The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise has known several major incarnations. Although it has remained fairly consistent with from one incarnation to the next, there are some significant differences worth mentioning.
The incarnations of the TMNT franchise considered here are:
- The original Mirage Studios comic book version.
- The 1987 cartoon version.
- The Archie comic book version.
- The first, second, and third live-action movies.
- The 2003 animated series revival
- The 2007 CGI film.
- The 2012 animated series.
- The 2014 live-action reboot movie and its 2016 sequel.
- The Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series.
- In the comics, movies, and 2003 cartoon, the "mutagen" acted more like a growth formula (including intellectual growth), while in the 1987 cartoon, Archie Comics, and the 2012 cartoon, it worked as a crossbreeding tool, used to mix animal characteristic with humans and vice-versa. The subject would have its gene spliced with the organism it last came into contact with.
- In the original Mirage Studios comics, movies, and 2003 cartoon, the Turtles came to Splinter after being exposed to mutagen (although not before mutating). In the 1987 cartoon, the Archie Comics and the 2014 movie, they came to him before their exposure. In the 2012 cartoon, the Turtles were bought by Hamato Yoshi (who is Splinter in this continuity).
- In the old 1987 cartoon series, the Archie Comics, and the 2012 series, Splinter starts his life as a man named Hamato Yoshi who was mutated into a rat-man. In the Mirage Studios comics, the movies and the 2003 cartoon series, Splinter is a rat who gets mutated into a sapient form, and Yoshi is his deceased owner.
- In the original Mirage Studio comics and the 2003 cartoon series, the canister of mutagen was accidentally lost by TCRI, the front-company of the alien Utroms. In the movies, the canister was lost by TGRI, a regular human-run company (though the original ending to Secret of the Ooze was to reveal the benevolent TGRI scientist, Jordan Perry (David Warner), to have been an Utrom; this was scraped for budgetary reasons). In the 1987 cartoon series and in the Archie Comics, The Shredder threw the canister of mutagen in the sewers in an attempt to kill Hamato Yoshi. In the 2012 series, Hamato Yoshi and the turtles come into contact with the mutagen when the former is in a fight with the Kraang, resulting in their mutation. In the 2014 movie, TCRI is apparently a human-run company and was making mutagen for the Foot Clan.
- In both the 2003 cartoon, the 1987 cartoon and in the Archie Comics, the Turtles indirectly owe their existence to the Shredder. That fact is explicitly acknowledged by the Turtles in the 2003 series, and by the Shredder in the 1987 series. In the movies (except perhaps the 2014 movie) and the Mirage Studios comics, the Shredder is not in any way involved in the Turtles' mutation. In the 2012 series, Saki/Shredder and Yoshi/Splinter were friends who became rivals over the affections of the latter's wife, Tang Shen. The two dueled, resulting in Yoshi leaving for the United States.
- In the 1987 cartoon, the Turtles were fully grown the instant they mutated. In the original Mirage comics, the movies, the Archie comics, the 2003 cartoon and the 2012 cartoon, the Turtles were still babies after their mutation and grew up normally as Splinter raised them.
- Raphael is angrier and more sardonic in the 2003 cartoon and the movies than in the 1987 cartoon, and has a lot of trouble controlling his temper. In the 2003 cartoon, he often quarrels with Leonardo and Michelangelo. His relationship with Splinter also changes in all incarnations of the TMNT franchise. He doesn't have a problem disobeying Splinter's orders in the 2003 cartoon, and does so a number of times without showing hesitation or remorse, but only when the sensei is absent (though in a few episodes he agrees with Splinter on certain occasions). He actually loses his temper at Splinter in the second movie. In the 2012 series, he is a little more respectful towards Splinter as his Sensei and adoptive father, but resents his teaching methods.
- Leonardo has a stronger tie with ninjutsu more seriously in the 2003 cartoon than in the 1987 cartoon. After the Turtles near-defeat to Shredder in the Season 3 finale of the 2003 cartoon, Leonardo becomes obsessed with his ninjutsu training, a character flaw not present in any other incarnation, which lasted for the first half of Season 4, until Splinter sent him to the Ancient One, which ultimately helped Leonardo overcome this obsession. He is only officially named leader of the TMNT in the 1987 and 2012 cartoon, although he acts as an unofficial leader in the 2003 cartoon and the movies.
