The first TMNT license came in the form of a role-playing game by Palladium, followed by miniatures from Dark Horse. Within a year, First Comics began to reprint the early issues in color volumes; four were produced, stopping at issue 11. These sold well, and Eastman and Laird were soon contacted by Mark Freedman, a licensing agent who believed he could make something of the Turtles. Freedman took the idea to a variety of toy companies, only to be turned down by those who felt the concept was not popular enough to support a toy line. Only one company expressed interest, a little-known California company by the name of Playmates.
Not entirely willing to risk marketing a small cult comic book, Playmates insisted that a cartoon series be produced first. Development initiated with a creative team of companies and individuals: Jerry Sachs, famous ad man of Sachs-Finley Agency, brought together the animators at Murakami-Wolf-Swenson, headed by award-winning animator Fred Wolf. Wolf and his team combined concepts and ideas with Playmates marketing crew, headed by Karl Aaronian and then VP of Sales, Richard Sallis and VP of Playmates, Bill Carlson. Aaronian brought on several designers and concepteer and writer John Schulte and worked out the simple backstory that would live on toy packaging for the entire run of the product and show. Sachs called the high-concept pitch “Green Against Brick”. The sense of humor was honed with the collaboration of MWS’s writers, Walk Kubiak, Aaronian, Schulte and Sachs. Playmates and their team essentially served as associate producers and contributing writers to the miniseries that was first launch to sell-in the toy action figures. Phrases like “Heroes in a Half Shell” and many of the comical catch phrases and battle slogans (“Turtle Power!”) came from the writing and conceptualization of this creative team. As the series developed, veteran writer Jack Mendelsohn came on board as both a story editor and scriptwriter. David Wise, Michael Charles Hill and Michael Reaves wrote most of the scripts, taking input via Mendelsohn and collaborating writer Schulte and marketing maven Aaronian. In signing with Murakami-Wolf-Swenson Productions, Eastman and Laird saw the production of the first TMNT cartoon in December 1987. Playmates held up their end of the deal and produced the first series of TMNT action figures in the summer of 1988. The premiere series included the four Turtles, Splinter, April, Shredder, Rocksteady, Bebop, and a Foot Soldier. Vehicles included the Cheapskate, Turtle Trooper, Turtle Blimp, and Foot Knucklehead. Each vehicle set was packaged with a jokebook and a small catalog. If one was to clip the “Pizza Point”s located on the reverse side of the packaging then a person could redeem them along with a small fee for other Turtles merchandise like VHS tapes, posters, bath towels, among others. Corresponding firmly with its animated series counterpart, the original TMNT action figure line would last ten years and develop a legacy within the toy realm.
The first three series of figures took obvious influence from the original Mirage comics. The Turtles lacked pupils and had bulging muscles with large veins. The blister card art was also very unrefined and reflected the comics; in fact, Shredder’s pose was based directly on art from the debut issue. Each figure had at least 7 points of articulation (neck, shoulders, wrists, hips), many accessories including the characters signature weapon, and a bio card on the back of the blister package that kids could cut out and collect. Also included was a fully illustrated origin story on the card’s backside which was phased out during the 4th series. The figures boasted highly detailed sculpting, especially for the time. Colorful characters like General Traag, Rat King, Mutagen man, Scumbug, Pizza Face, Muckman, and many others featured intricate details such as small animals crawling over them, large scars, torn clothing, and pieces of garbage stuck to their bodies.
With the release of the second series in 1989, fans saw ten entirely new figures: five allies and five enemies, six new vehicles/accessories, the first playset, the Turtle Battle Fun role-play sets, 9″ and 13″ plush dolls, and official Retromutagen Ooze. This year also marked the first time Playmates would incorporate action features into their figures along with the first Turtle variants in the “Wacky Action” sub-line. Each figure possessed a wind-up function that, when applied, caused the figure’s limbs to rapidly move in a rhythmic motion.
Wacky Action was merely the tip of the iceberg, however, as the new decade of the 1990s dawned Talkin’ Turtles, Head Droppin’ Turtles, Mutations, Sewer Sports Turtles, and dozens of other fresh ideas began making their way to toy shelves. With such innovations, Ninja Turtle action figures were sure to gain a foothold in the toy market.
