeling I'd have enjoyed it a lot more and given it the time it demanded to master its levels. A lot of the difficulty came from applying the same control scheme and physics to the very disparate styles it attempted to have next to each other, often to the detriment of all of them.

I'd recommend it for the audio/visual presentation, with the caveat that you'll probably not see or hear most of it without some serious dedication and patience. Or a cheat device. That works too.

Noel and Tony would like to give a huge thank you to Jak for sharing his memories of the game. You can find Jak at his official website and on Twitter. He also co-hosts the podcast The Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange with Noel, and has a gaming stream, which Noel is also known to occasionally guest on.

The Cartoon

In their ship, the Vulture, Professor T. Bird and Princess Angellica are fleeing the forces of the Dark Queen, who wants to get her hands on the Princess's royal amulet. The Vulture swoops into a nebula, shaking its pursuers amidst the meteors and gas clouds.

On Earth, in Oxnard, California, teenage besties Dave Shar, Morgan Ziegler, and George Pie are being forced to separate by their principal, who feels they're a bad influence on one another. George tries to join other kids in a basketball game, but despite showing off some amazing skill with the ball, he's rejected when his heavy frame knocks other players flat, pops the ball, and rips off the net. Dave tries to join the pep squad making posters for an upcoming game, and rapidly paints a few of his own, but despite his amazing artistic abilities, the punk aesthetic draws jeers. Morgan tries to join a study group, but his organizing and strategic skill goes to waste because he's unable to do anything with a computer but blow it up.

Bird and Angellica land on an alien world, where he breaks into an ancient tomb and recovers an urn containing the genetic essence of the mythical Battletoads, with which they can create a new generation of heroic protectors. Their ship explodes and the forces of the Dark Queen start raining fire on the tomb. Bird pulls out a pocket portal generator, which locks onto... wait for it... Oxnard, California.

Dave, Morgan, and George vent about their fates as they reunite over an arcade machine at the local donut shop. The screen suddenly glows, and out come Bird and Angellica. They offer the trio the chance to be heroes, which they gleefully accept... until Bird spritzes them with ancient goo from the urn and mutates them into the buff and badass Battletoads. Just as the kids are bemoaning their new fates, the Dark Queen's forces emerge from a Slurpie machine and a fight breaks out. With the combination of the teens' natural abilities and their new Battletoad power to turn their limbs into any weapon they desire, they quickly push the Dark Queen into a retreat. Angellica thanks the toads by bestowing them with names of honor - Rash, Zitz, and Pimple - and Bird shows them how to change back to their human forms.

The teens crash the beach house of Mr. Thorpe, their favorite teacher, who begrudgingly agrees to give the aliens a place to stay when the kids show off their Battletoads transformation (to the cry: "Let's get warty!"). The kids stock them up on everything they'll need to blend in with Earth culture, and Angellica gets a job at the donut shop while Bird sets about tinkering with a junker car on the property.

The Dark Queen and her minions attack again, this time armed with lasers, and hold off the Toads long enough to capture Angellica and destroy Bird's portal generator. Bird reveals that he and the Toads can follow in the junker car, despite it having three flat tires. "Where we're going, we don't need tires." It turns into a spaceship and zooms away.

They arrive at the power generator tower of the Dark Queen's palace. They break in and ascend to the top, where the Dark Queen is powering up a focused beam to destroy Angellica's amulet... while it's still on Angellica. The Toads attack, but are unable to defeat the Dark Queen when she morphs into a whirling tornado. So they instead turn the focused beam on the central gear of the tower, ripping half the palace open in a huge explosion. The Toads escape with Angellica and are picked up by Bird's new car, as the rest of the palace goes up behind them.

The Dark Queen pulls herself out of the rubble and vows vengeance.

The three teens crash back on earth in the middle of a school pep rally. Their fellow students glare and grin as the principal once again rips into the trio, but they argue back that they're now intergalactic heroes, and prove it by transforming. As the crowd gapes in shock, the Dark Queen shows up in a saw blade flying saucer and says Earth will be destroyed for harboring the Toads, and starts by slicing up the local mall. The Toads break into the saucer, only to find themselves completely surrounded by enemies armed with lasers. The Dark Queen shouts "Fire!", the Toads duck, and the lasers cross overhead and rip into everything around them, disabling the ship and forcing the Dark Queen into another retreat. The Toads hop away as the saucer explodes.

Back at the high school, the principal admits he was wrong about the three as the people of Earth are introduced to Angellica and Bird.


I have to admit to trepidations going in. I never played the original game, and didn't think much of what I saw during its huge, multi-media advertising push. I thought the designs were ugly (ripped abs squashed onto a waist the width of the character's wrist is not an appealing image), there was nothing about the reported gameplay shifts that sounded appealing, and there was no story or character hook to reel me in. Thus, I admit to very low expectations.

