With a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie out, nostalgia for this pop culture powerhouse franchise is hotter than ever, right down to Playmates Toys reissuing the figures you played with back in the 80s.
This is the perfect time for a Turtles fan to go binge-watch an old TMNT series, but that brings us to the big question: which series will make you cry “Cowabunga” and which ones might as well have been called “The Secret of the Ewwws”? To figure out which shows to stream and which shows to skip, here is our ranked list of every Ninja Turtles series ever made.
5. Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation (1997)
When it comes to the various Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons, there is intense fan debate about which animated entry is best. Fortunately, there is one TMNT show that we can all agree is the absolute worst, and that’s Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation.
If you’ve never suffered through this show before, the first thing you should know is that it’s a live-action series with all the production of a Power Rangers fan movie that your little brother shot in his backyard.
If “live-action” makes you think of that first TMNT movie, you need to adjust your expectations downward: there are literally amateur cosplayers whose costumes look better than what we see onscreen in this show.
Quite controversially, the show also introduced Venus de Milo as a kind of lost turtle sibling…or she would be, if the show didn’t keep emphasizing the ninjas aren’t blood-related, mostly so the boys could awkwardly flirt with her.
That would be awful enough, but the first thing she does is instantly defeat Shredder and the Foot Clan, leaving the turtles to fight evil dragons. That leaves the turtles without iconic villains to fight. And quite honestly, if we wanted to watch that, we’d simply watch a Disney+ show like Secret Invasion.
4. Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2018-2019)
Now we’ve reached the point in our rankings where fanboys will start throwing stuff at us, but we’re sticking to our nunchucks, here: Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t very good. Part of that has to do with the weird designs of the characters.
We had no problem with things like changing the race of April O’Neil (many fans have interpreted the character from the black-and-white Mirage Comics as Black from the very beginning), but the turtles themselves look like wrestlers that got hit with a radioactive steel chair.
On top of that, these Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have mystical powers that go above and beyond their ninja training, and our heroes have drastically changed personalities: Leonardo is a rebel who acts like the old Raphael and a wiser Raphael acts like the old Leonardo.
There are some interesting stories, of course, and the movie that capped off the series was both ambitious and entertaining. But if the show is going to change all of the iconic designs, personalities, and even powers of its central characters, we can’t help but feel that it has become a Ninja Turtles show in name only.
3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012-2017)
Over the years, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a kind of generational franchise, with each new generation getting their own introduction to these characters.
A great example of this is the 2012 Nickelodeon series that combined quirky character design and CGI animation into something that was considered a bit more kid-friendly. If you watch it, though, you might be pleasantly surprised by how dark things end up getting.
Ultimately, it’s no coincidence that this show ended up in the exact middle of the pack in our rankings: it has amazing designs and buttery-smooth animation, and it’s the ultimate love letter to the TMNT shows and comics that have come before.
At the end of the day, though, we reached a philosophical conclusion that even Master Splinter would have trouble arguing with. And that’s the simple fact that we’d rather just consume the cool stuff this new series keeps homaging than watching a CGI stew of ideas that came before (even if, admittedly, it’s a damn tasty stew).
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003-2009)
One of the only really negative things we can say about that first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show is that it bore only a surface-level resemblance to the original comics it was based on. If someone really loved those classic Mirage comics, where could they turn? And the answer is simple: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show that began in 2003.
This show retains the fun personalities of the original cartoon turtles while diving into the darker characters and storylines of the earlier comics.
At the same time, the show introduced new characters to the TMNT mythology that would later be explored in other series as well as the awesome IDW comics.
Finally, this killer show culminates with Turtles Forever, a finale where the new turtles team up with the ones from the 1987 cartoon, and it was so unexpected and awesome that this series forever cemented its position as one of our faves.
1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996)
While younger fans may disagree, we have to give the top spot to the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon that came out way back in 1987. We loved the dark and gritty Mirage Comics that first brought the TMNT to life, but this show rightfully deserves credit for softening the katana-sharp edges of this universe into something that kids could appreciate.
And boy oh boy, kids appreciated this show in a way that even the creators of the Ninja Turtles could never have guessed. The colorful characters and wacky adventures in this cartoon helped transform the TMNT into a franchise juggernaut that is still kicking shell all these years later.
The show had definitely outlived its welcome by 1996, but we’ll never forget the great memories and even greater theme song that it gave us.