Pilot Program Subject Five: Battletoads (1992)
The Pilot Program is a look at various merchandise-centric cartoons that were released as specials in the 80s & 90s; while they were clearly set up to go to series, they never did. Every entry will look at a new show, who made it, what it was selling, and whether it would’ve made a good series.
SUMMARY: Morgan, Dave, & George are the biggest losers at Oxnard, CA’s Waldo P. Oxnard Junior High; they’re deemed a bad influence on each other, and at the principal’s insistence, they try & fail to find new social circles. After failing miserably, they retreat to the Stop-N-Scarf to play games; suddenly, the screen glows and out come Princess Angelica & her friend, Professor T-Bird. Their entire galaxy has been conquered by the vicious Dark Queen, who wants to steal the Galactical Amulet Angelica wears to gain more power. After asking the boys for help, he sprays them with “the genetic essence of the ancient Battletoads” who guarded Angelica’s ancestors; thus, they become Zitz, Rash, & Pimple and defend their new friends from the Dark Queen’s minotaur sidekick, General Slaughter, & various unnamed minions. With the help of Mr. Thorpe (their favorite teacher), they find them a home and suggest that Angelica get a job to help out (as they point out, it’ll be easier for her than T-Bird since she’s not a humanoid chicken), ultimately winding up at a donut shop. Slaughter & the rest attack the Toads again, but this is just a distraction to allow the Dark Queen to kidnap Angelica. With the teleportation wand T-Bird used to get to Earth broken, he fixes an old car the guys gave him into a rocket car and flies them into space to the Dark Queen’s hideout. The Toads rescue Angelica & destroy her generator base, robbing her of much of her power. They return to school & get in trouble for revealing their powers in an attempt to stave off suspension; however, the Dark Queen shows up in her Whipsaw ship (a UFO with a rotating saw blade on it) & starts attacking the city. The Toads trick her into blowing up her ship and are hailed as heroes by both Angelica & the people of Oxnard.
MISCELLANEOUS: This is where I note various things I observed while watching, usually in bullet format.
- The writer for this special is David Wise, who was one of the head writers for the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.
- The three Toads/guys fall into a sort of Three Stooges pattern – Morgan/Zitz is a nasal nerd (whose voice sounds like a cross between Shaggy & Larry Fine), Dave/Rash is a punk artist who’s the unofficial leader, and George/Pimple is a big dumb lug whose dialogue is largely newly-coined Valley slang.
- The guys can transform back & forth by shouting either “Let’s get warty!” (to turn into the Battletoads) or “Let’s get normal!” (to turn back into humans).
- Princess Angelica is described as “the last star-child of the blood”. This doesn’t really factor in anywhere, but it’s a very comic book-ish turn of phrase.
- The Amulet Angelica wears briefly flashes the Battletoads logo.
- The theme song to this is a great example of an “origin story” as theme song. Those save a lot of time that would otherwise be spent on repetitive exposition.
- While the Toads can do the giant-fist/giant-boot attacks like you saw in the game, they can also transform their limbs into various tools, which as far as I can tell is new. It actually makes them kind of overpowered.
- Besides being a damsel in distress, Princess Angelica is apparently here to keep the dads in the audience entertained. There’s an extended point in the middle where she’s licking on a popsicle, and her outfit at the donut shop is a low cut micro-mini. The Dark Queen’s design is from the games and was always cheesecake-y, but what’s the excuse for this?
- There are some cute, cartoony sight gags in this that appear at random. The best are a little ghost rising out of a broken teleportation wand and a dizzy star splashing a bad guy with water to revive him.
- One of the things that I noticed was that this special has the most diverse background characters out of all of the ones I reviewed. And they’re pretty memorable, too, especially the guy who refuses to look up from his magazine during the fight at the Stop-N-Scarf.
- Near the end, the kids at the junior high act like the worst thing possible is letting the Dark Queen destroy the local mall. Coming from what will be remembered as the Golden Age of Dead Malls, I found that very 90s and very Valley.
- Can anyone tell me why the donut shop owner has a Yiddish accent?