- Michelangelo used California surfer slang in the 1987 cartoon only. Although he is the most relaxed and least serious of the team in all versions of the TMNT, he was only described as "a party dude" in the 1987 cartoon, according to its theme song. In the 2003 cartoon, he often taunts - and therefore gets in trouble with - Raphael, while in the early comics, Raphael was his best friend. Raphael has no problem defeating Michelangelo in training exercises in the 1987 cartoon, while in the 2003 cartoon Michelangelo defeated Raphael in the Battle Nexus Tournament, due to using Raphael's own temper against him.
- In the 1987 cartoon, Donatello expressed a dislike for humans, thus misanthropy, though he trusted humans like April O'Neil, Irma, and Zack. In the 2003 cartoon, he is more good-natured and expresses no dislike for humans; indeed, he has great compassion for them with a slight crush on April. In the 2012 series however Donatello's crush on April was taken to the extreme.
- The Turtles' bandannas were all red in the original comic. The different colors of bandannas were introduced in the 1987 cartoon, and were kept in all subsequent incarnations of the franchise except for the comic-based RPG by Palladium Books.
- In the original comic books, the RPG Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness and the subsequent comic book series, the Turtles have tails. None of the movies or cartoon series depict the Turtles with tails.
- The 2003 and the 2012 versions are the only series in which the Turtles have different skin tones. However, the action figures associated with the 1987 cartoon had different skin tones; and there was also an option in the SNES version of the Turtles in Time which made them appear in their original colors. Oddly enough the 2003 cartoon skin tones are completely different, most notably Donatello isn't brown anymore. In the 1987 cartoon series, the backstory was that they were unrelated turtles of different types picked out in a pet shop. In Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, the turtles were related by DNA; requiring them to have more similar shades of green this time. It should be noted that even in siblings, skin tone can always vary somewhat.
- In the Mirage Comics, the 2003 cartoon, and some issues of the Archie Comics, the Turtles have no pupils in their eyes when wearing their bandannas. In the rare occasions where the Turtles are seen without their bandannas, they do have black pupils. In the 1987 cartoon, they have black pupils while wearing their bandannas, and in the movies, they have pupils with brown irises. But in the 2007 movie, the only turtles with brown irises are Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello. Michelangelo has blue irises. In the 2012 series, the turtles' pupils are visible except for during the theme song and periodic moments during the episodes.
- In the 1987 cartoon show, the Turtles have a white-tan color on their weapon handles. In the 2003 cartoon show, they have their favorite colors on their weapon handles, indicating which Turtles the weapons belong to. In the movies, their weapon handles are brown.
- The Turtles' bandannas are longer in the live-action movies, the 2007 film, as well as the 2003 cartoon show than in the 1987 cartoon show. Raphael's bandanna is noticeably longer than his brothers' in the 2012 version.
- In the 1987 cartoon, 2012 cartoon, the Archie Comics, and the movies, the Turtles' favorite food (if not their only choice of food) is pizza. In the third episode of the 2003 cartoon, a flashback depicted the young Turtles eating pizza. In the first episode of the 2012 cartoon, pizza was the first human food they've eaten; before, their only food was green sludge (algae with worms).
- In the Mirage Studios comics, Foot Clan members Hamato Yoshi and Oroku Nagi both loved Tang Shen, but she only loved the former in return. She eventually wed Yoshi, driving Nagi into bitter jealousy and eventually to a brutal assault on Tang Shen. Oroku Nagi's role was removed in all other versions of the franchise. The plot of the movie is closer to the original, except Hamato Yoshi and Oroku Saki both loved Tang Shen, and Oroku Saki killed them both. In the 2003 cartoon series, Oroku Nagi is replaced with Yukio Mashimi, Yoshi's childhood friend. Mashimi grows jealous of Yoshi, and eventually kills Shen. The 1987 cartoon series and the Archie Comics contains no references to Oroku Nagi or Tang Shen. In the 2012 series, Shen is married to Yoshi (who becomes Splinter in this movie), and has a daughter Miwa. In addition, Nagi is replaced with Oroku Saki himself in the 2012 continuity.
