‘Battletoads’, Xbox’s Most Divisive Game Of 2020, Is Game Pass Perfection
The reviews for Xbox Game Studios' newly rebooted Battletoads represent a ride almost as wild and unpredictable as mounting one of the series' own notoriously tricky Turbo Bikes. From near-perfect scores to out-and-out avoid this summaries, the first new Battletoads game since 1994 has had critics split like few other titles released in 2020.
And that is why it's such a perfect game for Xbox's Game Pass service. Allow me to explain.
A new game comes out, and it attracts universal acclaim? You know if you're up for it or not, when that happens. If it's your genre of choice, you're snapping it right up - and if it's not, it's still likely to stick around on your radar for when it gets a discount. But when a new game comes out, and it mostly gets a critical kicking? Unless you're an absolute sucker for the genre it's in, and can see past its myriad flaws, you're probably avoiding it. Few of us have money to burn on inferior experiences.
But a game that gets both wretched write-ups and its praises sung at incredible volume? That's a tough one. And when that game also flits between genres like it simply can't make up its mind what it really wants to be, the matter is only further complicated.
Battletoads is a side-scrolling beat 'em up in the vein of its series predecessors, most of the time. It's also a sort of racer (RIP, all those Turbo Bikes), a 2D platformer, a top-down shooter and a... tower-smashing, um, thing? What you're actually doing on screen right now is often wholly unconnected to what you were doing 20 minutes earlier. While sporadically tough (brief invincibility is an option), it's not a super long game, and its replay value comes down to just how keen you are to achieve perfect scores in each of its diverse chapters, which are spread across four acts. It's like everything that was ever on the design brief for this game ended up in the end product.
And that's... Well, in my opinion it can all become pretty exhausting, because I don't feel like any one of Battletoads' approaches to what tricks the player's performing is really all that special. The beat 'em up parts are good, as you switch between the individual toads - Rash, Pimple, and Zitz - to string together some lengthy combos. The action is frequently fast and can initially feel chaotic until you get a grasp on how to mix up your abilities, from fast and light blows to uppercuts and head-pounding specials and guard-breakers, and really dish out damage (while avoiding taking it). There's local co-op for up to three players, which is nice, although the absence of online multiplayer seems like a rare miss for Xbox these days (no pun intended).
But as good as these stages can be, they're simply not on the same level as this year's Streets of Rage 4 or 2019's River City Girls. So if it's strollin' and smackin' thrills I'm after, I'm going to revisit those gems rather then fire up this rather-less-rewarding alternative.
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In every other aspect, from its brief forays into other styles of play to its hit-and-miss (but, for me, mostly miss) humour, Battletoads just does enough. I respect it for not being just the one kind of game, or too much of a love letter to the series' earlier entries without bringing anything new to the table; but I also wonder just what developers Dlala Studios, alongside supervision from the series' original makers Rare, could have achieved if they'd just delivered the one kind of game. Could Battletoads have been a worthy rival to Streets of Rage 4 - another revived beat 'em up from the 1990s - if its development was exclusively focused on making a single way to play shine?
We'll never know. But we can all - well, those of us with Game Pass - grab Battletoads for 'nothing' and simply give it a go. Because if those hugely different reviews say anything about this game, it's that for some people, this is going to be a winner. And that's what a service like Game Pass, for me and my money, should be about: not the big-budget AAA games that you're going to want to buy and own outright, but the smaller, leftfield productions that catch you unawares. The ones that aren't for everybody - but that anybody, of any taste or previous experience, can play them if they want to, is quite incredible.
That widespread accessibility to weirder, more opinion-splitting games is partially why Outer Wilds did so well in 2019; and switching to the comparable(ish) PS+ on PlayStation, why Fall Guys has been such a hit this summer. Sticking with Game Pass, it's why genuinely pretty great games like Void Bastards and Carrion, The Touryst and Spiritfarer, are finding the player numbers they (again, in my opinion) deserve.
Sure, it's great that the occasional big-hitter hauls itself onto the service, like Final Fantasy XV or Red Dead Redemption 2, but I'd be just as happy if my subscription was dedicated solely to the games I didn't already know about, before their arrival. That journey of discovery is precious, and when you find a game you really love that way, by digging through the makeweights and the also-rans, it makes it all the more meaningful.
Battletoads isn't a brilliant game - but it's no disaster, either. It's fine, just fine - never so gripping to make you stay up late at night, and never so obnoxious to make you quit and uninstall the thing. Would I have paid for it? No, I don't think so, even at fifteen quid. But am I glad I got to check it out through Game Pass? Absolutely. And I know that others who've come at it from the same position - one of curiosity, of an eagerness to at least sample a little of what exists beyond the all-consuming AAA space - will have found themselves a game of the year contender, if the very best reviews are any kind of guide.
Battletoads is clearly satisfyingly scratching some individual itches out there, and its presence on Game Pass means it can reach as many of those people as possible, with minimal effort. That's something to celebrate, and I hope as Xbox shifts gears and moves towards the Series X, that Game Pass continues to find room not only for first-party dalliances with unfashionable genres, but also the wonderful array of unusual indies we've seen come to the service over the last few years.
Battletoads is out now on Xbox One and Windows, and can - in case it wasn't obvious - be played via Game Pass.
Featured Image Credit: Xbox Game Studios