The Best 80s and 90s Cartoons!
2. Transformers (1984-1987)
Before he was mercilessly killed off in the cartoon movie (spoiler alert) Optimus Prime and the Autobots were kicking Megatron and his fellow the Decepticon butts in this iconic 80s cartoon about robots who could transform into awesome things like cars, planes, dinosaurs, tanks, small tape recorders and tapes, smaller guns, telescopes and a camera (ok not all of them had cool alt modes). Whilst Takara/Tomy flooded kids living rooms with the transforming toys versions of ever character that starred in the cartoon.
Even killing Optimus off in the 1986 animated film didn’t kill the franchise although millions of small children cried (including me), although before anyone shouts at me, they brought him back!
Worth noting that Transformers is a rare breed of cartoon because the toys actually existed before the were the cartoon or comic. Hasbro licensed various toys from existing Japanese toy lines like Diaclone, Microman, Takatoku and many more. Optimus Prime was originally just called Battle Convoy and he and many of these toys had little men that rode inside each character (hence why Grimlock has a cockpit left over from his original mould). It was various writers at Marvel that gave the toys the iconic names, characterisation and story lines we know and love now.
The first generation of the cartoon ran for 98 episodes (not including the G2 cartoon, Beast Wars, Machine Wars the Japanese continuity and cartoons that continue today). Despite Michael Bays attempts to ruin the franchise… Optimus and friends still remain awesome today, with cartoons, films and toys still being sold by the big red truckload!
Bonus trivia: Gobots may be seen as the poor idiot sibling to Transformers and an obvious cheap rip off. But the fact is Gobots actually went to market before Transformers did, they just weren't as good (even if they were often smaller and cheaper to buy).
Watch: Transformers the Movie (1986)
3. Centurions (1986 - ran for only one year)
“Robots are cool right? Ok so we need to make humans cool, how do we do that? Maybe give them loads of awesome mods and suits and things you attach to suits. And make them sort of space cool, rather than military cool? Maybe stick them on a space station? Ooh can we still give them macho names like ‘Thunder’ and ‘Rex’ and a villain called Doctor something evil sounding like ‘Terror.'" Cried many toy/cartoon exec in the 80s. So for two seasons and 65 episodes Centurions delivered all of the above, with their GI Joe style characters in brightly coloured power suits. Comic writers Jack Kirby and Gil Kane provided concepts for Centurions, which was animated by prolific Japanese studio Sunrise (Studio 7) creators of Gundam cartoons and many more.
The toys were pretty cool but for some reason they and the cartoon didn’t have the lasting power of some of the other action cartoons and toy lines of the 80s and 90s.
4. Mask (1985-1986)
After Transformers introduced the notion of things transforming into cooler things, a lot of toy and cartoon companies tried to get in on the action. Mask was pretty much GI Joe meets Transformers (which as a concept later come to exist in comic form), just without the robots. Instead they had cars, bikes and other vehicles that would change into other erm... different vehicles… as well as bases, armored rigs and more.
Did they have butch sounding characters with ridiculous facial hair and middle names like Hondo ‘Striker’ MacLean and Brad ‘Chopper’ Turner? Hells yes they did!
Kenner who also made the Centurion toy line created some really awesome toys for the series, even after the animation finished the toys kept being produced for another two years (although later toys were oddly more racing focused than crime/terrorism).
5. Mysterious Cities of Gold (1982-1983)
One of many French-Japanese collaborations from the 80s that was redubbed and syndicated to many different countries. This one had an oddly involved and complex plot, with historical and religious overtones.
It all felt very epic despite being only 39 episodes long. Do I actually know what it was all about? No. I presume Esteban eventually found his dad and the titular Cities of Gold, as I don’t remember getting to the end. But I do remember loving it.
6. Battle of the Planets (1978-1985)
The show was an American adaptation by Sandy Frank of the Japanese anime series Science Ninja Team Gatchama and ran for 85 episodes. It featured G-Force, a group of caped powered individuals, who flew in an awesome spacecraft called the Phoenix (that could literally turn into a giant flaming bird). This incredible anime series hit TV screens the same year as Star Wars was released, (it even had a robot that looked like R2D2 called ‘7-Zark-7’ that was added almost in direct response to Star Wars and the need to adapt the show for Western audiences).
