Knock-Offs

Ninja Turtles Rip-Offs, Case Study #1: Biker Mice from Mars

Does anything illustrate just how convoluted pop culture can be more than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? What started out as a comic book parody of Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil turned into a children’s cartoon that itself inspired a legion of imitators and parodies. I even have a theory that the deluge of anthropomorphic animal warriors hitting ’90s televisions has led to one of the most notorious cultural phenomena of the twenty-first century so far, but we’ll get to that in the moment.

I have three case studies to go through, but let’s begin with one of the better examples.

It’s a show about mice, who are bikers, from Mars. They end up in Chicago to protect the city from an evil capitalist alien going by the name Lawrence Limburger, who is part of a broader plan by his species to eventually strip mine the planet. So basically it’s what it says on the tin, although “Biker Mice from Mars Battle Laissez-Faire Capitalism” might be more apt – and awesome.

I actually don’t have too many nostalgic memories of Biker Mice From Mars. It started airing at about the exact same time I was losing interest in cartoons that weren’t Simpsons-esque or weren’t based off of comics, and even though I wouldn’t say it was unpopular it was enough of a cult item it flew under a lot of kids’ radars. Watching a few episodes now on YouTube (and, on a side note, apparently the Finnish of all people really love this show, judging from the massive number of Fins posting episodes), I now wish I had.

Like its “inspiration,” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this wasn’t a show that ever even wore the pretext of trying to reach an all-age audience. Nostalgia goggles or no, I do think it would help if I had more perspective. Plus it does have most of the cliches you’d expect from an action cartoon of the time: bungling henchmen, largely episodic storytelling, and occasionally blurring the line between TV show and toy ad. Plus since the heroes’ antics unfold in a decaying urban hellscape created solely by unrestrained greed and that later episodes flesh out the Mices’ backstory, which involves fighting in a hopeless guerrilla war to save their own race which is on the brink of total extinction, it does seem as if maybe the concept was originally darker. Certainly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – the first seven seasons, anyway – skirted away from that kind of tonal dissonance by pretty quickly turning its core villains into a dysfunctional sitcom family. For Biker Mice from Mars, the cheesy jokes and macho adolescent feel don’t quite jibe with the fact that we have a premise all about brutal exploitation and genocide. It’s the equivalent of doing G.I. Joe with a Saving Private Ryan premise, or having a series about Stalin and his zany henchmen.

Still, there are things about the show that, even as an alleged adult, I would call pretty damn great. First off is the villain Lawrence Limburger, voiced to perfection by the prolific William Morgan Sheppard. Existing somewhere between a fabulously gay Lex Luthor and a cartoon Donald Trump, Lawrence Limburger steals every episode with his haughty voice and verbose lexicon. Also, unlike other cartoon alien invaders, Limburger’s plan doesn’t involve military force, but just buying up and strip mining resources. Basically it’s alien invasion through capitalism. I’m kind of surprised this show didn’t end up getting condemned by real-life overweight, motormouth alien Rush Limbaugh.

There’s also the obligatory April O’Neil analogue, Charlie, who unfortunately shows up as a damsel in distress during the opening credits. She pretty much has the standard “plucky heroine” personality, but they made her a mechanic at least, which kind of saves her from being a total Lois Lane clone like everyone’s favorite banana raincoat wearing, possible bestiality offender.

Oh, and there’s also a gender ambiguous mad scientist who has a sadomasochistic Frankenstein’s monster. They should have had their own spin-off.

Now as for the heroes themselves, well…in my opinion, this is one of those shows where the villains and some of the supporting cast are way more interesting than the protagonists. Except there’s that one little thing I mentioned in the beginning.

Notice how the Mice are ridiculously buff?

Does it bring to mind a certain fetish?

So, if we assume that the people who helped create furries as a sub-culture came of age in the ’90s, then is it that far-fetched to hypothesize that they were deeply influenced by shows like Biker Mice from Mars?

Well, you might say I’m going too far with my own perverted speculations and I’d probably agree, but then there’s the fact that in the 2006 revival of the series they “debuffed” the Mice.

Did somebody put their foot down and say, “Yeah, we want to do a revival, but this show ain’t going to create any more furries!”? I have no idea, but there’s a PhD thesis in there somewhere.