- In the original Mirage Studios comics Hamato Yoshi and Oroku Nagi were both members of the Foot Clan together (which Oroku Saki later joins), before becoming bitter enemies. The same is true of Hamato Yoshi and Oroku Saki in the 1987 cartoon. In the 2003 cartoon, Hamato Yoshi and Yukio Mashimi were both students of the Ancient One, as well as members of the Guardians. Yukio Mashimi later defects to the Foot. Yoshi and Saki were not part of a dojo together in the movies. In the 2012 cartoon, Yoshi and Saki were members of the Hamato Clan, but Saki learned that he was adopted after his clan - the Foot Clan - was destroyed by the Hamato Clan, and left to reform the Foot.
- In the Mirage Studios comics, Yoshi flew into a rage and killed Nagi for attacking Shen. In the movies, although Shredder dies, there is no mention of his death being payback for killing Shen. These events are not at all part of the 1987 cartoon or the Archie comics.
- In the Mirage Studios comics, Hamato Yoshi was explodes from the Foot Clan and, along with Tang Shen and Splinter, exiled from Japan to the United States, because Yoshi killed fellow Clan member Oroku Nagi. In the 1987 cartoon series, Yoshi was explodes from the Foot Clan after Saki framed him for attempted murder of one of the masters of the Foot Clan and exiled from Japan to the United States in disgrace. In the movies, Shen convinced Yoshi to leave Japan for America to flee from Saki. In the 2003 cartoon, Yoshi follows the Utroms when they flee to the USA, after Yukio Mashimi betrays them and leads the Foot Clan in an attack against the Utroms' headquarters in Japan.
- In the Mirage Studios comics, Oroku Saki, Nagi's younger brother, kills Shen and Yoshi to avenge his brother. In the movies, Oroku Saki kills both Yoshi and Shen out of jealousy, as he also loved Shen. In the 2003 cartoon, Oroku Saki kills Yoshi in an attempt to get information on the Utroms' whereabouts. In the 1987 cartoon, Oroku Saki dumps mutagen in the sewers in an attempt to kill Yoshi, but the attempt fails. It is the only series in which Saki doesn't kill Yoshi in battle.
- In the movie, during the battle between Saki and Yoshi, Splinter jumps out of his cage and claws Saki, leaving him with a scar on his left cheek. Saki then cuts off the top of Splinter's ear. In the 2003 cartoon series, Splinter instead scars Hun, Saki's assistant. No such sub-plot exists in the 1987 cartoon series nor either comic series, though Splinter the action figure produced for the 1987 cartoon has a sliced ear. In the 2012 series, Saki's face was burned during a fight with Yoshi.
- In the 1987 cartoon and Archie Comics, the Shredder realizes Hamato Yoshi is still alive after noticing the Turtles' fighting style is similar to that of the Foot Clan. Midway through the first movie, the Shredder recognizes their fighting (the same as Hamato Yoshi), but doesn't realize that until Splinter himself tells him he knows the Shredder, who murdered Yoshi, and Shredder also learns Splinter is the rat who clawed him. In the original comics and 2003 cartoon, the Shredder is not aware that Splinter was Yoshi's pet or even recognizes the Turtles' fighting style (in the 2003 episode "The Shredder Strikes, Part 2", whether or not he heard Splinter speak his master's name is unknown); also Hun is not aware that Splinter was the rat who clawed him. In the 2012 series, he discovered that Yoshi is still alive after recognizing his insignia on one of the Turtles' shruiken in the TV report.
- In almost every incarnation, Saki killed Shen out of jealousy; she gets killed by Nagi in the original Mirage Studios comics. In the 2012 series, he kills her by accident while fighting Yoshi.
- In the original Mirage comics and movies, Shen went with Yoshi to New York where she eventually gets killed. In the 2003 and 2012 cartoons, she dies in Japan, prompting Yoshi to move to New York, where Shen wanted for them and their daughter to go in the latter.
Shredder and the Foot Clan
- The Shredder is depicted as evil but generally inept and whiny in the 1987 cartoon series, but as a scary, lethal ninja in all other versions of the TMNT franchise.
