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Turtle toys through the years

Nate Hogan | Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The perhaps unfamiliar names Groundchuck, Walkabout and Dirtbag all have one thing in common. They are all the names of obscure characters from the original line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. When the TMNT cartoon came out in 1987, it captured the hearts of American youth and simply screamed merchandising. In the following year, Playmates Toys released the first line of a long chain of action figures for the TMNT cartoon and beyond. This release featured the classic characters anyone of our generation associates with the Ninja Turtles. This would be the classic four – Leonardo, Donatello, Michaelangelo and Raphael – plus their master, Splinter. Their compadre and confidant April O’Neil was also included. The Shredder, a Foot Soldier, Bebop and Rocksteady rounded out the line by providing a basis of villainous characters to pit against the gnarly four.

These figures possessed great detail for the time and came with numerous accessories that added to their playability. Shredder and Splinter even featured cotton capes, which one could take the liberty of removing and giving to more worthy characters if one so chose. (The fashion trend in “The Incredibles” of not wearing capes does not apply to action figures, as a cape makes any figure infinitely better.)

As the cartoon gained popularity, Playmates capitalized by continuing to release new figures. Characters from the show earned their immortality in plastic, such as the Cajun-accented Leatherhead, the Rat King and vigilante sports enthusiast Casey Jones. Jones featured what were arguably the greatest accessories ever: a golf bag which could go over his shoulder, complete with a golf club and two baseball bats for beating criminals into submission as he attempted to rid the world of bad sports.

At this point, Playmates decided to branch out a little and began providing their young market with a plethora of creative stimuli. In addition to selling characters from the show, they released the original four with outlandish outfits as well as completely new characters who never even saw screen time. This opened the doors for imagination, allowing the owner to create the back story and personality of the figure, since no one actually paid attention to the canned history on the back of the figure’s card.

As mentioned before, Playmates released variants of the original turtles in every costume imaginable. To put this in perspective, from 1988 to 1995 Playmates released more than 30 figure variants of Leonardo alone. These included such greats as T.D. Tossin’ Leo, Lieutenant Leo and the ever-popular Classic Rocker Leo. As interest began to wane, Playmates toned their production down, yet continued to steadily release figures based on the 1987 cartoon through 1997.

The TMNT property was reinvigorated with the release of a new cartoon in 2003, after a failed revamp in 1997 known as the next mutation. Of course a new line of figures was released to accompany the 2003 cartoon. These new figures were the same old characters, but with a much edgier look. The increased articulation, superior paint jobs on characters and weapons and increased detail in both the accessories and expressions hooked kids of a new generation on the characters. Not only was the cartoon better looking than ever, but the figures looked as if they were lifted straight from the television and put in the arms of the imaginative viewers.

Fans of the original cartoon can appreciate the updated representation of their favorite classics in plastic, while recalling a time when figures opened their playtime up to the whims of the imagination. Cowabunga, dude!