Xbox had a solid press briefing at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show this year. The company didn’t show off a lot of gameplay, but it did reveal what Battletoads looks like in action. The resurrected beat-’em-up got a gameplay trailer during the Xbox event, and … well, I didn’t love it. But I still decided to play it when I got the chance at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
And I’m glad I did, because it was a great time.
Microsoft first announced that it’s making a new Battletoads during its E3 2018 briefing. At that time, the game only had a logo. I didn’t think a ton about it at the time, but what I realized is that my brain still tried to fill in the gaps. I was expecting a 3D Battletoads action-adventure that would try to compete with the biggest releases from Sony and Nintendo. In reality, this Battletoads is a lot like the classic games but with sharper cartoon visuals.
It’s “coming soon” to Xbox Game Pass for both the console and PC, according to the Xbox website. But it still doesn’t have a specific release date.
But the gameplay trailer didn’t disappoint me just because of my expectations. The video revealed an art design that is reminiscent of the Adobe Flash-style that was popular with games like Alien Hominid more than 10 years ago. I’m over that look, and I think a lot of other people are as well.
When I got to see and play Battletoads in person, however, the game flipped my impressions 180 degrees.
Closer to Cuphead
After I picked up the controller at the Battletoads station, I immediately softened my position regarding its art style. It doesn’t make sense. The trailer shows the gameplay in motion, but I think the compression on Twitch and YouTube are doing this game a disservice.
In person, Battletoads doesn’t remind me as much of a Flash game. It looks a lot more like Cuphead. I know that’s saying a lot, and holistically, Cuphead is way more impressive. But Battletoads looks like it is using a similar technique to animate the title characters: Zitz, Pimple, and Rash.
In the originals, the heroes could transform their bodies. During attacks, Zitz might turn into a giant bell to smash enemies. And that effect is back and looking great. The transition between these various forms looks like it has a real buildup and payoff. Pimple is a big bruiser that can transform into a train during a heavy attack. But when he does, his whole body winds up and then lunges forward. And it just looks really good.
I think the reason I thought it looked like a Flash game in the video is because the art is almost too clean. Cuphead uses a lot of filters to add noise and grain. I’m not here to make suggestions to developers, but I think Battletoads could benefit from something like that. Maybe the team at Dlala Studios could create a glowing filter that mimics the effect of an old cathode-ray-tube television set or something.
Fun with friends
While I’m happy with the visuals, it’s the action that made this session so memorable. Just like the 1991 Battletoads, this game is beating people up as you move through a level. And that core is solid. At first, I worried about the pace of the combat. After a couple of hits, enemies often fall to the ground. And when they are down, you can’t hit them with traditional punches and kicks.
For a while, my crew just assumed that you had to wait for them to stand back up. But that drags down the whole process. But eventually, we figured out that you can use the tongue attack (they are toads) to pick enemies back up. That kept things moving and gave us a lot to do.
But the real highlight is the hoverbike section of the level.
The hoverbikes are good now
Most people playing games in the early 1990s will remember these nightmares from the originals. Well, it’s back, and it’s fun now.
The big change here is that the camera is now behind the characters. In the original games, you have a 2D side-scrolling view that gives you very little time to react. Now, you can see far enough ahead to better plan your route.
But the real fun was just how the mechanic worked with other players sitting together on a couch. All three of us were on the same track simultaneously, but you only lose and return to the last checkpoint if all three of you die at the same time. This leads to thrilling situations where two players will beef it, and then everyone is cheering on the third player to stay alive long enough for the others to respawn.
During our session, all three players had their chance to shine. And it feels great to navigate a tough part of the course just long enough to get everyone back in. We probably died around a dozen times, but I never felt discouraged. And finally clearing the course had me actually fist pumping and shouting.
I don’t know if Battletoads is going to hold up over a five or six hours. And I’m skeptical that it’s going to end up as my game of the year or anything. But it was a blast to play during a relentless week of games.