In the textbook view, N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors are postsynaptically located detectors of coincident activity in Hebbian learning. However, controversial presynaptically located NMDA receptors (preNMDARs) have for decades been repeatedly reported in the literature. These preNMDARs have typically been implicated in the regulation of short-term and long-term plasticity, but precisely how they signal and what their functional roles are have been poorly understood. The functional roles of preNMDARs across several brain regions and different forms of plasticity can differ vastly, with recent discoveries showing key involvement of unusual subunit composition. Increasing evidence shows preNMDAR can signal through both ionotropic action by fluxing calcium and metabotropic mode even in the presence of magnesium blockade. We argue that these unusual properties may explain why controversy has surrounded this receptor type. In addition, the expression of preNMDARs at some synapse types but not others can underlie synapse-type-specific plasticity. Last but not least, preNMDARs are emerging therapeutic targets in disease states such as neuropathic pain. We conclude that axonally located preNMDARs are required for specific purposes and do not end up there by accident.