Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
In 1990, Rare was a notable British video game development studio with a product output primarily starring funny space men, jungle explorers and RC cars. Led by siblings Chris and Tim Stamper, their games were distinct, inventive, and, to an extent, clever. Rare exuded a friendly, personable approach to video games.
Then Battletoads changed everything.
The developers would gradually become enamored with violence and blood as the industry’s technological maturation allowed them to. The Nintendo 64’s famed Goldeneye adaptation; the blitzing, bloody combo system of the arcade game Killer Instinct; a parody of Rare’s softer days with a cartoon squirrel in a drunken stupor, Conker’s Bad Fur Day; Rare cuddled up to brutality and immaturity.
Maybe it was just an adverse reaction to the influx of neon, screaming advertisements of the ‘90s. Regardless, it all started with Battletoads.
Battletoads was a short-lived series. It began confined to the 8-bit Nintendo console with a notorious difficulty. There were spin-offs, including a cross-over with then-vaunted franchise Double Dragon, released the same month as a Super Nintendo sequel, Battletoads in Battlemaniacs. And, finally, there was the sequel made especially for arcades, which changed everything.
Rare Replay, a recent Xbox One compilation package that features many of Rare’s best games, includes only two of those Battletoads games—the important ones, mainly: the mildly suggestive Nintendo 8-bit version, and the bold arcade follow-up.
Playing them now, back to back, is eye-opening. Rare’s evolution from cute and cuddly to bloody fart jokes is laid out in these two games, separated by only three years. And I realized that the Battletoads became what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles never quite had the balls to be.
1991’s Battletoads was simple. Three teenage mutant toads—Rash, Zitz, and Pimple—pummeled the pig-esque minions of the Dark Queen, a mirror image for horror host Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Add a kidnapped princess and an elder fowl as the heroes’ mentor, and a series was born. The formula wouldn’t change.
The 'Toads were not special. They existed as clear knock-offs of the Ninja Turtles. Rare even acknowledged it in their marketing—“Turtles seem like pond scum.” Odd for a studio bouncing between vastly original in-house concepts, although not a complete surprise, given the rise of sword-wielding amphibians/reptiles at the decade’s turn. Rash (a speedster), Pimple (the muscle), and Zitz (an intellectual) were likewise anthropomorphic, cross-species creations who exuded pure '90s cool—sunglasses, cartoon embellishments, and attitudes. They didn’t carry weapons, but their fists turned into anvils, their feet into spiked boots, or their jump-kicks into buzzsaws.
But they were what the Turtles were not. The Turtles began their existence as a sharp, bloody, black and white satire of underground comic books of the ‘80s, but that tone didn’t last; when the Saturday morning, mass market cartoon Ninja Turtles slashed at their foes the Foot Clan, the Foot turned out to be robots. Censors would let anything fly against robots. And suddenly the Turtles were for kids.
The Battletoads’ saga went in reverse, at first under the notoriously watchful, family-oriented eye of Nintendo. A family oriented moniker was Nintendo’s identity (although Dark Queen sported that awfully emphasized, sensual figure). Battletoads initially needed to concede to a bouncy, rubbery type of mischievous violence which felt as if it took place in a ball pit, perfect then for its Saturday morning cartoon tie-in—which bombed after the lone pilot episode aired.
Freed from restraints into 1994’s arcade market (which by then was fawning over the hyper violence of Mortal Kombat and surrounding counter culture) Battletoads became what Ninja Turtles could not after their transition. Suddenly the ‘Toads interstellar war squirted screens with pixel blood. The reality of super powers, i.e., hitting someone with a spiked boot, became an easy sales pitch. The color scheme was accentuated. Stunning bright highlights aided by dense shadows were a forcible draw to the eye. Vomit, guns, sharp objects; Battletoads arcade was full of them.
Their attitudes changed too, from passive punches to outright anger. They were also depicted as hormonally flooded teens. Rash suggestively thrust his hips in victory, making it also clear they breed—they’d have to, obviously—but it’s no less an awkward image. Their move sets expanded. Downed enemies could be stabbed in the face by ice pick hands. Larger foes could be punished by grabbing their groin and laying into it with a flurry of exaggerated punches. The resulting groans are painful.
Rare’s future was set by what the Battletoads did. They paved the way for the infamously crude Conker’s Bad Fur Day’s obsession with fecal humor. Blood sprays and sexual jokes defined Rare’s résumé by late 1994’s Killer Instinct. Saturated color schemes seemed laid out for Rare’s upcoming litany of Nintendo 64 3D classics, like Banjo Kazooie and Jet Force Gemini, or better still their oddball Xbox 360 animal corralling simulation, Viva Pinata. The Battletoads’ legacy was crucial.
The Xbox One’s Rare Replay has all of the above in some form, but even with a gauntlet of 30 featured games (out of 100+ in their total all-time lineup), Battletoads still best represents the studio on each end of its creative philosophies. And it encapsulates the true potential that these deadly, anthropomorphized amphibians really had.
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