Rendering Distance is a feature where we look at the influence of video games on other forms of media, whether it’s a straight adaptation like the Spy Hunter and Paperboy comic or general inspiration like the Hardcore Henry movie.
“Hello GameStop, do you have Battletoads?”
“Yes we do. We have Battletoads, Battletoads and Double Dragon, Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, Super Battletoads World, Legend of Battletoads, Resident Battletoads, Tales of Battletoads, Battletoads of War, Battletoads Fantasy 7, Ratchet and Battletoads, Little Big Battletoads, Mega Battletoads Zero, The Last of Battletoads, No More Battletoads, Battletoad May Cry, Sonic the Battletoad…”
The Battletoads are unique characters in that they seem to live on in memes and only memes. It’s like they were deliberately set up for that with their first game on the NES, which was downright horrible as an actual game, to the point that it could cause you cramping and physical injury like the worst Mario Party minigames ever created, but also had outright beautiful cinematic production values that pushed 8-bit hardware to its limit, making it the perfect kind of curious trivia to stick in peoples’ heads for all eternity. The toads themselves, their supporting cast, their world, and their lore have always been chock full of spectacle, making them more than just Ninja Turtle ripoffs. Exploring the franchise pulls up all sorts of curiosities that tickle the mind, like how you barely ever learn anything about who Silas Volkmire is, how Robo-Manus has a completely different body every game, how the toads’ origin story is a ridiculously bad and confusing puddle of vomit that’s easily ignored amidst the franchise’s overarching chaos, how Professor T. Bird practically knows every mocking death message in Space Quest by heart, and how the Dark Queen could have easily been the protagonist if Battletoads had been a comic in Heavy Metal magazine. It’s been a fairly bad disaster as a video game franchise, with only one (Super Battletoads), maybe two (Battletoads & Double Dragon) good games in its portfolio, but it consistently presents so much to gawk at that it always leaves behind a desire to see more, to see someone do justice to the toads and give them a real high point in their career for once, something beyond mere guest appearances in Killer Instinct and Shovel Knight.
Which is why it’s so gobsmacking, so backwards, so baffling that when a new Battletoads game arrived in 2020, it removed darn near everything that everyone has ever loved about the franchise. The toads’ famous Smash Hits, where their limbs enlarge and morph into a variety of weapons, were blandly designed with clunky animation. The entire cast was pruned down to the toads themselves and the Dark Queen, whose new design was so plain that she looked like a purple Carmen Sandiego ripoff. No Professor T. Bird, no Big Blag, no Robo-Manus, no Karnath, no General Slaughter; they were all replaced with new and uninteresting characters in a story where the Dark Queen, the arch-nemesis of the toads, teamed up with them at the first opportunity as if she was trying and failing to be King Bowser Koopa. There was a whole lot of dialogue and story when there’s supposed to be barely any at all, when they work best with just a few wisecracks between levels. Instead of being naturally humorous and downright Wario-esque by being a highly exaggerated series that takes itself seriously, there was a lot of meta-humor about how washed up the toads have been for the last 25 years that ultimately came across as more tragic than funny. On top of all that, the gameplay itself took all the wrong cues from the original game by trying to be exactly like it. Battletoads is not a fun game to play at all thanks to its high difficulty and unending genre roulette, but it’s a lot of fun to watch OTHER people play it, just like how it’s fun to shoot other people but not fun to get shot.
Someone sure tried hard to force these new Battletoads on the public regardless. They even got a tie-in comic that was supposed to last at least three issues, but died after only two. You get a basic idea of what you’re in for when the Dark Queen looks fabulous on the first issue’s cover, but immediately goes back to looking flavorless in the comic proper. That’s especially jarring if you know and/or care about this franchise’s history at all since this comic supposedly takes place immediately after Super Battletoads, the arcade game and the last game produced before the franchise went dormant. Going from the end of the most violent game in the franchise into one of the tamest art styles ever makes for some mean whiplash.
Despite that, everything actually starts off fairly well. If you give this comic a chance, you can find some nice things to say about it. These new Battletoads continue the trend of modern reboots expounding upon the personalities of the original characters and it’s not as bad as you think. Zitz occasionally worries about his responsibilities as leader, Rash is the most attention-hungry and may even be the wiliest if not the smartest, Pimple is a gentle giant who tries and doesn’t always succeed in stopping his violent tendencies from crushing everything in his path, and all three of them act more like close-knit brothers. It’s actually pretty good, but may also be the sole good thing about this reboot in its entirety, so it’s easily drowned out by everything else going wrong. It’s also fair to argue that it runs contrary to the Battletoads’ defining philosophy: when someone does you dirty, are you gonna cry about it? NO! Here’s what you’re gonna do: you’re gonna get MAD! And then you’re gonna get EVEN!
Its effervescent meta humor doesn’t really work, like having Rash being the narrator and the other toads being aware of it. It comes across as more weird for weirdness’s sake than anything, like it wants to be Deadpool but is afraid of crossing that line. The comic is also still, alas, bent on exiling everyone except the toads and the queen. Professor T. Bird, Big Blag, and Robo-Manus at least get cameos in this comic, but that’s not saying much. The highest point in the whole story may be a gag about the toads’ origins.
