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?
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.