I Never Thought the Hoverbike Sequence in Battletoads Was All That Hard

Battletoads 5,000

There was this part in the third stage of Battletoads where you had to pilot a hoverbike through a series of jumps and obstacles, and your speed would continue to increase as the level progressed. This hoverbike challenge has gone down in history as one of the most frustratingly difficult video game segments ever made.

The thing is, I never really found it that difficult.

Battletoads Hoverbike

Now, it probably sounds like I’m just bragging here (and that’s probably valid), but I say it to make a point about the 8-bit and 16-bit game era: The games weren’t necessarily difficult, per se, they just rewarded repetition and memorization.

Take the aforementioned hoverbikes in Battletoads. Sure, you were going to die a billion times before you got through that sequence, but once you memorized where all the obstacles were, it really wasn’t that bad. It just took patience, something gamers don’t seem to have a lot of anymore. (How many of us feverishly button mash during cutscenes, hoping our console will eventually just get sick of being pestered and let us skip the thing? I admit that I’m in that group too.)

And, in the level right before this, there were birds that tried to peck at you as you descended a cavernous shaft. You could endlessly bounce these birds off the wall for about a squadrillion extra lives, once you got the hang of it. This meant that you should have had a multitude of lives to work with once you got to the hoverbikes, offsetting the difficulty and encouraging you to keep trying until you made it.

A more recent example comes from Mega Man 9. I can’t verify if this is one hundred percent true or not, (mainly because I don’t want to Google it just to find out that it’s not true — I like this factoid, even if it’s as fake as Britney Spears’ singing voice) but I read somewhere that the guys at GamePro couldn’t beat a single level of that game, leading several forum members to unofficially dub them GameNoob.

The thing is, Mega Man 9 isn’t all that difficult either. (Okay, so I admit there are a few segments that are downright brutal. Most of that game, though, is fairly easy once you’ve played through it a couple times.) There were areas in that game where I died far more times than I’m comfortable admitting, but I almost always reached a point where something just clicked in my brain and that particular segment would all of a sudden become a simple matter of timing.

Battletoads Hot Chick

And to drive home this rock star analogy, let me compare playing Mega Man 9 with playing a musical instrument.

Back when I was first learning to play guitar, being able to play three chords in a row consistently enough to make the sounds resemble an actual song was hard. But after repetition and practice, I could eventually do it. The first time I was able to play a song all the way through without screwing something up was exhilarating. That’s sort of the same feeling I got when I was finally able to get through Mega Man 9. Or the hoverbike sequence in Battletoads.

But not all games can be like this.

And that’s because of gamers’ aforementioned lack of patience. I’ll admit that button mashing through unskippable cutscenes was probably not a very fair example, but the impatience thing is true nonetheless. A lot of gamers will die a bunch of times in the beginning of a game and get frustrated with it. And developers are scared to death of this happening in their games — so scared that they dumb down the difficulty to appeal to a broader audience.

And that’s fine. Sometimes I just don’t appreciate being forced into something super repetitious and unfairly brutal. But at the same time, I admire a challenge. I metaphorically shed a nostalgic tear every time a Meat Boy dies, for example.

Super Meat Boy

And the fact that there are people like me who actually enjoy classically difficult gameplay from time to time (“classically difficult” here being used to mean it requires practice and a decent sense of rhythm) is why games like Mega Man 9 and Super Meat Boy are important. (I have a friend who once told me that he spent more time trying to beat the Cotton Alley stages of Super Meat Boy than he spent on the entire rest of the game. And he was totally cool with that.)

Now, the fact that every game isn’t Super Meat Boy hard, or Mega Man 9 hard, (which, as I’ve already explained, is not really hard; it just requires patience, fortitude, and an unbreakable will — there’s a difference) is probably a good thing. But for classic gamers, it can be extremely rewarding to be rewarded for possessing the proper mix of skill, memory, and patience, and games that do so without sacrificing good level design should be rewarded for this.

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  • Elizabeth Thompson

    I said on the podcast episode, and I still maintain, that if you had to figure out a “trick” to make it so you could actually survive long enough to memorize the pattern, then it was, in fact, hard. Or at the least, it was poorly designed.

    – The Reverend

    • Josh Wirtanen

      I still maintain that it actually WAS great game design. The hoverbike sequence wasn’t supposed to be beatable on the first try. It was supposed to be a roadblock in the same way a cracked boulder is a roadblock in Zelda games. In a Zelda game, you’ll eventually get the bombs, and then you’ll get to progress through the tunnel that was once blocked off, which is exciting.

      In Battletoads, the hoverbike sequence was supposed to be a challenge, but to mitigate the difficulty level, it was designed to immediately follow a level where you could end up with 40-50 lives pretty easily. It’s also toward the beginning of the game, which is a smart choice because it would be far more frustrating to encounter the hoverbike sequence late in the game when you’d have to replay 7 or 8 stages in order to take another crack at it.

