It was a dark time for children in the ‘90s who loved comic books. Comics were really into dark, gritty, violent, and over-sexualized schlock. Enter the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic which was originally created as a parody of aforementioned ‘80s and ‘90s grim dark schlock. Weirdly enough though, Ninja Turtles managed to transcend its role as a parody of popular over-the-top adult comics spearheaded by famed comic scribe Frank Miller. Suddenly, four grimdark turtles designed to be the unholy parody fusion of Cerebus the Aardvark, Ronin, and Daredevil became a bunch of goofy bros eating pizza. They’d managed to go so far into parody that they looped around into family friendly entertainment that become a cultural phenomena that still persists to this day.
But if we have learned nothing about mass media, it is that networks can never be content with just one success. One glance at the successful totally rad profit machine that has lasted for over three decades, and they knew they needed as many anthropomorphic crime fighting animals they could get. The floodgates were open for a horde of mutated animals pumped with as much corporate approved “x-treme attitude” as Saturday morning programming blocks could handle, all looking to tear their way through unsuspecting parents' wallets. Sure you all remember the Ninja Turtles, but I’m sure you also remember that weird video of a young Vin Diesel playing with mutant shark toys. Right? Anyone?
But what you might not have know is that those weird steroid sharks came from the Ninja Turtle clone wars. They were officially known as the Street Sharks and they’re just one entry into some of the strangest mutated offspring that was inspired by the success of the Ninja Turtles.
10. Swat Kats
One has to admit, Swat Kats has an unusually impressive mastery of the art of ‘90s x-treme awesomeness. The art design looks like you could cut yourself on almost everything in this series. It was dark, gritty, and as violent as you could get in a children’s genre that pretty much demanded consequence-less bloodless violence. They flew an awesome jet, had all kinds of awesome gadgets, and a soundtrack full of guitar riffs. Swat Kats looks like someone saw the grim dark satire of the original TMNT comics and tried their best to carry it over into a children’s cartoon. It was the Dark Knight trilogy of anthropomorphic crime fighting animals.
They’re cats fighting giant monsters in a fighter jet, but everything almost has dark Frank Miller-esque color pallet. It tried to recapture everything about the original Ninja Turtles comic, from the impressive artwork to the grimdark violence. The big difference is, they didn’t quite manage to make it to parody. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was originally built as a parody, but Swat Kats feels like it was made by people who took everything they saw at face value and decided to try their own hand at it with cats who solve all of their problems by bombing stuff. It doesn’t matter if it’s science gone awry or a magical skeleton cat summoning demons, you can wreck it with awesome child friendly explosions and metal guitar riffs!
Ironically enough, violence is ultimately what got the show cancelled from the newly formed Cartoon Network despite being successful enough to spawn its own toy line and video game series. But if nothing else, it’s legacy lives by inspiring a whole generation of people who were willing to raise over $150,000 on Kickstarter so the original creators could keep the radical squadron flying high.
9. Bucky O’Hare
What do you get when you cross Star Wars with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? There should be some sort of witty pun as an answer, but there’s really not. Just a really weird cartoon, and hard as the opening tried to sell the show as extreme, it just wasn’t. Maybe that’s because Bucky O’Hare was spawned from it’s own comic series, just like the Ninja Turtles. Although the Bucky O’Hare comic pre-dates the Ninja Turtles, you can just imagine series creators Larry Hama and Michael Golden kicking themselves for not getting on the mutant animal gravy train first. But honestly, we’re not sure they could have even if they wanted to.
Before being a nerd was cool, Star Wars was kind of a niche thing. Make Star Wars with anthropomorphic animals, and you’re really paring down your target audience. Ironically now things are kind of reverse. If Disney decided to do some animated remake of Star Wars with the animals of Zootopia, it’d probably make all the money in the world.
Maybe whoever produced the TV series thought that talking animals would be enough to pull Bucky to the top. But rather than take the easy route and make a bunch of throwaway villains, the show gave us a sociopathic AI that enslaved an otherwise peaceful nation of toads with television. It just feels a little weird watching a children’s television show that constantly chastises you for watching mindless entertainment, and maybe that’s why it never quite took off to the same degree that Ninja Turtles did. That and possibly the lack of ninjas.
