Terrible Tunnel – The Unintentional Horror of Battletoads
You hurtle down a corridor, a single mistake away from an abrupt, jarring death that leaves you a splattered smear. You misgauge a movement and find yourself impaled on frigid spikes in an icy cavern. You blink during a tense escape sequence, only to find a fireball searing the flesh from your bones. A crushing foe breathes down your neck as you fumble for safety down a narrow path, only to come to a dead end. A noxious fog rolls in, ending your game as you creep towards the ending and safety.
These all describe (albeit vaguely) some harrowing scenes in famous horror games, but they also describe stages from the 1991 NES release of Battletoads. This ruthless game, with its grimacing, tough toad hero hefting a rat monster on the cover of the game (while sporting some super rugged spiked bracelets and belts AND knee pads, I might add), sure doesn’t look like a horror title. You just look so strong and capable in that cover art. And also, you can grow giant fists to punch folks with. Grow horns and headbutt them! Doesn’t exactly seem frightening, does it?
And the developers and publishers sure didn’t market it as horror back in the day, judging form the comic book ad for it I was used to seeing. “Compared to Battletoads, turtles seem like pond scum.Dude, if you’re ready for a game that toadally kicks butt, get Battletoads. With 12 leapin’ levels of fierce fighting and radical racing, for one or two players.”
Not exactly the kind of ad campaign I’d expect for a horror game (or for a game that was vastly inferior to Turtles II: The Arcade Game). Still, when I played this game during my childhood, it had a power to frighten me like few other games of the time. The abrupt, lethal ends you would meet for the vast majority of the game would come with such blinding speed that I would find myself leaping from my seat with as much terror gripping my heart as it did when Jason attacked me in the NES Friday the 13th (which is also a horror game far ahead of its time that I talk about a lot and that you should check out).
I don’t think Battletoads was ever intended to be a horror game. Still, that hasn’t lessened its unintentional power to provide me with some of the most tense, nerve-wracking sequences I’ve ever experienced in my gaming career, and some of the most jarring jump scares I’ve endured out of my entire history with horror games.
A big part of this ability to terrify comes from the game’s utter contempt for the player’s life. This game, put simply, has been designed to kill you as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is a torrent of beginner’s traps, where the game works to trick you into thinking you’re getting to safety, only to lure you to a grim end. Its design feels similar to Demon’s Souls – created with an eye for finding the moment the player is being inattentive and exploiting it to kill them – only having been put together by even crueler taskmasters who want to break your spirit. I’m not trying to say the folks behind Battletoads are bad people. Just that they wanted to make something unbelievably challenging, even in the era of “Nintendo Hard.”
You typically see this kind of viciousness in horror games, where death lurks in wait at all times. The relentless, random flights from Scissor Man in Clock Tower, where a poorly-chosen hiding spot will bring about your end. Encounters with the frightening, bloodthirsty foes of Outlast. Any of the instantly-lethal run-ins with the Kusabi in Fatal Frame II. Horror games are filled with these kinds of abrupt ends if the player makes a single mistake.
That constant proximity to death creates a pressure in the player – a tension that weighs down your every move. It winds you up tight as you read too much into every single sound, take too much care in each step, and struggle not to let your panic send you blindly running through the halls. That fear that something is coming to kill you, even if it’s only a video game, twists you up so hard that it’s difficult not to scream when something finally grasps you in the dark.
Or, in the bright, almost neon light of Battletoads. Honestly, Battletoads puts a lot of horror titles to shame with how often it’s actively trying to kill you. Most horror games will give you a break to breathe and to re-establish tension, but in Battletoads, it’s just one lethal trap after another with little in-between. It’s to the point that I’m not even sure why you have a health bar after the first few stages, because you’re typically just going to die instantly.
Take Turbo Tunnel, the game’s infamous third level (and where every single one of my runs, outside of playing with cheat devices, has ended). It starts out with some regular beat ‘em up segments, and you’re probably feeling pretty good about your skills at the game at that point. Then, you have to hop on a speeder bike and rush off into a hazard-lined tunnel, likely oblivious that this is as far as most folks will ever get in the game.
You can slam into a brick wall at high speeds in a millisecond in Turbo Tunnel. And even when you start to learn the patterns, the dodgy jumping you have to do between platforms, as well as the ever-increasing speed of the hazard appearances, mean you are always hovering on the brink of death. One little reaction that’s just a half-second too slow, one jump that you don’t aim quite right, and you’re dead. Blink at the wrong moment, and you’re dead. Incorrectly memorize a segment’s layout and you’re dead.
And you feel this pressure weighing down on you. Just like hearing Nemesis roaring somewhere on the screen with you, catching the musical cue that you’re being stalked in Haunting Ground, or the hiss of Silent Hill’s radio indicating danger is near, Battletoads has your stress spiking because you know that the danger is coming your way, and quickly. It was coming so fast that I could barely react to it without knowing it in advance, and the whole ordeal left me just as tense, if not moreso, than most any horror game had ever had me.
That tension finds newer, more unforgiving ways to sustain itself throughout the game. Like the dark, empty corridors of Amnesia, you feel like something is out there waiting to kill you, violently. Although you meet that violent end a little bit more cartoonishly in Battletoads. When you get smeared against a wall from the impact in Turbo Tunnel, there’s no blood, and it’s meant to look a little silly. But it’s still right on the verge of gruesome in some places, isn’t it? You do see your broken, limp body tumble off-screen with every spike trap you run into, or every whirlpool you find your toad drowning in.
