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.
There was nothing easy about Battletoads. At all. It’s widely considered to be the most difficult video game on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Unlike many other 8-bit games that were difficult due to glitches and poor programming, Battletoads was difficult by intentional design. We loved it in spite of ourselves.
Its cartoonish visual gags belied its difficulty; when you delivered a final, “Kiss My Fist” punch to your opponent’s face, your hand expanded to ten times its original size. When you swung from a rope, you turned into a massive wrecking ball. When you delivered a “Big Bad Boot” kick, a massive boot materialized on your foot. When you headbutted an enemy, you grew gigantic ram horns on the front of your head.
You used every one of these hyperbolic attacks on the first level, where you battled an axe-wielding pig army. You could grab the leg of a Walker and beat enemies to death with it. You could hop on a winged dragon’s back and breathe fire at your opponents.
Level 1 lulled you into a false sense of security. One would assume that the other levels would be somewhat similar, use the same gameplay mechanics, and steadily increase in difficulty. That’s how 99% of all video games are structured. But the opposite was true for Battletoads; each of the subsequent 11 levels presented a distinct set of challenges. In one, you rode on snakes. In another, you surfed. In another, you swam through sewage tubes. In another, you raced a giant rat to the bottom of a shaft to disarm a bomb. You were a constant novice, always learning new mechanics and rarely reusing your old ones.
Each challenge was more impossible than the last, and the average player never survived beyond Level 3, named the Turbo Tunnel. This level was not something you reacted and responded to; this was something you memorized and learned by attrition.
It started out innocently enough. Your main obstacles were anthropomorphic rats, which would hop about and try to headbutt you.
In addition, there were metacognitive robots, which rose to the upper left hand corner of the screen, and literally stole the bars of health from your meter.
And lastly, there was lava. The level design was composed of several islands, and if you fell off of one of them, it was instant death.
None of these obstacles was particularly threatening on its own. But if the robots managed to steal even a couple of life bars, the rats could finish you off with some lucky headbutts. And even though the islands were spaced closely together, it was quite easy to fall off their edges. The rats’ headbutts could knock you in. If you attacked the rats too closely to the lava, the inertia of your own kicks might push you in. And lastly, the jumps were trickier than they appeared. Take a look at this screen:
Do you notice how the platforms’ borders converge into the background? It’s a common 2-D art technique that gives off the illusion of depth. But in this case, it wasn’t an optical illusion—the background of each platform was actually narrower than the foreground, which meant that if you tried to make the jump from the middle or back of the platform, you’d fall into the lava. The only safe, reliable way to make the jump was to position yourself in the bottom right hand corner of the island, run, and jump from there.
This is how for its first half, the Turbo Tunnel drove you insane—with little, irritating, ticky tacky penalties. But believe it or not, the second half of the level, where you boarded a rocket propelled speed bike, was ten times worse.
There were five different sections to this bike run, each with an increasing number of walls, barriers, and ramps to negotiate. This was difficult, but tolerable for the first two sections of the run; the walls flew by slowly enough for you to react to them. But around the third section, the pace sped up a lot. You didn’t have enough time to react in the moment; you had to memorize the pattern and begin moving before the obstacles even appeared on screen. And the only way to learn this long pattern was to repeat it, hundreds of times, until it was in your bones.
You died—a lot. But Battletoads gave you three lives, with very few opportunities to gain more. If you lost one life, you started at the last checkpoint. If you lost all your lives, you could “continue” your game, and start from the very beginning of the Turbo Tunnel. The game, however, only gave you three continues. Once you exhausted those, you had to start from the very beginning of the entire game.
In addition to the garden variety walls and barriers, which were bad enough, the game threw some random obstacles at you for good measure. If your obstacles were blue, that meant that they were floating mid air, and you had to dodge or jump accordingly:
There were also these drone ships, which exploded on contact:
And these rats on rockets, which would drop barriers in front of you. The trick was to watch the shadows on the ground to know where they were going to land:
And then there was this big Exclamation Point:
How the hell were you supposed to know that this meant “JUMP!!!!”?
The fifth, final section was a blur, and the difference between success and crashing headlong into a wall depended on frames of animation. Just check out this clip of the entire bike sequence. Imagine completing this, under pressure, with a 1980s NES controller, with limited lives and limited continues.
Nostalgia lies to us. We view our video game childhoods through rose colored glasses.
“The kids these days are spoiled, aren’t they? With their unlimited lives and unlimited continues? Where’s the challenge? Games were so much better back in my day!”
Were they though? Back in those early days, when a game’s quality traveled by word of mouth and quality control was not as stringent, the trash we played far outweighed the treasure. For every classic Legend of Zelda, we’d also get a Color a Dinosaur or a “Bebe’s Kids. For every legitimate challenge, like *Super Mario Bros. 3, we’d also get a soul sucker like Battletoads. And as far as a ‘lives system’ was concerned, the challenge and stakes it provided were never worth the paralyzing frustration of a “Game Over.” There was no worse feeling than getting to the last level, losing, and starting over from the beginning. This did not inspire us to play more and try harder; it made us feel like we wasted our time.
Do you yearn for those “good old days”? Then perhaps you have never attempted the Turbo Tunnel in Battletoads, or you have successfully (and enviously) repressed the memory of your attempts.
Wing-Man Wong has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.
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