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Official Article

Turtles: The Teenage Mutant Kind

Entering Kindergarten in 1988, there was no way I could escape the “Radical Reign” of Raph, Leo, Mikey and Don aka the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (but you already knew that). It seemed overnight that elementary school kids went from daydreams of Eternian adventures in the majestic Castle Grayskull to imagined battles with Foot Clan soldiers in the sludge-filled New York City underground. Every other toy inspiring cartoon series took a back seat to the turtles during their pop culture dominance in the late 80's and early 90's before things got weird. Allow me to share with you a brief tour of my experiences with those sewer dwelling mutants as I found myself in the midst of Turtle-Mania!

I very clearly remember my first time seeing the fabulous foursome in action, as it turns out it was their television debut. From age 4-7, I woke up every day at 5am to watch early morning TV like Romper Room, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and re-runs of the Groovie Ghoulies. But one morning I caught sight of a girl in a yellow jumpsuit hanging out with a bunch of green creatures in bandanas brandishing weapons. When they went for a bite to eat at Ninja Pizza (home of the “Nice Slice”) followed by a quick rooftop thrashing of evil robots, I was interested. What really hooked me was watching the transformation of their mentor from the everyday human, Hamato Yoshi to the mutant rat, Splinter. Nothing hooks me better than a good transformation sequence, so I really appreciated that it was a prominent part of the opening credits.

When I got to school that day in the fall of 1988, I couldn’t wait to tell my classmates all about the “Karate Turtle Show” I had discovered. What I didn't realize was that my fellow Kindergartners were already one step ahead of me. “Yeah, I know. I already have the Leonardo and Shredder toys.”, “Michelangelo is the best, Nunchucks are cool.”, “I hear Brent has the Technodrome”. It was all so new to me I hadn’t even considered the possibility of action figures but soon it was all I could think about. I realized I had to move quickly and declare my favorite turtle so I could buy him in molded plastic form to join in the fun.

Leonardo was too much of a goody-goody, Michelangelo was already claimed by everybody else,  Donatello was a nerd (which was not a cool thing at the time), so that left Raphael as the perfect fit for me. Raph always had a clever insult to throw at Krang or Rat King, which reminded me of my lifetime favorite hero Spider-Man, plus he seemed to be a little different than all the rest and so was I. With that decision made, I organized a trip over to Toys R Us to pick-up the Raphael figure. I loved the fact that his eyes showed no pupils through the bandana which made him look extra dangerous when combined with his gritted teeth and grimace. The tiny brown ninja stars that you could attach to his belt were another great, if easily lost detail.

Over time I added to my modest collection with characters like Genghis Frog, Leatherhead (apparently I really loved those southern reptiles and amphibians), Krang with his walking robotic legs, General Traag (You always need one big bad guy to fight) and Metal Head (robotic ninja turtle? Yes, please!). If I wanted to go all out in full TMNT style though, I had to visit my friend Brent’s house where he had the full sewer playset, Turtle Van and even the Turtle Blimp!  Brent’s collection was so vast, he even had the variant of every turtle like Slam Dunkin’ Don, Sewer Samurai Leo, Talkin’ Michelangelo. In a time before the internet, Brent was THE source for TMNT product knowledge. Speaking of which, there was so much more than action figures.

There was a Turtles product for every hour of the day, they thought of everything! You could start your morning off with TMNT cereal for breakfast, while folders, pencils and lunch boxes filled your school hours. If your parents needed a quick dinner option Burger King was offering VHS tapes of individual episodes for $3.49 with your Kid's Club meal (I particularly remember watching the episode where alien meatball pizza topping grew into ugly, yellow Xenomorphs). Then you could slip into your Ninja Turtles PJs as you drifted into dreams of April O’Neil all night long. For my money the best promotional tie-in was the TMNT: Coming Out of Their Shells audio cassette featuring the “4 ninja brothers” rockin’ out, but I already wrote about that in my first ever article for RetroDaze. So I’ll move on the next most significant…the video games!

The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game released for the NES was awesome for its time. Most iconic to me was the label and box art, which was pulled from an issue of the original comic. The Turtles never looked so cool to me as in this rendering and I always wanted a full-size poster of this artwork for my wall. After inserting the cartridge and pushing power on the grey box, you got a chance to play as all 4 turtles, each with their own specific weapon and attack moves. Unfortunately it was only for one life each and there were about a million enemies per level who stomped the shell out of you by sheer numbers. Luckily Konami got it right with the arcade game.