- The Shredder is human in all versions of the TMNT franchise except the 2003 cartoon where he is a member of the Utrom race (however, the "real" Shredder existed prior to the "imposter" Utrom Shredder: a demon who possessed a warrior named Oroku Saki). In the comics, a second Shredder who appears after the original one's death turns out to be a clone made from a colony of worms.
- The Shredder dies while fighting the TMNT in the Mirage Studios comics and the movies. He never dies in the two cartoon series or the Archie Comics, although in the 2003 cartoon, he is believed to be dead on several occasions. In the 2012 cartoon, the Shredder eventually dies (though he was briefly resurrected).
- In all versions of the TMNT franchise except the movies, the Foot Clan is an ancient order of spies, warriors, and assassins from Japan. In the original comics, the Shredder established only the American branch of the Foot Clan, and the Foot Clan existed before he was born. In the movies, the Foot Clan was recently created by the Shredder, though it is implied it is based on an older Japanese clan. In the 2003 cartoon, the Shredder also created the Foot Clan, but centuries ago (Utroms can live for centuries). In the 1987 cartoon, the Shredder travels back in time to influence the Foot Clan's creation, but has no impact on history. In the 2012 cartoon, they were wiped out by their rival, the Hamato Clan, and raised baby Saki who eventually reformed the Foot.
- In the original comics and the 1987 cartoon, the Turtles travel back in time and help in the founding of the Foot Clan. In the movies, the 2003 cartoon and the 2012 cartoon (so far), the Turtles are not involved in the Foot Clan's creation. Though in the 2012 cartoon, the Turtles via time-travel indirectly caused a series of events which led Saki to (re)form the Foot.
- In the original Mirage Studios comics, movies, and 2003 cartoon, the Foot Clan's warriors are human. In the 1987 cartoon and the Archie Comics, most Foot Soldiers were robots, they were human before Shredder met Krang. In the 2003 cartoon, the Foot Clan does develop prototype robotic soldiers, but the experiment ultimately fails. In the 2012 cartoon, the warriors were human until a team-up with the Kraang has them replaced by robots.
- In the Mirage Comics and 2003 cartoon the Foot Clan warriors are called Foot Ninjas, in the 1987 cartoon they are called Foot Soldiers, in the Archie Comics they were often called Foot Bots.
- In the movies, the Foot Clan was formed of young street thugs Shredder has recruited and trained. In all three cartoon series, Shredder leads a group of street thugs in addition to the Foot Clan. They play no role in the 1987 cartoon, save to give Bebop and Rocksteady a backstory. They have a more important role in the 2003 cartoon, where they are known as the Purple Dragons. The Purple Dragons are also in the Mirage comics, but they are not linked to the Shredder.
- In the Mirage Studios comics, the Shredder is only the leader of the American branch of the Foot Clan; in all other incarnations of the franchise, he is the leader of the entire Clan. In addition to the Foot Clan, the Shredder leads a small street gang in the 1987, 2003, and 2012 cartoons. In the 2003 cartoon, Shredder is the leader of a large criminal empire, which includes the Foot Clan, street gangs, the New York mob, and a very advanced R&D branch.
- Although he is called "Oroku Saki" in all versions, which of the two names is his surname and which is his given name changes between incarnations. In the original comic books, the Shredder is named in the Japanese style, with "Oroku" being the family name and "Saki" being his given name. This is reversed in the 2003 cartoon, however, where he is named in the American style, making "Saki" his and Karai's surname and "Oroku" his given name. The issue is confused in the 1987 cartoon, with one episode using "Oroku" as his surname and another using "Saki".
- In almost all versions, the Foot Clan was a good and noble order until the Shredder became its leader. In the 2003 and 2012 cartoons, the Foot Clan appears to be evil from the start (the former due to the Utrom Shredder being its founder and leader since).
- In every incarnation except the 2014 movie, the Foot Clan is a secret organization that few people know of its existence.
April O'Neil and Baxter Stockman
- In the Mirage Studios comics and the 2003 cartoon series, April O'Neil is initially Baxter Stockman's lab assistant, but later became the owner of an antique shop. In the 1987 cartoon series, the Archie Comics, and the movies, she was a news reporter with no ties to Baxter Stockman whatsoever. In the 1987 cartoon and the Archie Comics, she initially worked for Channel 6 and later became a freelance reporter. In the movies, she worked for Channel 3 and also owns an antique shop. In the 2014 movie, she was an aspiring reporter until she was fired.