Speaking of the story, after defeating Robo-Manus at the end of the arcade game, the toads storm the Dark Queen’s citadel. During a final boss fight with her, Zitz accidentally damages a boot-shaped lamp that contained all the Dark Queen’s dark magical power. She runs off, the toads shrug, excuse themselves, and go enter a tournament. You don’t need to see a lot of anime to know that the tournament arc is one of the laziest kinds of stories ever; you just need to be aware that it’s the kind of story most fighting games use.
The strange thing though is that they are entering a tournament someone else signed them up for, and they don’t know who. Like Luigi and his mansions though, they decide to just go along with it. Their first opponents are a dad of war, some rapidly punching rodent, and a vampire with an army of wooden baseball bats. That’s enough to make a comic lame, sure, but not technically bad. But it’s not like you have to wait long to get to the bad parts either.
You know the Smash Hits that go a long way in making the toads outrageous and lovable? Much like the game it spawned from, the comic quickly screws them up. See, being able to morph your limbs into any tool you need at any given moment can easily be a dangerously broken power. The original games never had to worry about that though; they placed limits on the toads’ power via the video game medium itself. It’s simply not possible to create good action-centric gameplay that lets you effectively use several hundred powers that can get you out of any situation, so the Smash Hits were most often used as finishing moves you had to combo into. As the games went on, the toads themed their individual Smash Hits: Zitz’s intelligence gave him mechanized attacks like saws, drills, and a bulldozer scoop, Rash’s flamboyance gave him weaponized attacks like spiked boots, maces, and axes, and Pimple’s brutality gave him blunt, heavy attacks with anvils, hammers, and even a football helmet. There was even some subtle genius to that specialization, as each toad’s unique attacks reinforced his individual personality. They even did that across the board, as none of the toads had any defensive smash hits. They were strictly offensive moves, reinforcing how the toads are an action trio above all else.
With the comic though, all that goes out the window.
There are hints of that in the first few pages where Pimple’s arm turns into a generic stretchable hook and Zitz puts a whole leg in lava as he turns it into a boat’s outboard motor, but in the second issue, the Smash Hits become flat-out excuses for them to get out of any trouble they encounter. Pimple is the least guilty, merely turning his arms into things like umbrellas and flyswatters that don’t fit his personality at all, while Zitz constantly produces whatever he needs for any given situation, demonstrating why Inspector Gadget needed to be stupid for the sake of his cartoon’s overall quality. Rash, meanwhile, uses the most pointless Smash Hits by setting his hands on fire and blowing himself up. He even turns into a freaking rabbit at one point when he needs to hop away from danger. How did this production team forget that frogs and toads are best known for HOPPING?!
With that kind of thoughtlessness involved, there probably would have been even more convoluted problems if the comic hadn’t been canceled early. The Dark Queen is captured by Uto and Pia from the 2020 game and we never find out what happens to her. Meanwhile the overarching plot is revealed to be about a crime syndicate tricking heroes into fighting each other so they can then do dreadful things with the bodies. It also flirts with the idea of the toads discovering that they are video game characters with no control over their destinies. Personally, I think that could have ended up being rolling-on-the-floor hilarious in ways none of the production team intended.
I don’t think I can emphasize enough that the new Battletoads should have tried to ape Wario Land more than anything, because the toads are a bunch of brutes in a world where it’s a delight to see them beat up everyone and get beaten up a lot themselves. Earthworm Jim would have been another good source to draw inspiration from; in fact, the original Earthworm Jim is like the original Battletoads except it actually plays competently, such as by having Turbo Tunnel levels where you are invincible, but have to fight an extra boss at the end if you’re too slow. Trying to bring “depth” to the toads was a flat out bad idea. That did nothing to capitalize on their memetic immortality. If they were trying to make the Battletoads more accessible to all ages, that’s… well, honestly possible in theory. Mature, violent characters can successfully be made kid-friendly, with Lobo from the DC Comics universe being one of the best examples.
What the new Battletoads tried to do was technically possible, and despite all my criticisms here, the consensus seems to be that Battletoads 2020 is best when you cut out all the gameplay and watch the cutscenes as one long cartoon. But the reboot clearly could have done a whole lot better than that. Whatever their intentions may have been, the producers just plain did a bad job at preserving what made the original Battletoads
so great endure throughout time despite itself. The reboot feels more like a bunch of people defenestrating the franchise’s entire lore and history and doing whatever they feel like instead. If you’re gonna go that far, using someone else’s brand and characters becomes a liability. You’re better off creating your own original characters and series instead.
If someone ever wants to let me have a crack at the Battletoads, one of the first things I’d probably do is introduce a reoccurring nemesis for them: the Battleflies. Basically, they would be powerful health pickups and 1-Ups that you have to defeat before you can eat them. As for difficulty, NO Rat Races, NO Clinger Wingers, NOTHING that can end in broken fingers and controllers. Instead, I’d keep the pace slower and more controlled, but with additional layers, because no matter what the Battletoads are doing, they should always be battling, even if that means fighting off biker gangs while dodging obstacles or pummeling smaller snakes as you climb larger ones.
Accessibility: The story is only a bit convoluted. It’s like it was written for the fans that the reboot had already alienated.
Fidelity: Stays very true to the 2020 Battletoads reboot, which didn’t stay true to the greater franchise.
Quality: Well, I guess you have to give it credit for being canceled after the second issue instead of the first. The fact that it’s free on Amazon and Comixology says a lot too, methinks.