30 Year Recap Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Franchise

It’s hard to believe that the debut appearance of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was three decades ago. For anyone who grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s, this franchise was likely a large part of their childhood. The concept was introduced by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 as a joke, but it turned out that their ridiculous thought to give slow moving reptiles ninja-like speed and precision quickly won over younger audiences.  For roughly the next ten years the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exploded and the franchise was sometimes referred to as a merchandising monster.

Although Eastman and Lairds concept found its introduction through a comic book series, a large portion of TMNT’s success came from the production of toys. The merchandising side of the business actually became so successful that the co-creators eventually had very little time to contribute to the comic book. They were forced to hire a trusted team of writers and artists to continue the story that established the foundation for their multi-million dollar success.

After fading off quite a bit in the late 90’s and only having a small moment on television in the 2000’s, these beloved crime fighting humanoid turtles have recently been experiencing a rebirth in popularity over the past few years. However with Mirage Studios now out of the loop, it is hard to say whether long-time fans will embrace the reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or if this reimagining will only excite a newer and younger crowd.

Comic Book Series : 1984 – 2010

Mirage Studios

Over the course of the 26 years Mirage Studios released four volumes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic consisting of 129 issues. When Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman started the series, publication was limited. The first issues were black and white and were only printed in quantities of roughly 3,000 units; making them instant collectables in the graphic novel market. Within only a few months after the first issues were released it is noted that they were being sold for 50 times their initial sale price. The first volume had 62 issues and was the largest production out of all the volumes. But the series became a little disjointed as Laird and Eastman switched their focus to other sections of the franchise and hired new writers to continue the story.

New content was reduced drastically in the second volume due to declining sales and the third volume took sharp turns away from the original story. Some of the new additions in volume three consisted of Leonardo losing his hand, Raphael having a scarred face, Donatello becoming a cyborg, and Splinter turning into a bat. These changes were not necessarily reviewed or approved by Laird. Luckily, the story reverted back to being more linear with the original concept when Laird put more focus into the forth volume.

Not only did Laird’s involvement bring the Ninja Turtles back to their roots, but it was seen as an opportunity to finally change an error with the comic that lasted for 17 years and nearly 100 issues. In the fourth volume the spelling of Michelangelo’s name was finally corrected so that it aligned with the famous Italian Sculptor from the Renaissance era. In every other issue prior to the forth volume, his name had been spelled “Michaelangelo.”

Animated Series #1: 1987 – 1996

Animated series 1987
Group W Productions

The first animated series was developed as a strategy to widen the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles audience. Although the comic was a considered a success, it was only attracting the attention of fans in a limited market. This made it hard to jumpstart the merchandising side of the business.

Most toy companies were refusing to sign on with the franchise because at the time they felt that the concept was too weak to support a full product line. Playmates Toys in California was interested but hesitant; they insisted that before they agree to produce toys, that a cartoon must be developed. The opportunity to establish a foothold in the toy market lead to the development of the animated series that was first aired in December of 1987 then ran consecutively for ten seasons.

Since the goal of the show was to attract a broader market, the characters changed significantly from their original form in the comic book. They were intended to gain popularity with a younger audience separate from the teenage and young-adult following the comic had. The result was a fun, light-hearted, group of crime fighters with catchphrases like “cowabunga” and an uncontrollable appetite for pizza.

The less dark and violent variation to the story wasn’t well received by TMNT traditionalists, but regardless it served its purpose to attain an agreement with Playmate Toys and jumpstart the merchandising superpower that would follow.

NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: 1989

Ultra Games

Serving as the franchises video game debut, this simple yet incredibly frustrating game managed to sell four million copies, was declared Game of the Year in 1989 by Nintendo Power, and got reintroduced through Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console service in 2007. However, it did get removed from Wii’s Virtual Store five years later due to licensing issues and it was not recognized in Nintendo Power’s final 2012 issue that ranked the top 285 games of all time.

