This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews No Straight Roads and Battletoads.
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Sometimes I like to picture game developers watching these videos. “Ooh! Look everyone! That weirdo on the internet did one of ours! Let’s all gather round to good-naturedly laugh off his exaggerated criticism and bask in the occasional qualified praise. Come on, Steve. Bob. Fiona. Adolf. Lionel. Big Smelly Janet. I wonder if the developers of Battletoads are doing that now. Well, developers of Battletoads, here’s the thing: I hate your game. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever realised I hated a game quite as fast as I realised I hated yours. I’m trying to avoid swearing, here, so you understand how totally sincere I am when I say I played five or six levels into Battletoads and decided I would rather spend the afternoon cleaning out the shower drains. But hey, I don’t hold it against you. At least it didn’t waste my time, and I’ve got a really clean shower, now. Battletoads is a remake-cum-soft reboot-cum-deferred sequel-cum-stain to the notoriously difficult early 90s brawler Battletoads, a blip from the era when the media latched onto the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles thing: badass archetype plus mundane animal equals profit somehow, see also Biker Mice From Mars, yeah, I know it sounds like a madlib it was actually a thing.
In new Battletoads, Zitz, Rash and Pimple, don’t ask me which is which, I reserve my trivia remembering brain for Red Dwarf quotes, wake up in the future to find themselves forgotten has-beens and the story and dialogue has the tone of one of those Rick and Morty style animated comedies that is the current thing the media has latched onto and that’s why we keep seeing big franchises bring out their own versions of that to desperately put a facade of trendy self-effacing irreverence over the mechanical bean counting machines they have instead of souls. Battletoads bears the mark of a bad one of those in that the prevailing attitude seems to be that if they just keep talking they might eventually say something funny, like panning for gold in a bowl of porridge. But relish the cutscenes while you can, I suppose, because it means you don’t have to deal with the fucking combat. Which is awful. And I think the game is inclined to agree, the amount it tries to put it off with random minigames and driving sections, but sorry Battletoads, there’s no escaping your primary gameplay loop. You can Mexican Hat Dance around this puddle of sick you made all you like, we’re still going to have to scrape it up before it soaks into the carpet.
If you’re not holding down the run button your character moves like they’re dragging their hairy balls across a velcro floor, and that’s just breaking the top of this expired mayonnaise creme brulee. The root problem is this adherence to a distorted cartoon style where everything animates with zany madcap flamboyance and the simplest button combination will lock you into a ten second animation where your toad of choice turns into a motor scooter with a vagina for a headlight and drives around in a circle spraying jam sandwiches or whatever and the most basic enemy attack will interrupt it and knock you on your warty bum for half an hour. Very few of your attacks have any satisfactory feel or impact, and that’s assuming you can even get the fucking hits to land because the collision’s for dogshit as well, I can be close enough to carve my initials into the enemy with my nipple piercings and still not hit them. And why are there three different buttons for “grab thing with tongue?” If my dude is repeatedly failing to eat a desperately needed health fly, why am I not sure if it’s because the collision fucked up again or because I pressed the wrong tongue button? There’s an oral sex joke in there somewhere.
Battletoads’ awkwardness gives it the kind of difficulty that some people might consider a badge of honour to master, but for me it’d be like mastering the art of ricocheting marbles off a tea tray so that they hit me square in the testicles. So I played something else. I played No Straight Roads on the Epic Store, which might best be summarised as the most Double Finiest game to ever not be made by Double Fine. In a city full of people with a very Double Finey art style – you know what I mean, kind of like The Muppets crossed with a webcomic from the 2010s – all power is generated by electronic music and other forms of music are banned. An indie rock duo consisting of a hyperactive red guitarist and a cautious and zenlike green drummer, which is funny ‘cos they’re like the opposite of how a traffic light works, vow to retake the city from the evil corporation by hijacking the concerts of six quirky musicians in a No More Heroes-esque series of colourful boss fights. So the author’s either making a point about the oppressive stability of order versus the dangerous freedom of chaotic expression, or got dragged to a few too many dance clubs after their garage band failed and now has a serious axe to grind.
No Straight Roads has rather wonderful presentation. It’s like Brutal Legend but for indie rock and without more crowbarred-in cameos than an episode of the Simpsons during one of the struggle seasons. It’s got that same aesthetic reminiscent of rifling through vinyl album covers in a second hand record shop you know perfectly well you’re not going to buy anything from but you’ve got four minutes to kill before the nuke hits. The plot presenting indie rock as the dangerous voice of youth that the MAN wants to keep oppressed might seem a little bit tragically quaint now that the kids these days express their feelings with memes and mass shootings, but there’s humour and artistry and creative visual design and there’s a sense of depth to a lot of the characters of which our brief exchanges only scratch the surface. So after all that, how does the game actually play? Shittily, as it happens. Oh well. Now you know the true connection between this week’s two games besides the fact that their titles rhyme – nice presentation, shame about the gameplay.
No Straight Roads does a pretty bad job of explaining its mechanics, but essentially it’s hack and slash melee combat with a musical twist, where the enemy attack in time with the music and you defend against it by paying attention to the rhythm, but that rhythm tends to get lost in the chaos of sound and visual effects, and the balance is generally kinda fucked, you can be riding high and then get all your health stunlocked away by a repeated attack like a speedbag with a really stupid look on its face. And again your hits just don’t have any sense of satisfying impact. It’s a tricky thing, combat feel, it’s all about little details. When you stomp on a person’s gonads, it’s not the sound it makes, or the betrayed look on their face, or the little jets of unmentionable fluid that squirt out, it’s all of that together, and if any of them fall short you might as well just be squeezing the air out of a sandwich bag full of used tissues. But of the two games reviewed today No Straight Roads takes the thanks for trying look who’s daddy’s big boy now prize because it had enough charm and creativity to push me through its dodgy design. Pretty buggy game, too, actually. That, fellas, was where you needed to stop imitating Double Fine.