That and the weird dichotomy between children’s show bloodless violence and the creation of a relatively sympathetic enemy. The toads are just being used by an evil artificial intelligence making them all kind of innocent despite pretty much every other species complete inhibition towards croaking them indiscriminately. Shouldn’t they be more worried about dismantling Komplex, the psychotic AI, and freeing the entire toad race from virtual slavery instead of murdering them? As cool as a animal themed Star Wars was, it just felt like they might have bitten off a little more than they could chew.
8. Street Sharks
You can almost see the thought process at work here. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a huge hit, but they’re just turtles. If we picked an animal with more intrinsic attitude, everyone will forget about that batch of glorified snapping turtles and flock to the real deal. It kinda worked; they did manage to milk the whole shark thing for forty straight episodes, but it never really caught on the same way the Ninja Turtles did, despite 'jawesome' being an infinitely better catchphrase than 'cowabunga'. And when we say milk, we’re not kidding. Every single episode of the series had the word shark somewhere in it, like someone was afraid that the name of the show or the giant angry shark-man creatures wouldn’t be enough to convey that maybe this show was about sharks.
Part of me still wonders if the lesser status of the Street Sharks franchise wasn’t in part due to how completely weird the Street Sharks looked. Sure, Leonardo and his crew weren’t going to win any beauty contests especially after the weird designs from the Michael Bay movie, but they stuck to somewhat humanoid proportions. Your six-year-old self could totally imagine themselves stopping by, hanging out with the Ninja Turtles, eating some pizza, and showing off some sweet ninja moves. Mostly you could imagine the turtles fitting inside the front door of your house. The Street Sharks on the other hand look like Doctor Moreau tried his hand working with fish and things went even more wrong than usual after he added steroids to the mix. Just look at their heads.
They’re huge! Malformed! They’re mouths are gigantic, and their stomachs are so small, I don’t even know where the food goes when they eat something. They may be totally badass, but you don’t want them anywhere near your house. Imagine having them over for pizza, only to find they don’t fit into the house. Seconds later, they’ve chewed through the door frame, eaten all the pizza, and you spent the rest of the afternoon forcing you to bench press whatever your meager six-year-old frame can handle while they high-five each other and tell you to lift through the pain, before they eat you. Cause let’s be real. After being mutated into an ungodly mutant with their DNA spliced with the greatest killing machine ever produced by nature, bread with a little tomato sauce and melted cheese is not going to be nearly as appealing to them as the juicy flesh of a child. Street Sharks also has the special distinction of serving as the introduction for another one of the other shows on our list. The Extreme Dinosaurs toy line and TV show splintered out of a special crossover episode jam packed with all the reptile on fishman punch-fest action any sugar addled 9-year-old could crave.
7. Extreme Dinosaurs
Before we go anywhere else with this, let’s just lead off with the fact that unlike pretty much all of the other weird extreme attitude anthropomorphic critters out there, this one contains a mix of herbivores and carnivores. Looking at this as an adult, can’t help but wonder what stops them from eating each other like y’know real dinosaurs. Extreme Dinosaurs is kind of like the perfect storm of children’s obsessions. Kids always love dinosaurs, they can’t get enough of them! I mean, who didn’t love Jurassic Park as a kid? But what could be better than just regular boring old thunder lizards? Well how about super cool dinosaurs injected with steroids and equipped with armor and laser guns?
You’d think this kind of premise would make whoever created it all the money in the world, but Extreme Dinosaurs was an unfortunate example of diminishing returns because Extreme Dinosaurs was actually a spinoff of Street Sharks. Unfortunately, like a xerox of a xerox, Extreme Dinosaurs lost something in the process. The Street Sharks might not have been mutated turtles with a mastery of the martial arts, but they were using that shark theme for all they were worth. They swam under the streets, ate stuff, and crammed puns literally everywhere they could.
Biker Mice From Mars were both bikers and martians. Swat Kats were fighter pilots and also cats who lived in a cat city. Obviously Ninja Turtles were ninjas and turtles. But Extreme Dinosaurs? They just slapped the adjective on the animal and that was that. All of the other previously mentioned animals with attitude have some kind of cool profession.
