The Musical Box #10: Brave as a Frog

The Musical Box features 30 articles focusing on game music production and implementation. Edition #10: Battletoads

Battletoads is another masterpiece created by Rare and originally released for the NES in 1991. The game tells the story of two muscular humanoid toads that must defeat the evil Dark Queen in order to save the universe and their older brother Pimple. The story is a familiar one, but I assure you the game isn’t.

Game: Battletoads
Released: 1991
Platform: NES
Developer: Rare
Composer: David Wise

The Set-Up

Featuring 12 levels of punishing difficulty, Battletoads may be considered one of the hardest games ever released in the history of videogames. Each level has distinct gameplay mechanics that mix fighting sequences, platforming, and even races!

The music in this game is special. It not only features very catchy songs composed by David Wise, but also a highly innovative implementation that was a breakthrough at the time and is still very relevant to this day. The musical tempo in Battletoads is dynamic. This means that the speed or pace of the music changes according to the gameplay.

The Moments

It happens for the first time during stage 3, the infamous Turbo Tunnel. In this stage, the toads drive a flying motorcycle and must dodge obstacles that appear at an incredibly high speed. Seriously, if you blink, you die.

To add more drama to this formula, the music in this stage starts to speed up as soon as you reach the incredibly hard final section of the Turbo Tunnel. I believe Rare really wanted players to feel desperation during this sequence! See the moment below.



In Stage 10, Rat Race, the behavior of the music is similar to stage 3. The song’s tempo speeds up when the rat is approaching you, enhancing the feeling of tension and fear. The music tempo is actually so fast that some notes are barely audible. When you destroy the bomb (and the rat), the music goes back to its original tempo.



Battletoads was re-released for the Sega Mega-Drive (Genesis) in 1993, but without the dynamic tempo changes, even though the hardware was more advanced than the NES.


The Impact

Dynamic tempo changes were rare then and still are today. In the past, music was generated by sound chips inside the hardware, so it was possible to create the dynamic tempo change via programming. Today, most game soundtracks use samples or real instruments, and, in most cases, changing the tempo of the music can have side-effects such as pitch alteration. There are some specialized softwares that can solve this issue, but I still haven’t seen a modern game that uses this feature. If you have, please share in the comments section below!

Basically, this technique could work well whenever you wish to enhance drama and tension in the game. For instance:
• In fighting games, when one or more players’ life was critically low;
• In racing games, when the countdown timer is reaching zero or during a chase sequence;
• In platform/action games, when the player has to move very fast in order to complete some objective.

Battletoads is another great example of how the extra work to create something truly special is well worth the effort. Everything in the game is truly amazing, despite the constraints of the NES hardware. These limitations didn’t seem to discourage Rare to create an incredible game with unforgettable musical content. What other company would include music even when the game is paused?

Special thanks: Gilliard Lopes, Rafael Kuhnen, Fernando Secco, Sandro Tomasetti, and Rafael Martins (Sommastudio).


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