On a previous Dungeon Review, we discussed Playmates’ 2021 reissue of Donatello from the 1987 TMNT line. Today, we’re gonna look at all four original turtles.
For me there are few sets of toys that bring me more joy to see on a shelf than these four original turtles with their varied greens, battle-ready stances, and toothy grimaces. Let’s go into what makes each of these ninja teens so special.
Leonardo, the leader in blue. Nobody’s favorite turtle but absolutely vital to the team. As mentioned in Don’s review, each of these fellas stands about 4.5 inches tall. The design was done by Varner Studios, and the brainstorming for the toyline birthed the concept of the varied green hues and distinct colors for the bandanas and knee/elbow pads.
As a word of note, all four of these turts are the early reissues that occurred at the very end of the original Playmates toyline, when they reissued most of the first wave of toys. They have some small differences with the 1987 originals, but are otherwise similar enough to count as original in my mind.
Leo’s green is a warm forest color. His weapon belt has a pair of rubber straps that clip to the back of the belt, a feature shared with Don. You can arrange the straps to go over his chest like an “X” or have both rest over one shoulder. I like to have one turtle arrayed each way to create more visual distinction between them.
The straps are a nice way Playmates added variety to what could have been the exact same figure four times.
Leo has a lopsided grimace and his eyes seem to be angled downward, which always made me feel like he seemed a bit worried in comparison to the other turtles.
That toothy look became crucial to the aesthetic of the TMNT line and found its way to nearly every 1990s action figure line.
All four turtles have the same articulation: swivel at the neck, shoulders, and elbows; ball-joints at the hips. One of Leo’s feet is molded such that only his toes touch the ground; this makes him pretty hard to stand, since he doesn’t have a large weapon (like Don’s bo) to brace himself.
All four turtles include the same brown weapon rack with a variety of ninja weapons (check out Don’s post for an in-depth look at these), as well as one weapon exclusive to that turtle.
Leo’s weapons are katana, a type of Japanese single-edged long sword that are pretty familiar to us in the west by now. Though ninja used them, they tend to be more strongly associated with samurai. Leo can easily hold the swords in his hands, and he looks intimidating holding both of them, which is about the best we can expect from a TMNT figure from this era.
The swords themselves are made of a pliable plastic that tends to bend or warp easily, so sometimes a vintage Leo’s swords look a bit too droopy to be chopping up Foot Soldiers.
Leo can store both of his swords on his back. I love the look of the sword pommels sticking up over his shoulders.
A couple of other figures in the TMNT line came with the same swords as Leo, and I’m pretty sure this one is holding ones from two different toys.
He’s one of a kind. Mikey’s green is a bold color that appears almost blue in some lighting.
All four turtles have dings and scratches molded into their shells, appropriate for their battle-hardened lifestyles.
Mikey’s grin is lopsided like Leo’s, but his gritted teeth are on the other side. He’s also got angry-eyes. Mikey’s expression doesn’t really reflect the carefree character depicted on his file card and in the cartoon, but these toys were sculpted to appeal to kids more than they were to reflect a character depiction.
Mikey’s “action toe” is a little flatter to the ground than Leo’s, making him easier to stand up straight. His arms are also molded in a far more dynamic position than all four other turtles, with his hands bent almost all the way into his biceps. The idea was probably to make it easier for him to pose with his characteristic weapons.
Mikey’s weapons are the nunchaku, each a pair of wood or metal rods linked together by a chain or rope. The name of this weapon tends to be simplified into “nunchuks” (they’re called “nunchakus” on his original file card). These are definitely not ninja weapon, but were popularized in the 1970s by martial artists like Bruce Lee. They became infamous enough that they were seen as vulgar in certain countries, such as Great Britain, where they tended to be censored out of TMNT media.
Mikey’s chucks are sculpted from a single piece of plastic, with the string/chain created by a thin strand of plastic that’s intended to bend as if it were flexible. It’s obviously not a flawless design – you can see how just bending them for normal uses creates stress marks all over the chain. It’s not uncommon to find vintage Mikey with broken nunchaku.
He can hold them pretty well, though, and you can get some good “swinging over the shoulder” action poses out of him, thanks to the way the arms are molded.
Mikey can store both of his nunchaku in the loops on the back of his weapon belt. Unfortunately bending them to get them into the loops tends to cause further stress on the plastic.
Raphael’s got the most attitude on the team. He’s molded in the purest green of the bunch, appearing closest to the way the radical dudes were colored in publicity artwork and the like.
Raph is the only one with a symmetrical grimace, and his whole sculpt is very symmetrical all around, which sets him apart from the other turtles.
He’s also the only turtle molded with two “neutral” feet, such that it’s very easy to stand him up and get some convincing poses out of him without immediate face-plant.
Raph’s weapon are the sai, unique stabbin’ knives that, unlike Raph’s katana, are typically dual-wielded. The tri-prong design allows for a variety of fighting styles, such as closing one’s fist around the hilt to thrust or using the side prongs to ensnare an enemy’s weapon and disarm them.
Raph’s sai here appear to be molded as if they were bladed, but real sai were usually used expressly for stabbing rather than cutting. He holds them well, but he can’t manage to get the middle prong through his fingers like he sometimes did in popular depictions.
Raph is the only turtle to have his weapon storage on the front of his belt rather than the back. In most media depictions, he simply tucks his sai under the belt, but the toy features sculpted sheathes to better secure them onto the figure. It works well.
However, Raph also has an auxiliary weapon storage spot on the back of his belt. This appears to be specifically made for one of the fist daggers that were included with all the turtles.
Donatello has a way with machines. We already discussed this figure (here’s that link one more time), but I had to include at least one pic of him for completeness’ sake.
The original Playmates line eventually included a vast variety of different versions of the turtles, ranging from toon variants to movie variants to farmers to cavemen to Universal Monsters.
What all of those variants had in common was that same wacky energy that started right here in the first wave of turtles toys. These dudes are more subdued than the sculpts we saw later in TMNT, but the aesthetic is already present in the asymmetrical sculpts, grimaces, and poses.
The original four turtles were also some of the most desirable figures in the line for kids of that era. If you loved the Turtles, you absolutely had to have all four of them, and sometimes you had to make do with what you could find. For a long time, my ninja teens were composed of space Raph, disguised Don, mutatin’ Mikey, and no Leo to speak of. As the Playmates line grew to sprawling sizes, it became hard to find certain figures. It wasn’t until Playmates reissued the first wave in the mid-90s that I was able to get those original four.
So these four figures have remained a crucial part of my toy collection for decades, even during times when all of my TMNT figures were crammed into storage and nearly forgotten. If I’d been forced to evacuate most of my toy collection, I’d do my best to keep these four figures.
I love to pose them in their sewer lair, or scaling the side of the Technodrome, or piled into the Party Wagon. Even though Leo can’t hold a sword well, and Donatello always falls over, and Mikey’s nunchaku will eventually break, there’s a special energy that appears when you gather these four ninja together and pose them alongside their 1980s and 1990s brethren.
It’s a creative energy, the energy of pure toy design that was best exemplified in lines like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s the reason I keep coming back to this line and others from that era.