Before we turn the power off on the whole Cheaptoons project, let’s go a little deeper into the well to make this feel as complete as possible. You wouldn’t think so judging by the general quality of the shows, but there were some video game adaptations that didn’t even make it past the pilot episode—they got their one chance, but even in the bottom-of-the-barrel world of game-based cartoons in the nineties, they weren’t considered good enough to get even a single season. Now, there’s many reasons why a television show doesn’t get picked up, and in the case of a licensed property-based show like these, there are even more potential roadblocks before getting a full season order—even so, you have to wonder if there was something about the shows themselves, the final product, that forced all the networks to turn away after giving them one shot. We are here to determine if these certified failures among the failures somehow managed to do anything worse than what ended up being aired.
I always got the feeling that Battletoads was at least partially meant to lightly parody the kind of animals-with-attitude stuff that came in the wake of the Ninja Turtles—here’s a concept that is the most straightforward over-the-top interpretation of that idea, placed in the most video game-y video game that could be conceived, and I gotta imagine that it was one of the many times the developers at Rare had tongues firmly planted within cheeks when making something. As well, they seemed to intentionally go out of their way to quickly dispatch anything resembling context whenever possible—there is a backstory to Battletoads, but it is almost never referenced in the games themselves, and just seems to exist for the sheer purpose of existing…I mean, there are “important” characters who are only ever referenced in the instruction manual. But, regardless, Battletoads was enough like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that a cartoon was inevitable.
What’s weird is that episode, aired in 1992, looks so much older than it should be—the washed-out colours and fairly minimal design work bring to mind cartoons from the early to mid eighties, although this attempts to have a more rubbery style that gives the impression of old cartoons without actually looking like one. Given the presence of animation director Kent Butterworth in the credits (who also worked on shows like Tiny Toons and The Simpsons), and the presence of fifties-style sock hop rock music on the soundtrack, I get the distinct impression that was an attempt at turning Battletoads into a retro throwback-type cartoon, and in turn basically a dry run for Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, which Butterworth helped develop a year later. This probably misses that goal even more than the Sonic cartoon did, but it’s interesting to see that connection there.
The only noteworthy thing about the story in this sole episode are the origins of the Battletoads themselves—of course they’re three outcast teenagers (two eighties/early-nineties punks, and also a nerd, because you always have to have a bizarre clique cross-section), but how their status is presented to you is taken to absurdist extremes. Their first scene is being called to the office of their Mr. Weatherbee-type principal and being denounced as “the bigger losers in the school”, which is apparently a reason to get called into the principal’s office, and forcefully separated. They are, in fact, terrible at everything, and all the other students at their high school exist to look down upon them. Thankfully, the supporting cast of the game show up, turn them into the Battletoads, and we’re off to the races. They establish catchphrases to transform to and from toad form, which is a concept that is not established so I guess the three of them just decided to come up with it on their own, and help the princess and scientist bird-man character by sending them to live in their teacher’s gigantic beach house. Then the bad guys attack, and we see the Battletoads do the things the Battletoads do in the games, which is turn their limbs into things, which is at least a cartoon-inspired idea to begin with. There are very clear attempts to make this as goofy and cartoony as the limited animation allowed, and to have some actual attempts at jokes, such as references to Back to the Future and specifically setting the show in Oxnard, California with a sign near the beginning that says “Oxnard—Gateway to Camarillo”, which might be a southern California joke that goes over my head. That seems to be that Ninja Turtles influence creeping in—this was actually co-written by David Wise, who may have written half of all the TMNT episodes—sitting alongside the callbacks to old-school animation. Having the princess get a retail job (while still acting like an alien princess) and having the villains pop out of washing machines, while not hilarious, are trying something at least—it’s too bad the animation can’t really support those things.
The pacing on this pilot is also pretty off—the princess is kidnapped from her day job by the villainous Dark Queen, taken to the big rotating tower from the game, and then the Battletoads proceed to rescue her. You’d think that would be the end, but no, the show keeps going afterwards, because we need to have the trio’s identities be discovered by Mr. Not-Weatherbee and the other kids, and then a joke about the villains attacking the mall because it’s 1992 and this has teenager characters in it. The show just sort of ends after another non-battle scene, and text on screen tells us this is “The beginning…”, which is true, if it meant the beginning of the end.
Why Did It Fail? I think the Ninja Turtles phenomenon was just beginning to taper off by the time this aired, and this isn’t that good even by the standards of all the Ninja Turtles knock-offs that were airing concurrently. More importantly, several of the people who worked on this had likely just discovered a more promising cash cow in a certain blue hedgehog, so why futz around with Battletoads when you have something much more immediately saleable? I guess those toads just weren’t made for these times.
It feels like the people who made the Bubsy pilot really understood the character, in that they understood that he is a contemptible creation with nothing but disdain for the audience. I remember complaining about Sonic’s personality in some of his shows some time ago—but spending even a few minutes with Bubsy makes me pine for Sonic and his chili dog-loving ways. You know what will instantly endear your main character to the potential audience? Having him constantly state how wacky and lovable he is, while repeating his name for you multiple times. That’s the mark of something that gets by entirely on personality.
Bubsy was always something that seemed cynically-crafted to fit into a post-Sonic landscape, where anything “cool” and with “attitude” was instantly marketable—it only makes sense that the cartoon version of it would also be a hodgepodge of the most obnoxious aspects of its moment in time. Catchphrases are spouted ad nauseam, black-and-white stock footage is doled out for “comedic” effect, and mock-rock plays hard and heavy in the background—it’s like every terrible nineties commercial stretched to twenty minutes. Plus, the valuable time of talented voice actors ends up being wasted—Rob Paulsen seems perfect for the role of Bubsy, but that’s less like praise and more like a fated curse.
Being a straight, unfunny comedy, there really isn’t much of a plot to speak of, just some things to justify a series of gags. It involves Bubsy, his armadillo sidekick/roommate (who seems barely verbal and is in constant fear of being hit by a massive 18-wheeler, and also of Bubsy himself), Bubsy’s niece and nephew who fulfill every expectation of irritating child characters on this sort of show, and a helmet with the power to create anything they can imagine. Other supporting characters involved fall along the stereotype/cliche spectrum, with the special note given to the love interest (I guess?) cat character, whose gigantic Margaret Keane eyes feels awkwardly out of place even among this cast of deserved misfits. Of course, all of them have their own tics (for example: the cat lady can never remember Bubsy’s name! Clever stuff we’re dealing with here) that basically form the entirety of their character, so every time any of them are on screen, it’s the same joke over and over again, bridged by scenes of bad reference comedy (is that a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous joke I see? That was hack even in 1993) and “super wacky” physical humour without any rhythm. Even so, any time spent with the supporting cast is time generally not spent with Bubsy himself, which is something in their favour—Bubsy is the king of the one-note personality, a character who is recognized by most of the other characters as an ill omen (the ones who don’t regard him with disgust are suspect), as he should also be by the audience as well.
I went through this entire write-up without mentioning Poochie once, because that would be cliche. It was very difficult.
Why Did It Fail? I’d like to think this was a case where justice was served, that even those who were inured to the in-your-face nature of nineties pop culture could see that this was too much. Bubsy could only work (inasmuch as Bubsy could “work”) in a specific time in the history of video games—and his time was fairly short there as well. Transplant that type of character into another medium, and all the rot at the centre of the enterprise suddenly becomes very apparent—watching this made me want to go back to any of the Sonic cartoons, which seem so sedate and dignified by comparison.