Overall the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles console game received poor reviews. The gameplay was unnecessarily difficult at times, there were several enemy characters that were confusing or seemed out of place, and humorous programming glitches could be found throughout the game. But putting all that aside; for the age range the Ninja Turtles franchise was targeting at the time the harshest critics weren’t likely among the demographic playing the game the most.

For kids that were 6 – 11 years old this game was everything it needed to be. They got to play as their favorite Ninja Turtle, kill some bad guys, and interact in a world they have grown to love through the Saturday morning cartoon. But with all that being said, some controllers were still likely destroyed when the Hudson River Dam level caused these young gamers to rage quit for the very first time.

MOVIE – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: 1990

TMNT Movie 1990
New Line Cinema

After experiencing the dramatically conservative rendition of the story with the animated series, this full length film was probably a little bit more satisfying for the TMNT loyalists. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie was only rated “PG” but it definitely had a darker edge and directly aligned with the story created in volume one of the comic.

There were silly moments during the movie and elements of the animated series were carried over, but the comedic value apparently didn’t outweigh the violence. There was an outcry from concerned parents about the intensity of combat scenes and how often weapons were used in the first film. This public concern ended up affecting the overall tone of the subsequent films, making this movie the closest cinematic representation of the comic.

It raises questions about how much culture has changed if a PG rated film in the 90’s created enough of a troubling impact with parents to influence the future installments. Regardless the movie was a notable success. Upon its release it was the second highest grossing independent film of all time and was the most successful film released of the TMNT franchise.

NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II : 1990

NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II

The franchises second attempt at a video game was primarily released as an arcade game but eventually got introduced as a home console version to NES. The game added a great deal more depth compared to its side scrolling predecessor. Small changes such as being able to do aerial attacks, interacting with objects in the environment, and being grappled by enemies during combat were the things that separated this sequel in a big way.

Another big change could be seen with product placement. In the first full length film Domino’s was used as the source to temper the Ninja Turtles raging hunger for pizza. But soon after the film was released Pizza Hut launched a twenty million dollar marketing campaign to support the movie. The switch between pizza companies was first seen in this video game. Pizza Hut advertisements were placed throughout the game and coupons were actually included in the gaming manual.

Unlike the first video game release, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 never won Game of the Year from Nintendo Power, but is was recognized in their final 2012 issue listing the 285 best games of all time. This game was the only one specifically from the NES series that placed in the list and was ranked as the 218th best game.

MOVIE – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II:
The Secret Of The Ooze: 1991

New Line Cinema

As mentioned previously, the content of this film was influenced by the public disapproval resulting from the violent tone introduced in the first release. The writers and directors detracted from the traditional weapons used by the turtles and relied more on hand to hand combat and gimmick weaponry. Instead of Swords, Sai’s, Nunchucks, and a Bow Staff, a comedic arsenal consisting of a yo-yo, foam bat, sausage links, and a spring loaded bobble clown were used  as substitutions to bring a lighter spin to the fight scenes. It is noted that Leonardo and Raphael only use their standard weapons once in the entire film.

However the film still didn’t dodge criticism even with the major change in direction to include more of a slapstick style during what would normally be intense brawl scenes. Many parents now complained that the jovial and nonsensical nature of the Ninja Turtles during their conflicts set a worse example for kids by making violence seem like a joke.

Even though the film underperformed in box offices compared to its predecessor by only making $20 million on opening weekend, it set other milestones in the movie industry. All the animatronics for the characters were developed by the Jim Henson Creature Shop for the first two TMNT movies and were referenced as being the most complex projects the company had worked on at the time. With the world famous puppeteer passing in 1990, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was the first film ever to be dedicated to Jim Henson.

NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III : The Manhattan Project: 1992

NES Manhattan

Unlike the second game in the series, the Manhattan Project was an original release for the NES and didn’t make its debut through an arcade version prior to being produced for home consoles. The gaming conventions align with the previous title, but the slight modifications to gameplay and the creative enemy attack scenarios add a new element to this gaming experience. Special moves specific for each character and a new over-the-shoulder  flip move that results in the instant death of an enemy were a few of the unique additions that made the game feel slightly more complex for users.

