One game that I think most people have played at some point is the original Super Mario Bros. Some of us had fun. Some of us did not. Some of us played it all the way to the end. For some of us, it was the beginning of a journey into the world of video games that continues for this day.
And some of us thought ‘You know, I bet I could make a version of this where every third jump was frame-perfect, there were bosses that took 60 fireballs to kill and murdered you in a single hit, and to top it all off, you still had a limited number of lives.’
Those people went on to make the games we’ll be talking about today.
Since time immemorial, people have tried their very best to make games that are just difficult to play. Not because they’re unfair or unenjoyable, but as a test of equal parts skill and endurance. In a lot of these games, the satisfaction doesn’t come from having what could be described as ‘fun’, but rather proving to yourself that you have what it takes – sometimes talent, sometimes just perseverance – to continue where others would give up, and to succeed where others would fail.
Some people call these games ‘Nintendo Hard’ because of the infamy that old school NES games have for being comically difficult. Other people forego the SNES completely and just call it ‘NES Hard’, so it’s only fitting that I chose two of the toughest NES games to compare and contrast. Battletoads is memetic for being ridiculously, over the top challenging, and Battle Kid is a much more recent homebrew NES game inspired by I Wanna Be The Guy, a game whose creator jokingly insists is actually a ROMhack of the last level of Battletoads, since most people have never made it that far, and thus cannot deny the possibility.
But despite being harder to get through than a swimming pool full of treacle, or a TV show starring Piers Morgan, both of these games have a lot to offer aside from the off-putting deaths you’re sure to encounter. Battletoads didn’t just make ScrewAttack’s ‘Top 10 Hardest NES Games’ list, but also their ‘Top 10 Beat ‘Em Ups’. And Battle Kid isn’t a straightforward platformer, but a Metroidvania with unlockable items and abilities. They might be difficult, but they’re difficult in very different ways; ways that make them perfect for a Game War.
So, Toads VS Kid. Prepare for battle.
Before Battletoads was a meme used to irritate Gamestop employees and cameo in the Xbox One version of Shovel Knight, it was a very difficult NES game. Released by Rare in 1991, quite late in the NES’ lifespan (although I suppose not quite as late as Battle Kid,) Battletoads is a platformer/beat-em-up/there are honestly so many different types of objective in this game that I’m not sure what it would qualify as in modern times so I’m just going to say ‘Action’. And Battletoads is honestly one of the best action games on the NES.
The rather minimal plot is that Rash and Zitz, two of the three eponymous Battletoads, are on a mission to save Pimple – toad number three – and Princess Angelica, who I would love to describe more, but that’s really about it. The villain of the game is the ‘Dark Queen’ who is at least notable enough to have her own Wikipedia page, but most-frequently remembered because she dressed like a dominatrix on a very hot day. You also have mission control in the form of Professor T. Bird, who pilots the Vulture, the Battletoads’ spaceship which has an animal shape I can probably leave you to figure out from the name.
Battletoads has acquired a reputation as not just a difficult, but the difficult game. If the word ‘difficulty’ didn’t exist, people would be judging video games today based on how Battletoads-y they were. And yet, positive reception flooded in; it took first place in five different categories at the 1991 Nintendo Power Awards, including ‘Overall Best NES Game of the Year’, and despite many people joking about never even making it past Turbo Tunnel, both GamesRadar and IGN placed the game on their lists of best NES games, at 18 and 40, respectively.
Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril is a homebrew NES game released by Sivak Games – basically just one guy who’s really really good at designing games – in 2010, making this quite probably the Game Wars match-up where the games were released furthest apart, with 19 years between Battletoads and this. Heavily-inspired by I Wanna Be The Guy, another notoriously difficult homebrew game that’s already been featured on this blog, Battle Kid has only ever seen release on actual hard-copy NES cartridges, which you can purchase at Retrousb.com.
The plot of the game, much like Battletoads, isn’t of great importance. Rather than ‘The Kid’ in I Wanna Be The Guy, you control Timmy, who similarly can only shoot four bullets on-screen at once and dies in a single hit. And yet, in a successful playthrough, Timmy explores the ‘Fortress of Peril’, defeats 8 bosses, makes his way through 500 different rooms, avoids more than 30 types of enemy, and ultimately succeeds in destroying a supermech. It’s more of a Metroidvania than a platformer, with unlockable abilities that initially help you to traverse new areas and soon afterwards become just another way the game can force you to pull of crazy manoeuvres to continue. But with the help of occasional save rooms, Timmy and the player never have far back to go.
