Knock-Offs

Ninja Turtles Rip-Offs, Case Study #3: Battletoads

Technically Battletoads counts as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knock-off, but still it’s one that managed to become something entirely in its own right. Battletoads is rightly remembered as one of the best games in the history of the Nintendo Entertainment System, a game that starts off as a slightly off-kilter beat-’em up but then goes through an amazing array of stages and challenges that made it feel like at least several different good (if hard as hell) games in one. It says a lot about the quality and creativity of the game that it’s considered a classic in spite of the fact that it’s so frustrating it tests the limits of human reaction times, as anyone who survived the obstacle course race levels can tell you.

It was also one of the few video games from the time that was a natural for spin-offs, but it never launched a franchise. Why? Now who could take a simple but perfect idea like “Three video game designers end up in a parallel universe where they become anthropomorphic toads teamed up with a scientist and wage an endless war against the sexy villain the Dark Queen” and screw it up so badly the show never gets past the pilot stage?

…Ah.

The first thing you might notice, besides the “minimalist” animation so typical of DiC’s artistic style, is the crappy beach music that serves as the intro. That’s because the show is meant to take place in Oxnard, California. Now I have to admit localizing the show is kind of a nice touch for a kids’ animated show (even if the pilot could have taken place in pretty much any upscale American beach community)…if it weren’t for the fact that this is a show based on a game about amphibians beating up humanoid rats on distant planets. We’ll get to that. First, let me share some of the skillful exposition between Professor T. Bird and Princess Angelica that opens up the show:

Oh no, the Dark Queen has found us again!

Then all is lost!

No, Princess Angelica! You are the last star child of the blood! The Dark Queen will do anything to get your galactical amulet!

First, damn that is some bad exposition. Second, I’m not sure how telling someone that their bloodthirsty nemesis “will do anything” can help stave off pessimism. Third…galactical? Really?

With that set-up fresh on our minds, we meet our protagonists, three gang members who hold a terrifying stranglehold over their Oxnard high school. At least, that’s sort of the impression we get from their first scene, with the principal angrily ordering them to not hang out with each other ever again. Really, though, since this is a sub-G-rated show, their only “crimes” are that they are really clumsy and constantly spout a 60-year old’s idea of contemporary youth slang like “psychotronic.” So, yes, the show really wants to give us a trio of outcasts and troublemakers, except the anti-social thugs we get make Oscar the Grouch look like a hard-edged badass.

And, you know, it’s this decision to make the show “relateable” that really sinks it down to the ninth level of one-shot series Hell; not the slapdash plot full of holes, not the godawful animation, and not even the general “can we get a paycheck now?” feel of the whole thing. Seriously, when in the history of entertainment did “Make it more relateable to the audience!” ever turn out to be a good piece of advice? Maybe what Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings needed was a streetwise but harmlessly mischievous fifteen-year old from Brooklyn, and the recent reboot of Star Trek was missing a time-displaced, wisecracking Italian-American grandma from late 20th century New York. (Well, okay, that last one would have been awesome…). The point is, kids don’t care about being able to relate! After all, the original game was titled Battletoads, not A Few Hipster Doofuses Being Lamely Passed Off As Social Misfits By Lazy Writing.

Fortunately, if the viewer isn’t amused by the slapstick antics of our “heroes,” then we have Princess Angelica and Professor T. Bird going to some ruins for the “genetic essence” (*snicker*) of the original Battletoads. With a device that enables them to teleport through anything electronic (so why did they have ships at the beginning of the episode? Oh whatever), Angelica and T. Bird wind up at a convenience store where they run into the misfit trio. Of course, they had decided to give the “essence” (*snicker*) of the legendary Battletoads to the first people they found, which is really the only clear hint we get at exactly why Angelica’s intergalactic kingdom has fallen to the Dark Queen and her family has been wiped out. Thus we get our heroes’ unlikely origin story (oh, and here they can change back to their human form whenever they want; yay heroes who don’t have to face any complications!) and their battle cry, “Let’s get warty.” Look, I know they couldn’t make it “Let’s get horny,” but when it comes to sexual innuendos you should either put up or shut up.

