Battletoads: The Challenge of a Masterpiece

Losing is a part of life. This is not being in second place, either. This is last-place, giving-up-your-dreams, never-going-to-play-professional-sports kind of losing. For every person born on third base (and thinks they hit a triple), there are eight guys at bat who strike out and ten bench warmers. Being a Pittsburgh Pirates fan taught me that, among other things.

Those lovable losers (who are, incidentally, NOT-so-lovable losers; this will come back later) also taught me some other things. It’s the persistence, the journey, and the experience that matter. If you deal with the losses, it makes the victories all that much more precious. “Character” is real. Know all those assholes who can’t handle life without an umbrella? They’re the ones who had everything handed to them and can’t handle a little bit of rain.

Right. Everybody happy? Great. Because here’s a bombshell (note the sarcasm). It’s also nice to win.

It’s nice to have money. It’s even nicer to spend money. It’s nice to be wanted. It’s nice to be the popular kid, the one that everybody wants to be. Sometimes it’s nice to be the New York Yankees. It’s nice to be an anthropormorphic ass-kicking frog named Zitz.

Video games like Battletoads allow this. For a short period of time after one has fired up the system or PC, anybody can be a superhero, a god, a villain, a notable somebody, or an anthropomorphic ass-kicking… well, wait, you know that part. In short, everybody can be a winner. A controller and a screen allow the average person to become something more than average. Being unique means something more than being rare in an overcrowded world; it means that you are you. You are not a loser. You are a god-warrior that smashes rat-racers on the weekends and rescues comely young princes and frogs on the weekdays.

Which requires a screen or a controller.

As much as some game critics would argue otherwise, graphics are important. They allow for the gamer to see rapidly dropping blocks in full animation without slowdown or flicker and—thusly—avoid them (or, as per my roommate Rob’s usual run-through, not avoid them).  They allow for great aesthetic, for differentiation between a level of dropping down an underground cavern and climbing up an infinitely high castle. Graphics create tone. Graphics create a world. Graphics make fun things look pretty. They’re not the most important thing in the world, but they’re not dogfood, either.

Then come the most important part: the controls. Without controls, a gamer is a rudderless ship in the ocean; or rather a frog about to be shot by a ten-story high robot. Most critics and hardcore gamers recognize this, but if controls are good, these same people largely let this vital part of a game fly by unnoticed. Why? They’re too busy smashing 4th-wall-breaking hit-point thieves, or smashing a hog halfway to china with an oversized fist. He/she is not throwing the controller across the room because it’s impossible to control; he or she is throwing the controller across the room because a game is punishingly hard.

Notice the difference there. Difficult things are not fun. They’re the DMV. It’s a long slow-process that people have to go through rather than want to go through. Challenging things, on the other hand, are fun. It’s mountain climbing, or hitting a ball over the wall, or finally defeating a gothic queen that has been bad-mouthing your family for thirteen levels. Difficult things fill you with relief when you complete them because you don’t have to do them again for a decade. Challenging things fill you with relief because, after a decade, you’ve finally mastered them.

When you marry the two, you get something magical. You get a game that lasts the test of time. You get a game that a young kid from the suburbs of Pittsburgh reads about in Nintendo Power and can’t wait to play. It’s the kind of game that said kid saves up for two months of allowances, forgoing candy, comics, and whatever-else to buy. It is his first purchase over $10. It is a game that he remembers buying from Children’s Palace, a now-closed Toys R’ Us rip-off that somehow had the best selection of NES games this side of the Mississippi. It is a game he still hasn’t beaten, putting him in the company of millions upon millions of gamers (including Rob).

That’s a firm endorsement. To beat an easy game and never go back to it? Common. To beat a hard game and never go back to it? Common. To give up on a hard game and never go back to it? Common. To keep coming back to a hard game, over and over, only to lose, over and over, and never give up? To make something that rewards you for losing and wants to make you come back for more and more after two decades? That’s a masterpiece.

That’s also a glutton for punishment, but that’s another story—involving therapy and 20 years of losing baseball—for another time.

In short (read: eleven hundred words or less), you create an opportunity that allows somebody to be the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees at the same time. You can be the lovable loser and the Swami of Swat, smashing the hell out of your enemies but never really winning either. It’s challenging, yes, but that’s the beauty of it. To make a piece of art that’s easy to understand? Common. To make a piece of art that requires in-depth thought and a lifetime of examination? A masterpiece.

And a headache. Just ask Rob.

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