As the show opened, those expectations were met. You want to pull in the kids who are buying Ninja Turtles and get them excited about your show... and you open with 60s beach rock? No. Just no. That'll catch the ears of a few parents, but once they see the visuals attached to the music, it's not going to get them to sit down and share a bonding experience with their children of the early 90s. Don't get me wrong, I love me some beach rock, but it was niche appeal in the day when this was made, and this wasn't the thing to launch a comeback.

The animation is horrendous. The loose designs still feel like rushed afterthoughts, with nothing clean or striking about their blunt simplicity. In motion, they aren't any better as they flop around at poor frame rates against flat, undefined backgrounds. Nothing against animation that's lacking in detail, but this is so empty as to suck away all visual interest, which is pretty easy given how lacking in visual interest it already is. The three Toads have such limited distinction in their toad forms that they're impossible to tell apart. The lead villain is just a pulp vamp dominatrix in a cape... for some reason. Much of the supporting cast feels like they wandered in from other shows - the chicken mentor, the various animals fighting for the Dark Queen (whose name, Dark Queen, shows how much thought was put into things), the various everyday denizens of the high school.

But here's the kicker following those first three paragraphs: I actually enjoyed the show.

Bringing in David Wise to write this makes the Ninja Turtles mockbusting all the more obvious as he was the developer and head writer of the 80s TMNT cartoon. But guess what, the dude has been a mainstay in animation for 30+ years because he's a genuine talent. Look at how long Turtles endured under his rein, and while he didn't always mesh well with Transformers (he was stuck with bringing the original series to its sad conclusion), he wrote some really solid episodes exploring the interaction between giant, transforming robots and everyday, street level Joes and Janes.

Here, his writing is snappy and fun, with a constantly moving plot and zippy zingers, and he gives us three lead characters I'm interested in exploring. In an inverse of the Turtles, these are three everyday teenagers mutated into amphibian warriors. That doesn't sound like much, but I like how he chips away at stereotypical tropes to make the trio unique. George Pie (toad name: Pimple) is an overweight meathead who's also a skilled and graceful basketball player. Dave Shar (Rash) is a rebellious punk who's also a talented painter. Morgan Ziegler (Zitz) is a gawky nerd who's a strategic wiz, but is incompatible with computers. Instead of just "a jock, a punk, a nerd", they have these extra skews that make them further outcasts amongst their outcast cliques, and thus they bond as a team over their mutual inability to be accepted by anyone else. I've been that kid and have forged those friendships, so I really related to these three. If an ongoing series were to build on anything, I'd wish it were this.

There's also some really fun twists to the story as the alien beings settle in among us humans. Princess Angellica has to get a job at the local donut shop. Professor T. Bird distracts himself from his exile by tinkering on a junker car one of the kids owns (love the spin on the classic Back to the Future line this builds to). With nowhere to put these aliens up, the kids take them to their boggled teacher. Everyone freaks out about the very concept of the local mall being the main target of an alien assault. I even love the way the aliens need everyday appliances (televisions, washing machines, ice cream makers) to transport themselves to our world.

My favorite twist comes near the end where the three kids are being berated by the principle in front of their fellow classmates, and they say they should be respected because they're now mutant heroes who've already saved the world several times. Typically, there'd be some kind of interruption, either in the form of one kid reminding the others to keep this a secret, or the telepathic voice of Professor T. Bird shushing them up, or their transformation straight up not working because the time isn't right. But no, they transform right in front of their teachers and classmates, completely outting their identities, and at the end of the episode, nothing has reversed this as the small town of Oxnard now has to come to terms with the role three of its young denizens are playing in the battle against the Dark Queen. Unconventional twists like this make me really curious about what they had in store should this have made it to series.

And yet, I can understand why it they didn't get there. There's still nothing particularly catchy about the franchise as a whole. The animation is still shit. The theme song is still out of place. And while I get the spin of letting the Battletoads be their own weapons, what with their ability to engorge their limbs or turn them into blunt and bladed implements, there aren't any rules or limitations that come with it, meaning anything you throw against the Toads can easily be overcome by suddenly morphing a leg into an axe or an arm into a whirling drill. Which takes any struggle out of their conflict and makes the already messy action even less interesting.

So I'm mixed on this one. Half of the execution is really sharp and clever and a lot of fun, the other half is cheap, lazy, and bottom-of-the-barrel. David Wise brought more potential to this franchise than what was already there, but it still wasn't enough to make it work.