Anyway, the Dark Queen’s goons also have the power to teleport through Earth’s electronic appliances. The Battletoads are able to fend them off, but become aware of the precariousness of their situation. Luckily the one sympathetic teacher from their entire school grants them use of his lavish beach house (damn, Scott Walker was right!) before literally walking out stage left. Thanks, Mr. Plot D. Vice! Of course, knowing that their enemy already knows their location (somehow) and that they can pretty much effortlessly come to Earth anytime they like, the Battletoads let Princess Angelica get a job as a waitress at a doughnut shop, a plot point that exists just to make sure the heroes are distracted while the McGuffin gets snatched. Also it does seem that the Dark Queen is going through a lot of trouble when apparently all she needs to do is tear the amulet off Angelica’s neck, unless maybe her interest in Angelica is something…more…?

Well, it all leads to the Battletoads basically going through the last level of the video game, but having a much easier time of it, and destroying the source of all the Dark Queen’s power, which somehow manages to make a little less sense than most of the rest of the plot. Now really pissed off, the Dark Queen rallies “the last of her power”, which just means sending one classic UFO-style ship to Earth. (By this point, the Dark Queen’s dread empire seems only slightly more impressive than Angelica’s “star child” credentials). Admittedly, the animators fell flat on the job in depicting the Dark Queen’s home world, but it says a lot about why the pilot failed when the climactic battle against the galactic tyrant takes place in a suburban shopping mall. In the end, the Dark Queen is driven off, the crotchety principal is forced to give the trio some respect, and the closing scene promises that this is only the “beginning” but, thankfully, they were wrong.

If you want to see how bad the animated series is, just compare it to the comic published in Nintendo Power, which instead had the Battletoads as performers in a virtual reality game who get turned into the Battletoads when one of the game’s programmers, Silas Volkmire, turns on them. Sure, the comic was only meant to be a commercial and it’s got more than its fair share of cheese, but it sets up two villains, Silas Volkmire and the Dark Queen, and gives them motivations beyond just capturing an unexplained McGuffin; creates a basis for future stories like the Battletoads finding out how and why they were transformed; and even hints at a larger backstory (specifically Professor T. Bird and the Dark Queen being an item in the past, which is a fun bit of in-universe slash for you). So in the end a short in-house commercial did a better job of setting up a series than the actual pilot. Still, at least it seems like one animator out there got some joy out of the pilot, if the design of the Dark Queen’s tower is any indication.

 

And that makes it all worthwhile.

 

 

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Knock-Offs

Ninja Turtles Rip-Offs, Case Study #2: Street Sharks

I really do believe that Biker Mice From Mars was one of the better action cartoons to come out of Saturday mornings in the ’90s, but one of the things that worked in its favor is that most of the other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-inspired cartoons were total crap. And that brings us to the totally jawsome Street Sharks…


I know it’s not much of an original criticism to say that a cartoon for kids looks like it was written according to a bunch of middle-age peoples’ perceptions of what “the kids are into these days,” but damn, Street Sharks takes it to a Mad Libs level. The heroes are guys with parachutes and rollerblades who were turned into sharks and they like to eat burgers. Their best friend and ally is a surfer and inventor who owns a comic book shop. Really, the only character I found at all interesting was of course the villain, Dr. Paradigm, who I presume was named as the most unexpected reference to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ever. Admittedly he’s the standard mad scientist seeking to turn human beings into gods, but I love the fact that he’s just a standard university faculty member who happens to be able to afford a high-security mad scientist lab with large aquatic mammals kept in fancy tubes. And he has grad students! We only know this because one of them, an African-American female research assistant named Twofer…er, Lena, ends up helping the heroes, but still I couldn’t help but imagine the whacky hijinks the grad students of the mad scientist who makes Dr. Frank Forrester look respectable would get into. Give us that show!

