25 Nights of Nineties Nostalgia: TMNT Playmates

It’s TMNT Tuesday, and it’s about time we talked about some turtles. While we’re at it, why not go all the way back to the beginning – the first Ninja Turtle figures to hit the market? In Playmates’ initial run of the figures, the turtle toys were all made of a durable hard plastic, except for one thing – their heads were a soft, squishy kind of plastic. This was changed in the later runs, but the questions remains; if Playmates wanted their toy to catch on with kids, why the weird and less durable plastic for their figures?

We've got a soft-spot for these guys.

We’ve got a soft-spot for these guys.

Well, let’s talk theories for a moment here, and take a look back at how that first run got out of the gate. Playmates had virtually no experience in the action figure market at this point. The company then chose to pick up the license for a comic that, while not adult was certainly not meant for youngsters. From an outsider’s perspective, none of this seemed too smart.

Playmates decided they needed to soften the turtles up and hired a marketing team to do just that. However, changes would inevitably need to go through the Ninja Turtles original creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, two men who wrote about these soon-to-be kids’ toys slicing through living people while spouting curse words. Needless to say there was some contention. Inevitably, Eastman and Laird conceded to most of the changes, both due to the hopes of eventual profit and the fact they would always have their little black and white book.

A black and white book that was actually a problem for Playmates. While they may have turned the TMNT characters into pizza loving surfer ninjas, their only tie-in material was a comic where a guy in a hockey mask beat muggers to death with a baseball bat. They needed something else, and so, working closely with MWS animation, created a five part miniseries to air on television. Playmates had put a lot of money into the licensing and marketing for its brand, and everything was riding on this. It tanked.

Ratings of the miniseries came back, and they were worrisome. However, Playmates couldn’t suddenly pull out – they were in production of the toy-line and too much money had already been invested. The order came to try again and hope for the best. Ratings came back and they were still awful. It wasn’t until they tried for a third time that the series gained traction, and armed with “proof” there might be an audience for their product, they got a green light for a series on CBS.

Let’s put on our tinfoil hats and think of Playmates position right now. No experience in the market, your only reliable tie-in materials are a comic that wasn’t safe for kids and a show nobody seemed to watch. I believe it’s possible that in the time between the ratings disaster from their first attempt and their eventual success, they might have hit the panic button and looked for any way to cut costs on the line. So, out with the hard plastic and in with soft squishy heads. When the dust finally settled and everything looked like it was finally on track, the durable plastic came back.

These days, squishy-head turtles are rare collectors’ items. So if you happen to have one of these toys from the original run, you might be sitting on enough dough to make quite a lot of pizza. (Editor’s note – No need to write letters, we’re firing Al for that last one.)

About the author

Al

Al Baldino is half bear, half owl-bear, which makes him some sort of terrible fraction no one wants to think about. He's a co-host on the Line Cutters every Wednesday at 7pm EST.