Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the quintessential nineties children’s cartoon – mutated heroes eating pizza, spouting radical dialogue and displaying the bombastic but ultimately shallow ‘attitude’ that the era was known for, the Ninja Turtles represent everything that made pop culture at the end of the 20th century stand out. And they’re so enduring that we’re still seeing them on our TV and movie screens, most recently with this week’s release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.
While the heroes in a half shell might have been the most popular combination of ’90s slacker ideology, they weren’t the only cartoon characters to embrace these ideas. With popularity comes imitation, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had more than its fair share of knock-offs and copycats.
While Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo have continued to be household names in the years since their introduction, plenty of similar cartoons haven’t fared as well. While not quite the cash-grab rip-offs that we looked at earlier this week, here are 13 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Copycats That Time Forgot.
13. Samurai Pizza Cats
When it comes to adapting Japanese children’s shows for a Western audience, no company has perfected the art of cramming in American pop-culture quite like Saban Entertainment. In the years before Saban built up the Power Rangers franchise, it took a swing at adapting an anime called Kyatto Ninden Teyandee – in doing so, it drew more than a little inspiration from the popularity of the Ninja Turtles.
What, in Japan, was a fairly standard series about anthropomorphic ninja cats (whatever that means) took on a new life in the West, as the show was filled with quirky quips, puns, and more than a few references to pizza which were nonexistent in the original Japanese version.
Interestingly, while the cats of Kyatto Ninden Teyandee are ninjas, the decision was made to turn them into samurai for the American show – likely an attempt to make the similarities between the Pizza Cats and the Ninja Turtles a little less obvious.
12. Street Sharks
For much of the ’90s, the formula for creating a Ninja Turtles clone was fairly straightforward: center a cartoon series around a group of mutated anthropomorphic animals, make sure they display a lot of arrogance, have them fight crime, and an audience was pretty much guaranteed.
Of all the Ninja Turtles knock-offs, Street Sharks is one which got this balance just about right – the protagonists, a group of mutated sharks, looked fierce and fought crime, which proved popular among kids of the time and led to plenty of action figure sales. The series enjoyed a relatively lengthy run of forty episodes over three years and is one of the better remembered cartoons from this period, although modern filmmakers are in no hurry to adapt the source material for the big screen.
11. Extreme Dinosaurs
Proof of the success of the Street Sharks comes in the form of its spinoff – in the last few episodes of the cartoon, audiences were introduced to the Dino Vengers, a group who eventually earned their own show under the name of Extreme Dinosaurs.
These muscular humanoid dinosaurs arrived on the scene fairly late – their series debuted in 1997, long after the initial Ninja Turtle craze had kicked off in the late ’80s. In spite of this, Extreme Dinosaurs proved a hit, even surpassing Street Sharks and lasting for fifty-two episodes, albeit all in a single lengthy season.
Considering the speed with which children’s cartoons rose and fell during the nineties, the fact that the Extreme Dinosaurs managed such a long run so late after the initial mutant animal boom occurred is both a testament to the cartoon, and to the longevity of the ideas popularized in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
10. Biker Mice From Mars
Not all anthropomorphic animals of the ’90s had to be mutants – another popular concept was that these creatures were aliens who had come to Earth to defend the planet. Such was the case with Biker Mice from Mars, a show which originally landed while Turtle mania was at its peak in 1993 and which added a little extra spice to the formula by switching out Japanese martial arts for the far more American concept of a biker gang.
Of all the shows on this list, Biker Mice is one of the few that’s seen a revival after its initial run in the ’90s. In 2006, new episodes of the show were commissioned, attempting to continue where the original cartoon had left off. These episodes were relatively well received, but by this point the popularity of anthropomorphic crime-fighting animals had waned somewhat, and the show failed to gain traction.
9. Avenger Penguins
In spite of the inherent silliness of the anthropomorphic animal warrior formula, it was rare for ’90s cartoons patterned after Ninja Turtles to treat their subject matter with anything other than deadpan seriousness. For this reason, Avenger Penguins was something of a rarity: a self-referential show which poked fun at itself while straddling the line between parody and tribute to the Ninja Turtles.
There were plenty of in-jokes woven throughout Avenger Penguins which probably went over the heads of its target audience but likely caused worn-out parents to smile. This included the Badly Drawn Brothers, two characters which mocked cartoon animation quality of the time by always appearing with their pencil construction lines intact.
In spite of substituting ninjas for bikers in a similar way to Biker Mice from Mars, Avenger Penguins took a very different take on its subject matter, and as such it’s aged a little better than some of the cartoons on this list.
8. Wild West C.O.W. – Boys of Moo Mesa
Perhaps not the most inventive Ninja Turtle rip-off, this series about mutated cows who are also inexplicably cowboys actually has a fairly distinguished pedigree – the creator of the series, Ryan Brown, was one of the biggest contributors to the Ninja Turtles brand before beginning work on the Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa. In addition to inking the original Ninja Turtles comic book, Brown contributed a lot of ideas to the cartoon series that made them famous, including creating the character of April O’Neil.
Sadly, Brown’s original creation, a story about an alternate version of the Wild West where a radioactive comet has ‘cow-metized’ everything, hasn’t proven quite as popular as his contributions to Ninja Turtle lore. The show ran for two seasons containing thirteen episodes each, and was promptly abandoned.