There’s no way you didn’t come across this iconic cabinet art in your childhood trips to the bowling alley or local family fun center and instantly start trolling the other games’ coin return slots for unclaimed quarters. Arriving in 1989, just 1 year before we got our first look at the Turtles in live action, there was everybody’s favorite red-headed reporter in the flesh. Sure the wig was a little too long and her leg position was pretty awkward, but who is going to argue with a real-life April O’Neil beckoning you to play with her sweet siren song and camcorder? Not that we needed much coaxing, this game was great!

The digital renderings of our heroes in the half shell were cartoony, but still had an edgy look as you slashed and pounded waves of Foot Soldiers and Technodrome refugees. Battles through burning apartment buildings and villain infested city streets were awesome, especially since we were given the ability to throw our enemies across the screen followed by explosions into metal bits. Awesome that is, until you heard those fateful words, “Shell-Shocked” that accompanied your emerald avatar slumping down and seeing stars. But given that circumstance you just had plug in a few more tokens to continue the fight. If you survived long enough you got to battle all the big baddies from a bugged-out Baxter Stockman, to Krang in his android body and even old “Chrome Dome” himself, the Shredder. The home version on Nintendo was almost identical to the arcade adventure and cemented its classic status. 

There are really too many video games than I have space to cover in this article, but I have to mention their attempt to give Street Fighter II a run for its money with TMNT: Tournament Fighters for the Super Nintendo. This was one of the few games I rented from Blockbuster Video back in the day. And why not? The idea of pitting the Turtles against Cyber Shredder (cyber anything was huge in the 90's), Armaggon (the mutant Shark from the cover) or War (a tough as nails Triceratops) was too great to pass up, but the fighter with style all her own was Aska. Basically the Chun-Li of the game, this feisty female's signature move was launching herself backwards at her opponent with her tush leading the charge. It was totally unexpected and as a 12 year old boy, completely mesmerizing. You better believe every session of the game involved me selecting Aska and leaving the titular heroes in the dust. 

I was a HUGE fan of humor magazine Cracked growing up (basically a poor man's MAD), buying each monthly issue for years. They regularly parodied the most popular TV shows and movies, so when they took a stab at the TMNT in the pages of their periodical, I was there . The most hilarious gag to me was a mock Campbell's soup label you could cut out and attach to a random can from your pantry to make Shredder's famous line, "Tonight I dine on Turtle Soup" a reality. My favorite detail was the directions to, "Put the can back on the shelf. Put on shoes. Go out and get a pizza". On the night of my 8th birthday party, after all my friends had gone home, I remember carefully cutting out the label and  placing the can in our cupboard for my Mom to find. After some obvious suggestions of, "Boy, soup would be a great birthday dinner" and "I can't remember the last time I had some soup" she finally located the can and her confusion made my night.

To close out this article I have to talk about the impact of the live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie from 1990. It was definitely my most re-watched movie on VHS in 1991, until Wayne's World Came along. I remember experiencing this cinematic event in theaters with my Mom and a friend, where the darkness of the atmosphere seemed to bleed over from the murkiness of film. It actually made you feel like you were in the sewer! The movie was a huge contrast from the weekly cartoon escapades with Turtles saying "D*mn" and pre-teens smoking at the Foot Clan's hideout, but I loved the danger of it all. The comic book adaptation is actually my only surviving relic of those years as a devoted TMNT fan. Of course the real hero of the film to me was Elias Koteas as Casey Jones.

From his banter during a rumble with Raph in the park ("I hate punkers") to his juvenile flirting with April ("Ahhh, Princess!") and his final battle with Master Tatsu ("You call this here and that down there, family?") he won me over in a big way to where I mostly quoted Casey's lines during re-enactments on the playground. That's not to say the Turtles weren't amazing, Jim Henson did a fantastic job on the costumes and the voice actors really gave each one a distinct attitude. The "major league butt-kicking" was also something to be admired, as the range of motion the martial artists in rubber suits had made for exciting fights like the destruction of April's second hand store and the rooftop battle with their arch-nemesis. The sequels definitely lost their edge appealing to the "squeamish" parents of the world, but at least we got one Turtles film that made us want to shout "Cowabunga!"