But the Extreme Dinosaurs don’t really have a purpose other than the fact that they’re dinosaurs, and somehow their muscles make them extreme and no, steroid abuse does not count as a profession. Like many children’s shows of the ‘80s and ‘90s the Extreme Dinosaurs were based around a toyline. Most children’s cartoons are tools to sell kids plastic, but it helps to at least have the vague germ of an idea or a comic book to pull some mythos and characters from.
The entire existence of Extreme Dinosaurs is predicated on the original Dino Vergers toyline which had a different storyline featuring teenagers who were transformed into Extreme Dinosaurs much like their Street Shark cousins. As we mentioned before, they were introduced in Street Sharks in a crossover episode and their series spun out from that. Which is probably why you have a better chance of seeing a Street Shark cosplayer then you would any of the characters from Extreme Dinosaurs.
Even the toys weren’t as fun as their rivals. Everyone loved Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe toys because they had tons of awesome accessories. Of course, part of that was a desire to sell more toys because we all engaged in a never ending battle to collect all the different figures with their outfits, weapons, and weird skill sets. Extreme Dinosaurs were dinosaurs. That’s it. They weren’t ninjas or super soldiers. They had no skills, and Mattel had already had the working jaw thing on lock with their Street Sharks figurines, plus they had Vin Diesel. That’s why Mattel got a little desperate. And by desperate, we mean Dinovison with “stare through the back of this action figure to watch it ‘eat’ stuff” action. That’s really the best they could come up with.
6. Biker Mice From Mars
The fatal flaw with Biker Mice from Mars was it was trying to throw too many elements into one thing. At its best, the ‘90s anthropomorphic critter formula involves taking something awesome and having an animal do it with attitude. Ninjas are sweet, so now that box turtle you found by the creek can beat anyone to a pulp. Bikers are totally cool, so now your class pets can tool around town on a Harley. Biker Mice from Mars made the mistake of trying to throw a third element into the mix: aliens.
That kinda works, but it completely defeats the purpose of making them mice in the first place cause they’re not mice. They’re aliens with an evolutionary path that leaves them superficially resembling some sort of Hell’s Angel lab rat hybrid with what we can only presume to be some kind of vestigial antenna. The antenna don’t do anything! They’re just a visual cue reminding us that that they’re from Mars, something that barely matters after the first episode. They might as well be wearing deely bobbers.
Maybe it might have been believable if they were just regular rats. Rats are historically edgier than mice; it’s too bad nobody likes rats. But the Biker Mice had one champion and it was TV producer Rick Ungar. While his skill in producing might be debatable given the fact that he almost ran Marvel into bankruptcy in the mid-nineties when he was the head of Marvel animation. But what he might have lacked in business savvy Rick more than made up with heart.
Rick wouldn’t even let cancellation and the general decline of ‘90s baditude stop him from ensuring his vision of Martian biker mice was brought to life. Years later he managed to revive the Biker Mice from Mars in 2006. He was so determined to ensure the saga of Throttle, Mondo, and Vinnie would continue he managed to bring them back through his own sheer will power. His efforts were rewarded with the Biker Mice becoming a permanent fixture in the furry community.
Or maybe he secretly did know he was on to something and years before Disney perfected the furry formula with Zootopia he blazed a way forward with Biker Mice. Maybe that’s why he tried to spice things up by adding musical numbers and turning the Biker Mice into a rock opera. It might not be for everyone, but you gotta respect that kind of tenacity. While we doubt we’ll be seeing the Biker Mice on broadway anytime soon you can enjoy the fruits of his labor by checking out the song above!
5. Wild West C.O.W.- Boys of Moo Mesa
Westerns have been going out of style for years. Maybe for one generation of children, the idea of the American frontier served as the cornerstone of their imaginations as they fantasized about westward expansion, cowboys, and gunfights. But the one-two punch of the space race and Star Wars managed to drain America’s cultural enthusiasm for that. The iconography always had trouble competing with lasers and spaceships. There are only so many variations on tumbleweeds and saloons you can go through before it gets a little tired. The only people who managed to keep the torch blazing were Italian directors looking to re-examine the American myth and by poking at our compulsive obsession with firearms and American masculinity.
