Turtlemania, Revisited

Looking back on the early multimedia adventures of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with a bit of nostalgia on the side.

Hey all, Ernie here, reporting from weak Wi-Fi on an attempt at a disconnected vacation. The world is a crazy place right now, and sometimes it helps to dive into something fun. So, here’s a new piece from David Buck about everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic turtles and a few stories from their bizarre early years.

Today in Tedium: It may be difficult to believe, but 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. From inauspicious beginnings as an independent comic book in 1984 to early 90s Turtlemania and beyond, the TMNT aren’t certainly an established part of modern pop culture. Prior to the cartoon reboots and the property’s eventual acquisition by Nickelodeon—and well before Michael Bay sprayed CGI all over the big screen with that weird 2014 remake—the TMNT were just an independent comic created for fun by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. We’ve written about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before: in last year’s “No Nunchucks,” we discussed the British censorship of the cartoon and feature film in Britain pertaining to Michelangelo’s weapon of choice. As bizarre as that was, it didn’t stop the series from succeeding and spawning all sorts of follow-up ideas across various formats. But every story has a beginning—even if it’s kind of bizarre or totally at odds with the property’s current iteration. So, grab a slice of your favorite pizza and get comfortable because in today’s Tedium, we’re celebrating early TMNT multimedia properties and a look back at early Turtlemania. — David @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is from that time TMNT appeared on Oprah. Because of course they did. And it was awkward.

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$25M

The amount Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made at the box office (remember those?) on its opening weekend in 1990. Filmed on an estimated budget of $13,500,000 and released on April 1 of that year, the film would go on to gross $201,965,915 worldwide.

TMNT 1990 Movie Poster

How an independent comic became the highest grossing independent film of the year … with a killer soundtrack

It’s hard to believe the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were originally a sci-fi infused, somewhat gritty and extremely over-the-top parody of early 1980s comics and their associated tropes. These days, fans can choose from several iterations of both comic and television shows, but there was a time when TMNT only existed in toys, comic books and a trilogy of live action films.

The film was produced by an independent studio after a major one pulled out at the last minute. Despite some filming problems like script arguments and massive 70-pound costumes, the film was a hit. It became the highest grossing independent up to that point.

Perhaps the best part of the movie is John Du Prez’s score, most of which was left out of the final product in favor of more contemporary songs of the day. Du Prez was long associated with composing music for Monty Python Leading to his role in composing for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. His work is a magnificent guitar and synthesizer infused collection of compositions, making the soundtrack remains a hidden gem everyone should hear at least once. Music ended up playing a pivotal role in the property later that year when the turtles became full-fledged rock stars.

one

The limit of Coming Out of Their Shells soundtracks a customer could get from Pizza Hut in 1990. At a cost of $3.99—apparently it was a $12.99 “value”—the cassette contained all the “hits” from the live show, but you had to buy a pizza first. As one of the actors says in the original commercial, “some stars come and go, but these guys are here to stay.” He was right, but definitely not in the way the writers originally intended. Later commercials advertised a tour guide book and a poster as well.

Coming Out Of Their Shells

(via Genius)

Making the case for TMNT: Coming Out of Their Shells

Remember that time the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles performed a rock n roll concert in your town? Of course you do. It’s a little bit strange that a streaming version of the less-than-seminal 1990 Coming Out of Our Shells cassette is available to stream or download on Google Play and Amazon. Until it became much easier to find at thrift stores or garage sales in more recent years, the soundtrack cassette was only available from Pizza Hut—at least as far as we can tell (if you bought it from one, we’d love to hear from you). Released as an accompaniment to the tour of the same name, the soundtrack has a picture of a ninja turtle holding a guitar on the cover, ready to rock, roll and presumably devour several pizzas.