- In the 1987 cartoon, April was brave but ultimately helpless, but needed the Turtles' protection. In the 2003 cartoon, the 2012 series and the Archie comics, she studies ninjutsu under Splinter, and she is capable of holding her own in a fight. In the movies, she is aggressive and attempts to defend herself (able to fend off a Foot warrior), but unable to take on multiple opponents. In the Mirage Studios Comics, she is shown to be strong enough to take on at least four thugs with ease when she briefly acts as a vigilante after she learns of her true origins and decides to leave the company of Casey, Shadow and the Turtles.
- In the Mirage Studios comics and the 2003 TMNT cartoon series, April meets the Turtles while fleeing from Stockman's Mouser robots. In the movies, she meets the Turtles after being ambushed by Foot Ninjas sent by the Shredder. Specifically, she was saved by Raphael. Early in the first film, the Turtles, under cover of darkness, rescue April from a gang (later revealed to be working for the Shredder) who was committing a robbery in the parking lot of the news station where she worked. In the 1987 TMNT cartoon series, she meets the Turtles while fleeing from street thugs that the Shredder sent to kill her. In the 2012 series, they meet when April and her father are being kidnapped by the Kraang and the Turtles try to rescue her.
- In the comics, April has Hispanic qualities, which are removed. Her hair has shifted between straight and curly, long and short, red and brown. In the 1987 series, she wears makeup and a yellow rain-suit (prior to Season 8), whereas she dresses normally in the others (but occasionally wears yellow).
- Dr. Baxter Stockman is African-American according to the Mirage Studios comics, the 2003 cartoon and the 2012 series. He was a wild-haired Caucasian in the 1987 cartoon series and the Archie Comics. He is absent from the movies.
- In the 1987 cartoon series, Stockman becomes a mutated fly almost accidentally, due to Krang's disintegrator malfunctioning and a fly following him in. In the 2003 cartoon series, his body is mutilated by Shredder's minions (notably Hun), piece by piece until only his brain is left and he is forced to live in a robotic body. In the 2012 cartoon, he becomes a mutated fly thanks to the mutagen.
- In the Mirage Studios comics, Baxter Stockman was an evil scientist with no ties to the Shredder. In the 1987 cartoon, he was an honest and decent scientist who was fooled by Shredder into helping him. He only turned evil after being abused by both Shredder and the Turtles on a number of occasions. In the 2003 cartoon and the 2012 series, he is again an evil scientist, and willingly works as Shredder's science adviser. He has no qualms in attempting to kill, and tries to fool and betray Shredder on a number of occasions, the main cause of his mutilation.
- In every incarnation of the TMNT except for the 2012 series, April is commonly depicted as being an adult when she meets the Turtles (i.e., in her 20s, depending on the incarnation). In the 2012 series, she is 16.
- The Utroms are part of the Mirage Studios comics and the 2003 cartoon, but absent from the movies, the 1987 cartoon series, and the Archie Comics. However, in the 1987 cartoon and the Archie Comics, Shredder's ally Krang was heavily inspired by the Utroms. In the 2012 series, the Kraang are a combination of the Utroms and Krang; though it was revealed that the Kraang is a renegade faction of the Utroms.
- In the 1987 cartoon series, Casey Jones, the hockey mask-wearing vigilante, was not in many episodes and never reveals his face. In the 2003 cartoon, the 2012 series, and the original comics, he plays a more pivotal role with the Turtles and his face is revealed. Like April in the 2012 series Casey is also reduced in age to a teenager. Casey Jones also played a minor role in the first and third movies, and hardly wore a mask at all. Also for both the 2003 and 2012 series Casey uses a catchphrase "Goongala".
- In the 1987 cartoon series, Leatherhead was an evil mutant alligator of limited intelligence. In the Archie Comics, he stared his life as a human named Jess Harley, but was transformed into an alligator by Mary Bones. In the 2003 cartoon series, Leatherhead is a highly intelligent mutated crocodile, who prefers peace, but does become violent when he is provoked. He is an enemy of the Turtles in the 1987 cartoon, but is considered family by the Turtles and Splinter in the 2003 cartoon. He first appears and his origin is told in the Mirage Studios comic in 1988 Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. His 2012 incarnation is a benevolent alligator who was found by the Kraang and subjected to various tortures and experimenting. This causes him to fly into fugue moments when he is stressed or someone mentions the Kraang, which Donnie is an unfortunate sufferer of. His 2003 cartoon incarnation's personality is based on his personality in the comics. He is absent from the movies.
