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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Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: The Super Mario Bros. Rescue Milli Vanilli

Perhaps because I can’t take off the nostalgia goggles anymore than I can take off my skin or because I actually have terrible taste, most of the time I find something to like in my old childhood favorites.  I grew up exactly at the time when Ronald Reagan (in)famously let 20-minute toy commercials pass as children’s entertainment, so this is saying quite a lot.  But I would argue that even G.I. Joe and Transformers had at least a little aesthetic value.  G.I. Joe occasionally showed some pretty strong camp sensibilities (who can forget the episode where Cobra Commander launches his own fundraising telethon, or where the Joes bust into the Cobra troops’ recreational facilities where they have ping-pong tables and saunas?) and Transformers…come on, it’s a show about giant robots who turn into cars and fighter jets!  That’s objectively, unquestionably awesome!

Anyway, even then I have to admit that, looking back, there was an awful lot of crap, and a heap of it came courtesy of the aptly named DiC Entertainment.

To be fair, DiC was behind a few series that are still warmly remembered like Ulysses 31, Inspector Gadget, and The Real Ghostbusters.  Fairly or not, though, today they are most remembered for being the Hanna-Barbera or the Filmation of the ’90s, flooding the decade’s market with franchise cash-ins that had such poor production values even the kiddies noticed.   Nintendo, which was on its own spree of cross-market capitalistic whoring in the early-mid ’90s, formed an unholy alliance with DiC, leading to shows that I’m sure both companies would have liked to forget.  I feel the same way.  Add to all this one of the most widely publicized music industry scandals of the same era, and you’ve got a perfect piece of trash culture glory.

I use the word “glory” subjectively, of course. Captain N: The Game Master was so blatant a series of commercials for Nintendo that it made Transformers look like avant-garde art, and scientists have proven that it was objectively terrible (I have the charts and spreadsheets to prove it). Yet (somehow) Captain N does today have its nostalgic fans. As far as I know, its sister series, the awkwardly named The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, doesn’t even have that much, even in the days when the Internet makes it possible for pretty much anything to have some kind of cult following. Probably the problems with The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 all began with the fact that it wasn’t even really a show in its own right. It was just another season of The Super Mario Bros. Show, but with characters and settings from Super Mario Bros. 3 being slavishly (yet imperfectly) followed and without the cheesy live action segments, which are now pretty much the only part of the show people remember (well, that and “Well, excuuuuuuuuuuuuse me, princess!”)

It’s only in hindsight that Milli Vanilli appearing in a sub-sub-quality Saturday morning marketing ploy is such a perfect combination (and, before I go any further, I should clarify that, yes, they actually gave their voices to this thing). At the time of the show’s airdate, sometime in October 1990, Milli Vanilli were still extremely popular, despite the fact that there was already some public evidence that they were lip syncing. However,  just after this episode aired, the backlash was launched, with Milli Vanilli having their Grammy revoked, class action lawsuits demanding reimbursements for people who bought their last album, and their album going out of print overnight. Truly, a cameo on a crappy cartoon goeth before the fall.

Remember, even though this is a cartoon, real people wore things like this circa 1990!

Anyway, as for the episode itself, my problems start with the very title: “Kootie Pie Rocks.” First off, Milli Vanilli does not rock. They didn’t rock even before they became a decade-defining joke. The second is that the awful name refers to one of the Koopalings, who in both this series and the original game are the seven kids of Bowser. Like Bowser himself, who in this series and in the Super Mario Bros. Super Show was inexplicably always called “King Koopa” instead, the Koopalings had their names changed – for the worse. In the English translation of the game, they’re all named for music icons: Wendy (Wendy O. Williams), Iggy (Iggy Pop), Ludwig (I don’t really have to spell this one out for you, do I?), etc. The writers of the series instead gave them names that scream “I had some ideas pitched to me by my six-year old niece” like Cheatsy, Bully, Kooky, and Kootie Pie. And, yes, Kootie Pie really is the name someone decided to give to the token female Koopaling. This really gets at one more problem I have with not just this episode, but the entire show: the humor. It’s not so much that there’s an absence of humor, but that instead it reveals the exact mirror opposite of humor. To put it another way, you could argue that this show isn’t so much based on the “Super Mario Bros.” franchise as it is on some joke book originally written on papyrus. I’ll be sure to use italics and boldface to illustrate the humor in this episode, just to insure that you “get it.” See, she’s a girl, so her name is Kootie Pie. Get it?