      You call the extra lives thing a “trick,” but it’s really not an exploit or a cheat or anything; it’s a very deliberate game mechanic.

      The way you’re SUPPOSED to play is this: “OKay, this game is easy. Second level? Cakewalk. Third level? Pretty easy until OH MY GOD THE HOVERBIKES!” At that point, you’re stuck. You say, “I guess I need to practice at this to memorize the pattern.” You start memorizing the pattern. You die. You come back and try to get through the 2nd level again, when you realize (maybe not until the 10th time through) that you can rack up lives in that second level. “Holy shit!” You say, and with an exhilarating confidence, you approach the hoverbikes with a ton of lives and finally get through it after maybe 100 tries. Once you figure it out, though, and you’ve memorized the pattern, you don’t then need to re-memorize it. You’ve got it. The next time through the game, you don’t NEED 50 lives in order to do it. You can just do it.

      Essentially, it’s a really brilliant blend of skill-based gaming and puzzle-solving, and this thing came out in an era in which a lot of the really smart game design tricks weren’t even invented yet. I think that’s really cool.

      • Elizabeth Thompson

        Nope. You’re presuming that because you found out about the trick where you can knock the bird against the wall and get a bunch of extra lives, that it’s good game design.

        Now, I don’t disagree with you that the hoverbike sequence is about pattern memorization, and that was in line with many games of the time. But what we’re looking at is a sequence that requires split-second timing, and then if you don’t do it right you have to go back through the two previous levels. If you want to mitigate that, you have to have hit the bird on the way down, and then realized that if you hit the bird against the wall, you can bounce the bird again, which will give you more points. And *then*, you have to decide to keep trying to do that long enough that you start getting extra lives, and be able to do it consistently enough that you can rack up enough extra lives to not worry about the death during the hoverbike sequence.

        The game was all about skill and precise motion, sure. That’s not a problem. I’m not saying that it’s *bad* in that respect. I *am* saying that you can not claim a level “wasn’t hard” if in order to get through it without constantly having to restart the game, you had to also have taken note of a not obvious design choice, and then utilize it with a level of skill that the game had not yet taught you.

        Also, seriously. “It’s not hard because if you have, like, fifty extra lives you can play through it enough times to memorize the pattern” is sort of bullshit. 😛

        – The Reverend

  • Strontium Dingo

    “It just took patience, something gamers don’t seem to have a lot of anymore. ”

    So much this. Including me.

    I often wonder if I’d even be ABLE to finish games from my childhood nowadays. Not skill-wise, time-wise.

    Back then, we could just dedicate hours to gaming (and didn’t have to journalise it, either – so there’s even more time) and keep going until we quit. I saw the sun rise so many times as a youth (out of the corner of my eyes, because going outside is for quitters) that I can’t be bothered finishing this analogy.

    Your point about having a strong sense of rhythm is a good one. I know from personal experience that being a musician is actually a negative when it comes to games like Rock Band or whatever, but I’m certain that’s why I have so much fun at Arkham City – because the combat is more about rhythm and placement than combos and superpowers. Strange to think it was supposed to originally be a Guitar Hero style game!

    Having said all that, if I can’t skip cutscenes (or there are way too many before I get to play – I’m looking directly at you, ‘Kingdoms of Alamur: Reckoning’) I will flat out refuse to play a game, because there are so many games out there now that I have a CHOICE. I think that’s another relevant issue: We couldn’t choose from 10 million games back then (Hello, Steam Sales – how I love/hate you), we had physical access to maybe 100 (including friends games) – and they were all similar, especially when compared to modern gaming.

    I used to love platformers. Now I’m into FPSs and RPGs. I didn’t have those options when I loved platformers.

    I haven’t played a platformer for AGES, and there are only 3 of them among my 100+ Steam Games – Codename: Gordon (we all know about that semi-hidden Half-Life gem, I assume) which I never play anyway. The others are Lego Batman 2 and Lego Marvel Heroes, both of which I also never play (they’re also not pure platformers, but whatever).

    Other game types are able to scratch that rhythm itch for me. I have choice now.

    I’m not saying that I never would have loved platformers as much as I did if I’d grown up in these modern times, but I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have been into the *same* ones.

    Except maybe Zool, because I still love that shit. 🙂

    • Josh Wirtanen

      For me, studio guitar work actually made me better at Guitar Hero, but ONLY on the highest difficulties.

      I still dig 2D platformers to this day (I have too much Mega Man history in my fingertips to give it up completely), and I love retro-style platformers like Super Meat Boy, Shovel Knight, and Mega Man 9.

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