So you could say the C.O.W Boys of Moo Mesa had an uphill battle with all of the fantasy and sci-fi shows that littered children's programming. Part of the genius of the Ninja Turtles was how it managed to tip-two between the lines of fantasy and science fiction. You could argue that Moo Mesa kind of did that thanks the fact that it took place in a weird post-apocalyptic future where a comet mutated or cow-metized everyone into “bovipomorphic” creatures that for some reason decided to emulate the western culture of the 19th century of the humans who were all killed in the “cowpocalpse.”
Weirdly enough, only the cow’s mutated, leaving many other animals subservient to their new cow overlords. The kid who earnestly loved Moo Mesa was always the one who got made fun of on the playground. Given how half the cast was saddled with cow pun names like Cowlamity Kate, Sheriff Terrorbull, and Moo Montana who could blame them. But if there’s something that the Cowboys managed that most of the other shows in this list it was how they managed to actually rub elbows with the actual Ninja Turtles themselves. In the TMNT spinoff series Fast Forward the turtles went into the future and faced a sort of Danger Room-esque holodeck simulation where they went into west and beat the stuffing out of just about the entire cast of Cowboys of Moo Mesa in a cameo appearance.
You gotta give them some respect at least on that level of managing to actually managed to become apart of turtles canon. Who knows maybe they’ll find a way into the Michael Bay Ninja Turtles movies.
Okay, so here’s a look at an early, but still unrefined crack at the extreme animal formula. Technically speaking Dinosaucers predates the Ninja Turtles, but you can easily see the vestiges of what would quickly become a billion dollar formula for selling kids tons of plastic. We have two different things combined together to make something awesome that children would force their parents to throw money at: Dinosaurs and aliens. The interesting thing to note though is that the kids don’t transform into dinosaurs. Rather, the kids are invited to join the alien dinosaurs to go on adventures. This was a more parasocial fantasy similar to the old Transformers standby where the main cast of kids on the show acted as the audience surrogate and were invited to join the fantasy characters on whatever cool thing they were doing that day.
It was a hybrid bridging the gap between an ‘80s and ‘90s obsession. The only thing killing it from super stardom was the terrible, terrible name. Puns are not extreme. They will never have attitude. Even older series like He-Man or G.I. Joe avoided puns like the plague unless you were talking about the action figures. But no one cared about what the toy was called as long as it looked cool. He-Man was ripped and rode a giant battle cat while shooting lightning from his sword. G.I. Joe had lots of awesome vehicles that always fired an orgy of harmless violence in the form of missiles and lasers. The Dinosaucers just had the ability to transform back into regular dinosaurs. If you’re already a dinosaur alien that has achieved faster than light travel, that really isn’t much of a power. Of course, they could even sometimes transform into humans, but that was for only one episode and was never brought up again after the Dinosaucers stalked some humans at a dance to observe their “mating ritual,” We’re guessing that’s probably why it was never ever bought up again. Because as lame as turning into a less evolved version of yourself is, stalking people is worse.
Speaking of evolution and useless tech, there was also a group of saber toothed tiger monsters with a hard on for stupid equipment like the devolver that turns creatures into a primitive version of themselves and a visualizer that turns people into stone. Sure, if you’re essentially a T-Rex alien, turning yourself into a T-Rex is kind of a dumb idea. Someone else doing it for you is also kinda dumb, especially if you lose your sentience in the process. That’s like turning the wolfman into an angry dire wolf. All your doing is taking a minor nuisance and turning it into a bigger problem. Look, if a race of spacefaring dinosaurs had anything better to do, they would not be hanging around with a bunch of kids who looked like they stepped right out of the Burger King Kid’s club.
