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Why Was BATTLETOADS So Damn Hard?

Battletoads, developed by Rare and published by Tradewest, was released on the NES on June 1st, 1991, shortly before my 8th grade graduation. Like many, I was enticed into buying the game (a massive $50 at the time) by a glowing rundown in the latest issue of Nintendo Power. This game–a beat-’em-up along the lines of Double Dragon or the arcade version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–promised to be hip, edgy, and funny. In my mind, it was the punk version of the Ninja Turtles, featuring more violence, cooler characters, a sexier villain, and a broader comic style. When my personal copy of Battletoads broke three days after purchasing it, however, it came with a sigh of relief. I, and all players of the game, did not expect it to be so damn hard. I traded it for a game called Uninvited, and I haven’t gone back.

Battletoads 1

To this day, Battletoads has a reputation as being one of the hardest video games – if not the hardest video game – ever made. The action was fast, the perspective frequently changed, and the screen frequently filled with enemies. The playable title toads, named Zitz, Pimple, and Rash (maybe not hip names in retrospect) were amusingly animated, and a lot of character was communicated through their movements (their fists and feet would enlarge in the midst of a good pummeling), but after several frustrating hours of non-progress (especially through the Turbo Tunnel level), they soon transformed into blank-faced sacrificial lambs, dying hundreds and hundreds of times in a near-futile attempt to surmount the ever-increasing challenges of the game they lived in.

To offer a brief rundown on the in-game story: The Battletoads are three intergalactic mutant warriors who quest to save the kidnapped Princess Angelica from the evil Dark Queen, a sexed-up, dominatrix version of Natasha Fatale from Rocky & Bullwinkle. The game was enough of a hit to warrant a Game Boy spinoff, a Super Nintendo sequel called Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, a crossover with Double Dragon, and a 1994 arcade game. The Battletoads never reached the heights of popularity of the Ninja Turtles – the thing they were clearly trying to emulate – but they were a legit sub-phenomenon and have an impassioned cult to this day.

Battletoads Dark Queen

Because of its difficulty, however, Battletoads has been the subject of magazine and online rundowns ever since its inception, and those who have managed to beat the original game stand out as legends in their local gaming communities. But the question remains: Why was the game so damn hard? Well, as it turns out, there is a reason.

1991 was a time when video game rentals were perhaps just beginning to hit their stride. Video stores were still plentiful, if you recall, and, in order to diversify, many began offering rental NES cartridges alongside their usual VHS stock. I was there. I rented games. On average, a video game rental would cost about five or six bucks, and you’d be allowed to keep a game for three to five days. If you were a skilled player, and the game wasn’t all too hard, you could, if determined, usually finish a game within those three to five days (while Disney games like DuckTales and The Little Mermaid could usually be finished in a matter of hours). And even if the game was particularly nasty, you could simply rent it twice more and play through every secret for a maximum of $18 admission.

Battletoads 2

This, of course, was noticed by video game manufacturers who were charging $40 to $60 to own an NES cartridge. They were losing money to the rental market like crazy, as skilled players were able to play through their games without any sort of financial commitment. As a direct response, there was a sudden spike in the difficulty of NES games in 1991. Levels became longer, bosses more difficult, and aesthetics more complex.

Battletoads was, then, designed to be nearly unbeatable. The game had to be so difficult that players would not have the opportunity to beat it over the course of five days. Or even ten days. Or twenty. Or fifty. Battletoads was designed, in fact, to be a lifelong commitment. Something that could never be properly surmounted by anyone but the most determined players.

Battletoads Nintendo Power

Talking to friends my age, only a few have admitted to playing Battletoads all the way through. Once mastered, the game only takes a few hours to complete, but achieving that level of mastery takes many months or play, if not years. One must play for weeks, give up, try other games, return, try again, maybe get one level beyond, leave again… an so on. Battletoads is the video game equivalent of reading Finnegans Wake. It’s hard, it’s complex, you won’t understand it the first time through, and most rarely get to the end.

Nowadays, of course, games are far more complex by default, and even an average game can take hundreds of hours of stright-through gameplay to complete. But even the staunchest of modern gamers would wince in frustration over the Himalayan ridge that was the 1991 video game rental market, and only true masters can – and perhaps might – try to take down Battletoads.

Did you ever beat this game? Let us know in the comments below!

Images: Rare/Nintendo

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