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Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Review: Dragon Quest IX

While I’ve never been enough of a JRPG nerd that I learned to read Japanese just to be a purist (although I did play all the fan translations of the “missing” installments of the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series long before the official versions came out in the US), one of the reasons I even got a Nintendo DS was just so I could play DQ IX. My expectations were maybe a bit too high, since I really enjoyed VIII for staying true to the series’ conservative nature (as opposed to Final Fantasy which left behind the medieval fantasy roots it once shared with its sister franchise over a decade ago) while offering a story that expanded far beyond the “Big Bad terrorizes the world, so go kill him” stock plot the series is known for.

I assumed that IX would go in the same direction, since it also featured a fairly unique premise fit for a JRPG epic. Your silent avatar this time is an angel (well, “Celestial”) assigned to watch over a backwater village. The Celestials don’t protect humanity out of the goodness of their hearts, however; people’s gratitude and faith actually produces a type of energy the Celestials use to feed the World Tree, which they believe will one day fully blossom and somehow allow them to return to their long-missing Creator (now there’s a theological concept for you; your guardian angels feed off your faith like mosquitoes!). However, a mysterious catastrophe devastates the Celestials’ home, causing the magic “fyggs” from the World Tree – and your avatar – to fall to the Earth.

It’s a good premise, but it’s little more than that. Unlike VIII, which broke from series tradition by having a villain you actually encounter many times before the final battle, you don’t get to see the antagonist until about 3/4 through. Also, while not only VIII but arguably all the installments since way back with IV had fairly large “casts,” with IX it’s just you and a sassy black fairy (oh, Japan!) who comments during the cut-scenes. You do have a party, but they’re just a group of personality-less mooks you gather yourself and who vanish completely during cut-scenes. It’s like the party is just your avatar’s imaginary friends.

It’s probably unfair for me to criticize this game for treating its own plot like an afterthought, because it seems like it’s a feature, not a bug. The appeal of the game is actually from its customizing features and bonuses, which includes the ability to determine the characteristics of your avatar and party members right down to their height and skin color and from bonus quests and dungeons, more of which can be downloaded. The game itself also pushes its online features, which let you interact and explore dungeons with other players. You can, of course, get through at least the game’s entire plotline without ever going through its MMORPG aspects, but I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that pushed its online features like a Mormon missionary.

At a time when JRPGs, at least in the United States, are being criticized for being too linear and for being just movies with less genuine interactivity than a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” novel, it’s more than understandable why they went this route with DQ IX. And it’s fine, except, well…most of the quests are boring.

Most of the quests just boil down to “Get x and y items” or “Keep fighting battles with certain types of monsters until z happens.” Now maybe this is a cultural thing, coming out of the same impulse that makes the Japanese love collecting exotic Kit-Kat flavors. But when I played Final Fantasy XII, which had the same bonus quest concept, I wasn’t actually dreading going on the quests. Admittedly some of them were also basically treasure hunts, but even then most  involved fighting strong enemies you wouldn’t otherwise encounter or at least made you go to areas of the world map the story wouldn’t send you to, not just visiting the same spots where items respawn or fighting the same monsters hoping that the odds would give you what you need. Bonus quests in JRPGs should give you a fun way to level grind or give you something to do if you want to take a break from the main plot; otherwise it’s like getting homework in the middle of your video game. Hell, I had more fun declining Latin nouns than playing some of DQ IX‘s bonus quests.

I don’t mean to give too bad an oppression of this game. It’s still a fun JRPG, with a beautifully depicted animated world from Akira Toriyama and with a good challenge level that will remind the hardcore of the 8-bit era. Of course, it partially achieves this difficulty by making it harder to develop your characters’ special abilities than it was in VII and VIII, but at least there’s still more strategy to character development than just “Level up!” Also Anglophiles should be happy that, like the last installment, the game comes across as British as a Doctor Who/Who’s Being Served? crossover. My main complaint is that the game didn’t achieve a happier medium between its emphasis on gameplay and bonuses, and its storytelling. Hopefully that balance will be there once X inevitably rolls around.

