Thursday, July 1, 2010

The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture: Battletoads and Battletoads & Double Dragon

Sorry for the lengthy absence - moving left my access to the games themselves out of commission for several weeks longer than I expected. We now return to your irregularly scheduled programming.

So, Battletoads. This game is, somewhat perversely, a classic. No. Not somewhat perversely. Really perversely. This is possibly the least likely game to be tagged as a classic of the system ever, for one basic reason - it is basically completely impossible.

Let me stress this, because it really bears mentioning. I cheated to play this game. I cheated heavily. And I could not beat it. The third to last level has a racing section that is as close to impossible as I have experienced in a video game. It is a festival of ruthless brutality.

Now, I am all in favor of hard games, so long as they are fair. And Battletoads, to its credit, remains on the good side of that line. Mind you, it toes up against it, and holds its finger to the line and says in a nauseatingly mocking voice "I'm not touching you." But it doesn't cross the line. You always know basically what's happening and what you're supposed to do. It's just generally not quite possible to do it. But that's fine. The world of video games is broad enough to encompass games that are for hardcore maniac players.

The problem is, Battletoads isn't that. It's a game that is widely recognized and even fondly remembered. And that is bizarre. Part of that is no doubt down to an unusually extensive promotional push in Nintendo Power that built the game into one of the earlier anticipated Video Game Events. But events flame out all the time. And Battletoads should have been prime fodder for a flameout - hardly anybody could actually get past level three in the game. Doubly so if they were stupid enough to play multiplayer, which, in that level, required both players to beat a very fast, very hard racing sequence perfectly or both would get sent back to the start.

And if they were lucky enough to clear level 3, their reward was for the game to get harder. Sure, the later levels are great. The snake riding level is absolutely brilliant. Each level has palpably different challenges and different control schemes, each remaining intuitive and fun. But nobody loves the game for these levels, because there are about five people in the world who ever saw them without cheating. So, you know. Not a selling point.

Nor is the game remembered for its innovative premise, which was roughly "directly rip off Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but make them frogs."

And yet the game endures as a strange sort of classic. What, for me, Battletoads is an interesting reminder of is the room for idiosyncracy within the largely homogenous experience of playing video games. And make no mistake, playing video games is an exercise far more in structures of social control than it is in any sort of freedom or interactivity. This is why there are few more iconic images to be had in my generation than the first four question marks of Super Mario Bros. Battletoads has only slightly less iconic status than this, but the experience of playing it is, to my mind, deeply personal in a way few other video games are.

Simply put, to play Battletoads as a child is to confront death. I try, mostly, not to overanalyze games, but that's simply the case here. And not merely in the dully straightforward sense of losing lives. Rather, Battletoads is an encounter with impossibility - an impossibility that is unlike most of those confronted in childhood inasmuch as it is not one that seems likely to be overcome by aging. Video game skill is like this - when I grow up, I may be President, but one's sense of skill at video games is a peculiarly youthful property. (Reinforced, no doubt, by the fact that one is always better than one's parents at video games)

The result is a hard limit. Battletoads was harder than we were capable of grappling with at our prime. Ruthlessly, brutally, uncompromisingly so. And yet it was presented to us as a major video game event. As part of the basic landscape of our mass entertainment. As a child, this landscape mattered to me, as did my ability to navigate it. I doubt I was alone. To be so utterly overcome by it was significant. Because, and this is worth stressing again, unlike 90% of really hard Nintendo games, Battletoads was not hard because the control scheme sucked. It was hard because it was really bloody hard.

It helps also that Battletoads saw release a mere two months before the Super Nintendo, staking out a position at a transitory moment. It is the video game that beat the players right before a seismic shift in which the entire video game apparatus slid away from the known towards something else. What was key about the transition to the Super Nintendo was that there was no backward compatibility. To move forward was to leave an entire generation of games behind. Battletoads, though it was far from the last NES game to come out, marked the end of the era. To end that era with a game that reminded players of their own mortality and of the vagaries of human frailty was a powerful statement that explains, for me at least, why the NES embeds itself mythically in the history of video games in a way no other system can.

Battletoads also had its finger in the wave of games that came after the SNES was released - the sort of epitaph to the NES, with its fantastically ill-advised sequel, which crossed it over with the Double Dragon franchise. By this time the medium had jumped to the 16-bit era, and the NES was a dead system walking - indeed, Battletoads & Double Dragon got a Super Nintendo port a few months after it came out. The game by and large plays like the zombie it is - lifeless, a hair too easy, and somehow lacking all of the perversely brutal charm of the original. The less said about it, the better, really. I think I'll even pass on including a screenshot.

1 comment:

  1. Oh man, while I liked Battletoads, I loved Battle Toads and Double Dragon. My brother and I would play it together, or sometimes one of us would play it with my dad.