Many of the enemy bosses were pulled from the original series, but there were influences from the second movie and the animated series that made their way into the third game. Bebop and Rocksteady, who were created for the animated series, couldn’t be included in the second movie due to legal clearance issues. As a result Tokka and Rahzar were created for the film to take their place.  However all of these post comic characters made their way into the Manhattan Project.

Even with new characters that were developed specifically for the animated series and the movie appearing in this game, the enemies that were original to the comic and featured on the front cover of the game, the Triceratons, were never actually seen during gameplay.

SNES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles In Time: 1992

Turtles In Time

Ranked number 43 as the best games of all time in Nintendo Power’s final issue, this TMNT console release stepped up the home gaming experience once again. Enemies were still able to grapple players to reduce health in this version, but now there were two moves that let players induce instant death to the foot soldiers.

The over-the-shoulder flip was eliminated and replaced with a side by side slamming move and a very entertaining throw move that launched enemies towards the screen; adding even more depth to a two dimensional game. Other elements like power-ups for special moves that didn’t drain health and the ability to control character movement speed from walk to run were great advancements that gave users more versatility with gameplay. But it was levels like “Neon Night Riders” that really separated this game from others at the time.

Mode 7 was a technique that created the illusion of a third dimension in two dimensional video games. It was introduced in the early 90’s and the SNES version of Turtles In Time was one of the first games that featured this new style. Instead of side scrolling, the “Neon Night Riders” level had more of an early racing game type of interaction by using a background layer that could be “scaled and rotated.” This allowed users to feel like they were traveling away from the screen rather than moving horizontally. Another game that was primarily based on this style and very successful was Super Mario Kart.

MOVIE – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III : 1993

New Line Cinema

Many people consider this movie to be one that “jumped the shark” in the series. The movie tried to find a creative way to feature the Ninja Turtles in a traditional samurai style film. But the use of time travel equal mass displacement to put the Turtles in 14th century Japan had fans and critics scratching their heads. However, if it wasn’t the time travel conundrum that had fans confused, the romance and the physical attraction between the Turtles and human women definitely did.

Although the movie received poor reviews, this $20-million dollar sequel to the sequel actually debuted as number one on its opening weekend grossing $12.4- million dollars in ticket sales. The unexpected initial success could probably be attributed to the movie not being released to critics for prescreening prior to it being formally released in theaters. Since no official reviews got released for the film until the Monday after opening weekend, many excited fans were not negatively influenced by critics before they made the decision to see the movie.

Other than the huge change of direction with the storyline, other major changes occurred for the making of this film. After developing the animatronics for the first two films and having the second film dedicated to Jim Henson, surprisingly the Jim Henson Creature Shop was not involved with developing the characters for this film. The responsibility for creating the costumes was assigned to the All Effects Company. This was the company that was also responsible for producing other characters such as the Energizer Bunny and the Johnny 5 robot from “Short Circuit.”

Live Action Series – Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation: 1997 – 1998

TMNT Next Mutation
Saban Brands

After the animated series ended in 1996 the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles returned to television in a series produced by Saban Entertainment. Four years from the release of the third film, the TMNT live action renaissance was short lived primarily because of all the outrageous changes that were made to the story.

The creators of the series claimed that it was going to pick up where the third film left off and still incorporate elements from the 1987 animated series, but soon after it was released fans realized this was not the case. Besides altering nearly all the Ninja Turtles weapons, probably the most notable addition to the story was the introduction of a fifth female turtle named Venus. The original co-creator, Peter Laird, was not happy with this addition.

In an interview with Kevin Munroe in 2007 about the animated TMNT film to be released the same year, Munroe spoke about some of the “rules” that Laird set in place for the development of the new movie. Laird’s feelings about the changes made for the live action series in 1997 became apparent during this interview. Munroe mentioned that some of the rules were minor such as Donatello and Leonardo never speaking with contractions in an effort to reflect their level of intellect and formality, but the idea to introduce a girl turtle into the story was apparently a huge thorn in the side of Laird. Munroe noted that “You can’t even joke about that with Peter. It’s just one of those things that he hates with a passion.”

