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Throwback: Relive the punishing difficulty of Battletoads

When Xbox Overlord Phil Spencer recently appeared at a recent Windows 10 event wearing a Battletoads t-shirt, it was one more piece in the growing pile of evidence that Microsoft and Rare are preparing to bring back the early-90s franchise.

The series was created by British developer Rare in 1991 to rival the then-popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a platformer for the original Nintendo Entertainment System.  Three anthropomorphic toads punch, jump, and hover-bike their way through rescuing a princess from the sinister Dark Queen and her legion of space mutants. After a handful of critically-praised games and an aborted cartoon pilot, the series’ last release to date was a 1994 arcade cabinet.

Related: Throwback: Reboot to 1991 with ToeJam & Earl before their Kickstarter revival

Hints that the series might return to Xbox One have accrued at an increasing rate over the last few years. Spencer mentioned that he is “still partial to” the series in a 2013 tweet about what properties developer Rare could revive. Then 2014 was bookended by a background appearance of the Battletoads in the Rare-developed Kinect Sports Rivals and Microsoft filing for the Battletoads trademark. Spencer also tweeted in November about seeing the developer’s latest project, a “uniquely Rare game,” which could be a cryptic allusion to the toads.

This latest t-shirt reference to the series has worked the Internet into a froth about whether a revival is nearing announcement. When asked by Polygon whether the shirt was a tacit announcement or red herring, Spencer all but confirmed the series’ return with his coy response: “I don’t think I’ve ever worn a t-shirt that’s been a complete head fake. I don’t think I have … have I? I wouldn’t do that.”

So what’s all the fuss? Battletoads is an interesting case of a game that looms large in the memory of gamers who were active in the early 90s, but retains virtually no cultural footprint otherwise. Where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started as a comic that then spread into a media empire of films, cartoons, games, and toys, the Battletoads never managed to crack the world beyond their native gaming.

For your convenience, here is an itemized primer to brush up on all things Battletoads so you can prepare yourself for any upcoming announcements.

Battletoads (1991, NES)

The sinister Dark Queen has captured Princess Angelica and her Battletoad bodyguard, Pimple. That leaves it up to remaining toads, Rash and Zitz, with the support of Professor T. Bird, to rescue them from the Dark Queen and her minions. Gameplay mostly consisted of horizontal, beat ’em up levels, spiced up with the occasional vertical climb/descent or infamous vehicle obstacle courses.

Rare had been developing games for the NES since 1987 before hitting it big with Battletoads in 1991. The game was praised by critics for its impressive graphics and fun gameplay. Rash and Zitz would often partially transform themselves for finishing blows, turning a foot into a giant, spiky boot, or sprouting ram horns for a head butt, for instance.

Quaint as their silly, skin condition-derived names may seem now, this was a somewhat edgy choice for the time when video games were still broadly considered a medium for children. Along with Toejam & Earl, which came out the same year, Battletoads was testing the limits of the crude humor that the developers could get away with. The Dark Queen’s corseted, S&M-reminiscent outfit further solidified that this was a game with a more risqué sensibility than typical releases up to that point

It is probably most remembered, however, for its absolutely punishing difficulty. The aforementioned vehicle stages forced you along at such a pace that anything short of memorizing the sequence of obstacles led to almost certain doom. The game’s co-op was also notorious for making it impossible to turn off friendly fire, making it all too easy to accidentally do in your ally. The original game was subsequently ported to a variety of platforms like Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, Game Gear, and Amiga, and all of those ports dialed back the difficulty to some degree.

Because of that difficulty, the game is still a staple of the speedrunning community. Recently, it was beaten in 30:42 by two players as part of the Awesome Games Done Quick 2015 charity speedrunning stream.

Battletoads (1992, cartoon)

A half-hour cartoon pilot was produced by DiC Entertainment, which had previously found success with shows like Inspector Gadget and Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The show was the first of numerous attempts from DiC to capitalize on the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. DiC would go on to produce Street Sharks and Extreme Dinosaurs in an ongoing quest to break into the anthropomorphic mutant warriors market.

Originally aired in Canada and then syndicated in the United States, the show never went past its pilot, which serves as a prequel to the games. The episode opens with Professor T. Bird and Princess Angelica on the run from the Dark Queen. As a last resort they find the genetic essence of the ancient Battletoad warriors and use it on three hapless junior high students in Oxnard, California. The pilot was developed by David Wise, a veteran writer of 80s cartoons like He-Man, Transformers, and Jem, who was also central in adapting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from an indie comic to a blockbuster cartoon series that held the record for American cartoons with its 10-year-run until beaten by The Simpsons.

You can watch the pilot in its entirety below. It’s not too hard to see why the show didn’t catch on: The animation is of pretty questionable quality, and where the Ninja Turtles were defined by their clashing personalities, there wasn’t much to differentiate Rash, Pimple, and Zitz. They were just three, radical, party dudes — like Ninja Turtles with three Michelangelos.

Battletoads in Battlemaniacs (1993, SNES/Master System)

Rare took another crack at the series on Nintendo’s newer console with this update that essentially remixes the original game with better graphics and a lower difficulty. Once again the Dark Queen has kidnapped one of the toads (this time Zitz) and a token damsel du jour, leaving Rash and Pimple to rescue them. Unlike the previous version Rash and Pimple are slightly different, each having unique combo attacks and finisher moves. In a meta-medium twist, the game’s action is set within a simulated, virtual world called The Gamescape. The promise of immersive, virtual worlds in which you could get lost was having a cultural moment, reflected in contemporary films like The Lawnmower Man or games like Kid ChameleonThe game was generally well-received as a solid, if less original, follow-up to the original.

Battletoads & Double Dragon (1993, NES/SNES/Mega Drive/Genesis/Game Boy)

Released around the same time as Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, this Rare-developed crossover was like the Traveling Wilburys of 90s beat ’em ups. One or two players had their choice of controlling Billy and Jimmy Lee, the two martial artists from Double Dragon or, for the first time, all three of the Battletoads. The Dark Queen is up to no good again, enlisting Double Dragon’s Shadow Warriors to her wicked cause, prompting the toads to seek help from the Lee brothers. Again the game was generally praised by critics, earning multiple nominations for Nintendo Power Awards that year.

Battletoads (1994, arcade)

Rare’s final Battletoads release is considered by some to be its finest. All three toads were playable at once, each with different strengths and unique moves. The vehicle and gimmick stages were toned down in favor of a purer focus on side-scrolling brawling. The developers amped up the crude humor and violence, adding blood splatter every time enemies were hit and some gory finishing moves. A SNES port was being developed, but was then cancelled, ending the Battletoads line for the next 20 years.

Rare, 1994-present

Rare may have abandoned Battletoads, but in 1994 the studio was only ramping up for one of the most successful runs of the decade. Donkey Kong Country for the SNES is a defining game of the 16-bit era. Rare also kicked off the age of console first-person shooters with GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64 in 1997, and its follow-up, Perfect Dark. The Battletoads’ DNA can be found in the crude humor of the cult classic Conker’s Bad Fur Day from 2001.

The last 15 years have been less notable for the storied studio, but it has earned some acclaim for its colorful Viva Piñata series, Kinect Sports, and the revival of its 90s arcade fighting game, Killer Instinct, which Rare rebooted as an Xbox One launch title.

With Microsoft’s support and 90s nostalgia at an all-time high, Rare is poised to bring the Battletoads back for another round, and we’re excited to see what form it might take, and whether the franchise will return with fresh ideas or just stale nostalgia.

In the immediate future, the toads will be joining the cast of the fantastic, retro-styled platformer Shovel Knight when it arrives on Xbox One later in April.