I remember thinking the TMNT were gone for good when they released those Star Trek mash-up figures in 1994. It seemed like they had run out of ideas and even the cartoon series had changed to where the bad guy was some random alien overlord trying to invade Earth. Adding a space element to any show was a true sign of jumping the shark, just check out any Hanna-Barbera animated adaptation of a sitcom (ex. Gilligan's Planet or Partridge Family 2200 A.D.) for proof of this. I had really jumped into my comics obsession and 5th grade by this point, so it seemed like a good time to say good-bye to the mutated action taking place below city streets. Of course history has proven the staying power of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with new animated takes on the ninjitsu loving knuckleheads and even a live action revival, so maybe my judgment as a twelve year old was a little premature. Well, time to get back to my ninja exercises, just remember:

So tell me, what was your favorite incarnation of the TMNT? What are some of your memories of this time?

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Hoju Koolander Posted on Apr 09, 2015 at 02:56 PM

@MissM That's awesome that you had all the April figures. I'm sure that included the cave-woman one, right? That whole prehistoric line was pretty wacky.

MissM Posted on Apr 08, 2015 at 07:24 AM

Ok loved everything about this article. That first NES game was a nightmare. I still can't get past the third stage. The water stage and those bombs still gives me nightmares. I did love the arcade game thought. My first figure was April O'Neil. I remember doing really well on my grades in school and my mom was like, "We can go to the store and find an April figure for you." I loved the Turtles, but I always made sure to collect every version of April possible, and did they ever make some random off the wall April figures. It was hard not to be caught up in the phenomenon of the Turtles at that time. Or really any other time. The cool thing about this property over pretty much most properties from that time is that it has still managed to be a hit with every new version. Well, maybe not that live action series on Fox in the late 90's, but even that wasn't that bad from a toy perspective. Super fun article!

Hoju Koolander Posted on Apr 04, 2015 at 11:40 PM

@AnEarly90sMan I appreciate your confirmation of Turtle-Mania's official start date ;) Maybe in CA we got things going before the rest of the nation. Regarding your Technodrome correction, you are right that it came out in 1989, I meant that quote to read as more of a schoolyard rumor. But as soon as that thing hit shelves, you better believe that Brent was all over it.

AnEarly90sMan Posted on Apr 02, 2015 at 01:45 PM

The Technodrome wasn't out in 1988.

Turtle-Mania didn't sweep the nation until April of 1990.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Apr 02, 2015 at 01:18 PM

@Vaporman87 Glad to know they acknowledge the past on the new series, I did hear about the Rob Paulsen thing. Didn't they do a similar crossover with the 80's incarnation in the Turtles Forever special with the last 2-D version of the TMNT?

@echidna64 I haven't seen much from that duo, although I hear the names a lot. I did watch their Bayou Billy review just to make sure I wasn't rehashing the same old stuff, when I wrote that article. I'll have to check out their thoughts on the TMNT.

echidna64 Posted on Apr 01, 2015 at 04:53 PM

BTW have you seen the latest Nostalgia Critic/AVGN episode on the Ninja Turtles?

echidna64 Posted on Apr 01, 2015 at 04:52 PM

Huge turtle fan here! Thanks Hoju for stirring the turtle soup of memories!
I had the Technodrome playset as a kid and it was literally my favorite toy of all-time. So many climatic battles took place there between the many incarnations of the Turtle dudes and their many enemies.

Vaporman87 Posted on Apr 01, 2015 at 04:42 PM

No doubt about it, the early days of "Turtlemania" were the best. I thoroughly enjoyed both the cartoon series and the first live action film, though I've commented before that I thought it could have done a bit better with a little more star power and some deeper character exploration.

Naturally I had some of the toys, but my brother was in their prime demographic (I was around 14 - 18) so naturally he had more. Even so, I enjoyed the turtle merchandise.

One thing I will say for the newest animated incarnation... they have gone out of their way to pay homage to it's predecessor. Including all the old favorites like "fly" Baxter, Leatherhead, Metal Head, Rat King, and more. Once, while visiting Dimension X, the turtles look into a portal and see their 1980's cartoon counterparts walking down the street with April in her classic yellow jumpsuit. The original voice actors from that cartoon portray themselves once more at the end of that episode (in a little pre-credits nugget for the fans). They had several episodes that took place at April's relative's farm (with the house looking VERY MUCH like the one from the 1990 movie. In another recent episode, Casey Jones uses the classic line, "The class is Pain 101. You're instructor is Casey Jones." Then his opponent retorts with "Did you really just say that kid?" LOL. Good stuff. They've had voice talent come in like Corey Feldman doing "Slash" (he did Donatello's voice in the 1990 film) and of course, Rob Paulson doing Donatello. It's a nice way to introduce the turtles to a new generation while showing some love for those of us who grew up on the originals.

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