Battletoads: The Strange History of a Nigh-Impossible Franchise

With a new Battletoads game on the way, here's a history lesson in the nigh-impossible, amphibious franchise that faded away too quickly.

In the early ’90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the kings of children’s entertainment. They were everywhere and like all successful concepts, they were followed by copycats.

Over the years we’d see attempts to piggyback on their success with such concepts as Street Sharks, Biker Mice from Mars, and the Country Cuckoo Clock Codpiece Zulu Warriors. There was one pretender to the throne that appeared as a cheap Turtles knockoff at first glance, but had more than enough uniqueness to stand on its own. To a point, at least.

I want to talk to you about Battletoads.

Battletoads is one of those game franchises that had so much personality and quality that it should have survived for years. Unfortunately, it’s become a relic of semi-obscurity that is just now starting to mount a possible comeback with its inclusion in the Rare Replay, a set of 30 old-school games. Not only does this include the original, tough-as-nails Battletoads, but the brilliant arcade game as well. There’s other good stuff mixed in there, such as Conker’s Bad Fur DayPerfect Dark, and the Banjo-Kazooie series.

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Battletoads began on the NES in 1991, and being a Turtles knockoff isn’t what immediately comes to mind when people are reminded of it. If anything, people talk about how frustratingly hard it is. Believe me, it’s a fantastic game. Some of the best designs and ideas in any NES game for sure. It’s just so unforgivingly hard. There are plenty of tough games for the old, gray box, but this one is like the Olympics of hard games. It’s like playing the last level of Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins followed by playing a couple minutes of Silver Surfer followed by fighting Mike Tyson.

The titular toads are made up of Pimple (the big toad), Rash (the too-cool-for-school toad), and Zitz (the…um…one who is also a toad). In the intro, Pimple and the generic princess character Angelica are kidnapped by the Dark Queen and her evil minions. That always seemed weird to me. Why give us three toads when one isn’t even on the board to begin with? At least the Ninja Turtles games never said, “Mikey, Don, and, Raph aren’t playable. Enjoy using Leo and only Leo!” It’s something that will come up a few more times in the following installments.

Zits and Rash are off to save the day and begin with a rather enjoyable beat ’em up sidescroller level followed immediately by a level where the toads are lowered down a big hole in the ground filled with ravenous birds. So far so good.

Then comes the Turbo Tunnel speeder level and, aptly enough, the difficulty suddenly goes from zero to sixty in seconds. As your toads weave, jump, and dodge stone blocks thrown in their way in an exercise of quick reaction and memory, the player will curse the cartridge for all the lives they lose. Thing is, the game rarely ever lets up after that, nor does it ever truly play the same.

They easily could have coasted on making the game like the first level and tossing in a couple gimmicky levels to liven it up, but they didn’t. Throughout the twelve stages, we get ones based on racing a rat towards a bomb, surfing, navigating on the backs of some giant snakes, and so on. The levels are each a pain in the ass, and we’re given a couple of unforgiving roadblocks.

For one, there are only a set amount of continues. Once you lose all of your lives three times, you’re done and have to start from the beginning. Not too great when a lot of the game is trial and error with one-hit kills filled throughout. Naturally, of all the people who beat this game, many of them had to use the Game Genie to net them infinite lives or continues.

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The second roadblock is that when you’re playing with two players, neither is immune to the other’s offense. You can and will accidentally punch your buddy dozens of times, especially in the second level. The game is so ridiculous that it is literally impossible to play through it start to finish with two players. There’s a glitch in a later level where the second player’s toad simply won’t move and immediately dies. One would think this would be something for the play testers and programmers to notice, only nobody was ever able to get that far with two players when making the game to begin with. Cripes.

Despite all the problems with the difficulty, there was still reason to keep coming back for more abuse. It wasn’t like it was a poorly made game. It was just hard. The game’s design was just too good and fun. For being just NES sprites, Rash and Zitz came with so much moxie. Their “smash hit” powers would allow them to morph parts of themselves into weapons, like less-fluid versions of Plastic Man. Their fists would become huge, their feet would turn into giant steel-toed boots, they would headbutt rats while their heads grew ram horns. Also, one of my favorite little touches that Rare used throughout the series, was how they would have the toads completely lose their shit in fear upon seeing bosses. They pointed in horror, biting their fingers, their jaws dropoing to the floor, and their eyes bug out of their skulls.

