Catchphrase: “This ain’t the Three Little Pigs!”
By the mid-1990s, the Ninja Turtle fad was at its end. Kids had watched the TV show and bought gimmicky action figures for nearly a decade, but the franchise sputtered out somewhere around robot-piloting Leonardo and falafel-making Donatello. This also marked the end of many hangers-on, as studios turned to profiting from their own versions of Power Rangers or Dragon Flyz. For Vintage Comics and a toy company called Imaginary Limitz, however, 1996 was ripe to seize the reins of the Turtles’ dwindling empire with a new breed of animal-themed heroes: the Cy-Boars.
If there were pitches for a Cy-Boars cartoon, they didn’t convince anyone. Instead, the market got a line of Cy-Boars action figures and a comic series that, based on all available evidence, lasted one issue. The creative forces behind this porcine toy line knew that the territory they were entering was a bit clichéd. For starters, every TMNT rip-off had its heroes either descending from space or gestating from some mutating experiment. So Cyboars mixed the two: the boar-men are originally from another planet, but after crashing to Earth, they’re turned into cybernetic killing machines by a secret organization. No, that certainly isn’t the Three Little Pigs. You’ve got us there.
The comic was quickly swept aside, though the Cy-Boars toys had slightly more of a presence, as a single peg in Wal-Mart’s toy department offers greater exposure than the dollar box at a comic store. With names like Bush Hog, Hog Kong, Chop Suey, and Stampede, the figures might’ve made half-decent stand-ins for Bebop in a kid’s Ninja Turtles collection, as they were big, unappealing pig-things generic enough to fit in just about anywhere. And that’s why they ultimately went nowhere.
3) Street Sharks
Catchphrase: “Jawsome!” (variant spelling: “Jawesome.”)
The Street Sharks occupy a small, seldom-examined place in the collective unconscious of those who grew up in 1990s. These now-grown kids have all forgotten watching the Street Sharks cartoon or playing with the toys in 1993, but merely uttering the word “jawsome” will make all of those memories surface like a giant, top-heavy man-shark wearing jeans.
Perhaps inspired by the abortive Battletoads pilot, the Street Sharks series reverses the idea behind the turtles: instead of sea predators becoming humanoid, the four young sons of a noble scientist are transformed into hulked-out shark men. Their father is mutated off-camera by his unscrupulous bald mentor (who looks like a duller version of Golobulus from the G.I. Joe movie), who immediately invites his children to become experiments, a fate they rush toward by parachuting and skateboarding and rollerblading and other completely mondo modes of totally tubular transportation. Yet they soon became Street Sharks, found allies in their father’s overworked colleague and her laid-back assistant (who filled the Michelangelo-clone quota), and, well, beat up other mutants without ripping their pants.
Curiously, the Street Sharks never inspired a videogame in their three years on the market, even though every cartoon character from EXO Squad to Izzy the Olympic Mascot did. Being jawsome will only take you so far.
2) Biker Mice from Mars
Catchphrase: “Rock and ride!”
As Ninja Turtle lore had it, the four teenage mutants were transformed into humanoids by experimental ooze, and the cartoons and toy line drove that idea until the engine exploded. As the franchise evolved, turtles and rats weren’t the only ones who could be changed into anthropomorphic hybrid action figures. Frogs, alligators, ducks, manta rays, flatworms, lizards, geckos, bulls, flies, and just about anything else could become an animal-human, to the point where they got a spin-off comic (and cartoon pitch) called The Might Mutanimals.
Yet the Ninja Turtles never created intergalactic mouse-man bikers, and this vital niche wasn’t filled until 1993, when Rick Ungar, fresh off the success of an X-Men cartoon that didn’t require 15,000 issues of setup to understand, launched Biker Mice from Mars. In the first episode, three super-macho joyriding vermin named Throttle (the leader, played by Rob “Raphael is Cool But Rude” Paulsen), Vinnie (the cocky one) and Modo (the boring one) waste very little of the viewer’s time. By the ten-minute mark, they’ve arrived on earth, beaten up some human criminals, saved their skeptical human-woman sidekick, and pelted kids with off-timed jokes about Grey Poupon and The Duke of Earl. There’s even a stab at a certain hot property when the most deadpan of the three mice asks “You were expecting Turtles, maybe?”
Yes, we were. Between the beefy rodents and the constant quips, Biker Mice could easily be mistaken for an episode of TMNT. An episode that’s trying a little too hard. The rapid-fire humor is mostly painful, and the opposition consists of polluters and their stupid henchmen overrunning the Martian mice, in a setup that worked better in Bucky O’Hare. Not that Biker Mice was a failure. It spawned video games and reached that coveted 65-episode mark, ensuring a healthy syndicated life off dulling imaginations everywhere. It even earned that most revered of cheap cartoon honors: a remake. A new version of Biker Mice from Mars is now airing, and we hear there’s an utterly savage and timely parody of Donald Trump.
Catchphrase (videogame): “Mad, bad, and crazy toads!”
Catchphrase (cartoon): “Let’s get warty!” (frequently misheard as “Let’s get horny!”)
Most of the franchises that joined the mutant-animal-hero fad made the tactical mistake of fighting the Ninja Turtles on their home turf: the closely linked worlds of cartoons and toy lines. The marketers behind Battletoads were too smart for that. They targeted the Turtles where they were weakest: videogames.
Not that there weren’t a few excellent Ninja Turtles games out there, but it’s likely that Rare took a look at the thrown-together first TMNT game for the NES and decided that they could do it better. The better Ninja Turtles games were beat-‘em-ups with somewhat repetitive play, so the 1991 Battletoads game made each of its stages different: a fall through a bird-filled cavern, a surfboard obstacle course, a chase across speedy mechanical snakes, and a frustrating exercise in guiding a speeder-bike past stone barriers.
Battletoads came out swinging in its print ads, which put forth the theory that turtles were “pond scum” compared to the heroic toad-men known as Zitz, Rash, and Pimple. Battletoads even had a cartoon-ready backstory: with a style somewhere between 1950s pulp comics and catchphrase-spouting ’90s annoyances, the three toads were three game players (later changed to be three teenage losers from Oxnard, California) who became superhero amphibians, met up with a vulture scientist, and rescued a princess named Angelica from the Dark Queen, who was more or less a sultrier-dressed version of Morticia Addams..
But it wasn’t enough for the Battletoads to have a decent game. They were supposed to be the Next Big Thing, as shown by unearthed design documents for Battletoads candy, Battletoads toys, Battletoads Halloween costumes, and Battletoads “his and her” aprons depicting the scaly abs of a Battletoad and the wasp-waisted torso of the Dark Queen. Yet none of these could be made until there was a Battletoads cartoon to promote it.
So Battletoads got a cartoon. One cartoon. The keepers of Battletoads and the animators at DIC were clearly aiming for Ninja Turtles territory, even going so far as to hire writer David Wise, one of the key architects of the TMNT cartoon, to script a pilot episode for Battletoads. And so, on one day in 1992, Fox aired this:
Unsurprisingly, there was to be no TV series for Battletoads. Today, the three would-be Ninja Turtle successors and their acne-derived names are remembered mostly for their first NES game—and how everyone hated the speeder-bike level.