If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo must be bursting with confidence after all these years - which might help to explain why their heads are so freakishly large in the new live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flick. It doesn't explain why they all suddenly look like veteran character actor Charles S. Dutton, but that's another matter.

From Samurai Pizza Cats to Street Sharks, it seems like everyone has tried to rip-off the Turtles formula over the years. Mutated, anthropomorphic animals + major attitude and wacky catchphrases = big bucks, right? Wrong. Most of the time it means catastrophic failure, and at best, a footnote in pop culture history. Which brings us to Battletoads, an interesting TMNT wannabe that tried sneaking in through the back door. Namely, your Nintendo Entertainment System. I vaguely remember the Battletoads games, but I had no idea it got an animated pilot. This should be interesting.

Let's start with the most important element of any cartoon: the theme song. It's 1992, and what does Battletoads go with? Some hip-hop? Maybe a bit of metal or a little grunge? Nope. A Beach Boys knock-off. Way to connect with the kids, there. What's their catchphrase, "23 Skidoo!"? I wish I could say that the theme song was the worst thing about this show, but unfortunately, the rest of it happened.

Let me be blunt. Battletoads is flat-out awful. It is to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles what ALF is to E.T.. The backstory is head-scratchingly stupid, but I could forgive that if it were even 1/10th as much fun as it seems to think that it is. The harder it tried, the more annoying it became. And it tries really, really hard.

The characters are all generic, cookie-cutter, and utterly forgettable. The Toads are misfit teenagers with a series of catchphrases so irritating that it makes "Cowabunga!" sound downright Shakespearean, Princess Angellica is your typical damsel in distress, and the Dark Queen is... well, she's a dark queen. Perhaps the most annoying character is Professor T. Bird, who sounds a bit like an old west prospector in the middle of a prostate examination. The animation is also terrible, often looking as if it were rendered in MS Paint.

I hate to come back out of the gate emptying my negativity clip, but for me, Battletoads easily ranks as the worst thing Noel and I have covered in our three years here on the Showcase. The only way the comic could be worse is if it gives me the flu.

The Comic

Before they introduced their line of superheroes, Valiant was known for comic adaptations of video games, like Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., and Captain N, the Game Master. They also produced a number of comics which appeared in Nintendo Power, including the one below, which consisted of two 8-page segments spread across a pair of issues. The credits of the writers and artists are unknown.

Part 1

Psi-Cone is developing a system where-in not only are players able to virtually play as the heroes in a video game, but it's holographically projected in an arena for a roaring crowd. The latest video game, designed by Silas, is spread across various worlds inhabited by the animal men of the Dark Queen, who's kidnapped the beautiful Princess Angellica. Designers Dave Shar, Morgan Ziegler, and George Pie have added their own element in the form of the Battletoads, heroic hunks of amphibian muscle who pound their way through the Dark Queen's forces. The designers have themselves become the star players of the developing game system, much to the jealousy of Silas.

When Silas tries to mess with the game to make it even more difficult, the Dark Queen emerges, telling him she and her dimension actually exists, and were merely tapped into by the game. The introduction of the Battletoads stuck a thorn in her side, and she and Silas start hatching a plan...

Suspicious of their parent company, the designers break into the offices that night and discover that top secret files have been stolen. Finding the game system powered up, they decide to test it out by putting the VR helmets on. They're physically transported to the Dark Queen's dimension, now in the forms of their Battletoads: Rash, Zitz, and Pimple.

They're surrounded by the Dark Queen's forces, with Silas apologizing for his betrayal and the Dark Queen revealing the truth, and that the Toads are all that stand between her and sending her forces through the game gateway on Earth. The Toads kick into action, but the amount of foes they face is overwhelming.

A vulture-shaped ship appears, dropping lines and carrying our heroes to safety. Inside, they meet Professor T. Bird, who once loved the Dark Queen, but now does anything he can to stop her insidious plans.

As the ship comes under attack, our heroes jump into hyperspace.

Part 2

Instead of a single story, this was broken into four, 2-page segments scattered throughout the issue, and shows the various levels and styles of gameplay the player would encounter during the game, along with joking commentary as Professor T. Bird, Dark Queen, and Silas watch on.


There's not much to say about this one. The origin story is boring nonsense about game designers pulled into a game because the game they were making is actually another dimension which inspired them to make the game based on the other dimension. The characters are completely flat and indistinct. They initially seem to make the traitorous Silas sympathetic as he apologizes for his actions and says it was all out of jealousy, but then he's back to being a cackling stooge. And by the time we reach the second half of the comic, all they're doing is drawing screenshots from the game with jokey captions over them.

There's nothing to say because there's nothing here. No story, no characters, flat, boring art. Even as an ad, it does nothing to interest me in the game being sold.



