Game That Tune

Battletoads

Frog Legs

The minimalist sci-fi freakout sounds of Battletoads are the perfect contrast to the game’s bombastic action.

By Derrick Sanskrit • January 24, 2013

Game music has the power to earworm its way into your heart long after you put the controller down. Each week in Game That Tune, we highlight a great tune from a great game (or a great tune from a just-okay game).

Battletoads, crass an experience it may be, was a shimmering example of brilliance in art direction for the NES, which was already showing its age by 1991 as shinier 16-bit consoles with flashier graphics and sound came into the mix. The Battletoads world felt fully realized and intricate, with a variety of terrain that would make J.R.R. Tolkien envious. Plus there were enormous enemies, lush animated character art, and blistering speeds that made Sonic The Hedgehog feel more like a domesticated kitten stretching after a nap. It’s as though the studio, Rare, either didn’t care about the restrictions of the NES cartridge or were mad geniuses about squeezing out every last precious byte of data that they could.

The true beauty of this soundtrack is its restraint. Surely the temptation was there to go with over-the-top freakout madness in the music for a game about anthropomorphized amphibians who launch warthogs into the stratosphere, but composer David Wise may have suspected that too much activity would only distract from the outlandishness—rather than enhancing it. Or perhaps there simply wasn’t enough room left on the cartridge for more than a few voices in the music. Whatever the case, we were left with brilliant compositions of sci-fi minimalist punk that sound like Gang Of Four meets HAL 9000.

The Volkmire Inferno stage, one of the famously challenging vehicle sequences, is all about fire, brimstone, and lightning-fast death traps. There’s too much going on, and the music acts accordingly. There are only three voices: the barely-brushed percussion, the persistent and unwavering bass, and the panicked staccato pulse lead. The rhythm section is upbeat jazz while the lead is syncopated spazz. Syncopation, the technique of playing on the off-beats, can sometimes simulate relaxation and ease, as is often the case in jazz. This is not the case in Volkmire Inferno, where the separation between the lead and the bass only emphasizes the urgency and distress. You’re already dodging fireballs, missiles, and nearly imperceptible laser beams. Couldn’t the musicians at least play at the same damn time? It’s freaking me out, man!

And then, of course, there’s the pause music:

Three sounds. Sixteen beats in 4/4 time (really just eight beats with one sound changed on the second loop). It’s one of the most unashamedly simplistic loops ever transcribed in eight bits. This is what accomplishment sounds like, and of course we’re only allowed to enjoy it when we need to take a breather from hacking at mutant ravens and robot rats. Ah, sweet release…

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  • PugsMalone

    It’s a shame that level 3 was so insanely difficult- those first two levels were really good. Battletoads suffered a bit from not knowing what it wanted to be, though- is it a beat em up, a side-scroller, a racing game, or something else (like the snake level)?

    A few ideas from Battletoads later got used in Donkey Kong Country games- compare the faces that the Toads make upon seeing the first boss to the faces that Dixie and Diddy make in DKC2, the gears in the Gargantua Ducts level behave just like the Kroctopi in DKC1, and both the giant walker boss and the Krack-Shot Kroc from DKC3 have their segments take place from the enemy’s point of view.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      It’s crazy how neatly Ultimate Play The Game’s/Rare’s creativity waxed and waned.  ZX Spectrum: arguably the best U.K. developer at the time!  Nintendo/Famicom: near total trash of all genres.  Super Nintendo/Famicom: style, but with quite a bit of substance.  Nintendo 64: style without substance!  Game Boy Advance: do they still exist?  Xbox 360: indiscriminate flailing of all genres.  It’s like they became a different company with every generation.

      It’s also weird that David Wise rarely talks about his work here, from what I can tell.  http://www.squareenixmusic.com/features/interviews/davidwise.shtml  It’s rather cool that it was originally composed on arcade hardware, though.

    • http://twitter.com/TheBryanJZX90 TheBryanJZX90

      It was insanely difficult as a child. Between limited continues, angry mothers threatening to turn off the NES, and the steadfast failure of my group of friends to realize that playing the game 2-player actually made it infinitely harder, I don’t believe I cleared stage 3 more than a handful of times.

      And yet, the first time I went back to the game as an adult, I cleared the mofo on the first time. Aww yeah.

  • PaganPoet

    I like that you included one more track on this week’s, Derrick. Now if we could up it to 3 or 4, I would be a happy camper. ;]

    I never beat this game or, hell, even beat the third level. It’s funny how I was extremely persistent with some notoriously hard NES games (Ninja Gaiden, MegaMan 2, etc.), and yet was fine with letting others go (Battletoads, Ninja Turtles).

    • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

      I don’t foresee the number of tracks increasing anytime soon. Honestly, the original document I had for GTT included the line “Battletoads (Pause Music)” and it felt like cheating doing a whole post about the insanely simple pause music. It also felt wrong not to include it considering how short and sweet it is.

      I feel like purpose of this column is to spotlight an individual song, not a whole soundtrack. It’s Game That “Tune.” This one just so happened to come up in my schedule after all the discussion of including more tracks from a couple weeks ago.

      • PaganPoet

        Aw, nuts. Oh well, it was worth a shot.

  • duwease

    What a beautiful, genius game from a game-design standpoint.. so many ideas, almost all well-realized.  They just had to make it too. damn. hard.

    Seriously, this is the only game that, even with emulated save-states at a keypress, I just said “screw it” on.

  • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

    I was just talking about Battletoads music in today’s Q&A.

    The turbo tunnel is often cited as one of the hardest levels in the history of gaming, but it’s very easy to memorize. I played it last year, for the first time in a decade, and I only died once. The key is the music and sound effects. The turbo tunnel needs to be played more like a rhythm game than a driving game. You time your jumps and movement with the sound of the barriers as they pass.

    The turbo tunnel music plays on a very long loop; the only way you’ll hear the entire thing is if you make it to the last segment without dying. And because the level scrolls automatically, it allowed the developers to sync the action and the music in a manner that no 8-bit game ever tried. When you reach the most harrowingly difficult parts of the tunnel (the ramp-less jumping and the rocket ships) the melody stops, leaving nothing but a minimalist rhythm as you must concentrate on what lies before you. As your pulse quickens, some spacey effects start playing. Sound and tension crescendo until… CHECKPOINT! and the loop begins anew.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      Holy shit.

  • Jon Eric

    Great write-up, but I’m a bit confused about the “only three voices” line. I’m hearing four voices: The percussion (which is, admittedly, minimalist), the frenetic bassline, and two synth leads stabbing away in harmony with each other. It’s a minor nit to pick, sure, except that those four voices are actually the maximum that the Famicom audio processor could output.

    Compositionally, yes, this is appealingly minimalist. But its arrangement, like everything else about Battletoads, juiced the hardware for all it was worth.