If you were an American kid cognizant during any of the late 1980s or early 1990s, you remember the Turtles hype. The heroes in a half-shell were literally everywhere, particularly in the toy box. And for many of us, the most highly prized figures in the original Playmates line were the four standard turtles.
In 2021, Playmates reissued all four of the original 1987 Turtle boys, but how well do these 80s relics hold up in the 21st century? And how do they stack against the original ninja teens? In today’s Dungeon Review, we’ll try to answer those questions using Don here as a test subject.
I won’t always cover the packaging here on Dungeon Reviews, but sometimes it just instills such a feeling in me that I’ve gotta.
For the 2021 reissues, Playmates used a card and blister design that hews very close to the 1980s toyline, featuring the figure set against an exploding brick wall and three colorful illustrations of the featured turtle swinging his bo staff around.
Until close to the end of the 80s line, all of the vintage Turtles figures featured similar illustrations on their cards, sometimes with kooky dialogue in word bubbles to show how wacky these characters were meant to be.
The cardback is faithfully reproduced as well, featuring a short comic strip telling the story of how the ninjas turtle came to be, a cross-sell for the other three turtles, and a bio card for Donnie.
This layout is overall extremely similar to the originals. The primary difference is the cross-sell, which if totally faithful, would have also featured April O’Neil, Splinter, Shredder, Bebop, Rocksteady, and the Foot Soldier. But those figures aren’t available in this reissue line, so they aren’t shown. Which, fair enough.
Because the cross-sell is so small, the bio card has been moved up to the middle of the card so all the legalese can squish into the bottom.
The artwork on vintage Turtles cards is worth special mention. Far from the oil paintings on Masters of the Universe packages or the shining airbrushed characters on Transformers cards or the dynamic postures of the G.I. Joe cards, the artwork for Playmates TMNT felt almost crude.
The turtles themselves are slightly out of proportion, the perspective is off, and the coloring is bold and flat. This style was seen across nearly every Turtles item, particularly the larger vehicles and playsets.
One could say it looks “bad” or “unprofessional,” but it was also arresting in a certain way. It stood out. The crudeness of it felt a little bit punk, a little bit underground, which was part of the appeal of the Turtles line. And the line came by that feeling honestly – Playmates was a fairly young toy company at the time and employed a variety of mercenary artists and designers to cobble the line together from nearly nothing.
Only much later in the line did it start to lose that initial crude quality.
The bio cards for the TMNT figures were also extremely important – at least to me, a kid whose primary reason for buying a toy was because the character appealed to me. Oftentimes in 80s and 90s lines, your primary window into the toyline’s world was via whatever was on the packaging.
Even though kid me preferred the more “down to Earth” details from lines like Transformers or G.I. Joe, I always got a laugh out of the punny lines in the Turtles bio cards, and they often added some little details that you’d never get anywhere else, like the goofy names of the turtles’ birthplace pet shops.
Don’s bio card has slightly different typefaces and formatting than the vintage one, but the text appears to be exactly the same. Modern cardbacks rarely, if ever, feature story information, so it feels fresh to see this in 2021, even if it is just a rehash of an older item.
The original four turtles all stand at a height of about 4.5 inches, making them a little taller than a G.I. Joe figure and a little shorter than He-Man. The conceptual design of the figures were primarily done by John Handy (he also illustrated much of the package artwork) and the sculpt work was done by Varner Studios.
These creators and others came up with the idea of varying the colors on the Turtles to make them stand out from each other, giving them colorful arm bands, varied skin tones, and a personalized initial on their belt, as well as slight variations in posture and sculpting, which we’ll get to when we discuss the other turtles.
That punk aesthetic carries into the feel of the toys. Rather than standing up straight and tall like Duke or Optimus Prime, Donatello’s knees are bent and one foot is in a permanent stepping-forward posture. His teeth are gritted and veins bulge out of his arm muscles. He’s ready for action, but in a way that feels more vital than a He-Man figure. A turtle can never be in a neutral pose.
The downside to this dynamic approach to figure design (which would leak into nearly every 1990s toyline) is that Donnie has a hard time standing up, and this is true of many of the vintage TMNT figures.
Donnie’s shell is covered in little nicks and dents from all the battles he’s been in. Like his card says, even though he spends his time in the lair doing brain genius stuff, he’s not afraid to jump into the fight himself.
Don’s left foot has a peg-hole in it. Notably, this hole seems to be in a 5mm size, which means you can mount Weaponizer parts from the Transformers toylines onto Donnie’s foot if you’re into that.
The hole is much larger on the reissue than on the vintage toy. I’m not sure why that is, or when it was implemented – I haven’t owned all of the various reissues of the vintage Turtles, so it could have been made that way a long time ago.
The gritted teeth and white eye-holes were a prominent aesthetic in the Turtles toyline and stood to set them apart from the Murakami Wolf animated series, where the ninjas all felt a bit softer and friendlier. This also made the toyline feel a bit meaner and more punk than the other adaptations of the Mirage comics, at least to me.
Donnie is articulated at the shoulders, elbows, hips, and neck. This configuration is the standard for nearly everything in the vintage TMNT line.
The belt, as you can see above, comes off. It fits into a noticeable groove that circles Donnie’s waist, meaning he looks pretty weird if you leave it off. If you scrounged up a vintage Turt from a yard sale in the 90s, they would usually be missing the belt, and that was always disappointing.
Nearly every joint on Donnie is a swivel joint, but his legs are on ball-and-socket joints. This lets him perform some limited kicking maneuvers or sit down, although the range of motion isn’t as great as you might expect.
