Impossible is a word, not a state of mind



Battletoads in Battlemaniacs (1993)

The word ‘impossible’ has become regarded as such a dirty, negative word that simply entering it into Google Images throws up all kinds of “motivational” images that decry the word. Really? It’s a fine word: it puts a perfect stopper in any unreasonable request that should come your way. Nail the exam results you require while maintaining a dece social life and enough sleep? Impossible! Achieve that fine alcohol equilibrium of being fully confident yet fully in control? Impossible! Keep a hold of your sanity when people make the same ‘could of’, ‘loose’ and ‘you’re/your’ mistakes over and over again? Impossible! Yes, we should strive to better ourselves. And yes, we shouldn’t give up at the outset. But sometimes the odds are simply so insurmountable that you’re well entitled to give the ghastly task coming your way a quick up-and-down look before proudly declaring, “Nup!”

The nigh-forgotten Battletoads in Battlemaniacs is a fine example of such a loathsome travail. It’s a direct sequel to the fairly well known sidescrolling beat-em-up Battletoads of the NES. Now that game did legitimately have some USPs – it had some nice graphics and animation; the levels were all different, perhaps even too different; there was co-operative play; and it had a nice soundtrack. But the byword for Battletoads was “hard”, if not that pesky word “impossible”.

Indeed, if two players playing co-operatively made it to a certain level, it really did become impossible. Which tells you much about the love and care that went into that game, but at least it gives you a fair idea of what you’re dealing with. The NES original started out fun but quickly became an exercise in teeth-gnashing frustration and pure sado-masochism – and that was with the use of warps through the game’s 12 levels. I haven’t beaten it, and neither have you.

And yet, it sold enough for a sequel. Indeed, Battletoads is frequently found near the top of these lists of “Game Franchises That Need To Make A Comeback”. You know, those lists where legions of nerds opine about the greatness of a particular series of games and how “amazing” it’d be if they made a comeback. And then the game does make some lame comeback on the Xbox Live Arcade or something, and it’s embarrassing for all concerned and even the die-hard fans are left secretly wishing that the developers hadn’t bothered. Battletoads hasn’t shown any signs of coming down from the cross yet, which isn’t so tough to believe. Things like Rocky and Rambo get updated instalments. Duck Tales, Killer Instinct, even classic Mega Man, that sort of thing. But not Battletoads. Who’d be bothered, really?

You take this game, the game that was meant to bring Battletoads into the era of the whopping sixteen bits. Well, here’s the suss: the amount of levels has been halved. Yes, six levels in total, or eight if you’re desperate enough to count two bonus levels. Jiminy Cricket, did they count bonus levels as exits in Super Mario World? I think not. And each of these six levels are almost complete rehashes of one of the original game’s individual levels, and the difficulty remains similar.

So you’ll be lucky to get to the end of even this half-a-Battletoads game. In fact, we have enough room here for me to tell you of my latest playthrough, almost twenty years after having first got the game. I breezed through the fairly easy opening two levels, and smashed the bonus level. Then, having had much practice in my miserable, pathetic life, I managed to get past the third level’s speeder bikes, a notorious sticking point in Battletoads lore. By simply making it to level four, I was already ahead of the Battletoads grading curve.

And in more mathematical terms, it meant I’d finally made it to the 2/3 points of the game, about twenty minutes after I’d started. Now, every level is different, but when you’re usually dying in one hit and you’ve haven’t got many lives to spare, that’s not such a good thing. It was another new game mechanic for me to learn for level 4: this time, I had to hang onto flying snakes as they moved through spike-infested lairs. It was a throwback to yet another level from the NES game. Actually, forget about throwback – it’s just the same deal, with slight differences. Really? Was it that fun the first time out? I had a teacher who’d openly berate lamentable students by telling them they hadn’t an idea in their head. He wouldn’t want to have played this game, that’s for sure.

Well, I couldn’t get through this level, although I did come close. Anyway, I was left so disgusted, I had to go and make myself some heavily-sugared tea before defecating with a browned-off expression. You know, I don’t think the following two suppositions are unreasonable when it comes to gaming: one, that you get at least a little bit of value for money, and two, if the game is a sequel, it ought to improve or at least diversify from its prequel somewhat. This game really is a case of dated-style over not-much-substance. It’s a wonderfully harsh metaphor for life really – you take a lot of hardship (flying black pigs, volcanic eruptions, giant rats with magnets, and of course, suddenly opaque concrete walls in your face) and then you die.

Battlemaniacs actually has a bit of a skewed point here. Because ain’t none of us getting out of this living thing alive, so there’s no point in trying to console ourselves in comforting things in the time we do have. Why not just grit our teeth and try and get through the worst of conditions while we’re here? After all, it’ll make our inevitable eternal sojourn to Hell all the more palatable. And that’s the attitude this game seems to adopt. Not that I personally fear hell anymore, having seen what this game throws up by its midway point, and continues to throw up far beyond my playing ability, when proceedings make the murky descent into the nasty realm of save states.

Yes, the snake level is as far as my jabroni gaming skills could get. And I tell you, that’s kiddy stuff in comparison to what comes after. Now here’s the dope: that game-ending speeder bike level represents the halfway point of the game. Remind yourself of this fact: this is one of those games that subscribes to the theory that longevity can be bolted onto a game by making its low array of levels so fiendishly difficult that you’ll still be spending weeks playing it, trying to make progress.

And this dog mess might have flown in mid-1980s movie-based clag. But for a Super Nintendo game in 1993, this was simply shocking stuff. Little wonder that the series more or less died off bar a few moribund tie-in efforts with Double Dragon (also a sparse series these days, but always around in the form of the classic original game making downloadable comebacks). Did the great Rare really make this? Even the presence of the wonderful Dark Queen can’t save it.

I should mention, there was also some obscure, half-baked port to the Sega Master System of all things, which is always a bad sign. You might as well be playing that one for novelty though, since you’re up against all sorts and you’re not going to make it very far anyway. But it does mean you’re cashing in on the two things that this game does actually do pretty well – graphics and sound. In particular, the rocking soundtrack, which is far and away beyond what a game of this quality should expect to deliver.

But that’s all the good that can be said for this one. And just to cement my hatred of those rotten mutant frogs, I’m going to pay a visit to that bay where all the pirates hang out, and see can I take a wee scan of the much-maligned Battletoads animated series, whose run lasted a grand total of one pilot episode… well, it’s not as if getting through even that ill-informed effort can match the difficulty of the games, right?

10 September 2014

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