One of the interesting footnotes left behind from Dinosaucers was the power rings they gifted to the children they hung around with. The trinkets were a less interesting precursor to the elemental power ring of Captain Planet, the Dinosaucer rings mostly just gave the kids some relatively tame superhero powers because they had to have something, anything that set them apart from Transformers. Plus having a role playing accessory built right into the franchise material. Weirdly enough the show was created by Coca-Cola Telecommunications. We’re half surprised they didn’t try to make the Dinosaucers derive their powers by drinking smooth refreshing Coca-Cola. Sure, the FCC might not have been cool with it, but at least it would have made the Dinosaucers weirdly memorable.
Battletoads was the perfect meeting of a successful formula and another new craze: video games. The game achieved something of a cult status for it’s ridiculous difficulty and masochistic game design, so we can’t really fault it there. Still, it’s pretty blatantly inspired by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s another green aquatic animal transformed into a mutant fighting machine. They even have the older mentor critter in the form of a vulture named T. Bird. Of course, gross out humor is pretty much a right of passage for most kids, so the toads are all named after skin conditions. Cause everyone just wants to hang out with Rash, Pimple, and Zitz! I have to say we’re a little disappointed that two of the toads are named Pimple and Zitz. They’re the same skin condition! That’d be like if two of the turtles were named Leonardo and De Vinci! If you’re going for skin conditions as a naming trope, why not name one of them Wart? It’s begging to be used! They’re toads!
Of course, all of this didn’t stop anyone from making a really weird pilot for a TV show where they somehow managed to try and translate the limited lore into an ongoing narrative. They even stripped the poor toads of the weirdly gritty edge they’d managed to scrape together with their Nintendo game and for some reason decided to go for a surf rock theme song. Surf rock was never edgy. Not sure what executive decided that what eight-year-olds were really craving was something that’d remind them of the Beach Boys. Outside of a brief few years in the ‘60s, surf rock was never even all that popular. Worse yet, the toads weren’t mutated. Rather, three normal kids would just transform into their toady alter egos to become Rash, Pimple, and Zitz. Let’s face it children can be pretty annoying and real life, and that goes double for cartoon children. Sure you might have one or two as an audience surrogate, but all of the best ‘80s and ‘90s cartoons were always about teenagers or adults who got to do things that were infinitely cooler than anything a kid might be capable of.
And that’s another thing. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may have been, well, turtles which is kinda lame, but they had sweet ninja powers and knew how to use awesome ninja weapons. Every kid instinctively wants to know how to use ninja weapons. The Battle Toads on the other hand had the power to turn their hands into really disappointing things. Anvils, hammers, cymbals, and even just bigger hands. No child is going to run around pretending they can grow their hands to twice the size of their head. If you’re going to have massive transforming mutated hands, the least you could do is have them morph into something cool like badass ninja weapons. Easily the most interesting thing about the whole ordeal was the fact that in Nintendo Power they reported that the pilot had been picked up as a full series, but Battletoads was axed and never went past the pilot episode.
2. Sonic Underground
You all liked Sonic. You're probably embarrassed to admit it, but you had that friend who had a SNES with Super Mario World. It was a hundred times better than your Sega Genesis, but you were stubborn. You were sucked in thanks to Sega’s “Sega Does What Nintendon’t” ad campaign, or maybe you were just that kid on the playground who loved to be the contrarian. Regardless, you pledged your allegiance to Sega and Sonic over the vastly superior Mario games and no amount of logic or reason could sway your opinion. Sonic was the cool guy with attitude, and Mario was a middle-aged plumber with a gut and a mustache. So you watched all the Sonic TV shows and bought all the merch.
But twenty-five years later, that kid who loved Mario can still wear his Mario shirt proudly and, unless you’re a proud furry, you’ve probably destroyed any affiliation you’ve had with Sega the Hedgehog. All of the weird things associated with Sonic the Hedgehog could make a dozen top 10 lists. But one of the strangest pieces of Sonic material ever produced was the Sonic Underground cartoon. The one cartoon that even the most die hard Sonic fans have largely forgotten. In this incarnation sonic had two siblings and they formed a rock band, hence the underground title.
We’re not quite sure who thought that kids love musicals. Maybe they figured since all the Disney cartoons had them, maybe that was the thing Sonic was missing. So Sonic and his new siblings battled against Dr. Robonic with the power of rock. We’re still not sure why Sonic needed siblings or why they needed some prophecy of finding their mother to reclaim the royal throne, but every episode featured a song with Sonic and his extreme siblings fighting the forces of evil through the power of their jam sessions.