Considering all of the vehicles and inventions conceived by Donatello, Playmates couldn’t have their figures without a slew of toy gadgetry to interact with. Aside from vehicles actually seen in the cartoon, Playmates went on to create a wide variety other accessories. These often expressed the humorous side of TMNT with gadgets commonly made out of sewer lids, trash cans, plungers, and toilet seats. However, vehicles would also include a diversity of play features from the ripcord action of the Psycho Cycle to the electronic launching of the Turtle Pizza Thrower to the smoky bubble spout of the Bubble Bomber. For its time, TMNT was remarkably innovative in terms of fun action figure accessories.
In the midst of action figures filling the store shelves, role playing toys were also released. Depending on the depicted character, these typically included a ninja mask and plastic weapons. Other TMNT toys would be sold individually such as the Turtle Communicator, Raphael’s Spy goggles, and Leo’s Sewer Force Sword.
One of the most famous components of the TMNT realm is the radioactive slime Retromutagen Ooze, which mutated the Ninja Turtles from common house pets to “mean, green, fightin’ machines.” Thus, even Ooze was produced for the interaction with TMNT figures in 1989. The green slime was sold in a small container which also included a glow-in-the-dark Ninja Turtle in mid-mutation. Aside from the classic “Turtle Green,” a “Purple Foot” variation would also become available in 1993. Ooze was an essential component to playsets such as the Flushomatic, and action figures like Muckman, who could have it run from his hollow head and out his mouth. Depending on their features, occasional figures and accessories came with their own smaller canister of Ooze to fulfill the playtime experience.
Themes and incarnations
Throughout the ’90s, Ninja Turtle action figures would run an extensive gauntlet of different themes and incarnations. Whereas Batman may have become known for hundreds of gadget-wielding action figures, just as well, the Ninja Turtles would become synonymous with dozens of historical and pop culture related embodiments. Varying concepts and toy trends resulted in the many examples shown below.
- Basic series figures taking on various looks; Leo, the Sewer Samurai, Don, the Undercover Turtle, Mike, the Sewer Surfer, and Raph, the Space Cadet. (1990) Also released with the basic line were the four turtles with Storage Shell. Each action figure had an opening back shell which could store the various accessories each figure was packaged with. Donatello would be released in 1990 and the remaining three the following year.
- Mutant Military - Different forms of military - Lieutenant Leo, Pro Pilot Don, Midshipman Mike, and Raph, the Green Teen Beret. (1991)
- Rock’n Rollin’ - Vibrant musical gimmicks; Classic Rocker Leo, Punker Don, Rappin’ Mike, and Heavy metal Raph. (1991)
- Sewer Sports All-Stars - Sport-themed figures with action features; Among others, T.D. Tossin’ Leo, Slam Dunkin’ Don, Shell Slammin’ Mike, and Grand Slammin’ Raph. (1991)
- Wacky Wild West - The Ninja Turtles taking on the Old West; Chief Leo, Crazy Cowboy Don, Bandito-Bashin’ Mike, and Sewer Scout Raph.(1992)
- Cave-Turtles - Stone Age ”Collectible Turtle Combo” boxsets; Among others, Leo and his Dingy Dino, Don and his Trippy Tyrannosaurus, Mike and his Silly Stegosaurus, and Raph and his Tubular Pterodactyl. (1992-’93)
- Turtle Trolls - A take on the early ’90s troll doll craze; Leo, Don, Mike, and Raph featuring tall, synthetic hair and childlike appearances. (1993)
- Universal Studios Monsters - Classic monster-themed figures; Among others, Leo as the Wolfman, Don as Dracula, Mike as Frankenstein’s monster, Raph as the Mummy, and Bride of Frankenstein April. (1993-’94)
- Star Trek - A crossover due to Playmates’ owning both Star Trek and TMNT licenses; Captain Leonardo, First Officer (Star Trek) Don, Chief Engineer Michelangelo, and Chief Medical Officer Raphael. (1994)
- Adventurers - Figures dressed for adventuring; Deep Sea Diver Leonardo, Arctic Donatello, and Safari Michelangelo. (1995)
- Jim Lee’s TMNT - Majorly restyled Ninja Turtle figures based on the designs of famous comic book artist Jim Lee. (1995)
- Mutant Masters - The Ninja Turtles sporting Anime inspired armor as “ancient mythic warriors”; Leonardo Wind Warrior, Donatello Water Warrior, Michelangelo Thunder Warrior, and Raphael Fire Warrior. (1997)
Even with the silliest of concepts, Playmates managed to create some intriguing and fun figure designs for children. In contrast to other companies like Kenner, who constantly re-released figure sculpts with different paint jobs, Playmates rarely showed a cheap or careless effort in their TMNT figures. But with rising competition, limited figure concepts, and the end of the cartoon series, a pitfall was inevitable.
