In the 1990s, there was one toy line that dominated the shelves across the nations, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from Playmates. This franchise became a cultural phenomenon that remains strong even today. It has amassed hundreds of toys from multiple manufacturers, several video games, multiple generations of cartoon series, and six theatrical films. However, it began with very humble beginnings.
Back in the early 1980s, two emerging creative minds, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, became roommates in Dover, New Hampshire. During a productive night of brainstorming in November 1983, Eastman randomly felt inspired to draw a single turtle armed with a nunchaku. The pair quickly felt compelled to follow up the sketch with even more turtles. These sketches eventually led to the creation of the four turtles who would defend New York City against the Foot Clan: Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michaelangelo.
Unwilling to let this idea disappear, they began formulating an entire mythos surrounding these turtles. Feeling that they had created fun and ridiculous characters, they assigned it an equally fun name, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Not wanting to share this idea with any of the major publishers, Kevin Eastman used the tax refund from his uncle to create an independent publisher, Mirage.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made their triumphant debut in the first black-and-white comic book issue in May 1984. While they originally only printed a modest 3,275 copies of this original comic, they soon realized that they had a hit.
While this original comic was some of the darkest content that the turtles ever appeared in, it remained fun by parodying major comic book heroes, especially Daredevil. The story had expanded to include a sensei for the turtles, Splinter. Even though Splinter and the Turtles had a Japanese-influenced background, the pair did not feel like they could come up with enough Japanese-sounding names. So, they instead named the turtles after Renaissance painters. Facing off against these four teenagers were the evil forces of the Foot, led by the Shredder.
As the comics gained popularity amongst comic book fans, one man began to believe that the Turtles could become even larger. Mark Freedman had over ten years of experience in the toy industry, having worked under prominent names like Stanley Weston of G.I. Joe fame. In 1986, he set off on his own with a new company, Surge Licensing. So, he was primed to help create the next huge franchise in the toy industry.
When he came across the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he became attracted by the name alone. He believed that he had found an original, clever idea and wanted to see it become more. So, he made contact with Eastman and Laird so that he could help them turn the Turtles into a new toy empire. Over the years, his dedication to the franchise has led to him being referred to as the “fifth turtle”.
Even though Freedman had complete faith that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could become the next hit toy line, most toy companies did not share his enthusiasm. After several rejections, they found the company that shared their enthusiasm, Playmates. However, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles required a few changes to make it a viable toy line.
Understanding the formula that had put G.I. Joe, He-Man, and Transformers on the map earlier that decade, Playmates insisted that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles needed a cartoon series. Likewise, the Turtles would need a new tone to make it more appealing to children. As they sought out an animation studio, Jerry Sachs of Sachs-Finley Agency brought the project to Murakami-Wolf-Swenson.
Fred Wolf, one of the founders of the animation studio, became one of the head creatives behind the new cartoon series. However, Playmates remained an intrinsic part of the production. Writers like John Schulte helped draft the basic backstory for both the cartoon series and the toys. Meanwhile, artists from Mirage Studios contributed to the new designs.
Some of the major changes were switching the turtles’ headbands from all red to color-coded for each turtle. Likewise, the animated series toned down the violence from the comics by adding in sci-fi aspects like robot Foot Soldiers. Some of the cast, like Michaelangelo, gained a new fun catchphrase, “Cowabunga”.
This new cartoon series launched in December 1987, quickly winning over the hearts of children. With the cartoon series introducing children to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Playmates followed up with the new toy line in 1988. Each action figure had 7 points of articulation and came with an array of weapons and accessories. The toys also had a healthy dose of vehicles and playsets accompanying them.
As Playmates made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a hit in America, they licensed the brand to companies across the globe. Thus, fans in the UK found Idea-manufactured toys titled the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. The change of name was due to a general feeling that Ninja was too violent for children in that country.
As both the carton series and the toys ran for over ten years, there were multiple changes to both. For the cartoon, the turtles, especially Michaelangelo, began using their weapons less and less. In the case of Michaelangelo, his signature weapon was changed to a grappling hook. Meanwhile, the toys experimented with a wide range of themes to continue adding new gimmicks to the line. The turtles even gained crossovers with Universal Monsters from ‘93-‘94 and Star Trek in ‘94.
Further influencing the toys, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began to appear in new media. Starting in 1990, a trilogy of live-action films brought their antics to the big screen. They also gained their first video game in 1990. Characters and appearances from both the movies and the video games would appear in both the vintage and current toy lines.
Eventually, the Turtle craze began to die down as the original series reached its tenth season in 1996. Following shortly after, the original run of TMNT toys from Playmates concluded in 1997. However, a new series was readily available.
Attempting to recapture the magic, Saban Entertainment introduced a live-action televised series, Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation in 1997. Following suit, Playmates also rebooted the toy line. While this era introduced a new character, Venus De Milo, it spelled the end of the Turtle Craze. Thus, the franchise became dormant for several years.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles received a new wave of excitement in 2003 when Fox Kids introduced a brand new cartoon series. Along with this new cartoon series, Playmates was ready with a brand-new wave of action figures. This new toy line lasted until 2010, about a year after the new cartoon series died off.
During this renewed wave of Turtle Power, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made a brand new theatrical appearance in TMNT. This new film was CG animated and set well after the defeat of the Foot Clan. Playmates were also ready with a series of toys to capture the excitement.
2007 was also the year when Neca announced that they would begin producing collector-tier TMNT toys. Over the years, Neca has made a wide range of toys, including tributes to the original Mirage comics, the 1990 film, and the 1980s cartoon series.
Even though the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became the property of Viacom in 2008, Playmates remained the home for their toys. Thus, when Nickelodeon began airing a new CG-animated series, Playmates was right there producing new toys. They also added new lines when Michael Bay introduced his live-action films in 2014 and 2016. Recently, yet another new cartoon series and toy line appeared in 2018: Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
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