Then there’s the villain designs, which, again, for NES sprites, really feel fairly realized. You have Big Blag the Andre the Giant of evil rats, General Slaughter the pissed-off bull, Scuzz the speedy and scummy rat, and high-ranking cyborg Robo-Manus. Robo-Manus appears in four of the five Battletoads games and looks completely different every time, culminating in one hell of a final appearance. These guys are all recurring villains throughout the series and really do feel right at home as this world’s counterparts for Bebop, Rocksteady, etc.

Last but not least is the Dark Queen, the final boss and main villain. Her inclusion is both memorable and kind of awkward. I mean, look at her. She’s got this whole sinister, sultry Jessica Rabbit thing going on in a game made in the overly-kiddy Nintendo era, back when they wouldn’t even let blood in their Mortal Kombat port. When you’re a kid in the early 90s and you have a buxom dominatrix-type dressing you down after every level while wearing only a leather one-piece and a cape, part of you has to wonder, “Wait, am I even allowed to be playing this?”

One thing that’s weird about her (other than apparently being the only human in her kingdom) is how they could never figure out her scale. Sometimes she’s 12-feet-tall. Sometimes she’s normal height. It varies from game to game.

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I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful work of David Wise, the composer for all the Battletoads games. His stuff is top-notch in the NES version, but the follow-ups increase in musical quality.

As part of the hype train, Nintendo Power did not only a cover story for Battletoads, but they also featured two months of Battletoads comics put together by Valiant (who at the time were publishing several Nintendo-based comics like Captain N and Legend of Zelda). The first issue deals with the Battletoads’ origin, and it’s not especially brilliant.

Dave Shar, Morgan Ziegler, and George Pie are play testers for Psicone, a video game company that created Battletoads, though here it’s a virtual reality game. The lead programmer is Silas Volkmire, who feels jealous enough at the play testers that he outright wants to murder them. Pretty extreme, but okay. Turns out, the world of Battletoads is a separate dimension that Volkmire accidentally tapped into when writing code. Volkmire still created the Battletoads themselves, though, which pisses off the Dark Queen because she was doing just peachy being unopposed.

I have to imagine that Nintendo Power wanted them to kind of dial back the Dark Queen’s sexiness by having the artist constantly have her cover up with her cape. The only time she doesn’t have it draped like that is whenever she’s shown from behind.

Volkmire is somehow able to forever merge Dave, Morgan, and George with their toad personas so that if they die in the game/reality, they die for real. Then they get saved by their new mentor/hype guy Professor T-Bird, and we have something resembling a plot.

The second issue goes through the various levels, mostly explained by T-Bird, Dark Queen, and Volkmire. Volkmire originally introduces the level Volkmire’s Inferno (the second speeder-based one) and seeing one of the toads land ass-first in lava causes him to spend the remainder of the comic watching it over and over and over again, laughing all the while. The big cliffhanger is the final boss fight where Zitz and Rash confront the Dark Queen, who is, of course, bundling up to cover her boobs.

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Battletoads was ported to other systems, such as Genesis and Game Gear, though their ports tended to be easier. Confusing all of this was the franchise’s visits to the Game Boy. See, late in 1991, they released a game called Battletoads for Game Boy that had the same exact box art of the NES version. It was, in fact, a completely different game. Different levels, different bosses, even different gimmicks, such as the final stage where Zitz, the only playable character since Pimple and Rash were distracted by Dark Queen’s exotic dancing and got kidnapped (Not making that up,) rides a jetpack. The game is still crazy hard and that boulder stage can especially go straight to Hell, but it’s still a good time.

In 1993, Rare released Battletoads in Ragnarok’s World for Game Boy, which WAS a port of the NES game, only with less levels. So in review, Battletoads isn’t Battletoads, but Battletoads in Ragnarok’s World is Battletoads. Mostly. Got that? Great!