- It's worth nothing that the Battletoads had a different origin provided in Nintendo Power via a comic insert (please note that pages 6 & 7 have been reversed in order). In the comics (credited only to "Valiant"), they were three adult computer programmers turned into the Toads via a virus & brought into the Dark Queen's dimension by a jealous colleague; also, they are aided by T-Bird because he is the Dark Queen's ex-boyfriend. The *ahem* geniuses at TV Tropes thought that this origin was darker & more mature, but it's really just a different level of goofiness that's a lot more straight-faced. Also, someone apparently asked the artists to cover up the Dark Queen, so she's always holding her cape like Ed Wood's chiropractor.
- Turns out Oxnard, California is a real town.
VOICE ACTING SPOTLIGHT: I honestly can’t really spotlight anyone. I don’t really know enough about Canadian voice acting to say anything about any one actor. All of them do a good job, even if the Dark Queen’s minions all sound interchangeable.
THE MERCH: Having ventured into the Nineties, we move from cute girly toys to video games. This special was based on Rare’s memorable NES game, which I largely remember renting & returning because it was one of the hardest, most frustrating things I played (and as you’ll see, I was from that era when you didn’t know a game was good until you played it & even then, you tried to convince yourself it was great). A game being hard doesn’t make it bad, though, and there were awards, sequels, crossovers, & even the super-rare conversion of a home console game to a bigger arcade version. It’s still fondly regarded today, with people losing their sugar over Rare’s Phil Spencer wearing a shirt with a Battletoads logo on it for an XBox event as a sign towards a potential revival. And of course, lots of nostalgic t-shirts, licensed or otherwise, are out there as well.
Hardcore Gaming 101 (the place to go for historical gaming information) has a fresh, newly written retrospective on the series.
COMMENTS: When I first chose to review this special, I thought this could go one of three ways – a rip-off of TMNT, a parody of TMNT, or a comedy that just happened to have giant toad-people. It turned out to be the latter and be very, very silly. This isn’t a bad thing. I’d much rather watch a show that’s energetic & blissfully stupid than dull.
The Toads themselves are likable heroes – they’re just cheesy enough to be funny, and each has his own personality that’s well-delineated in the special. Angelica is super earnest, and T-Bird is probably the best, since he’s the archetypical wacky inventor figure. But he gets to look all smug at the villains when they meet the Toads for the first time, and he quotes Doc Brown at one point, so he’s the one that stands out in my mind. The Dark Queen is good overly theatrical villain, but her minions (including General Slaughter) are all pretty interchangeable.
The music in here is a big improvement over the scoring DiC did with Poochie. The Toads have their own theme, which sounds like surf rock & fits the wacky-action tone of the show well. The Dark Queen has one as well, more of a pop or jazz number that I can’t find an analogue for in the game’s soundtrack. However, it’s definitely inspired by the game. Compared to the “looping theme used in any & all situations” scoring DiC had done previously, this was a huge improvement.
The special is not without its problems. The biggest is that DiC really didn’t put any money or even attention into the animation. The movements of the characters can be very jerky & awkward, while the backgrounds are non-existent. There are various places where action is taking place against a white void with only a prop or a thinly-drawn sign for any indication of place. It’s distracting and gives off the distinct feeling that DiC just didn’t care that much about the end result.
This is a show that knows exactly what it is, which is cheerily stupid, and that’s perfectly fine. When you’re basing a show off a game where a foot can grow into a giant super-boot for an extra hard kick, you really don’t expect or want much seriousness. Every ounce of logic says I should hate this because it definitely is low-quality, but dammit, it knows it's low-quality, like some weird Roger Corman cartoon. I can't hate that.
WOULD IT WORK AS A SERIES: Hmmm, this one’s hard. This show would have to target itself at two particular audiences: younger children and stoners. A show this frenetic & goofy could work – and DiC actually did it with the syndicated Sonic series. So while it might be too redundant, it has been proven that there is an audience for this. But this begs the question if that audience had already been tapped for this kind of series. I guess if they wanted a more action-oriented show along similar lines, then this would work as a regular series. They’d just need to use actual backgrounds.
Next time, wish me luck, we’re looking at Bubsy.