Instead we just end up with four x-treme athletic guys with about as much personality as real-life frat boys (I’d do the thirty seconds of research it would take to remember their names, but…does anyone really care?). Well, one does “do machines” and another leads, which sounds kind of familiar. Anyway, all that matters to the plot is that they’re all sons of Dr. Bolton, a “geneslammer,” which sounds less like a term for a scientist and more like a fantastic drink. Showing poor judgment about the stability of the sinister scientist with a metal eye patch named “Doctor Paradigm,” Burton confronts him in his ridiculously expansive and expensive-looking barracks/lab and gets mutated into some kind of hideous monster (we only see him in silhouette) for his trouble. Showing that Dr. Bolton isn’t the only one who’s book smart but not street smart, Dr. Paradigm stands aside while Bolton-monster smashes through a wall and then decides to pick up and start wearing his watch, just before he also decides to use Bolton’s personality-free sons as lab rats, because…uh, well, somebody has to make the plot go.

The Boltons deploy amazing detective powers by deducing that Dr. Paradigm had something to do with their father’s disappearance because he was wearing their dad’s watch.  It’s too late, though;  Dr. Paradigm, who of course has been allotted the traditional two dumb burly mutant goons, has the boys injected with various chemicals, but is disappointed when nothing happens except they pass out. Again being too dense by the standards of any self-respecting mad scientist, Paradigm has them dumped in a storm drain somewhere without even checking to see if they’re dead. To be fair, if Dr. Paradigm had shown basic villain competency, then we wouldn’t have had the classic Street Sharks transformation scene, where the guys go eat some hot dogs after regaining consciousness, which is totally normal behavior after a family member goes missing and you’re abducted and drugged by an insane bio professor. Then, as soon as they turn into sharks, they right away eat the hot dog stand. To the untrained eye this might seem unscientific, but sharks are well-known for their hunger for wood and metal. Somewhat less accurate is the Street Sharks’ ability to teleport anywhere by swimming through pavement.

Now that you’ve got the set-up, the rest of the pilot goes as you might expect – the good guys decide to become superheroes, suffer a few set-backs, the villain becomes part piranha (but only when he’s mad!) and gets defeated – but it’s even more anti-climatic than that. Besides their power of eating and digesting plastic and metal without (apparently) getting the runs, the Street Sharks are just ridiculously strong, so they’re never in danger except for one point where they surrender to the cops and the military (and then the next episode after they escape they have no qualms with smashing tanks with their drivers still inside). I know Saturday morning cartoons, even action ones, aren’t big on tension and the like, but when your have heroes who can uppercut a tank and push over a roller coaster with their bare hands, stuff even the villains’ thugs can’t do, there’s really no point in ever wondering, “How are they gonna get out of this one?” Add to that bad animation and bland characters, and you’ve got a Saturday morning relic that’s only memorable for how forgettable it is.

However, I am grateful that the show does support my “’90s cartoons created furrydom” theory. Not only are the Street Sharks all buff and shirtless, but there’s also a delightful scene where Dr. Paradigm, who has one of the Sharks good and unconscious, marvels at the size of his chest!

I know, I know, it fits in with Dr. Paradigm’s motive of creating a new evolved humanoid species, but it really does add a pretty disturbing subtext to his actions.  Dr. Paradigm was the first furry mad scientist!   In a way, he was the more successful predecessor of Dr. Heiter.

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Knock-Offs

Ninja Turtles Rip-Offs, Case Study #2: Street Sharks

I really do believe that Biker Mice From Mars was one of the better action cartoons to come out of Saturday mornings in the ’90s, but one of the things that worked in its favor is that most of the other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-inspired cartoons were total crap. And that brings us to the totally jawsome Street Sharks…