Still, he has no problem looking dynamic, so I’d say all of this articulation did what it needed to do.
Donnie comes with a wide variety of accessories that are initially attached to a plastic sprue, requiring you to snip them off before play. This was a cost-cutting measure implemented by Playmates, but I never minded cutting off the weapons myself. I thought it was pretty fun, actually!
Once snipped off, Don’s loadout includes a kama, two fist daggers of differing sizes, two bo staffs, two shuriken, and a weapon rack made from the remainder of the plastic sprue.
Besides the signature weapon (the bo staff, in this case), all four turtles and several other figures from the first wave of toys came with these same accessories.
If you were ever curious about how these particular additional ninja weapons were chosen, take a look at the very first issue of the original Mirage TMNT comic – some of them can be seen in the hands of the Foot ninja as they battle with the turtles.
The weapon rack has a couple of stabilizer fins on the back that, in theory, lets you hang your unused weapons on it. In practice, the rack has difficulty standing up without support. I haven’t found away to stow all of the weapons on it the same time.
But still, these pieces look nice leaning against one wall of the Sewer Playset or a homemade diorama.
The kama is a bladed weapon that was thought to have been improvised from what was once used as a crop-cutting tool similar to a scythe. They usually don’t have two blades like the ones that came with the Turtles, but these ones appear to have been copied from some very similar ones seen in the first issue of the Mirage comic. Those ones, however, had a chain attached to the handle, meaning they were actually kusarigama.
Personally, I always thought this was the silliest-looking weapon that came with any of the Turtles, and I rarely used them.
The fist daggers were also seen in the Mirage comic in the hands of the Foot ninja. These ones have a well-defined sculpt and look a bit more weapon-like than the rounded-off kama.
The smaller fist dagger has three blades. Given the way the turtles hold them, I interpret these as more of use for climbing, like scaling the side of a Foot-infested high rise or maybe the Technodrome.
Shuriken are those often seen thrown weapons that we 90s kids usually called ninja stars. Due to the way Don’s hands are sculpted, he can actually hold them in a convincing way between his fingers.
Despite how well he can hold them, the thickness of the stars and the coloration always made me think of cookies. Deadly ninja cookies.
Of course the most important piece in Don’s collection of deadly instruments is his bo staff. Thanks to the articulation in his forearms, Don can easily wield the bo well in both hands.
Of the four Turtles, Don is probably the best when it comes to how well he can hold and pose with his weapon. Unfortunately for the 2021 reissue, the hands have a hard time keeping a grip on the staff, so it tends to fall out of his hands.
The right hand, in particular, looks like some of the plastic was sheered off, to the extent that Don has only half a thumb.
He comes with two staffs. Wielding two at once feels a bit awkward, but I think the second is really more for in case the first one gets broken by a well-aimed karate chop or forearm blade.
The four turtles can all store their specialty weapon on their body. Don’s storage comes in the form of a small sheath on the back of his harness, which can hold his bo (or his extra one, in case he brought two to the party).
The side of his belt also has a tiny pocket that seems intended for something, but I’ve never really been clear on what. It can hold a shuriken or a fist dagger, but when it’s full, Don can’t lower his arm.
The majority of basic figures in the Turtles line were free of “action features” in the sense of a triggered motion, firing missile, or other similar action, though some were considered in early designs.
So instead they prioritized accessory loadout, dynamic action poses, and sturdiness. In effect, they look really cool, and they look even cooler when your imagination helps a little bit.
Overall the 2021 reissues emulate the originals very well, but when you put them side-to-side, you can see there’s no mistaking one for the other.
The vintage Donnie here is actually a reissue as well, but he was reissued at the very tail end of the Playmates line at Kay-Bee Toys, and as far as I can tell he’s nearly identical to the original.
By the photo, you can easily see that the shade of green is different, hewing closer to brown on the 2021 version. The plastic on the original is much shinier and overall feels more crisply detailed. The head sculpt on the reissue feels completely different, appearing a little larger and a bit softer, losing some of the details present on the original.
On the reissue, the entire shell is painted, while on the original, the rim around the edge is unpainted. In this shot you can also see the difference in the molding of the hands. The vintage figure holds its accessories much better.
The shell on the 2021 reissue is painted with a matte green, while the paint on the original is more shiny.
What’s not evident in the photos is the feel of the reissue – overall the 2021 figure feels softer, with looser joints and a slight decrease in quality all around.
In the 2020s, it feels like nearly every toy company has a slice of the Turtle pizza. Outstanding Turtles lines have been seen from the likes of NECA, Super7, Mega Construx, SH Figuarts, and others.
Playmates, by comparison, feels like it’s coasting on a legacy license. Nothing especially new has come out of their version of the Turtles line since 2018’s Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ended, seemingly signaling an end of an era for the ninja teens.
So in an era where there are many potential options to own figures of the Turtle boys, why pick one of these?
For me, it’s because there’s nothing quite like the feeling of seeing the vintage Playmates line on shelves and opening one up. I already owned the vintage Turtles figures – there was really no need for me to own another one.
And even though this Donnie’s quality suffers compared to the originals, I still got a sense of joy and discovery in reopening one. They don’t have the exquisite articulation of a Marvel Legend or the intricacy of a modern Transformer, sure, but they still have that quaint punk charm of the 80s toyline.
That’s what keeps me coming back to them. I don’t really plan on buying the rest of the reissues of turtles I already own, but I’m glad I got one of them.