7. Stone Protectors
What happens when marketers try to find ways to make the Troll dolls, one of the most iconic children’s toys of the ’80s and ’90s, appeal to a young male audience? The answer is Stone Protectors, an attempt to create a range of Trolls which appealed to fans of Ninja Turtles and other popular shows of the time aimed at boys.
The Stone Protectors cartoon series was fairly short-lived, lasting for only thirteen episodes, but the show gained enough traction to support a video game based on the property. As for the long-term success of the Stone Protectors, the range of toys didn’t manage to last too long before the bottom fell out of the Troll market.
6. Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series
In the early ’90s, Disney managed to land a hit with a live-action movie about a young hockey team called the Mighty Ducks. The movie’s brand power was strong, but executives decided to go in an unusual direction when creating a cartoon based on the film – instead of continuing the story of the human kids who had starred in the movie, the animation drew plenty of inspiration from the Ninja Turtles by creating a team of hockey-playing alien ducks.
Unsurprisingly, this approach failed to light a fire under audiences – the Mighty Ducks cartoon lasted for a single season and has never been revisited since, although one character does make an appearance at DisneyQuest in Walt Disney World.
5. Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars
Bucky O’Hare and the Ninja Turtles actually first appeared in comic books during the same month in 1984, so the core concept of this cartoon series isn’t a complete rip-off. Something about the mid-’80s meant that mutated anthropomorphic or alien animals were all the rage.
Still, when time came to adapt the Bucky O’Hare comic for television, the show took more than a few concepts from the already popular Ninja Turtles cartoon. This included a flashy intro which took pains to draw attention to Bucky O’Hare’s origin as a mutated toy, and a whole host of alien animals which bear more than a passing resemblance to TMNT characters. Some of this is reflective of the style of animation at the time, but there’s no denying that the Bucky O’Hare cartoon drew heavy inspiration from the vastly more popular Ninja Turtles brand.
4. Mummies Alive!
More often accused of being little more than a Gargoyles clone, Mummies Alive! also drew heavy inspiration from everyone’s favorite sewer dwellers. The show, which told the story of a group of Egyptian warriors who are resurrected to protect a modern day reincarnation of an ancient pharaoh, was filled with ’90s cartoon clichés including enthusiastic slang and references to fast food, both of which were popularized by the Ninja Turtles.
Audiences weren’t too sold on Mummies Alive!, and while the show enjoyed a lengthy first season, plans for a second run of episodes were ultimately canned. Debuting in 1997, the show came a little too late to take advantage of the popularity of edgy mutant heroes, and quietly disappeared after forty two episodes.
3. The Cheetahmen
One of the more interesting Ninja Turtle rip offs, The Cheetahmen didn’t manage to earn a cartoon series or a line of action figures. Instead, the brand is infamous among gaming enthusiasts for being one of the worst video games of all time.
Bundled with an unofficial collection of fifty-two NES games on a single cartridge, The Cheetahmen is an unfinished mess of a game that is barely playable – in fact, if the player progresses too far into the game, the machine will freeze and need to be reset.
The similarities with the Ninja Turtles are replete throughout the game. The protagonists, a group of mutated cheetahs, are named after Greek gods, as opposed to the Renaissance artists that inspired the Ninja Turtles’ names. Some elements, though, are borrowed from other sources – many of the game’s sprites were stolen from other games, and include a parody of Saddam Hussein.
2. Road Rovers
Another show to appear right at the end of the anthropomorphic animal craze, Road Rovers first showed up in 1997 but made it just thirteen episodes before disappearing into oblivion. By this point, children’s interests had begun to shift away from mutant animals, and the late boom of shows trying to exploit the formula one last time certainly didn’t help Road Rovers take off.
In classic Ninja Turtles style, the show followed the adventures of a group of dogs who’ve been mutated by an unusual scientific experiment. Bizarrely, the show also featured plenty of references to other popular cartoons of the time, including an off-screen cameo by Brain from the Animaniacs show Pinky and the Brain. The show also had an entire episode dedicated to parodying the then-ongoing feud between Disney and Dreamworks’ respective CEOs, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Probably the most famous Ninja Turtle rip off, Battletoads has earned a fair amount of popularity thanks to its tough-as-nails video game franchise. The game focuses on the adventures of three teenagers who are given the ability to transform into toads with superhuman powers named Rash, Pimple, and Zitz. The backstory behind the games was explored in a single animated cartoon special which appeared on televisions in 1992 to promote the video game series.
While there hasn’t been a new Battletoads game since 1994, the series had maintained cult status among fans of retro video games and is probably the best remembered Ninja Turtles clone because, instead of simply looking to copy the success of the more popular brand, it went so far as to deliver a solid gaming experience which is worth celebrating in its own right. At the heyday of its popularity, Battletoads even had a crossover with Double Dragon, another popular gaming franchise of the time, cementing its reputation as being more than just another amalgam of common Ninja Turtle tropes.
While the Ninja Turtles have managed to maintain their popularity in the years since their inception and regularly return to both the big and small screen, plenty of copycat shows have failed to attract the same level of devotion.
Nevertheless, for those who grew up during the initial era of Turtlemania, many of the imitators and rip-offs hold fond memories of nostalgia. Shows like Street Sharks and Biker Mice from Mars might be all-but forgotten now, but for many viewers, these cartoons were an important part of their childhood.
Which was your favorite Ninja Turtle rip-off? What shows are missing from this list? Share your thoughts in the comments below.