If you can get past the title, then you’ll witness Mario, Luigi, and Toad, who sounds like Gilbert Godfrey’s more annoying eunuch cousin, dressing up in tuxedos for a “real world” concert that Princess Toadstool (better known nowadays as Peach) wants to attend. Even as a kid, the fact that Toad, Princess Toadstool, and other denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom referred to Earth as the “real world” bothered me, and now as an adult it’s outright disturbing. Doesn’t having this knowledge that Mario and Luigi’s home is the “real world,” and therefore her entire world and all the beings in it are in some fundamental way “unreal,” cause Princess Toadstool a hellish existential crisis? Isn’t she filled with an unquenchable rage by the very presence of Mario and Luigi, who can not only claim an existence more valid than her own but also incessantly remind her of the fact by referring to this “real world”? These are important questions raised by your own narrative, writers of The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3; don’t brush them under a rug!

Instead of having a crisis about her existence that would surpass anything imagined by any philosopher in history, Princess Toadstill appears dressed in ripped jeans and a Milli Vanilli sweater. Because she’s a princess, Mario and Luigi thought they were going to some fancy event! Surely this is the freshest comedy this side of the TGIF lineup.

Well, the writing may be lacking, but at least the crowd scenes the concert give the animators an opportunity to shine. Just look at the detail…especially the eyes…the dead, soulless eyes.

As any child of the early ’90s might guess, the episode delivers up Milli Vanilli’s signature hit “Girl You Know It’s True” during the concert. However, depending on whether or not the copy of the episode is from the original broadcast or syndication, you might instead hear a generic rock song without any lyrics and which sounds a lot like Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” Copyright can be a funny thing.

Meanwhile Kootie Pie, jealous that Princess Toadstool gets to experience the epoch-defining music of Milli Vanilli first-hand, has harassed her father to the point that he agrees to kidnap Milli Vanilli. Of course, since she’s a teenager and a girl, she’s shallow, selfish, and materialistic! Apparently in this universe crossing dimensions is like riding a subway, because the concert is still in full swing when King Koopa appears in his airship and kidnaps Milli Vanilli with a tractor beam (now there’s a sentence for the ages). When Milli Vanilli prove less than willing to provide Kootie Pie with a private concert (presumably because the necessary records weren’t prepared), she uses her magic wand to turn them into accountants, because accountants are lame and Milli Vanilli are rad, right? Actually, this was something else that bothered me even when I was a kid. In the game, the Koopalings do have the same wands, but they stole them from the kings of the Mushroom Kingdom and once the Koopalings are defeated all the wands are given back. So does this mean the Koopalings stole the wands back, or is the series some kind of prequel or interquel to the game, or does the series take place in an alternate continuity altogether? It’s sloppy storytelling leaving unanswered questions like these that turn innocent young children like me into nitpicking nerds.

Regardless, Mario, Luigi, the Princess, and Toad are able to quickly and effortlessly get to King Koopa’s castle. Apparently they didn’t even have to get through the godforsaken tank stage. Once at the castle, they disguise themselves as a band and, since Kootie Pie like so many other cartoon characters suffers from the eye disorder commonly known as Elmer Fudd Disease, she is tricked into turning Milli Vanilli back to normal and giving them the opportunity to escape. Kootie Pie wants to chase them, but King Koopa stops her because, get this, he thinks their music sucks. I know it’s supposed to be another ancient gag about how, to quote a wise sage of my generation, parents just don’t understand, but I have to side with Bowser on this one. Because apparently most of the events in this episode took place in the space of five minutes, the concert resumes where it left off with Milli Vanilli thanking the two stereotypically Italian plumbers, the humanoid fungus with the soul-killing voice, and the princess of a world that somehow simultaneously exists yet doesn’t exist. The end.

So, yes, it’s about as horrible as you’d think an early ’90s DiC cartoon based on a Nintendo product guest-starring a German pop duo who had their allotted five minutes of fame cut short by a lip syncing scandal would be, and then some. I have to admit, though, given that the animation is so horrible the characters’ mouth movements don’t always match up with the dialogue, there is at least something ironic to the point of brilliance about it.

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