While it’s hard to find exact details regarding the reception the game has received, it has most definitely been received positively; Battle Kid (and Battle Kid 2, which I would recommend incredibly strongly,) have both been run at ‘Awesome Games Done Quick’ events – emphasis on the ‘Awesome’ – and speaking of Battle Kid 2, the original game was popular enough to warrant a sequel, which, again, I would recommend very strongly. News of the game’s design and release was covered on Joystiq, Digital Something, and it made an appearance at ScrewAttack Gaming Convention; using the password ‘SGCLEVEL’ still takes you to a secret level and hidden boss.
Now that we’ve got the introductions out of the way, let’s get down to the battle.
While neither of these games are going to be outshining Red Dead Redemption any time soon (I feel like I could probably be mentioning a more modern game in terms of impressive graphics, but screw it,) I honestly love talking about the graphics in older games, because when you have less to work with, there’s a far greater capacity for the audience to be impressed. And visually, both of these games are very impressive.
Battletoads immediately takes the lead just for variety. You start off in the underground caves, and then you get to Turbo Tunnel, and then you… well, most people don’t see past Turbo Tunnel, but trust me, there’s a lot more of the game, and it has a wide variety of settings. Icy caverns, a river you surf on, a mechanical area, a partly underwater area, and the final climb up a dark and dramatic tower. There really is a lot to see in this game, and the quality of the graphics is consistent.
Battle Kid also has a variety of locations, but they’re more similar to each other than in Battletoads, if you know what I mean. You unlock new abilities as you play, so the layout of each area is certainly different, but for the most part it’s just the same blocks in different colours. I don’t want to sound critical; it’s still more colourful than the average NES game, and the areas each have their own themes, both in gameplay and in graphics, but there’s no standout moment I can think of as ‘impressive’. Maybe how well the game runs in spite of the speed of some boss’ attack patterns? The game runs very smoothly and quickly for an NES game, that’s impressive.
The standout moment in Battletoads is, luckily for people who never made it past the first level, the boss battle at the end of the first level. The POV changes from the sidescrolling action beat-em-up game you were playing to… well, the same sidescrolling action beat-em-up, but from the point of view of the boss. It’s a neat touch – one thing I adore is that in the corner of the screen, there are four direction arrows, and they each flash before the robot’s view moves left or right or whatever direction is flashing. It’s an incredibly minor touch, but a nice one! And it’s an impressive display of graphical capability to suddenly switch to an alternate view, just for one boss fight.
What could swing this in favour of Battle Kid is the animation. There are dozens of enemies to be found, along with six bosses, and each one is animated very well with the kind of skill that makes it obvious that not only is the game deliberately designed with a retro aesthetic, but also that it was made a great deal of time after people discovered the full potential of what you could fit on an NES cart. You can tell it was made in 2010 is my point – there are so many rooms and enemies and power-ups and obstacles that this could not have possibly been made back in the console’s heyday.
Honestly though, I have to give this one to Battletoads. It’s a very close call – closer than some entire Game Wars blogs – but Battletoads is just a smidgen more impressive visually. Battle Kid is great, but every room in the game is a separate screen, like if Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night only had tiny, irritating rooms. Battletoads wins for its’ bigger levels and a wider variety of backgrounds and environments.
So we’ve determined that Battletoads looks very pretty, but how to these games play? It’s an interesting match-up because Battletoads keeps the same control scheme throughout, but the majority of levels have something unique to interact with that keeps the gameplay fresh, whereas in Battle Kid you unlock new abilities cumulatively so by the end of the game you’re not just skilled enough to make it through all of the basic screens you had trouble with at the beginning of the game, but you can also double-jump, float or wall-grip your way around them.
The basic gameplay of Battletoads stays the same in most of the levels. You can walk, you can jump, you can attack, and you can run. But the level design is able to make the most of these abilities by incorporating them into a variety of different tasks, and that’s just the levels that aren’t outright completely different kinds of gameplay. The ice level gives you ice physics, the rat race makes you run like hell, the snakes really challenge the speed of your reflexes, and the final level places you on a 3D rotating tower and forces you to fight against foes who are trying to blow you away. All of this from ‘walk, run, jump, punch’.
