Battletoads is one of the best horrible games I’ve played. I beat Battletoads on the NES and all it did was foster an appreciative anger towards it. Why the hatred? The difficulty. This great game is difficult for all of the wrong reasons and it is why I hate it.
Welcome to Pixels to Polygons, the column where we compare the games of yesteryear to more modern entries.
This time around we’re going to look at the difficulty in games and how it has evolved. In order make our argument we’re going to take two games that are considered extremely difficult, but also very solid in a lot of other respects: Battletoads is obviously our retro contender, which will be compared to the modern entry of Bloodborne. If we’re ignoring the difficulty of both games, we have a lot of other stellar content to work with. Both games have tight controls, wonderful soundtracks, stellar animation, diverse gameplay, wonderful blends of genres, and all sorts of other lovely stuff. They are both very satisfying to play and are glorious gaming experiences. There wouldn’t be a whole lot to hold them at fault for barring the difficulty. But if we include the difficulty in the equation, Battletoads becomes loathsome and Bloodborne becomes a much more fulfilling gaming experience; what’s the difference?
The crux of the frustration level lies in the way each game handles death. A lot is on the line with each loss of a life in both games. When you die in Bloodborne you can lose your chance to coop with people in your world, lose your currency, and revive enemies in the area, all before getting sent back to the previous checkpoint; but at least checkpoints are rather frequent. Battletoads, you stand to lose all of your progress and start at the beginning of the game. See where this is going?
Bloodeborne is tough, but fair. Once you get used to the battle system, your fighting style and the style in which From Software programs those types of games (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1 &2), you can get through Bloodborne with relative ease. I don’t die too often in Bloodborne due to my experiences with the previous three titles with similar gameplay mechanics. When I do die, I am always at fault. I didn’t need to memorize and area, I just need to be more careful with what I am doing in order to progress. Familiarity makes life easier, but it isn’t essential. You continue with the game at a pace that works for you, where you are constantly calculating risk versus reward.
Battletoads is a stark contrast to the tough but fair. Knowing anything about the genres it touches base in means nothing and brings you no tactical advantage. It beats you while you’re down, then snaps mouse traps on your nipples while pouring boiling water on your face. It’s just a jerk. The first two levels are kind of fun and can be beaten with relative ease, then all reasonable programming is tossed out the window once you hit the Turbo Tunnels. The game gets to a point where progression has absolutely nothing to do with reaction time and is solely based on memorizing illogical patterning. Every time there is an established pattern and level of comfort, the game sweeps the rug out from under your feet and proceeds to repeat the aforementioned beat down process. The excruciating memorization could be mitigated by infinite continues or something, but you’re instead stuck with a few lives and continues before having to start the game at the beginning. The idea of having to start a game again because of an instant death trap that is impossible to predict, like the lightning barriers in the Turbo Tunnels replica later in the game, defies logic when you’re trying to ensure that a game is fun. Poor programming like this tests the wrong skills of players.
If you disagree with my stance, let me provide you with what I believe to be is an analogous situation. Pretend you’re learning how to do long division, but you have a horrible teacher. The teacher provides you with confusing rules that you can’t get a firm grasp of, then upon a couple of failed attempts of applying the methods, you get sent back to the first grade to do number sequencing and basic addition. There might be circumstances where this would be applicable, but I am sure we’re in agreement that this wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense as a general case. The repetition of previous math skills probably won’t help with long division, and it’s going to be difficult to make any progress if the teacher’s explanations of division continue to elude you.
I believe the previous analogy is very applicable to the the way Battletoads is programmed. When you fail a section in the Turbo Tunnels, you will gain nothing from repeating the previous two levels, and will be much more frustrated in the process. The first level is a mediocre beat ’em up section, the next section is a vertical traversal with a few enemies in your way, and then you’re off to dodging obstacles on a hovering vehicle. Absolutely nothing is gained from repeating the original levels, but you have to do them anyways. Whereas failure in Bloodborne teaches you more about the mechanics of the game, and leaves you a much more skilled player if you are playing with care. Let’s use another game to exemplify difficulty done correctly.
Shovel Knight is a masterpiece that combines the charm, whimsy and style of older games, but refines the formula with modern mechanics. If you’re not very good at platforming games, but you love them, no big deal. Checkpoints are plentiful. You can get armour, weapon, health, magic and inventory upgrades with relative ease. The game can amp up the difficulty, but always teaches you about a new mechanic before really tossing you into the action (hidden tutorials are abundant and incredibly welcome – thank you logical difficulty curves). If the extras make the game too easy for you, no worries, Yacht Games has you covered. You can destroy the checkpoints and avoid all of the upgrades, making it a more intense gaming experience. The game is masterful in its execution of difficulty, and it would become virtually unplayable to most people if they opted to only give you a few lives to beat the game. I am able to beat Shovel Knight without upgrades in a speed run solely because they allowed me to be able to play short segments of the game repeatedly without consequence in order to master a section. There is absolutely no way I would have learned to deal with the random nature of Plague Knight or the intensity of Propeller Knight if I had to start the game over after a few mistakes. I am not confident I would have even beaten the game at all within those hypothetical constraints. I got to choose how difficult I wanted the game, thus making it a much more fulfilling experience. See where I am going with this?
Battletoads is difficult for all of the wrong reasons. The experience is greatly hindered because of how it approached difficulty. If you emulate this game and use save states or cheats, then it can actually be kind of fun at times. If you play this game au naturel on the original NES, you will hate your life. I’ve beaten the game before and never will again. I don’t know how or why speed runners continue to play it. This confusing programming was commonplace with a lot of retro video games. I understood it in the arcades because they needed money and players to frequent cabinets, but this should have never taken place in the home console market. Strange programming like this used to be common with older games (yes I know of the stories of steep difficulty to prevent beating a game on a rental playthrough).
Take the original Mega Man for example. The game has cheap enemy placements, a number of glitches, brutal difficulty, and the stupid Yellow Devil. Even if you knew about the ‘select trick’ it still didn’t compensate for your limited lives and absence of continues. Going back to the Yellow Devil, he’s a boss later in the game that requires really tricky platforming and pattern memorization on top of doing massive damage and being invulnerable for extensive periods of time. If you, understandably, make a few mistakes, you have to go back and fight all of the robot masters again before hopefully memorizing another little piece of the Yellow Devil dodging pattern. The re-releases of the game compensated for the absence of continues by giving players access to an infinite amount of them, which made the game much more enjoyable. Because I had the opportunity to practice individual sections, I am now able to beat the game on the original hardware, but I would have never learned to do that had I been sent to the start for making a tiny error every time.
Mega Man, Contra, Super C, Battletoads, Ninja Gaiden 3, Solomon’s Key and many more games, are incredible games in many respects, but the mismanagement of difficulty don’t make them as enjoyable as they could be. Barring Ninja Gaiden 3, I’ve beaten all the games mentioned, and can even do no death runs of Super C, but that still doesn’t make me any less angry with them.
I am so glad that as time progressed games continued to shift in the direction of checkpoints, saves and many other supports that became commonplace. They don’t sacrifice difficulty, they just make it much more fulfilling. Thus, I believe that games have gotten much better with properly implementing difficulty. And for all the previous reasons and more, I hate Battletoads. What do you think?
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