Achoo!... Kidding.

I was a charter subscriber to Nintendo Power, and one of my fondest memories of it is reading the Howard & Nester comic strip each month. So when I found out that Battletoads had gotten a two issue run in the magazine (apparently after I'd let my subscription run out), I was pretty psyched. That was, until I watched the cartoon. However, I'm pleased to report that the comic is nowhere near as bad as the animated pilot... which is a bit like saying the measles isn't as bad as the bubonic plague. It's all relative, folks.

The artwork is actually pretty good, stylistically reminding me of Mad Magazine. If the writing isn't up to those same standards, it's still better than what you would expect from what is essentially a promotional strip meant to shill a video game. What struck me most is how different the origin is here. I can't exactly say I understand why this Battletoads simulator was built, or why throngs of people show up to cheer on our three heroes (same names as the teenage trio from the cartoon, but appearing to be young men here) as they play a virtual reality game, but it definitely has a stronger synergy with the actual Battletoads game. In fact, the "second issue" basically plays out like a video game. Professor T-Bird and the Dark Queen are more or less like their animated counterparts, but Dave, George, and Morgan don't share the same personalities as the animated versions. Actually, the comic versions reminded me more of Peter, Ray, and Egon from Ghostbusters.

These really weren't very well written, and the second one hardly qualifies as an actual story, but I did enjoy the colorful artwork and snarky overall tone. They're more or less just extended ads for the video game, and not bad for what they are.


NoelCT said...

To anyone who has vague memories about a Battletoads toyline, all they had were three rubber-and-wire bendy figures of the Toad trio, and we didn't really feel that was worth covering. Looks like fans have been making some awesome custom figures, though.

Strannik said...

This is a rare situation where I've actually seen the cartoon you're covering before, and honestly, my opinion is somewhere between Tony and Noel's. It was entertaining, but the characters were very bland, the conflicts boring and animation was pretty lousy. I can definitely see why it didn't go beyond the pilot - and I can't help but wonder if the reveal of the secret identities in the end only happened because David Wise knew there wouldn't be anything else.

therealphoenixanew said...

I don't think we ever rented Battletoads back in the day. We probably rejected it as a poor TMNT clone and didn't bother. In more recent years I've played it, and pretty much agree with Jak's description - the first two levels are fun and then the difficulty is ridiculous. I do enjoy watching other people power through it though.

Another interesting thing about the game is that it is literally impossible to play two player. I don't mean that it's difficult to do, which it is, seeing as how you are capable of hurting each other and when one player runs out of lives you are forced to use a continue, but the other player doesn't get his lives refilled. I'm referring to the fact that there's a bug at the beginning of level 11 where the second player will be killed instantly by the orb chasing you both, thereby making it impossible to beat the level.

I saw the cartoon thanks to an LPer who covered the game and then did a Rifftrax style video for the pilot afterward. And yes, it's hideous and overall pretty bad. The attempts at catchphrases in particular turn me off.

The quality of the comic sounds about on par for those Nintendo Power comics. It's quite possible I read it back then and have since forgotten about it. Which is basically how it should be. :)

NoelCT said...

I'll be honest, it took me a minute to figure out they were saying "Let's get warty!" instead of "Let's get horny!" I even wondered, "Are they referring to horn toads and just made an unfortunate euphemism by mistake?"

As is well established by now, my brain is weird.

Still, I stand by my praise of the characters and occasionally snappy writing. :)

I wish someone would collect some of those Nintendo Power comics. The only one they did (which I still own and treasure) is the Shotaro Ishinomori's Legend of Zelda adaptation. I'd love to track down a re-read the Star Fox and Super Metroid adaptations some time.

I know GamePro also had a comic insert for a year or two, where they'd either reprint short manga adaptations of some games, or have comics made from stills of game art itself with word balloons and captions. That how I first heard of Flying Warriors.

Tony Williams said...

- Noel, I thought they were saying "Let's get horny!" at first as well, and chalked it up to either; A.) It being a subversive and intentional double-entendre that slipped through because there was probably next to no oversight on this project, or B.) Because it was a lazy effort, and no one cared enough to catch it.

You know, sometimes getting horny does lead to getting warty... or so I'm told.

- Angie, I did a quick eBay search of the games, and they actually fetch a decent price (The Battletoads Double Dragon crossover in particular). Of course NES games in general seem to have gone up in value over the last few years.

- Igor, I wondered that as well (about the reveal). Maybe they planned to do something with it--having them have to juggle their identities publically ala The Fantastic 4. Or yeah, maybe they knew this was a one-and-done and just said to Hell with it.

Tony Williams said...

Oh, and before I forget, big shout out to Jak for dropping the knowledge. Thank you again.