Battle Kid begins with an even barer control scheme; you can only walk, jump and shoot. Much like I Wanna Be The Guy, part of why I’m so impressed with the title isn’t the variety of manoeuvres you can do, but the variety of obstacles the game throws your way in which every room feels unique even though you start out only able to do three things, and one of those is ‘move left or right’. Still, the abilities you unlock are nice, like the ability to grip and hold onto certain walls, a higher jump, holding the up button to delay how fast you fall through the air, and eventually, a double jump. One disappointing thing; three (or four, if you’re looking for secrets) of the power-ups you get are just ‘Now your bullets have the ability to destroy blocks with I, II or III on them!’ which is not a very exciting or creative method of blocking the way to the next area.
What makes the gameplay of Battletoads so memorable are the gimmick levels, and I don’t mean ‘gimmick’ in a negative sense at all. You hop onto one (or two if you’re suicidally playing co-op) weird metal race cars and pow, suddenly you’re dodging rocks and jumping over enemies in the Turbo Tunnel. You hop on a little surfboard and do the same later on water. You zip through closing laser barriers, you ride a… thing – I’m having a real hard time describing some of these vehicles – in the Clinger Winger stage that you control by pressing the direction you want to travel in, which is difficult when the vehicle sticks to walls so you have to keep changing from up to left to down to left to up to right to down to right to up to left to up in the space of about two seconds. Even though the controls for most of these levels are just ‘use the D-Pad to control where you go’, they’re still all very interesting and every level feels fresh. Even the non-gimmick levels feel gimmicky (in the good way) because there aren’t many levels without a completely unique twist.
The upgrades of Battle Kid can keep the gameplay feeling fresh too, especially when the guy behind Sivak Games is so incredibly good at designing dozens of ways to use an ability differently. As soon as you can double-jump, expect to face 40 well-designed and original rooms where you have to use it in a slightly different way. And the fact that you just keep getting more and more of these abilities is a major factor in Battle Kid’s favour. Every time you start a new level of Battletoads, you’re starting again from scratch, exactly as you were at the start of the game, with no idea what the game is about to throw at you. Every time you start a new area in Battle Kid, you feel a little bit more confident than you used to, having just beaten a boss or gained an ability that gives you a little more control over your environment.
I honestly can’t decide whether Battletoads’ different styles of gameplay outweigh Battle Kid’s progressive power-up system, so I’m going to let quantity decide. In Battle Kid, you have your basic gameplay, but you also unlock a high-jump, wall climb, double jump, slowed descent, powered up shots and the ability to breathe underwater. In Battletoads you have the traditional sidescroller gameplay, the Turbo Tunnel, Clinger Winger, that underwater chase, those snakes, the Rat Race, that surfboard level, and… okay, I think I’m going with Battletoads. I feel like overall, each level is designed so uniquely and individually that I have to give it to Rare for the creativity.
Also I just realised that the wall-grip mechanic I was talking about was actually in ‘Battle Kid 2: Mountain of Torment’, not ‘Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril’, so, er, oops! Without that, the abilities in Battle Kid 1 are honestly a bit sparse. But still good enough that the whole game is enjoyable and challenging.
Usually I’d go for ‘Music’ third but I have a feeling people care more about the difficulty of Battletoads and Battle Kid than they care about the soundtracks. It’s no secret that these are two of the most difficult NES games ever made, and that’s not changing any time soon. But which game is more difficult, and which game has a difficulty level I would attempt to objectively describe as ‘better’?
Battletoads is hard. That’s no secret. But while the game’s legendary status is partly a result from its difficulty, that same difficulty is one of its greatest flaws. Battletoads has a few hidden hot spots – well, hidden insofar as they briefly flash on the screen and then disappear – but otherwise it’s a pretty standard ‘Three lives and you’re out’ type deal. Which, for a game where you’re likely to lose all three of those lives by the time you make it to stage four, can be a hindrance more than an attraction. But it definitely adds to the thrill and exhilaration when you finally make it one level further than your last attempt. Before promptly dying again.
The difficulty in Battle Kid is fundamentally different by way of save points. You can run out into the wild blue yonder, immediately die to a falling piece of fruit, and go back to your last checkpoint within around two seconds; provided you don’t accidentally select ‘end’ instead of ‘continue’, and… I’m going to be honest, I must have seen that Game Grumps clip about a hundred times by now. But Battle Kid is held back a little by the lower variety in gameplay. All you can do is jump and shoot, and even after the first few power-ups you get, all they change is that now you can jump higher, fall a little slower, and shoot certain blocks that you couldn’t shoot before, so every screen of the game is a combination of ‘go there, avoid this, and shoot that.’ There’s a lot of incredibly intelligent design here, but the difficulty can fall a little bit short when there’s a limit on what the game can realistically ask you to do.