The brainchild of writer/performers Bob Bejan and Godfrey Nelson, the idea for the show came from Bejan’s experience reading a copy of the first TMNT graphic novel that a friend gave him and a desire to reinvent the musical. The duo worked on a project based on TMNT and quickly came up with several songs. Figuring they had something amazing on their hands, they proceeded to pitch TMNT series creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird on the idea. Eastman and Laird liked it, but Bejan had to secure the rights to use the characters in his show. The price? A hefty $50,000. He reached out to an investor named Steven Leber to help finance the licensing rights and succeeded. While looking for investors to sponsor the show itself, Bejan figured reaching out to pizza establishments would be his best bet. He was right: Pizza Hut agreed to a deal and the Coming Out of Their Shells show was born. Pizza Hut played a vital role, too, as Bejan recounted to Gamespot earlier this year:

They bought three million records upfront and them buying it before we’d even really done the master recordings. They brought them to the demos. They bought three million records at $3 apiece. They also committed to, at that time, an astronomical $20 million advertising campaign and that they would do a broadcast primetime television commercial.

Bejan later voiced Michaelangelo on the albums, while Nelson lended his voice to Splinter. The show was a tremendous undertaking that yielded something uniquely TMNT that has never been duplicated with the same kind of scope and effort as Bejan and Nelson’s work.

Coming Out of Their Shells has received a weird reception in modern times, though. It seems as if the entire internet has gotten in on the action of riffing the concert or doing some sort of commentary over the past two decades. It makes sense. The show isn’t exactly high art, the turtle costumes are sort of creepy and the concept is poorly executed at best. Despite how ridiculous it seems to us now, it was a great way for kids who were obsessed with the then-new characters to have a chance to see them in a real life situation. The show’s companion soundtrack—despite its ready availability at any participating Pizza Hut—was missing two of the songs from the stage show, so the only way to see the full performance was to attend a live performance or obtain a VHS when it eventually became available to consumers.

There’s an earnest quality to the lyrics, but some of them definitely sound like a product of their times. It’s striking how well the music is composed, encapsulating a variety of genres across the entire show with good rhythm and memorable melodies.

The title track is a 12-string acoustic driven rock song with generic lyrics about “getting into the music.” Songs like “Sing about it” and “Walk Straight” are decent rockers with fun lyrics and good instrumentation. Raphael is the lead singer for most of the tracks, with Mikey taking center stage on “Tubin” and Splinter singing the ballad, “Skipping Stones.” Just try to get “Pizza Power” —a song that was later used in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time for the arcade—is super catchy and loads of fun. Go ahead—just try to get it out of your head after the first listen.

“It’s a big challenge. People didn’t even know we were real; they thought we were cartoons. It wasn’t until the movie thing that people realized we existed.”

Raphael, the singer, saxophonist and sai-wielding turtle doing a promotional interview in New York for the live tour. Using the characters to advertise the tour “as themselves” was only one part of the unique marketing used for embedding the show and its ideas into the public’s collective minds. Tickets were only $15.50 at the time and the tour went to at least 40 cities through its run.

The marketing for the show found early roles for prominent comedians

The tour also had some unique promotion, with people dressing in the tour costumes to do meet and greet events before the show. Comedian Michael Ian Black was part of the pre-promotion for the tour. While he didn’t play one of the singing, dancing turtles on stage, comedian Michael Ian Black did have a bit of a marketing role in the show. In the 2014 documentary, Turtle Power, Black discussed his involvement promoting the show in a turtle costume, recounting the story of how he and Robert Ben Garant were doing a promotional appearance at an ice cream shop in Juarez, Mexico for a show in Texas. Thousands of kids showed up with no crowd control whatsoever. Black talked about the experience later in the documentary:

I’ll never forget looking through this turtle mask at these thousands of kids just massed outside this store, cheering, waving and you know we’re dancing. It was kind of a profound moment because it brought home the phenomenon of the turtles but there was something sort of larger and sadder about the state of our world in seeing all of these poor kids just as caught up as their American counterparts in this thing, but had no access to it in the way their American counterparts did. It was kind of a bummer.