This feels it was someone’s remake of Jossie and the Pussycats and they just jammed Sonic into it because he was popular. Although we can’t confirm if that’s true, it certainly was for most of the episodes after the pilot. Dic literally had an open call where they would just take any writer who could threw some words on paper to pitch episode ideas after getting the basic premise. Maybe that’s why in one episode Sonic fights a mummy with the power of music and in another one Sonic insights a revolution in not-Iran through the power of heavily sanitized rock and roll.
If special medallions that turned into instruments weren’t suspect enough, they also served as their primary superpower shooting lasers through the power of rock. Just. Why? Sonic’s power is going really fast. That’s his entire appeal. It would be like having The Flash defeat Darkseid with the power of interpretive dance. Fans accept Shadow the Hedgehog and that weird cross worlds anime thing where Sonic style cartoon characters and humans exist in the same world, but when was the last time you saw a Manic the Hegehog cosplayer or Sonia the Hedgehog fan art?
Everyone loves the Looney Tunes. Their timeless cartoon characters that have literally endured for decades. The only cartoon that could actually even come close to their iconic stature is maybe Mickey Mouse and even Disney had the fundamental common sense that unless they had a really great idea they would not try to mess with Mickey Mouse. Although Warner Brothers with their weird experimentation's with stuff like Space Jam, didn’t seem to have the same kind of reverence for their characters. Hey, kids used to love Looney Tunes, but they're not hip or current enough, so let’s re-imagine them in a William Gibson cyberpunk post-apocalyptic cyberpunk future. The first thing to come from this was this piece of interesting art work.
To quote Daffy Duck, “WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS?” The outcry from the internet upon the revealing of this artwork was so strong that they had to do character redesigns transforming them into this:
But despite a more light hearted tone Loonatics was still basically trying to force action adventure into what have always been gag characters. This is the last time anyone saw Buggs as a superhero:
At least Tiny Toons worked off of a known formula. Sure one could argue that the regular Looney Tunes are all fine and dandy since technically the Loonatics aren’t them, but rather their descendants in the far far future of 2772 where a meteor strikes Acmetropolis and gives them their powers, but the Looney Tunes were already cartoon characters who knew they were cartoons. There is no greater power than that. Hell, Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit had to come up with a special plot device just to get rid of anyone who was dropped onto the earth by way of an animation budget. But Bugs Bunny doesn’t need laser eyes or a katana to be relevant. It was almost like the marketing executives we’re too afraid of using the word Looney for fear of being perceived as lame. No Loonatics is extreme, their not looney their loonatics cause their edgy.
In many respects Loonatics was an outlier. It was the very last gasp of air from a dying genre, and it’s failure signaled the final end of the Ninja Turtle clone wars. They were the last edgy mutant animal team to try squeeze their way into children's hearts, made just right before the nadir twilight of the Saturday Morning Cartoon programming block. It wasn’t a huge surprise that they only lasted for two seasons before retreating back into the dark abyss of forgotten children’s cartoon shows never to be spoken of, cosplayed, or even remembered again except in humorous listicles.
The end of the Saturday morning cartoon was the end of nostalgia. But in many respects that was also when American animation grew up. Many of the children who’d grown up on the cartoons of the ‘80s and ‘90s became the animators of tomorrow. Bringing their love of the best of the best from this bygone era along with their appreciation for anime and videogames to create a new generation of cartoons. Cartoons that were smarter and funnier than anything that’d been made previously before. The likes of Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, Adventure Time, and Regular Show brought in a new era designed to cater to their audience instead of just simply pandering to their desire to consume plastic. Weirdly enough even the Ninja Turtles themselves have gone through a renaissance as they were rebooted in a mega successful CGI series on Nickelodeon that also followed in the footsteps in this new golden age of western children’s animation. So this new era has purged out the old era of extreme mutant animals, but at the very least we can learn and laugh at the eras of the past and appreciate how it’s come to build the era we enjoy today.
What was your favorite anthropomorphic crime fighting gang?