Battletoads doesn’t have this problem, but without a save system, it’s replaced with another problem. So many levels start with a bold new direction of gameplay that it can take a few tries to get used to; it would be ridiculous to expect players to be good at the Turbo Tunnel or climbing those Snakes on their first go. So you die, and you go back to the beginning, and it’ll be another half an hour until you can try again. That’s clearly the type of game that Battletoads wants to be, but it’s not for everyone, and it’s certainly not for me. It’s hard to learn how to beat a notoriously difficult game that requires a great deal of precision when you only get a few chances at it every hour, and that’s if you’re skilled enough to consistently make it back.
Battle Kid’s limited gameplay options don’t really come into effect as much because there’s still a lot that you can do with just running and jumping and shooting; Metroid and Contra did it, and Mario and Sonic didn’t even need to shoot! But on top of the gameplay mechanics, the level design in Battle Kid incorporates a lot of other challenges, like windy areas, underwater areas, spikes that appear and disappear on a timer. Honestly, I was trying to make the gameplay limitations sound far worse than they are because I don’t find this decision difficult at all.
I tend to judge difficulty two ways. How difficult is it to beat the game, and how difficult is it to play the game? I mean, if you could only take one hit in New Super Mario Bros Wii, and a single death sent you back to World 1, Level 1, then it would be harder to finish that game than it would to finish Dark Souls. But that wouldn’t mean it was, y’know, harder, in the intended sense of the word. So Battle Kid wins on two fronts. It’s easier to play by way of checkpoints, giving you a genuine sense of progression every time you make it a few screens further, but it’s also harder in several areas. They’re just areas where the player is encouraged to throw themselves at the game twenty times in order to learn patterns or acquire the skills necessary to succeed. So on both accounts, Battle Kid is superior to Battletoads in this regard.
Neither of these games are really renowned for their epic soundtracks, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t two of the NES’ greatest jukeboxes. In all of their bleepity-bloopity glory, let’s see which is better.
The title theme of Battletoads is never one that I listened to for more than the first ten seconds, but I’m glad I was forced to listen to it now for the sake of comparison, because it’s… nice! It’s energetic, it’s catchy, it’s a little bit ‘out there’, even for the NES. I’m not sure what else to say. I also like that it opens with that one long descending note, which nowadays sounds a little bit like someone squeezed a rubber chicken toy and dropped it down an elevator shaft, but also works well as a warning for how quickly your mental state and calm resolution will deteriorate as you try to make it past the ice level.
Battle Kid’s first area, creatively named ‘Area 01’, has this tune, and I think it’s a little less good but a little more fitting. It’s still catchy enough to get stuck in your head and bring back memories of dying for the first few times on the first few enemies and traps, but it sounds well-suited to that. It sounds challenging, if that makes sense. This wouldn’t be a boss tune or a happy midpoint area tune, but this is a tune that says ‘You’re here, you’ve got something to do, it’s really difficult, get on with it.’ Not literally, but, you know.
And sorry for re-inflicting the traumatic experience on you all again, but as a follow-up, I had to pick the Turbo Tunnel music from Battletoads, and while it strikes me as kind of dissonant for such an incredibly difficult game to have such happy and upbeat music, that doesn’t make it any less catchy, and I can see how if you’ve finally gotten to the point where you can beat the level, it would feel fantastic to have this playing in the background as you effortlessly dodge past the incoming obstacles like the gaming God you are.
I’m choosing the boss encounter music for my next Battle Kid tune because it’s much more fast-paced and intense and really good for a moment in a game where you’re running around in a tiny room fighting against a gigantic enemy that can kill you in one hit. And it’s composed well because it gets to the fast-paced ‘AAAAAAAH!’ feeling really quickly, which is appropriate when you’re fighting a boss for the hundredth time and you only have one second to build the hype before you’re probably going to die again.
This is one of those categories where it’s really, really tough, because, not to be rude to these fine games, but I rarely think of comparing their soundtracks, and they’re both of similar quality, and I’m not really a video game music connoisseur to begin with. I will go for… Battletoads, because I would probably rather listen to the Battletoads soundtrack in my spare time. And for that pause music.