1993 gave us two more Battletoads games. First was Battletoads in Battlemaniacs for SNES. It is a stunningly good-looking game with some of the best music on the system. The first level is promising and overflowing with fun. Then…it meanders away.

Outside of the final boss fight with the Dark Queen (and her one frame of sprite animation), you don’t really do much in terms of fighting. Instead, you get a game that recreates pieces of the NES game, only slower and about half as long. Other than the very end, which I’ll get to in a second, the only original piece of gameplay in there is the addition of bonus rounds where the toads ride giant checkers like surfboards and collect bowling pins.

Don’t question it.

In this game, you play as Pimple and Rash. They’re after the Dark Queen because, you guessed it, Zitz got kidnapped. Also, the daughter of the guy who runs Psicone is kidnapped, but don’t worry about that as she’s never referenced in any way after the intro movie. This time, it isn’t just Dark Queen behind the badness, but Silas Volkmire himself. Yes, the dork from the Nintendo Power comic is in the game, only now he’s depicted as something off a death metal album cover for some reason.

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This screen shot from the intro is the only time he’s ever shown in the game. After you beat the Dark Queen, you have to chase down Volkmire’s helicopter, as he tries to make his escape. Whether or not you shoot him down with missiles leads to different endings.

Tradewest’s two top franchises then merged together to give us Battletoads & Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team, which appeared on NES, SNES, Game Boy, and Genesis. The plot has the Dark Queen team up with the Shadow Boss because I guess galactic conquest is easier when you have a bunch of street punks on your payroll. The Battletoads seek out the Lee twins, and I’m suddenly confused. I mean, does this mean that the Lee brothers exist in the video game dimension where the Battletoads tapped into or do they simply escape that world to meet up? I probably shouldn’t think too hard about this.

The game feels about 4/5 Battletoads and maybe 1/5 Double Dragon. You get your choice from all five characters and play through different levels, while facing enemies from both games. The Battletoads have the Dark Queen, General Slaughter, Big Blag, and Robo-Manus while the guys from Double Dragon have Shadow Boss, Abobo, and that guy with the machine gun. For some reason, every human boss character is twice the size of the Lees and toads.

It’s a strong crossover and maybe the last truly great NES game, but if nothing else, it’s worth it for the novelty of seeing Billy and Jimmy Lee having wacky space adventures. They pilot space ships, fight bad guys on top of ships despite having no breathable air, turn into tornadoes, and even adopt the Battletoads style of having their eyes stretch out of their sockets when a boss battle is coming.

It’s still less silly than the time Marvel decided that Stan Lee was the father of Billy and Jimmy. No, really. That happened.

So the Battletoads were doing quite well in the video game world, but obviously, the people in charge wanted to branch out. The natural thing to do was step forward into the world of animation. Not only is that where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made a mint, but it’s also been home to Mario, Link, Sonic, Simon Belmont, the players of Mutant League Football, and the Acclaim library. Seriously, if Power Team can last as long as it did, Battletoads could certainly get a season or two, right?

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Well…not exactly. Back in the early 90s, someone at Fox realized that on the Friday after Thanksgiving, they had a whole nation of kids at home from school with nothing to watch prior to 3 pm. For several years, they would be doing blocks of cartoon pilots that never got picked up. A big pile of cartoons that they had no use for otherwise. It was like an animation graveyard in a way. In November of 1992, they gave us the one and only televised showing of Battletoads.

The cartoon was written by David Wise. No, not the guy behind the amazing in-game music, but a completely different David Wise. Yeah, go figure. This David Wise was one of the top writers on the Ninja Turtles cartoon, so it was an apt assignment.

What we got wasn’t very good. The video game programmer origin was reworked so that Dave, Morgan, and George are teenage losers. In terms of personality, Dave is 50% Leonardo, Morgan is 50% Raphael, George is 50% Michelangelo, and the other 150% is Donatello. They’re empowered by Professor T-Bird, who hangs out with them on Earth with Princess Angelica while the Dark Queen, General Slaughter, and a whole bunch of rats and pigs go after them.

