Battletoads (Rare, 1991)
Certain games are famous not only because they are memorable, but because they defy the player to conquer them. They stare back at you while the continue screen counts down and they say, “try again, sucker.” We've pumped hours and (in the case of arcade games) dollars into these titles, and they have nonetheless defeated all but the most hardcore of us.
I guarantee that Battletoads has crossed your mind at least once. If not, you're some kind of super-being who has thumbs of steel.
This nearly impossible action game was conceived by Rare in the early 90s to cash in on the Ninja Turtle craze. While this is undoubtedly just a ham-handed example of capitalism at work, it ended up being something almost as memorable. The game got ported to other systems (notably the Genesis) and spawned some sequels. There was even a team-up with Double Dragon! The most memorable of the franchise would have to be the original, trumpeted far and wide as both a great game and a devastatingly hard one.
In Battletoads, you play one of two characters: Rash or Zitz. You and your buddy Pimple, along with Professor T. Bird, were escorting the princess across the galaxy in your awesome spaceship when the Dark Queen got the drop on you during leisure time and did a snatch-and-grab. She took both Pimple and the princess, so now you two have to go get them back. Thankfully, you know just where they went: Ragnarok's World, a hellish place filled with all the Dark Queen's best death traps and goons.
Things start off pretty easy in the first level or two. You walk the surface of the planet, pounding a few baddies before playing catch with a clumsy giant robot. No big deal. Even the second chunk of action, a vertical spelunking trip through a crow-infested chasm, isn't that tough once you get the hang of it.
After that, things get spicy as hell.
Most of us never made it past the latter half of level 2. It was almost as if the first level was easy as a joke, to loosen you up and make you think you were in for a cakewalk. As it turns out, you're in for a turbo-charged spanking. After a little bit of beat-em-up with some chubby rockabilly rats, you mount a sort of speederbike and get put through an obstacle course I've heard described as “ridiculous,” “unfair,” “gratuitous,” and a list of swear words as long as my arm. As I said before, this is as far as most of us got.
I've got great news for you: the rest of the game is harder. Progressively harder. You ride giant snakes, progress through frustrating platform parkour levels, and fight some pretty insane bosses. There are also some more fast-paced obstacle courses, just like the one that kept most of us in level 2 forever. In the world of classic gaming, saying you beat Battletoads is like saying you survived in space without a suit or fistfought a bear and won by KO.
It bears mentioning, however, that the sound effects and music are masterful. A lot of the tracks are a sort of futuristic funk-rock. Nice and busy, really professionally done. No level has music that makes you think "oh, they just wanted to get this done."
You've probably heard me use the term “difficulty curve” before. It's a term meant to describe how a game becomes harder as you progress further within it. Battletoads has more of a geometric angle than a curve, and that angle forms a steep incline after the middle of level 2. Revisiting it as an adult, I've gotten slightly further with the help of FAQs and guides, but I still don't have the chops to take this game down. I'm far from alone in that. I've talked to some folks who've beaten it, but they are the real “hard men” of our hobby, the Charles Bronsons of video gaming. It's hard to give Battletoads a rating out of 10; I'd say that in terms of its fun factor it's a 3, but in terms of its raw impact on gaming, I'd give it a 7.