Kind of a mixture of difficulty and gameplay here, and, not going to lie, this category was mainly born from the need to find a fifth thing to compare and deciding that both of the game’s stories weren’t the most engaging. Not that that’s a negative, they weren’t designed to be – or at least – oh God, I feel bad because Sivak Games seem kind of likely to stumble across this and I don’t want to keep backhandedly criticising their efforts.
If it’s any consolation, Battle Kid very clearly has the advantage here, with six interesting bosses and one devastating final boss, although… it’s hard to really stand out as devastating when every other boss in the game is just as capable of killing you in one hit. But my favourites are the purple plant, not just for Arin’s rage, and Cleo, probably the most challenging boss in both games. Cleo jumps to the other side of the room you’re in, then changes colour to one of six colours, then performs a unique and difficult attack based on that colour (so, six patterns to learn) and then you have maybe a 1-second window to land some shots before she does it again. Also, I thought Cleo was a penguin because she’s the boss of the ice level. Also assuming ‘she’ based on Cleo. Also, despite being incredibly difficult, I can confirm that I felt like I had just beaten I Wanna Be The Guy with both hands tied behind my back when I finally defeated her.
Battletoads may not have as many bosses, but it’s certainly not lacking. I really enjoy the first boss in the very first stage; it’s one of the best-designed bosses on the NES, even if it’s generally speaking the least-hard part of the game. Not the easiest. Just the least-hard. I like how the POV switches to the boss, and I like how much detail went into this one interesting boss fight that was bound to only last under half a minute. I especially love how from the POV display of the robot, there are four direction-arrows on the left of the screen, and each one of them will briefly flash when the robot is moving in that direction. It’s not something you would ever need to notice to beat the boss, because its patterns are repetitive and it should never hit you, but it’s a really nice little touch.
And as big of an advantage Battle Kid has, it’s still got a few flaws in this regard. One of the bosses is just four ‘Seahorse Turrets’, which are… well, turrets. They sit in the same place and fire at you. And every time you destroy one, the fire rate of the rest increases. I still died a few times, but it wasn’t exactly challenging. And the second boss, Owlbot, has a turret at the top of the screen that’s supposed to track you and fire shots, but due to a programming error, it actually stops right in front of you and fires shots there. That being said, it’s more of a funny glitch than a genuine complaint, and the boss is still challenging enough without it, so… I can’t really complain about a funny glitch.
Back to Battletoads, and much like the difficulty, it turns out I was only really saying that stuff about Battle Kid because I want to pretend this is close and it isn’t; Battle Kid’s going to win on bosses. There are a few more bosses here and there, like… a jumpy man midway through the surfing level who reminds me of a boss in Contra. I might actually just be misremembering a genuine boss from Contra here. And the final boss is cool, but good luck ever seeing her, or having fun guessing her attack pattern because it took you an hour to make it this far because now you’re on your last life. Like the difficulty, the bosses in Battletoads are held back by the fact that instead of learning their attack patterns and adapting the beat them quickly, the process can take a few laborious, tiring hours during which you’re not having very much fun.
But even if there were save points before every boss in Battletoads, this would still be Battle Kid’s category to lose. 8 interesting and unique bosses clench this one for the kid. Let’s move on to the final verdict.
Both of these games are notoriously difficult, yet rewarding. One of them has stood the test of time to become a beloved and respected internet phenomenon, as well as a genuinely fondly-remembered game. One of them is a respected homebrew title from a team of one and is, frankly, a feat of programming and design that deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as other famous single-dev teams, like Paper’s Please or Dust: An Elysian Tail. But only one can win.
Battletoads VS Battle Kid. Which ultra-hard game for the console behind the phrase ‘Nintendo Hard’ is better?
I would love for this to be more dramatic, but I just can’t see this one going the other way. Battletoads is a pretty fantastic experience, held back by some arcade stylings that prevent me – and most players – from ever experiencing the whole thing. If you’ve made it onto the throne of Battletoads victors, congratulations – truly – but question why so many gave up before they made it. Battle Kid’s homebrew I Wanna Be The Guy multiplied by Mega Man product was more difficult to beat, but easier to play, and it made pressing on after every ridiculous death feel like a challenge instead of a chore.
Congratulations to Sivak Games, and for the record, Battle Kid 2 is absolutely fantastic as well. Even better than the first, I’d say. And the first is better than Battletoads.
Next time on Game Wars, *about twelve seconds of clanking noises, followed by jubilant screams*. It’s RollerCoaster Tycoon VS Theme Park World.
Thanks for reading!