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Versus

The Most Evil Megacorporation: Umbrella versus Shinra

The evil corporation is undoubtedly one of the biggest cliches in fiction, but it’s also the most relevant type of villainous organization right now. Plus they can be more fun for writers and the audience. Unlike the Mafia or corrupt politicians, even the more sinister actions of corporations can have a certain kind of legitimacy granted to them by society and by governments (for examples, see…well, just about any account of multinational corporations’ activities in the Third World), which makes them more of a challenge for one’s protagonists. Shinra Electric Power Company and Umbrella Pharmaceutical, Inc. are two mega-corporations that I think stand out, not just from the classic video game franchises of Final Fantasy and Resident Evil but from all genres and media, in the fields of violent oppression, casual environmental devastation, tyrannical behavior, and of course limitless greed. Which one, though, can claim the prestigious title of the Most Evil Mega-Corporation? Let’s naturally start at the beginning:

Who Had The More Ruthless Rise to Power?

Shinra had inauspicious origins as a small munitions manufacturer, but enriched itself by selling arms to both sides in a world war. From there, they discovered an energy resource called mako energy and became the global (and very likely the only) supplier of it. After that, Shinra’s history is vague, but by the time Final Fantasy VII begins Shinra has taken over most of the world, somehow (but likely in various rather unpleasant ways) muscling out preexisting governments. What is pretty certain is that when they constructed the mega-city of Midgar literally over some towns that were already there, they didn’t really have the previous inhabitants in mind, condemning them to lifetimes of sunless poverty in slums almost completely shut off from the “above-ground” where the privileged live more prosperous lives. Still, getting a fortune from playing both sides of a war is pretty routine even by real world standards, and raising some people up while sinking others further into poverty is what capitalism is all about, so let’s move on to Umbrella…

Well, for starters, Umbrella itself was just a front for its rich founders’ mad scientist shenanigans, starting with their discovery of a virus in Africa that had the potential to mutate a human body. Afraid that the architect who designed the mansion that would secretly house their experiments could be a liability, they efficiently killed two birds with one stone by leaving the architect to die from dehydration in an underground maze and injecting his wife and 12-year old daughter with a modified version of the virus, killing the former and mutating the latter into an immortal, psychotic killing machine who roamed the mansion’s underground areas, ripping off and then wearing the faces of anyone unlucky enough to stumble across her. They weren’t the only ones; Umbrella’s founders really got their kicks from either injecting unwilling people with various versions of the virus, for Science (!), or for trying to use the virus to create a master race. Compared to that, Shinra in its early years looks less magnificently, horrifically evil and more routinely, run-of-the-mill evil, like Comcast.

Winner: Umbrella

Who Has The Most Questionable Products?

In the Resident Evil universe, Umbrella makes everything from food to makeup, but what they end up becoming most famous for is producing not one, but multiple versions of a virus that usually turn people into zombie hordes, but sometimes into near-mindless, near-indestructible psychopaths. Umbrella’s founders and other affiliated scientists hoped to find the cure to death (largely for themselves, of course), but instead they ultimately caused a zombie outbreak that forced the US government to nuke an entire city. Now that’s a scenario I hope they use in final exams for students who want to become PR professionals. Of course, there’s no doubt that a company that makes viruses that at best turn people into zombies and at worst turn them into deformed, god-like Ed Geins who have to be taken down by an army is “bad.”

On the face of it, Shinra’s main product, processed Mako energy, seems more innocuous. Then you have to take into account what Mako energy really is: it’s the Lifestream of the planet. What’s the Lifestream? Well, it’s comprised of the souls of everything that’s ever lived, including humans. It’s a close call, but in my opinion having the essence of your dead grandfather power your toaster is creepier than zombies, even super-zombies, any day.

Winner: Shinra

Who Gets To Throw Around The Most Power?

Like any respectable evil mega-corporation, Shinra and Umbrella have their own private armies. They both get their own cities too, which they didn’t establish but heavily developed. Unlike in the (awful) movies, Raccoon City was just a small town that grew into a city thanks to the presence of Umbrella HQ. As a result most of Raccoon City’s authorities are practically on the company payroll.

In Midgar, Shinra is apparently completely and openly responsible for everything from utilities to law enforcement, and in fact the only real responsibility the Mayor of Midgar has is keeping Shinra HQ’s document library in order. I have to give this one to Shinra. Eventually after Raccoon City is nuked, Umbrella is exposed and practically shut down by the US government (although it helped that all their major research centers ended up being destroyed). In Final Fantasy VII Shinra is a government in of itself, the stuff of many dystopian sci-fi novels. It takes a meteor nearly colliding with the planet, most of the board of executives getting killed, and a pissed-off Godzilla-like monster sent by Mother Earth herself blowing up Shinra HQ to take Shinra down, and even then, at least according to the movie sequel Advent Children, Shinra’s still more or less around and kicking.