I know it’s not much of an original criticism to say that a cartoon for kids looks like it was written according to a bunch of middle-age peoples’ perceptions of what “the kids are into these days,” but damn, Street Sharks takes it to a Mad Libs level. The heroes are guys with parachutes and rollerblades who were turned into sharks and they like to eat burgers. Their best friend and ally is a surfer and inventor who owns a comic book shop. Really, the only character I found at all interesting was of course the villain, Dr. Paradigm, who I presume was named as the most unexpected reference to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ever. Admittedly he’s the standard mad scientist seeking to turn human beings into gods, but I love the fact that he’s just a standard university faculty member who happens to be able to afford a high-security mad scientist lab with large aquatic mammals kept in fancy tubes. And he has grad students! We only know this because one of them, an African-American female research assistant named Twofer…er, Lena, ends up helping the heroes, but still I couldn’t help but imagine the whacky hijinks the grad students of the mad scientist who makes Dr. Frank Forrester look respectable would get into. Give us that show!

Instead we just end up with four x-treme athletic guys with about as much personality as real-life frat boys (I’d do the thirty seconds of research it would take to remember their names, but…does anyone really care?). Well, one does “do machines” and another leads, which sounds kind of familiar. Anyway, all that matters to the plot is that they’re all sons of Dr. Bolton, a “geneslammer,” which sounds less like a term for a scientist and more like a fantastic drink. Showing poor judgment about the stability of the sinister scientist with a metal eye patch named “Doctor Paradigm,” Burton confronts him in his ridiculously expansive and expensive-looking barracks/lab and gets mutated into some kind of hideous monster (we only see him in silhouette) for his trouble. Showing that Dr. Bolton isn’t the only one who’s book smart but not street smart, Dr. Paradigm stands aside while Bolton-monster smashes through a wall and then decides to pick up and start wearing his watch, just before he also decides to use Bolton’s personality-free sons as lab rats, because…uh, well, somebody has to make the plot go.

The Boltons deploy amazing detective powers by deducing that Dr. Paradigm had something to do with their father’s disappearance because he was wearing their dad’s watch.  It’s too late, though;  Dr. Paradigm, who of course has been allotted the traditional two dumb burly mutant goons, has the boys injected with various chemicals, but is disappointed when nothing happens except they pass out. Again being too dense by the standards of any self-respecting mad scientist, Paradigm has them dumped in a storm drain somewhere without even checking to see if they’re dead. To be fair, if Dr. Paradigm had shown basic villain competency, then we wouldn’t have had the classic Street Sharks transformation scene, where the guys go eat some hot dogs after regaining consciousness, which is totally normal behavior after a family member goes missing and you’re abducted and drugged by an insane bio professor. Then, as soon as they turn into sharks, they right away eat the hot dog stand. To the untrained eye this might seem unscientific, but sharks are well-known for their hunger for wood and metal. Somewhat less accurate is the Street Sharks’ ability to teleport anywhere by swimming through pavement.

Now that you’ve got the set-up, the rest of the pilot goes as you might expect – the good guys decide to become superheroes, suffer a few set-backs, the villain becomes part piranha (but only when he’s mad!) and gets defeated – but it’s even more anti-climatic than that. Besides their power of eating and digesting plastic and metal without (apparently) getting the runs, the Street Sharks are just ridiculously strong, so they’re never in danger except for one point where they surrender to the cops and the military (and then the next episode after they escape they have no qualms with smashing tanks with their drivers still inside). I know Saturday morning cartoons, even action ones, aren’t big on tension and the like, but when your have heroes who can uppercut a tank and push over a roller coaster with their bare hands, stuff even the villains’ thugs can’t do, there’s really no point in ever wondering, “How are they gonna get out of this one?” Add to that bad animation and bland characters, and you’ve got a Saturday morning relic that’s only memorable for how forgettable it is.

However, I am grateful that the show does support my “’90s cartoons created furrydom” theory. Not only are the Street Sharks all buff and shirtless, but there’s also a delightful scene where Dr. Paradigm, who has one of the Sharks good and unconscious, marvels at the size of his chest!

I know, I know, it fits in with Dr. Paradigm’s motive of creating a new evolved humanoid species, but it really does add a pretty disturbing subtext to his actions.  Dr. Paradigm was the first furry mad scientist!   In a way, he was the more successful predecessor of Dr. Heiter.

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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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