The game took a kind of glee in killing you, didn’t it? It had such a variety of stages where the slightest mistake would kill you, feeling like Saw designed for the NES era with all its traps and pitfalls. Flying a jet through fireballs and energy gates as you hurtle over an inferno. Climbing massive snakes as you leap high over spiked pits. Dodging cogs, sharks, and killer rubber ducks in the hot pink inner workings of a deadly ship. Rushing to keep ahead of a determined, ridiculously-fast monster before they could set off a deadly explosion.
That race puts many horror chases to shame with its speed, honestly. The stage, Rat Race, pits you against a massive rat, Scuzz, as you hurry to the bottom of a series of winding metallic paths so that you can defuse a bomb at the bottom (with a kick, so at least the bomb isn’t too delicate). That awful rat is incredibly quick, basically demanding that you know the level inside and out to take the exact right path to maintain enough speed to get to the end ahead of him.
The anxiety and tension in these races is downright crushing. Your every move has to be so precise to make it in time, and the moment you see that rat closing in on you, you just might feel your heart rate spiking hard. It always had me gripping the controller so, so tight as I played, pulse racing as I struggled to maintain any kind of lead. Today, that feeling of terror in Battletoads, and the weight of the consequences of a single misstep, remind me of so many horror experiences and chases that have left me gasping at their end.
Clinger Winger, another vehicle level, takes the same pressures of Rat Race and Turbo Tunnel and combines them into a white-knuckle race that I feel anxious just thinking about it. It doesn’t even look like much in screenshots, but I’m asking you to trust me on this if you haven’t tried it.
In this stage, the Buzzball chases you throughout 95% of the level, and the thing is relentless. You’re not on foot, either, but rather taking a clumsy, anti-gravity unicycle that will help you maintain enough speed to stay away from the ball. That said, the ball is always right behind you, and if I implied that Rat Race required precision movements, I’m telling you that here, you need to play perfectly to survive. Rat Race and Turbo Tunnel needed you to play extremely well with little room for error, but this wall-climbing race allows no mistakes. You need to be changing direction with your control pad at the exact moment you need to make the turn, or else the Buzzball will trample you.
It’s not a long level, because if it was, I think most players’ hearts would burst. Still, this chase is the pinnacle of cruelty in this game – a stage so demanding that I don’t know how anyone could get through it without feeling tense and terrified of death the whole time.
It brings with it this sense of inevitability in your doom, too. There’s a deep despair that runs through you as you try to work through the ruthless stages of Battletoads. Each asks more of you than the last, offering a gauntlet of deadly traps you’ll be working on for months, if you have the grit for it. Given that you can only die a few times, and have only a few continues before you get booted back to start, means the amount of practice you’d have to put in to complete these stages is enormous. You have to do so much work just to get to a place where you can even try a hard level again, and if you die fast, you go all he way back to the beginning.
So, not only is death a frightening near-inevitability that comes with heart-wrenching speed, but eventually, your death gains a certain degree of permanence. You’ll inevitably get send back to the start, spirit likely broken. You don’t get as many tries as you like at a hard sequence. Not unless you come crawling back to that point again.
I’m reminded of the perma-death Hard Core mode of Dead Space 2, where failure will send you all the way back to the start (and you have very few saves to make along the way). In it, every danger feels that much more terrifying because it can mean the end of your run and a restart. But Battletoads pushes that even farther with its scant handful of continues and lack of a save system. You have to face the game’s dangers without fail right there, and if you make only a few mistakes, you’re done.
This loans death an incredible weight throughout Battletoads, as each loss brings you closer to total failure. That these ends also come from abrupt, violent deaths makes dying such a jarring moment, making the player tense and afraid of the tiniest mistake. I’m wound tighter playing Battletoads than I am during those Dead Space 2 runs because the margin for error feels that much smaller. You can fail so easily in the former game, where in Dead Space 2 I at least feel I have a few seconds to react most of the time.
And the despair you feel when those lives dwindle? Not unlike the pain, frustration, and defeat I mentioned coming from the clunky combat of Rule of Rose. The mechanics and play here are built to help you survive, but feel insufficient to overcome the game’s challenges a lot of the time. I’d argue you’re far better equipped to deal with Battletoads’ dangers than those of Rule of Rose since the mechanics are mostly sharp and precise, but you feel that same broken spirit as you fail, over and over again. You feel that fear of death when you face it every second you play the game, taking you to a similar place to most horror games.
Am I saying that Battletoads is just as scary as Amnesia, Dead Space 2, or Silent Hill? No, not really, but there are elements in the fear of death that Battletoads creates that feel similar to those of horror games, and the ruthless challenge of the title brings me to similar place of tension, stress, and fear that playing horror games do. Through its cruelty, constant possibility for death, few places to make mistakes, and the semi-permanent nature of failure, it makes for a playthrough that seems eerily similar to horror, even if I’m not afraid of running into a brick wall at high speed in a dark night (although that’s honestly the most likely one to happen out of all of my evening fears). But it does make me feel wound up with tension and terror in its own unique way.
When Jigsaw asks if you’d like to play a game, it’s honestly Battletoads that I think he’s talking about.