Most of you are familiar with the original Ninja Turtle toy line, which debuted in the late ‘80s and lasted through half the ‘90s. Blah, blah, blah.
But if you were a Ninja Turtles nut during that era, you also know that the merchandise went waaaay beyond action figures. Everything green was white hot, and for a while, there was virtually zero risk in selling anything so long as it wore the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles logo.
This paved way for some arguably stupid things, sure. I admit that the world didn’t need thirteen different Ninja Turtle bicycle horns. Eight, tops.
The flipside is that the Turtles’ unbelievable popularly also gave rise to some absolutely brilliant toys — toys that were so weirdly complex that no company would’ve ever made ’em without the no-fail backing of the lean green fighting machines. And here’s the case in point:
From the early ’90s, it’s the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Busy Builders Playset!
First impressions are bitches. If you think that box looks ordinary, don’t let it fool you: This is easily one of the coolest toys I’ve ever seen. The playset isn’t without the expected frustrations of dealing exclusively with shitty cardboard, but when you apply a little patience, it is AMAZING.
In a nutshell: It’s a two-level city playset, with oodles of cardboard figures and Colorforms accessories. It sounds pretty good even at its basest description, but wait until you see it for real. I am going to check your pants.
There’s, that’s the “patience” part. I won’t bore you with a complete play-by-play, but the construction process involved lots of folding, lots of fitting and lots of screaming. The box boasted about how the playset included more than 50 pieces, and that box was no liar. This thing is HUGE, and it comes with a LOT.
Let’s skip ahead to the good stuff.
Even with none of the goodies on it, it’s still incredible. Huge, sturdy and colorful — like the muscle in a gang of clowns, or something equally beautiful-slash-bizarre.
I like my playsets with nooks and crannies, and this one has plenty of them. A bustling city street! A dark sewer! Mysterious alcoves for shady doings! A GODDAMNED PET SHOP WITH A BIG CAT IN THE WINDOW DISPLAY.
The sewer floor is great. Aside from the big “clean” area (perfect for legendary battles), there’s those aforementioned alcoves. Is alcove the right word? They’re doors that lead to nothing in particular. Or maybe they’re not doors? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s best to pretend that this train of thought met its destination, safe and sound. Choo choo.
In contrast, the second floor/city street seems much friendlier. This is where the Turtles go shopping. There’s a pet store, a pizzeria, a pharmacy, and even Mirage Studios. Covering a mere eighth of a mile, Donatello could get a dog, a job, a calzone, and a bag of Luden’s wild cherry cough drops. More interestingly, so could Krang.
Given the playset’s size, kids could’ve easily used it with their “real” TMNT figures. Thing is, there was no need to. This playset came with everything, including figures. The figures were admittedly just pieces of cardboard with crude standees, but when you see their character choices and the sheer volume of them, you’ll understand why I now accept magic as a real thing.
Each figure is 3-4” tall, and of course, all of the key favorites are here. Specifically, the four Turtles, Splinter, Shredder and Krang.
Beyond them, it gets so much more weird and wonderful. The geniuses behind this playset didn’t choose the typical b-team of Rocksteady, Bebop, April and Casey Jones. Nuh uh. Replacing their tired acts are awesome and obscure characters that make the Busy Builders Playset three times as worship-worthy.
Ray Fillet, Leatherhead and even one of the Mousers made the cut, and incredibly, the wizards who made this dug even deeper than them!
Scumbug and Mondo Gecko! The colors are pretty off, but still – Scumbug and Mondo Gecko!
I remember them more for their action figures than their cartoon counterparts. They came out at the same time, signaling the start of a whole new wave of TMNT toys. For a while, they were IMPOSSIBLE to find. God never heard from me as often as he did during that monthlong hunt for Mondo Gecko.
In TMNT lore, Mondo got more “play” than Scumbug, but both were rarely heard from. I’m just so elated that they somehow made it into this screwy paper playset. I’m tearing up.
And here’s the ultimate shock: Tokka and Rahzar! It’s improper to name them in the opposite order, so to avoid any confusion, Tokka’s the turtle and Rahzar’s the big scary wolf dude.
These villains did appear on the cartoon series, but only once. They were far more known for being the major baddies of the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.
I guess, if you were into Ninja Turtles, you already understand why it’s so awesome that Tokka and Rahzar were included in this playset. Conversely, if you weren’t into Ninja Turtles, then there’s no convincing you that this anything worth caring about. Writing is hard.
So now we have a giant city playset and fourteen cardboard characters. Fifteen if you count the random green car. We’re already in A+ territory, and yet, there’s still so much more!
Remembering that this is a Colorforms playset, it stood to reason that there should be a few, uh, Colorforms. You know, those little plasticky things. Stickers without the commitment.
Actually, they gave us more than “a few.” I didn’t count, but I think “dozens” is more accurate. Dozens of peel-and-stick decorations to give our city personality, including everything from wine bottles to cigarette butts to slices of pizza. Plus roadkill. Lots and lots of roadkill.
I wouldn’t say that the Colorforms are “adult,” but they are kind of edgy. Between them and the abnormal character choices, the set was obviously developed by a major Ninja Turtles fan — one who was very glad to have no lousy killjoy supervisors QC’ing his work for “brand consistency.” This whole thing is just a gorgeous dream come true. It’s the kind of toy that, by all rights, should have only existed as a nine-year-old’s doodle.
Mutagen, dice, wine bottles. A big dead rat. Even with the two-foot city and the giant pile of cardboard figures, these stupid little Colorforms might be the best parts of the playset.
Notice how the “graffiti” Colorforms almost insist that you turn the Turtles to a collective life of crime? The counterargument is that if you’re saving the city every night, you should at least get to tag the shit out of it.
It’s time. All of the pieces are in place. The city is put together, the Colorforms are everywhere and the drums are rolling. This is IT:
It figures that this article’s most important photo is also its most poorly composed, but even so, I think you can still tell that THIS IS GREAT!!! <3 <3 <3
Imagining myself as a TMNT mega fan of the appropriate age, I’d be absolutely lost in this world for days. There are so many opportunities for adventure and intrigue, especially after you get past the boring “heroes vs. villains” stuff. Some examples:
1. Imagine Ray Fillet running a tiny-sized black market out of one of those alcoves. He’ll control all of the wine, tobacco and pizza-related Colorforms and be the king of the underworld. He will be “Mr. Fillet” to everyone except his mother.
2. Perhaps Leatherhead can run the register at Mark & Renay’s Pet Shop, which sounds pedestrian until you consider the drama of a big mutant croc who is constantly at odds with his natural urge to eat Mark & Renay’s birds. Now take that image and add the instrumental theme from the closing credits of Perfect Strangers.
3. Eh, I’m not going to top #2. There’s no point trying.
Sucks that so few have ever heard of it, but maybe it’s better that way? We are a shallow society that values anything rare, and though I don’t think that a two-foot cardboard city with a cardboard Krang really needed “rareness” on its side, the extra boost makes me feel like the President of Everything just for owning one.
So bow down, lowly peasants.
Bow down, for you are reading the words of one who wields a TMNT Busy Builders Playset.
FYI: I only sign foreheads.