Movie Stars and Toon Turtles
By the second, less violent TMNT film, The Secret of the Ooze, Playmates decided to create a figure collection based on the characters’ live-action appearance. In contrast to the regular figures, these were made of a softer, more rubbery material to better reflect the look of the animatronic costumes used in the films. They also featured ball joints at the neck, shoulders, and hips, and each figure came with a small, canister of Ooze. In terms of character variety, however, the Movie Starscollections were in stark contrast to the wide variety seen in the basic figure lines.
1992 also saw the production of Toon Turtles. These figures took on an almost stereotypical approach to being humorously cartoon-like. Each character bore a friendly, animated appearance with a glittery paint job and including some type of “cartoon” action feature (Raphael’s head spun, Michelangelo’s tongue unraveled in Tex Avery fashion, etc.). On the upside, this series produced a more “cartoon accurate” painted version of Shredder and introduced toys not previously made for many longtime characters from the cartoon series such as the Neutrinos and April O’Neil’s co-workers, Irma Langinstein, Burne Thompson and Vernon Fenwick.
A third movie hit theatres in 1993 but saw less success than its predecessors. This collection featured the Ninja Turtles once again in their Movie Star likeness and sporting samurai armor, as well as several other side characters. The Giant Movie III Samurai figures also came complete with removable masks and time scepters as seen in the film.
In 1994, Playmates, in an attempt capitalize on toy lines like Mighty Max and Polly Pocket, shrunk the Turtles down to an equally small size in a sub-line simply named “Mini Mutants”.These were “Turtle Transport Combos” which contained one figure and two vehicles. “Bodacious Battlesets” which were four playsets which could connect via bridges/platforms; these included one figure. “Turtle Top Playsets” were a characters head which would open into a double decker playset; these included three figures. Slimmer “Carry Along Playsets” took the shape of Raph’s sai, Leo’s katana, and the Turtle Communicator; these came with three figures. And finally, “Turtle in a Turtle” consisted of four playsets that were figures of the four turtles about 6 inches taller than the normal figure; their heads, stomachs, and shells opened into the playsets. Each had themed removable armor as well; two figures were included with each.
The original Ninja Turtle line ran for almost ten years and, in that time, various planned items would ultimately not hit toy shelves. Some of these went as far as the prototype stage and being presented at New York Toy Fairs; others had only designs drawn.
- The original Casey Jones figure had an interchangeable head without mask. The sculpt looked to be based on the Mirage Comics.
- Turtle Tenderizer 4×4
- Leo’s Turtle Shell Backpack
- 13″ April – drawing gives the impression she would have been in the vein of a Barbie doll
- Tokka Battle Fun Set
- Michelangelo’s Sidewalk Surfer
- Raph’s Pizza-Powered Parachute – this was produced with Donatello instead
- Retromutagen Rifle
- Turtle Popcan Racer
- Giant Movie 3 versions of Don and Mike
- “Transforming” Muta-Party Wagon. It would have transformed into a 19″ Robot Turtle with a resemblance to Metalhead
- The Star Trek Leonardo/ Kirk figure was originally shown in his green shirt
- A Giant Cyber Samurai
- “Warriors of the Forgotten Sewer” “Knight Mike,” “Wizard Splinter,” and “Savage Leo with Sewer Warcat” two-pack
- Sewer Subway Car vehicle
- “Ninjamobiles” – Turtle Van and Foot module in an Ed “Big Daddy” Roth style
- A “Kung Fu Tournament Fighters” Leonardo
- Team Ninja Figure assortment (the four turtles in cybernetic armor)
- Metal Mutant Rocksteady with Serpent Armor
- Metal Mutant Bebop with Fish Armor
- Metal Mutant War Horse
- Warrior Rahzar with Fur
- Jim Lee’s TMNT Leonardo
- 8 Mini Mutant Vehicle Combos
- Repaints of “The Military Turtles” – Leo and Raph were from the 1991 series and Don and Mike were from the ’92 series.
