I wish the Dark Queen would whip me every day

Battletoads

Battletoads (NES) (1993)

I always thought I’d fancy a bit of sado-masochism, whips and chains and all that. It sounds right up my alley, until I realised that you sort of have to get hurt or hurt other people yourself to get anything from it. I’m more of a delicate care bear, you know, and despite my famously rugged exterior I’m actually quite a softie. I’ve had handshakes where I thought I got rough treatment, and I’m the type of person to say “Sorry” when they bump right into me. If I see any kind of bruise coming up on my leg, I fret for days. This doesn’t make me a real man, I’m aware, but at least my skin stays nice and soft and unwhipped. Anyway, who wants to be tied-up when there’s yoga to be done?

But then they went and made a game for the S&M aficionados, called Battletoads. It had to be aimed at them, otherwise the villainess wouldn’t have been the almost unbelievable dominatrix that is the Dark Queen – you won’t find a sexier gaming character (except Smash Bros Ultimate-era Princess Zelda) in all the cartridges, CDs and digital download codes in the world.

She puts you through torture alright, twelve gruelling levels of it in Battletoads for NES. A game now infamous for its hardness, you’ll see it being called the Dark Souls of the 80s, which is ridiculous – Dark Souls is the Battletoads of the… tweenies. And even then, there’s no comparison.

Since there’s only twelve levels and most of them snarl at you, we might as well run through some of them and prolong the agony. Level one, Ragnarok Canyon, is a fine opener. Some mild platforming, plenty of opportunities to beat up pigs, that’s what the game should be all about. Battletoads games seem to have a habit of giving you a genuinely fun, sidescrolling beat-em-up first level before going off like an industrial strength firework in your face.

Level 2 is the Trees, where you’ll start to come face-to-face with instant death traps, and you realise the fact that your mercy invincibility after taking a hit lasts six split-seconds, if that. But the level’s fine really, you’ll get through it with only mild swear-words. A few four-letter ones, but nothing beginning with F, unless it’s feck. But it’s Level 3, the Turbo Tunnel – that’s where dreams go to die and angels lose their wings.

You want to know how hard Battletoads really is? I’ll tell you – this infamous third level, where you’re on a speeder bike going at max speed and you’ve got to jump over all the concrete walls that flash into existence, otherwise you’re left with crumpled toad? It’s child’s play. Honestly, the level is not that bad at all, though it helps to have a bit of practice. You can warp there right from the start as well, and keep launching your ‘Toad into the stratosphere until you learn to do it properly.

No, it’s the nine remaining levels that pick you up and turf you out, in much the same unceremonious way as a seven-foot bouncer would eject you from the premises. Level 4, the Arctic Caverns, looks innocuous enough. A bit of platforming with slippery ice platforms, sounds simple. That is, until you get taken down in a hail of snowballs and the checkpoints put you way back in the level. You’ll be surprised to lose a bundle of lives here, but then you’ll remember that this is Battletoads, so you can’t be that surprised really.

Level 5 is Surf City, fairly similar to Turbo Tunnel except much harder. You’ve got homing whirlpools, jumps the length of football fields, and rocks all over the place waiting to knock you off your surfboard. At least the music is nice, a real 8-bit treat. Level 6 is a level that no-one in the world likes, the snakes. You’ll only get anywhere near this level through warps anyway, but if you’re gonna lose all your lives, you can pick a far nicer place to do it than in a snake pit. The Dark Queen’s sex-dungeon, perhaps.

Level 7, Volkmire’s Inferno, is pretty much the limit of what a regular human can do. The level ends with you flying a plane through columns of fire, with gaps that open and close at a moment’s notice. You are going at terminal velocity here as well, need you even ask. You’ll need to either memorise the level, with limited lives don’t forget, or be Mystic Meg and be able to predict the future. Most likely, you’ll spin and crash out of contention multiple times, and there you go – Game Over.

Battletoads brings to life the classic story of the postman versus the guard dog. The dog tears out from its kennel pretty fast, so the postman has to be sprightlier than the ravenous mutt to get through unscathed. It’s the same with this game – Battletoads throws things out at you at breakneck speed, so you’ll have to be even faster. You won’t be.

I’ll skip ahead to Level 11, Clinger Winger, which I love because it’s literally impossible in two-player mode – the second player’s inputs just refuse to work. This tells you how much hate went into making Battletoads, or that it was such a difficult game that they couldn’t even debug test it properly. And I’ve never even played Level 12 but it looks wholly depressing, with plenty of narrow platforms, wind blowing at you, and it’s at this point that you just end up feeling so sorry for the Battletoads that you stop playing. They can’t die if you don’t kill them, right?

And speaking of playing two-player, it’s a cruel joke. On most levels, if someone loses a life, both of you go back to the checkpoint. If either of you goes on to use a continue, both players must start the level again and the better player, who hasn’t used a continue yet, might only have one life left in reserve themselves, so what’s the point of going even further? You’re just going to lose that life and undo the last 12 seconds of progress, and your teammate will hum and haw.

There’s a version of this game for Sega Mega Drive, and even the boxart advertises it as a one-player game, despite there being an option for two players. They knew full well that the 2-Player mode was essentially useless, and they’re laughing at you. That’s what sadomasochism is all about – torture, humiliation, loss of dignity.

Battletoads is the type of game that’ll pour hot candle wax all over your little belly button, and keep going even after you’re screaming the safe word. I’ve been unfortunate enough to see videos where the tied-down man’s crown jewels are getting stomped on repeatedly by a disaffected young harlot in heels. And then she puts him upright and follows up with a few Bergkamp half-volleys from just outside the box, each with a sickening twack sound. She’s Battletoads, and you’re the gentleman’s area. You think you’re having fun, until you emerge battered, bruised, defeated and deflated. You know you shouldn’t go back, it’s not fun for you at all. But you’re too far in by now, too determined not to let the sadist win. Same time next month?

9 August 2019

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