First created as an off-beat comic book in the 1980s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have transformed into a worldwide phenomenon. They have been in several movies, countless video games and comics and are still part of the global zeitgeist despite their stars fading a bit in recent years. They have withstood the test of time and continue to entertain audiences with their badass karate skills, relatable relationships and humor, and strong sense of brotherhood.
There is something so specifically childlike about the turtles. Even the name, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is obviously specially targeted at the youth. A kid looks at that title and thinks: Mutant turtles who know martial arts and are just a bit older than me? What’s not to love? Then there are the villains and April O’Neil and their love of pizza. It’s just all tailor-made for a young audience. It’s no wonder kids have been devouring the foursome for years.
In celebration of World Turtle Day, it’s time we look back at some of the highlights of the Turtle’ careers. It all started with that bizarre comic book series created by Eastman and Laird but has transformed into something that is a generational touchstone for many. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen a great TMNT movie but let’s hope one is on the horizon because these guys are an important part of our cultural tapestry and something that kids are lucky to have.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time
Now this was an arcade game!
Released back in the early 90s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time was revolutionary because of its graphics, gameplay and the fact that four (!!!) people could play the arcade game all at once. That means if Raphael was your favorite Turtle, you could drop a quarter in and play as him. Maybe Leonardo is your dude. Well go ahead and master his skills. It was the perfect game for a group of friends or siblings to sink their money into. It also helped that the game was ridiculously fun, colorful and had varied gameplay as you went level to level. Though it was obviously light on story, you could feel the attitude and character of each Turtle and the replay factor was high for that reason. Thinking back on Turtles in Time makes one remember just how cool arcades used to be back in the day. Any pizza party worth your time had to have access to Turtles in Time.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Secret of the Ooze was obviously a film aimed at children. It’s got Vanilla Ice in it, after all. But there was something that felt very adult about this movie when it first hit theaters back in 1991. Maybe it was the realistic, seedy look of New York City or the plot that involved scientists toying with nature but this didn’t look like a kid’s movie, at least not to the children watching it.
In retrospect, it wasn’t a great film by any means but it had a lasting impression on the audience. It would prove to be the last good (?) live-action Turtles film and probably the one people remember most. The costumes, story and soundtrack haven’t aged well but there is something about this film that feels like a particular place and time and is worth revisiting every once and awhile. Sadly, it lacked future Oscar winner Sam Rockwell unlike its predecessor. Damn.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987 tv series)
If the Turtles will be remembered for anything, it’ll be this series. This is the show that truly started it all. It was packed with character and story that spawned toys, movies, games, comics, clothing — you name it. The theme song is iconic, the character design is pure perfection, the villains are classic. Everything came together perfectly to make this television series into the legend that it is. The animation hasn’t held up very well over time (that’s not uncommon with shows from this era) but the spirit and mood of the Turtles cartoon is still remembered to this day. If you ask nine out of ten adults born in the mid-to-late 80s about this show, they’ll regale you with memories of it. It wasn’t just popular, it was ENORMOUSLY popular. Few shows are seen as much as this one was and that’s why it’ll always be the go-to version of TMNT.
Last but not least, we have to talk about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys. You can’t celebrate the impact of this franchise without talking about the action figures from it. There were hardly any warm-blooded American children without at least a few of the TMNT toys. It wasn’t hard to come by them, they were everywhere. And there were so many to choose from! One of the most brilliant things about the toys was how many different characters there were. Playmates Toys, the company behind this phenomenon, released a slew of different toys, meaning that no child could ever rest, they always wanted more. And the workmanship on each figure was cutting edge for the time. The toys had multiple points of articulation and accessories as well. Then there were the countless bad guys, the vehicles, the play sets, the alternative versions of each character…you can see just how much variety there truly was. Parents were shilling out dollar after dollar for these bad boys and kids couldn’t get enough. I remember having backpacks filled solely with TMNT toys and I still had only touched the tip of the iceberg.
Playmates knew exactly what they were doing and it’ll come as no surprise to know that they were the company that kickstarted the cartoon series listed above. They knew that they had a hit on their hands but they wanted a TV show to really sell the property to children. And, boy, did it work. Once the series hit, the toys became a sellout sensation and would be a massive smash for years. TMNT toys are still made to this day but nothing will come close to these early model action figures. They were the cream of the crop when it came to toys and every child in America couldn’t wait to get their grubby little mitts on more of them.