In the late 1980s and early 90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were seen on everything from clothing to cereal boxes and skateboards to video games, but it was Playmate’s line of action figures that generated the most hype with young boys around the world.  Every kid watched the classic cartoons on Saturday morning and played with their action figures every night.  Boys in the 80s and 90s lived and breathed the Ninja Turtles.  They practiced karate after watching the movies and had Ninja Turtles on everything from their underwear to their Band-Aids. 

The first two feature-length films were instant successes and were some of the highest grossing films in their release years.   These box office hits only bolstered this franchise even more.  Then after ten years of boyhood dominance, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles left almost as quickly as they came.  A third film was a flop, and the cartoon would soon become extinct.  But for some boys who just could not let go, lived a box full of Ninja Turtle action figures stuffed in the back of a closet somewhere. 

Now might be a good time to dust off those little action figures to reconnect with your forgotten childhood. Sure Leonardo could have gotten his hand popped off after an intense battle with Shredder.  Or, maybe your Sewer Swimmin’ Donatello lost a leg.  These little broken figurines might not be worth much, but their memories are priceless. 

For those of us who are a little less fortunate, that box of turtles may have gotten sold to the neighbor kid or donated out of your life.  It may seem as if that special little part of your childhood is gone, but do not fear.  These

A Brief History of TMNT Action Figures

In 1984, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were first born on the pages of a comic book from the minds of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.  The comic book was an underground success and soon garnered the attention of a licensing agent, Mark Freeman, who had big plan for these green mutants.   Freeman visited a number of toy manufacturers in the hopes of landing a deal to produce action figures but was quickly turned down—the idea apparently did not have a mass appeal.  However, one toy manufacturer, Playmates, was intrigued by the idea and signed on to the concept as long as an animated TV series was created featuring the four turtles.   

Along with a talented set of animators, Playmates soon began brainstorming sessions for both the cartoon and action figures.  In these sessions, the storylines and many of the show’s catchphrases were born.  The turtles battle cry “Turtle Power!” and the catch phrase “Heroes in a half shell,” both were born during these early TMNT days.  Finally, in December of 1987, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon aired and was followed soon thereafter by the initial release of seven TMNT action figures in the summer of 1988.  The show was an instant success, and these first ten figures were the first of many to come. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Leonard Action FigureCredit:

TMNT Action Figures

The First TMNT Action Figures and Vehicles

As mentioned above, the first release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures included ten characters from the animated series—the four turtles, their fearless rat leader, Splinter, their friend and channel 6 news anchor, April O’Neal, and Shredder, Bebop, Rocksteady, and a lone Footsoldier.  Each figure had seven articulation points and was packaged with their own props or weapons.  When compared to the cartoon, these first action figures looked much more gritty and dark like the Ninja Turtles of the Eastman and Laird comic books. 

In addition to these ten action figures, Playmate also released five different vehicles that all made appearances on the animated series.  These included the Cheapskate (a skateboard), the Knucklehead, the Turtle Trooper (a parachuting vehicle), the Turtle Blimp, and the Turtle Party Wagon.  These five vehicles made it onto the show, but some of the vehicles to be released in proceeding years never made it to cartoon form.

Both the action figures and vehicles were packed with a little extra something.  The play figures came with cut out trading cards that gave biographical information, and most of the vehicles came with a joke book and toy catalog.  Cut out “Pizza Points” were also included in each box.  These could be sent in and redeemed for various Ninja Turtles gear like movies, towels, and clothes. 

Later TMNT Figure Releases

After the successful launch of the ten initial figures in 1988, Playmates released another ten figures in 1989—five “good guys” and five “bad guys.”  These included some of the more obscure friends and villains who only made it onto a few episodes from the animated series.  Then, after 1989, the creative juices started flowing in the Teenage Muntant Ninja Turtles team, and new figures were released that had nothing to do with the animated series.  These figures were often offbeat, but as always, they showed off the comedic side of the TMNT brand.

These later releases included...

Wacky Action Figures (1989)

Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and a Mouser had different wind-up actions.  Donnie swan.  Mike's arm twist.  Raph spun on his back.  Wacky?  Sure.  And lots of fun too. 

Disguised Turtles (1990)

This release was inspired by the disguises the turtles wore in the animated series where somehow a trench coat hid the fact that a green skinned being was underneath.  Disguises include a trench coat, an astronaut uniform, and a samurai. 

Headdroppin' Turtles (1991)

Released alongside a slew of other turtle action figures in 1991, this set of our four action heroes featured retractable heads.  When their legs were pressed together, their head would pop up.  Again, a little off-beat, but creative and a good seller. 

Other Themes

The three action figure lines above were just a fraction of what was released during the heyday of the original Ninja Turtle figures.  Other classic themes included, Star Trek Turtles, Olympians, "transformer"-like turtles, and superheroes. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle April O'Neil Action FigureCredit:

April O'Neil

TMNT Vehicles

In addition to the traditional action figure lines, the Ninja Turtles creative team designed hoards of vehicles to use in conjunction with the action figures.  Five vehicles were released in 1988, and many more were released between that time and 1996.  Some of the more popular vehicles were the Technodrome, Turtle Copter, and the Turtle Blimp, which were all take straight out of the cartoon.  There were, however, a number of more off beat and creative vehicles released that did not necessary make their way to television.  These included the likes of tractors (released with “farmer” turtles) and dinosaur “vehicles” that could be ridden by the Turtles. 

The End of the Turtle Action Figures

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon was eventually taken off the airwaves in 1996 and at that point production of most of the action figures and vehicles stopped.  After that point, the “TMNT” brand was resurrected in a number of different forms, which coincided with more action figure production.  But the world famous figures, that the world grew to know and love, would cease to be in 1996.  It was the end of a great run, but the concept of these four mutant turtles just has not completely died out yet.

Only time will tell if the next generation will catch onto these new action figures, but until then, those original figures will stand the test of time as one of the most popular toys of all time.