This is the first Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles article in a series looking at the popular Playmates line of action figures first released in 1988.
In this initial article I will take a general overview of the entire line followed by a more in depth look at each of the sub-lines and releases, the figures, vehicles, and playsets. Their rarity, accessories, historical values and variations.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where something of a phenomenon, selling over 250 million figures in just five years!
1984: Mirage Studios published the first issue of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. It was a monochrome parody of Frank Miller’s work, notably Daredevil and Ronin as well as The New Mutants and Cerebus the Aardvark.
1987: A five-episode animated mini-series of Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was commissioned in conjunction with Playmates toys to generate interest in a new line of action figures that was created in collaboration with Eastman and Laird. The basic framework of the original comic was maintained but characters were much more fun and lovable, with surfer dude personalities and a love of pizza, crazy alien and robot villains and an ineffectual, non-threatening Shredder.
1988: The subsequent animated show ran for 10 seasons and 194 episodes until 1996. The accompanying Playmates line likewise comprised of hundreds of figures, many of which had clever articulation, crazy, stylized and detailed sculpts, colorful, outlandish accessories or action features.
In the UK, the Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show was called Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and had all references to Michelangelo’s nunchaku removed due to a brief, cultural taboo on that particular ninja weapon and even the word ‘ninja’.
The original series was virtually ignored by collectors as being too juvenile and too plentiful as many of the figures were still readily available even as long as 4-5 years after their release.
The very first run of figures though released in very limited numbers with “soft heads” in order to save on production costs, as they were unsure on how popular they would prove to be.
However, after the initial production run and it’s the huge popularity later shipments were produced with a harder plastic head making the original figures a lot rarer and more in demand.
Even the mass produced figures over the ensuing decades have remained popular and despite the huge numbers produced many of them have appreciated quite substantially over the years.
Unlike later assortments the initial series and assortments had no special header cards or themes but were all part of the same generic series.
In fact, the only way to tell each series apart and the re-issues etc. is from the backing cards, similar to the vintage Star Wars figures, where pictures of the other figures available in each series were printed.
The different Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backer cards available are:
Type A 1988: 10-backer card picturing 6 Turtle and 4 “Foot Clan" figures on the back and with a turtle shell or foot symbol on the front showing the character's affiliation
Type B 1989: Cards picturing 8 Turtle and 6 “Foot Clan" figures on the back, and no group affiliation symbol on the front.
Type C 1989: picturing 10 Turtle and 9 “Foot Clan" figures
Note: Many of the figures on type B and type C header cards.
Type D Header Cards (1990): picturing 4 Wacky Action figures at top plus 24 (type D1) or 27 (type D2) other figures.
Type E Header Cards (1991): picturing 7 Wacky Action figures at top plus 30 (type E1) or 32 (type E2) other figures. April with orange pockets, blue stripe, says “Press" (#5005) on type A header card
Type F Header Cards 1990: with 7 Wacky Action figures, initially 22 turtles (in 3 rows) and 15 Foot Clan (in 2 rows) on the back.
Many reissues of figures listed came on these cards. For new figures, the front card says "New" in a starburst. As additional figures appeared, the card back was adjusted –usually by adding the new figure to front of its affiliation group.
There are several different variations of the Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles April figure of varying rarity with the original Type A card figure being the most valuable. This figure had no stripes on the side or front of her outfit. On the left of the header card there is a turtle shell with the name imprint covering the top of her head on the character picture. The shell and character names are in the same place for the other characters in the series, but smaller so that it doesn’t cover the top of the images.
In later releases of the Type A carded April figure the shell was moved further up near to the “T” in the Turtles header, way from the image.
Added to this is a second version of the April figure with a blue stripe on either side that can be found on both variations of the type A card.
There wasn’t another April figure release until 1991 that featured orange boots, shirt collar and breast pockets with a blue stripe and “Press” on the left pocket. However, there are a few, very valuable, April figures with this omitted. Also on the new header card her name appears in the middle above the figure.
Other rare April figures to keep a look out for are:
Although Leatherhead was included in the original Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles general assortment and was featured on many of the backing-cards and the Playmates catalogue it seems he was only shipped with the original assortment and not with later assortments.
Other figures that seem to be inexplicably scarce are Scratch and Hot Spot from the 1993 assortment, as well as the Scratch and Black Belt Boxer Mike figures from the 1993 “Ninja Action”
There are several versions of the Ray Fillet figure available as he was originally released with a colour changing feature, which due to its expense and lack of popularity was later dropped.
The earliest figures either had a purple torso with a red “V” on the chest, or a red torso with a maroon “V” whereas later figures had a yellow torso with a blue “V’ and didn’t change colour.
Also the earlier header card had a yellow starburst saying “Awesome Mutant Color Change” and showed Ray’s chest changing color, the second card variation didn’t feature the starburst but still featured Ray’s chest changing color and the third variation had both removed.
1990: The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feature film was released from New Line and Golden Harvest. Without the backing of major studios but riding the crest of an unexpected popularity tidal wave it winds up being one of the most successful independent films of all time, netting over $200 million on a tiny $13 million budget.