The series only lasted a year and was cancelled despite having a solid viewership, but during this time the Ninja Turtles appeared in a side project with the Power Rangers, both as allies and adversaries throughout several episodes.

Animated Series #2: 2003 – 2009

Animated series 2003
4Kids Entertainment

This was the first time since 1987 that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had been absent from television for an extended period of time. The return of the Turtles after five years brought a new aggressive appearance and more serious tone to the series with only Michelangelo speaking in surfer slang while the rest had a more pronounced vocabulary.

The new look and tone of the turtles aligned more with the comic and was well received by fans. The show ran for four seasons without any major issues, but it wasn’t long after the conclusion of the fourth season in mid 2006 that problems started to arise. Instead of continuing the series by airing the already produced and finalized fifth season, the decision was made to move forward with airing the sixth season instead.

With the fourth season ending with a cliff hanging finale, fans were confused when the first episode of the next season gave the show a whole new setting, group of supporting characters, and artistic style. The jarring change of direction with putting the Ninja Turtles in the year 2105 caused fans to be a little disoriented with the story, especially since the real season five was aired labeled as the “lost episodes” after this futuristic season ended.

With all the jumping around in the last three seasons including another re-tooling to the art in season seven, ratings suffered significantly. This eventually led to the conclusion of the series in 2009.

MOVIE – TMNT : 2007

TMNT movie 2007
Warner Bros. Pictures

At this point the live action movies in the franchise were getting increasingly more expensive compared to the revenue they were generating. For example the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film cost 13.5-million to produce and it made 135.2 million, while the third film cost $21 million but only made $44 million. The failure to see a greater return on investment led the franchise to go in a new direction and produce a full-length film using computer graphics imagery (CGI).

Kevin Munroe was brought on board as the writer/director for this film. Munroe was excited and adamant about developing a darker and more serious tone for the film. But based on the reviews of fans and critics he might have pushed it too far. Much like most critics complained that the Turtles were too silly/dopey in the second and third films, now they were complaining that the characters were too serious for an animated movie.

Besides the reviews, which just seem to be on par with all the previous films for the franchise, TMNT managed to rank number one in the box office during its opening weekend and doubled ticket sales compared to the third film by grossing over $95 million worldwide.

Animated Series #3: 2012 – Present

Animated series 2012
Nickelodeon Animation Studio

The rights of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise were purchased by Viacom from Peter Laird in 2009 for $60 million. Soon after the sale a press conference was held where Viacom announced that they would be releasing a computer graphic animated series to their Nickelodeon channels. This would be the first CG-animated television series released in the franchise and after several years of development the one hour season premier was aired on Saturday September 29th 2012.

The Ninja Turtles all had a new look once again, but for the first time the new creators focused on making each turtle distinct in appearance. In the past the Turtles could only be individually identified by the color of their mask and their weapons. In this series the Turtles each had unique skin tone and body types; Michelangelo was the shortest of the group while Donatello was the tallest. There were also specific physical traits included such as Raphael having a lightning bolt shaped chip in the top right side of his plastron and Donatello having a gap in his teeth.

The CG-animated style of the series and the new appearance of the characters was an immediate hit. The TMNT series premier ranked as the number-one kids program on basic cable during its first week. On October 2nd 2012, the show was already signed on for a second season. Since the release, the series has been signed on for a total of four seasons. Season four is expected to be released in the fall of 2015.

Grab some Ninja Turtle Memorabilia now! In 30 years they could be collectables!

One thought on “30 Year Recap Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Franchise”

  1. Most excellent article dude.
    I’m a little curious about their over withholding that resulted in a $2k tax refund. Will check into that more thoroughly on the web site devoted to taxation of comic book writers.

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