- Shredder’s Ooze and Raphael’s Pizza Chompin’ Portable Games
- Dr. Quease
- Shadow Ninja Deluxe figures
TMNT action figure commercials that started with the first series featured clips from the cartoon and narration describing the figures which were shown in incredible “toy size” environments. This also went for vehicles and playsets. The scenes from the show were overdubbed with dialogue usually from the actual voice actors that went along with story in the ad.
During post movie success, many commercials relied on live-action, animatronic Ninja Turtles similar to those seen in the “Coming Out of our Shells” Tour. Prime examples of these include 1992 spots for the Bubble Bomber vehicle featuring Raphael in military fatigues and Bodacious Birthday figures where a surprise party was thrown in the Turtles’ sewer lair.
1996-1998: Dry spell
By 1996, the cartoon series that lasted nearly a decade had come to an end. The following year, a new live-action series premiered entitled Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation. The series was somewhat short-lived but managed to make for an extensive action figure line. Alongside the basic TMNT characters, this collection of taller scale figures included a female Ninja Turtle named Venus. The show’s demise, however, would further confirm the dissolving popularity of the Ninja Turtles, and the franchise would remain in limbo for years to come. Left with a disappointing movie four years past and virtually no place on television, the TMNT franchise would face a halt in action figure production for several years.
On February 8, 2003, Fox revived the TMNT franchise with a brand new cartoon series. With it inevitably came a series of action figures. These figures showed reminiscence of those released in 1988 yet with the refreshed design of the new, bold look of the cartoon series. Unlike the previous figures, most of the figures released in this collection actually appeared in the 2003 series. This collection successfully continued into 2006 with new character designs and even an occasional revisiting of past concepts like 1993′s Cave-Turtles. In 2006, by request of Playmates, the cartoon series took a new lighter direction which brought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fast Forward, a futuristic take on the heroic mutants. Playmates thought of this change as a means of selling more new Turtles action figures.
March 2007 introduced fans to a new CGI feature film entitled simply TMNT. This introduced the Ninja Turtles on-screen to a new generation and corresponded with an extensive action figure line. New figures based on the film continued to be produced into the following year.
In September 2007, it was announced that the collectible figure company NECA had acquired the license to produce Ninja Turtle figures based on their character likenesses from the original Mirage comic books. The first wave of figures consisted of the four Turtles and was released in comic and specialty stores in early 2008. The New York Comic Con also boasted an exclusive figure four-pack, and that same year, NECA released black & white versions of the Turtles just as they appeared in the pages of the comics. NECA also released an April O’Neil figure and also teased at a Shredder and Foot ninja release but never came due to the Nickelodeon property purchase.
In January 2009, to commemorate the Turtles’ 25th anniversary, Playmates re-released the first series of figures circa 1988, plus Slash and the Party Wagon. Each figure comes packaged with vintage card art and a DVD containing one episode of the 1987 cartoon series.A separate series of totally new designs was also planned but not released by Playmates. These figures are based on early Mirage comics and include Splinter, Shredder, and a Foot Soldier among the four Turtles in red apparel. These turtles were first unveiled in the Nintendo Power magazine.
In February 2012, the Toy Fair had an exclusive look at the Nickelodeon based action figures, as well as retro original cartoon figures. In June 2012 the new Nickelodeon figures began appearing online and in stores.
Download these awesome checklist posters created by Nielson at www.tmntfigures.blogspot.com