Today, Black is known for being the voice of Pets.com, his comedy group The State (which also had a TV show of the same name) and his participation in several projects on VH1, television and movies. Early in his career, however, he wore a different hat: doing advance work promoting the Coming Out of Their Shells Tour. Per the Turtle Power documentary, he played Raphael in advance appearances while Reno 911′s Robert Ben Garant took on the role of Michelangelo.

In 2003, Black told The Onion AV Club what it was like to wear the turtle costume for the tour, saying “In a word: smelly. My primary memory is that it was smelly, and that there was a lot of pizza involved.” He didn’t participate in the show itself—he was just part of the warm-up crew that met with kids before the show and did live appearances in malls and similar venues. Black says, “We were turtles promoting other turtles.”

The show isn’t without its fans. I definitely enjoyed it at the time and learned how to play “Pizza Power” on the guitar. One fan, Alex Dillard, set up a Change.org petition to bring the show to DVD. It has 97 out of 100 signatures (if you’re wondering, yes; I signed) already. On top of that, NECA released exclusive 7” figures of the Coming Out of Their Shells versions of the turtles this year—complete with removable jackets, instruments and other accessories. The show is fun to revisit from time-to-time and would fit perfectly into any nostalgic time capsule of the 1990s for future generations to enjoy.

2:20

The amount of time the turtles are given to disarm eight bombs in the water stage of the original Teenage Mutant NInja Turtles game for the NES. Swimming their way through deadly electric seawood and poorly timed electric barriers, the stage ends up being one of the more frustrating portions of the game. Plot-wise, it takes place in the Hudson River with the noble mission of preventing the dam from exploding. Essentially, it’s just a needlessly difficult and disjointed section intended to drive the plot forward, but at least you have April’s support …

TMNT NES game

(via eBay)

Five things about the first TMNT NES game no one ever talks about

No celebration of TMNT would be complete without mentioning the infamous, often frustrating and different original NES game. The Cutting Room Floor calls it “ridiculously unbalanced.” The Angry Video Game Nerd cut his teeth colorfully describing his frustrations with the title and when it arrived on the Wii Virtual Console in 2007—only to be whisked away from the service when the license expired—it received a fresh plate of poor reviews from modern game journalists. Throughout its existence, the game has received valid criticism about its difficulty, strange jumps and level design, but it largely remains a fun—if a little bit nostalgic—experience today.

It’s entirely possible I hold such affinity for the game because it resembles the original Mirage TMNT comics—the comic series where they throw Shredder off a building in the first issue, then face-off with Baxter Stockman’s mousers before finally travelling across space to battle the Triceratons. It could also be that I received the game as a Christmas present one year and it was the only “good” game we owned for the NES at the time. Released in 1989 to great success, it began development in 1987 prior to TMNT becoming a well-known worldwide sensation. Armed with design documents based on the comics, the developers proceeded to attempt to connect the two incredibly different versions of the TMNT that existed at the time. That’s probably why it seems to mix elements from the early comics and RPG tabletop games with aspects of the successful Fred Wolf cartoon. Series mainstay villains Bebop and Rocksteady are present, along with the mousers, foot soldiers and the Technodrome are all here, but some of the other enemy choices range from strange to utterly bizarre. The Fire Freaks are a cool idea, but where did the Mechaturtle come from? Is he supposed to be Metal Head? What’s the deal with the Krang-style walker enemies or the weird armadillo monsters in the Bronx? Who on Earth thought it was a good idea to include those ridiculously difficult jet pack guys inside the Technodrome? Are those bandage-wearing boomerang throwers minions of The Rat King?

Anyhow, I love the game just as much today as when I yelled with joy on Christmas morning the first time I battled with—and subsequently lost to—Bebop in the second sewer of Area One. Over time, some interesting bits of trivia have popped up related to the game, along with some interesting guides. One user on GameFAQs posted that the Konami Code works in this game (it’s even on the game’s official “cheats” page over there). Apparently, inputting the famous code —up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start—gives the player four continues instead of the game’s standard two continues. I decided to give it a shot on that same ancient cartridge from my youth. The verdict? Nope. It did not work for me at all. If you’ve been able to make it work, we’d love to hear from you.