1991: The movie’s sequel; Secret of the Ooze emerges less than a year later. It is considerably less successful, netting only $75 million but still tripled its budget. In accordance Playmates released several more film-accurate figures billed as “Movie Star” versions but wisely stuck to their cartoonish style with the rest of the line.
1993: The third Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is released. It hits the number one spot, but the law of diminishing returns is in full effect. It only doubles its budget, bringing in $42 million. Playmates, once again releases a line of movie tie-in figures in samurai armour. The animated show persisted for three more years, the toy line for five, focusing on wacky re-imagining of the central four.
1993 most of the earlier figures were re-released with new product codes and header cards known as “Pizza Backs”. Then in 1994 many of the re-issued, and some of the new figures, came with an exclusive trading card which was changed to a coin in 1995. Also because all of the trading cards hadn’t been issued by this some of the figures initially came packed with both a trading card and coin.
1997: Ninja Turtles – The Next Mutation, a live action, Power Rangers style TV show emerges from the sewer and is swiftly pushed back in. Playmates produce a line of tie-in action figures including the female turtle; Venus, but the show was of such low quality and so reviled, even by Eastman and Laird that by 1998 its cancellation precipitated a five-year hiatus of the brand.
2003: Fox airs a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated show, more serious, action-focused and closer to the original hard edge of the comics whilst still retaining some of the playful attitude of the popular period. Playmates release a new series of figures rendering the characters in a way that both updates them to the new show’s look and pays homage to the original line. This series ran for six year, culminating in 2009 when the Turtles, by way of a dimensional leap get to meet both their pizza-eating, surfer dude incarnations and their scary, Mirage comic book selves.
2007: A CG Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated movie simply entitled TMNT was released. It takes place in the established movie continuity but eschew series mainstay villain Shredder in favour of a plot about monsters in New York. It gets a tie-in toy line once again from Playmates.
2008: NECA acquire a license to produce Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures and release a line that is collector-focused and based on their first comic appearance in 1984, even going to the trouble of producing monochrome variants. They are, up to that point in action figure enthusiast terms by far the most authentic, detailed, and crafted turtle figures to date.
2012: There is much internet debate over the planned Michael Bay reboot of the movie franchise. After much derision from fans over the plotline that pitches the characters as inter-dimensional beings rather than actual mutants, they go back to the drawing board.
In September, Nickelodeon airs its new CG Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show, which attempts, like the first and fourth film to balance the humor of the original cartoon with the ninja action of the Mirage comics. Playmates once again releases a line of figures based on these designs. There were super-poseable, 6” figures based on the classic surfer dude look from the height of their popularity and another line of 4.75” figures based on the Nickelodeon show with accompanying vehicles and playsets.
Due to its declining popularity the 1996/97 figures received nowhere near the attention, or shelve space, that earlier releases had boasted and as a result many of these figures are difficult to find.
The only line from these that saw wide distribution was the Jim Lee Turtles line that came with a min-comic.
The two crossover lines, Star Trek Turtles and Universal Studios Monsters Turtles, have also proved to be popular with collectors.
1998 Playmates released a “retro” Turtles series that were generally sold in Kay-Bee stores and were heavily discounted. The packaging was almost identical to the original 1988 10-back cards, however they bear a 1998 copyright notice on the back so are easily distinguished from the original series.
There were also some “retro” vehicles released in this series but a definitive, or exact list of what was released in this series is not readily available and there doesn’t seem to be any official listing as although the cards feature the original 10 figures on the back it appears only nine of these were released as well as some of the figures from later series’.
After the demise of the Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation cartoon series the franchise lapsed for several years and it was not until 2003 that Fox revived it with a new cartoon series.
Although the figures featured were reminiscent to those in 1988, they had a refreshed look and design to reflect the new cartoon series.
Also, unlike many previous releases most of the figures appeared in the TV series, adding to their popularity.
This series continued successfully through to 2006 when the cartoon series was given a new lighter look with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fast Forward, a futuristic take on the heroic mutants, which Playmates also saw as an opportunity to sell more TMNT figures.
2007, for the first time, Playmates had competition when it was announced that 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.
Playmates celebrated the franchises 25 anniversary in 2009 by releasing the original 1988 series of figures Slash and the Party Wagon. Each figure came packaged with a vintage card art and a DVD containing one episode of the 1987 cartoon series.
A new CG animated TMNT series was aired on Nickelodeon in 2012 and Playmates released a wide variety of figures based on it. To date there has been 10 waves of these figures with a variety of “special features”, play sets and vehicles as well as the basic characters.
2015 some of the figures from the 2012 animated series were re-released as Mutation figures as well as a series of Mystic Turtle figures.
There was also a one-off series of figures based on the 2014 Jonathan Liebesman Ninja Turtles live-action movie featuring Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo, Splinter, April O'Neil, Shredder and Foot Soldier. Deluxe Leo, Don, Ralph and Mikey were also released.