Some notes about the show:

– The theme song is a Beach Boys knockoff, and it’s pretty embarrassing. Though it at least makes more sense than when a fight breaks out in a convenience store and the music accompanying it is a surfer rock cover of “Hava Nagila.”

– The plot is completely bonkers and comes off as something written by the Axe Cop kid. The first three minutes is blasting with ridiculous exposition, leading to a scene where T-Bird transforms the three teens by spraying them with Battletoad essence.

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– At one point, Rash is fighting General Slaughter. With Slaughter being a giant bull, Rash turns one of his arms into a red matador cape and beckons him. As Slaughter races at him, Rash turns his arm into an anvil and smashes him. Inventive, I’ll admit. But then Rash says, “Get’s ‘em every time!” Um…what are you talking about, man?! It’s the first episode! We know for a fact that it’s the first and only time you’ve ever done that to him!

– The three can transform back to humans at will, but their mutation activation catch phrase is, “LET’S GET WARTY!” This is easily mistaken for, “LET’S GET HORNY!” which is still toad-related, so it almost works.

So, yeah. That never got picked up. It seems the Battletoads name was never going to break out into pop culture. Not that I disagree. Despite all the personality brimming, they could never come up with an actual context for “three toads and a bird go fight a sexy lady and her animal minions” that sounded halfway coherent. Comparatively, “four turtles fall into a sewer, get covered in radiation, turn humanoid, and get trained in ninjitsu by a rat,” sounds rather straightforward.

But if Battletoads was going to die, at least the series went out on a major high note. In 1994, the trio graced the arcade with Super Battletoads. It rocked. It rocked so hard. Rare decided that maybe, for once, they should actually do a game that’s mostly fighting. Take the best part of the SNES game and make a faster, more energetic experience out of it.

It’s three player, giving us the one and only chance to play as all three toads at the same time. There are several levels that go outside the Final Fight style, but nothing as painstaking as the Turbo Tunnels or Snake Pit. Yeah, there’s a giant snake here, but you actually punch him in the face instead of ride him. Though if he sinks his teeth into you, you will see an awful lot of blood as your toad screams in horrific pain.

That’s the interesting thing about this game. No longer confined to the consoles and their ratings, Rare gets to go a bit more adult than what we’re used to. Blood flows all over the place. Rash is able to decapitate his enemies by turning his leg into an axe. Zitz can run his drill hand through his enemies’ faces. One giant rat goon has to be defeated by grabbing his dick and then using the other hand to pound him repeatedly in the balls. Prior to showing up to join the fight, one of the rat henchmen is shown taking a dump in the bathroom as the door opens. Then there’s a boss fight where Dark Queen watches as a hologram in the background, and they get away with showing off how cold she must be up top.

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Sadly, the Dark Queen’s gratuitous nipples never made it to SNES or any other system. That was all she wrote for Battletoads for the next couple decades. The most we ever got was a prank call/hoax thing where people would constantly call up Gamestop to ask if they could pre-order a nonexistent Battletoads reboot for Xbox.

There have been rumblings on and off to bring the Toads with ‘Tude back for another adventure or two. At the very least, they have made a special appearance in the Xbox One version of Shovel Knight. In it, the titular knight comes across the toad trio, who accidentally fell through a portal in space. Seeing Shovel Knight as a fellow hero, they offer to train him. That leads to a stage where Shovel Knight is lowered down a hole on a rope and rides through the Turbo Tunnel, all while fighting each Battletoad. By the end, he takes on all three at the same time. Afterwards, Shovel Knight is deemed an honorary toad and is invited to strike a pose with them.

You can also have The Baz join in! If you don’t know who that is…well, he’s a story for another day.

Actually, if you happened to click that link, you’d also see that Rash got to have one last hurrah by showing up in Killer Instinct during its third season of DLC. The game did such a great job with his attitude, animation, body morphing, and use of the old game standbys (ie. using the Turbo Tunnel speeder as a weapon) that leaving the Battletoads franchise in the past would be kind of cruel. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case.

Gavin Jasper thought you was a toad. Do not seek the treasure. Just follow him on Twitter.