Winner: Shinra

Who Was The Most Evil (And Stupid) When It Came To Playing In God’s Domain?

We already delved into the uber-shady experiments Umbrella’s mad scientist division liked, but I only mentioned their experiments with producing superhumans who aren’t horribly deformed and addicted to human flesh. One attempt produced a man who ended up becoming something like the killer from Dressed To Kill and a woman who took over one of Umbrella’s core facilities and decided she wanted to take over the world – starting by grotesquely mutating her own body. Another just created a lot of dead bodies and the one man who would go on to betray Umbrella and leak the information that would bring it down. So, yes, trying to produce things that were less like zombies and more like Captain America ended up hurting Umbrella more than their occasional zombie outbreaks.

Even though it basically already conquered the world, Shinra’s leaders loved to try to expand into the business of supersoldiers. Actually it started well, until their scientists just happened to find a frozen body and, assuming that it was a member of a lost legendary race, just started injecting their soldiers with her cells. Unfortunately, said frozen body turns out to be a world-destroying Lovecraftian alien parasite that happens to still be alive and conscious. Needless to say, things didn’t turn out well for anybody. Still, Shinra otherwise did somewhat well with their own supersoldier program, and it wasn’t really their fault that their top scientist Hojo turned out to be completely insane and hiding the fact that Shinra’s best supersoldier Sephiroth would probably get around to preparing to help his cosmic horror mother destroy the world. With Umbrella, however, none of its best and brightest ever got the hint that the answer to “What should we do with the virus that horrifically mutates people into bloodthirsty monsters that are all but impossible to control?” shouldn’t be “Try to make different types of it!”

Winner: Umbrella

And Who Actually Did The Most Evil?

This will be the tie-breaker, as well it should be. Both Umbrella and Shinra have long lists of crimes: environmental destruction on a scale that would make even the most anti-”big government” politician demand that the EPA be given dictatorial powers; treating entire cities like their own fiefdoms; and taking the ‘Take this thing we just discovered and stick it in their veins!’ approach to human biological research. To be fair to Umbrella, if you look past the individual crimes of their founders and scientists they’re at best indirectly responsible for many of the atrocities that unfold. Like in the (awful) movies, the exposure of researchers to the virus that leads into the plot of the first game was a deliberate act of sabotage, in this case by one of Umbrella’s founders, who was assassinated under orders from one of his colleagues (he got better). Also the zombie outbreak in Raccoon City was purely accidental, and not because of someone wondering, “Let’s see what happens if…”

Later in the series, a lot of the bad things that go down is still driven by Umbrella’s research, but the culprits are always rogue agents and scientists. Shinra, on the other hand, apparently made being murderous bastards company policy. Even when one of their reactors exploding decimates an entire town, there’s no indication that they do anything like help rebuild the town or help its citizens. Another town gets torched just because it’s suspected that the inhabitants are harboring anti-Shinra terrorists. The biggest example of overkill, however, is that they literally crush an entire slum in Midgar, just to try to get rid of a terrorist group consisting of about six people. Now that’s being an evil mega-corporation.

Winner: Shinra

Of course, you could make the counter-argument that Umbrella is the more frightening, sinister mega-corporation because it’s the most realistic. Not only does Umbrella exist in the “real world,” but the ongoing saga through most of the Resident Evil series of how Umbrella manages to duck responsibility for a major catastrophe that destroyed thousands of lives has been made a bit too realistic by things like certain recent events in the United States. Now Shinra isn’t quite as detached from reality as it may look. After all, it exists in a world where the lines between a for-profit corporation and government are seriously blurred and where almost all the only prosperous areas are tourist hotspots.

However, in terms of unadulterated evil, Umbrella’s realism hurts it a little bit. Yes, its founders and affiliates are guilty of some atrocious acts, but as a body Umbrella’s crimes are more due to negligence and short-sighted greed, not malice, much like real world mega-corporations. Shinra, on the other hand, comes across as what would happen if Microsoft and an old-school Fascist regime got together and had a baby. If you put out a successful MoveOn.org petition against Umbrella, they’d ignore you at worst or release a press release about it at best. Shinra would have you killed and burn down your house with our family and pets inside, just for kicks.

Plus, Shinra just has a pretty kickass theme.

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