- In the 1987 cartoon series, the Rat King is a homeless man who lives in the sewers, while in the 2003 series, it is hinted that he has a more complicated back-story, involving secret medical experimentations which made him what he is (this Rat King is in fact the Slayer, created by Agent Bishop, who appears only in the 2003 series, as the ultimate soldier). In the 1987 series, he controlled rats by playing a song on a flute, while in the 2003 series, rats seem naturally attracted and obedient to him. In the original Mirage comic, the Rat King shows up in about 2 issues, one which is similar to his premier in the 2003 cartoon, aside from his origin, which remains a mystery. In the 2012 series, the Rat King is Victor Falco, a scientist working on a neurochemical that allows him to read thoughts and ultimately, to anticipate every move the Turtles make. Later on in an experiment gone wrong, Falco is disfigured, but gains telepathic control over Rats, including Splinter (for a short amount of time).
- The newer TMNT video games are based on the 2003 cartoon series season-wise, while the older ones are based on the 1987 cartoon series. While subsequent video games tended to be quite faithful to the cartoon show, the very first NES game was only loosely based on the cartoon. No video game was made directly based on the original comic or the movies. However, several characters form these series do appear in some of the games. These include the movie characters Super Shredder, Tokka, Rahzar, and Tatsu; the Triceratons, as well as several comic characters (Mirage and Archie) used in the Tournament Fighters series (including a brand new and original character, the anime-influenced female ninja Aska. Also, the cover image of the first video game is taken directly from the cover of an early issue of the original comic book--Issue #4, to be exact.
- The 2003 TMNT cartoon series is closer to the original Mirage Studios comics than the 1987 TMNT cartoon series. The Archie Comics are partly based on the 1987 TMNT cartoon series, especially stylistically.
- The 2003 TMNT cartoon series is considered darker, more violent and serious than the 1987 TMNT cartoon series, but it does not contain gore. Only the original comic contained gore: the characters had cuts and injuries that bled, and the Turtles even found one of Shredder's arms after he was blown up. Furthermore, the Turtles willingly killed members of the Foot Clan, the Purple Dragon street gang, and the Shredder himself. However, the original Mirage Studios comic series later became less lethal, probably to make them seem more like "good guys".
- The 1987 TMNT cartoon series underwent censorship in the process of coming to the UK as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, because the word ninja was deemed to have too violent connotations. Michelangelo's nunchakus were removed in the Hero Turtles version of the 1987 cartoon. The 2003 TMNT cartoon series came to the UK uncensored and the title remained unchanged. This led the UK to have a titular distinction between the 1987 cartoon and the 2003 cartoon, being called Teenage Mutant Hero Turles and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles respectively.
- Similar to the UK adaption, the later seasons of the 1987 cartoon replaced Michelangelo's nunchakus with a grappling hook. The Next Mutation series also replaced the nuchakus, with Michelangelo wielding tonfas instead.
- Despite the differences, the original Mirage Studios comics and the 2003 TMNT cartoon series are both considered canon. The TMNT 1987 cartoon series is almost never considered TMNT canon, partly because Mirage Studios does not own the rights to the series. The Image comics and Next Mutation series are almost considered not TMNT canon.
- In the late 80's/early 90's, a musical tour was put on with actors in Ninja Turtles costumes miming to pre-recorded music. This production has no ties to any other Turtle continuity.
- The action figures that came out starting from 1988 tended to follow the continuity of the 1987 cartoon series, especially in terms of the descriptions of the characters on the packaging. However, there were some differences in the appearance of the characters. This was underscored by the eventual release of a "Toon Turtles" line, which bore a strong resemblance to their animated counterparts. In addition, there were also figures patterned after the Turtles' appearance in the movies. Finally, some action figure line placed the characters in contexts not presented on the show, for example as sport athletes, rock stars, military personnel, or crewmen of the Starship Enterprise.