TMNT also seems to have a spiritual “companion” game of sorts in the Japanese title Getsu Fuuma Den, where a similar map style and a character whose attacks look just like Leonardo’s make it seem as if they could take place in the same universe. Aside from those oddities, here are five strange things about the first NES game:

  1. The manual mentions an incredibly outdated reference to The Late Show with David Letterman. The steamroller enemies that appear on the overworld map are apparently the same ones used in Dave’s “smashing episodes.” In those ancient episodes, Dave would destroy things with an array of different mechanisms including a hydraulic press and steamroller. You can still watch these bits online, for those interested in such things.
  2. The overpowered scroll weapon has an actual name with a surprising meaning. The manual refers to it as “Kiai,” which in some martial arts is a phrase shouted when performing a move. In traditional Japanese characters, the Ki part of the phrase represents the energy or mood while the character representing the rest of the word is an emphatic character intended to add emotion to the phrase. It could be a mere coincidence, but the connection certainly suits the TMNT in the context of this game.
  3. Raphael is more useful than most players give him credit for, especially at the airport level. He moves fast and his spinning sai attack easily takes out several of the stronger flying enemies in a single hit. In Area Four (JFK Airport, according to the manual), he destroys the four-way ray gun enemies that litter the level easily by attacking at ground level. I also like to use Raph to fight Bebop and Rocksteady as a fun challenge. While he probably won’t be your most often used turtle, he’s leaps and bounds better than Michaelangelo. If you’re feeling up to a good challenge, try to beat the game using only Raph.
  4. Somebody made an enemy power chart and damage guide for the game. It details, at length, how many hits it takes for each turtle to obliterate the bad guys. If that weren’t enough, it includes a section on the sub-weapons as well. So how do the 8-bit turtles stack up in terms of offensive skill? To the surprise of absolutely no one who’s played the game, Donatello always rises as the clear winner, but Raph certainly gives Shredder’s goons a real run for the money. Mikey always seems to lag behind, although the guide is quick to point out that he’s the fastest turtle. Leo is average and well-rounded.
  5. The game was ported onto multiple platforms including DOS and Amiga. In the American DOS version, it is impossible to get past the infamous jump in Area Three without cheating. Per The Cutting Room floor, the problem was fixed in the European version of the DOS game.

yes

April, for some reason, was Splinter’s daughter in the Japanese version of the 1989 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. Released for the Famicom a few months prior to the North American release, Gekikame Ninja Den was Japan’s first introduction to the TMNT property. Roughly translated as Legend of The Powerful Ninja Turtles, the story is a little different. While keeping many of the plot points intact (minus April’s parentage), the Japanese version has a few extra characters in the text at the end of the game. Beyond that, it’s the exact same experience one would get playing the North American release.

In 2020, the world is a very different time than those halcyon days of the late-80s to mid-90s. The TMNT are still going strong and have become a part of multiple generations of pop culture. While the original NES title may not make your favorite list, the TMNT video games bridge the gap between other TMNT media for most audiences. The arcade titles are always a blast, regardless of generation. If you have some spare cash available, you can even experience a reasonable facsimile of the arcade games with Arcade 1-Up’s fully licensed home arcade cabinet of both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the Arcade Game and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time all in a single cabinet.

The movies went from live action to completely CGI by 2007, but just sort of stopped until 2014. That’s when Michael Bay’s CGI reboot arrived—complete with “realistic” turtles—and was followed by a sequel in 2016 that finally brought Shredder’s minions Bebop & Rocksteady to the big screen.

Though that series is essentially discontinued, a new CGI movie is reportedly on the way courtesy of Seth Rogen’s production company. Nickelodeon is always evolving the brand in various ways and it will be interesting to see what the future holds for TMNT. Whatever that may be, it’s exciting to see something we loved as kids evolve into something our own children can enjoy in their own way. That’s really what TMNT is about: bringing joy to every generation in their inimitable, irreverent and irrevocably fun way.

Now, I wonder when the nostalgia for Samurai Pizza Cats will begin …

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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