The history of the license, censorship and adaptation is incredible and confusing, but if you were a kid watching the cartoon in the 80s experiencing this high-energy and complete loco sci-fi anime series, you knew just how impressive this series was. This was sadly one of the few 80s cartoons that didn’t have the toys, merch and overall PR of the many series that followed.
7. Ulysses 31 (1981-1982)
Despite running for only 26 episodes, Ulysses 31 was a strangely dark and enchanting sci-fi cartoon based on the Greek mythology of Odysseus. Like Cities of Gold, Ulysses was also a French-Japanese collaboration between DiC and TMS.
At the time it felt epic and the futuristic twists on Greek mythology led to some interesting villains and set pieces throughout. The lead also looks a cross between Strider from the SEGA game franchise and a Jedi with his own light-saber type weapon.
8. Dungeons & Dragons (1983-1985)
Not to be confused with the famous role-playing past time, D&D the cartoon ran for three seasons with a fairly modest output of 27 episodes but strangely never finished. A 28th episode was meant to conclude season three and potentially extend the plot for a fourth season. But oddly though scripted it was never produced*.
Animated by Toei Animation of Japan and produced by Marvel and TSR, D&D was a fun filled fantasy romp focusing on six young friends who are transported to a mysterious realm that affords them cool weapons, powers and fantasy personas. The six are led by the Yoda-esque Dungeon Master in a series of quests and romps that are meant to eventually lead them home (only they don’t quite get there*). D&D had a compelling story line and a popular ‘kids can be heroes’ theme, it even had its dark moments and was criticised for being too violent. The series spawned some board games but no toy figures that I know of.
9. TMNT (1987-1996)
You had me at ‘Ninja’ except if you were watching the cartoon in the UK as the censors replaced the ‘Ninja’ with ‘Hero’ and edited out all instances of nunchucks (even though these guys and gals also had swords and other spiky implements). Despite the censorship this cartoon had a brilliant blend of goofball comedy action, ninja moves, awesome mutations, ridiculous villains and pizza, enough to make it a pepperoni topped classic. Even the live action films were good (the first ones not the crap Michael Bay again ruined).
The toys were pretty awesome and the original show ran for a gob smacking 193 episodes! TMNT toys, cartoons and films are still produced even now.
10. Thundercats (1985)
A group of muscular heroic cat like humanoid creatures fleeing their doomed planet of Thundera, pursued by an ancient mummy and his goons. Led by the fairly young Liono who is the main cat as he can wield the magic Sword of Omens! I mean what's not to like?
I would probably tie Thundercats with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in terms of them both being two well-crafted fantasy action cartoons, both with swords that get bigger or exude powers when chanted magic words at; and both with huge toy franchises around them. Those heroic cat people just edge tenth place though as their series ran for four seasons to He-Man’s two.
Both He-Man and Thundercats established some well grounded action cartoon rules in the 80s and 90s such as:
1) Completely bat shit crazy villain: Mumra and Skeletor both have wacky origins stories and are certifiably insane with incredibly voice actors to boot.
2) Dumb Henchmen: There is always something about cartoons in this period where the main villain has two or more muscle-headed henchmen who are easily defeated and very stupid. Sometimes they provide some form of comic relief, acting as a vessel for the heroes’ witty one-liners as they get disposed of. Thundercats had the likes of Slithe and Monkian; He-Man had Beast Man and Merman (amongst many others). Turtles had Be-Bop and Rocksteady.
3) Goofy Sidekick/Comic Relief: Thundercats have Snarf who is for some reason not an anthromorphised cat; rather he is an actual cat with a whiny voice and cowardly nature. He is literally like the Thundercats pet, which is pretty ironic when you think about it. He-Man has Orko, a sort of cross between a Jawa and a Wizard, who casts comically bad spells and engages in other silly shenanigans (She-Ra had Kowl a sort of floating thing that looked like the unfortunate offspring of a koala and owl).
4) Pre Credits or Post Credits ‘moment of morality’: A lot of cartoons were used to convey a moral message to kids, this was usually at the end of the show and rarely tied to the plot of that episode. GI-Joe is famous for telling kids life skills, whilst a lot of cartoons used their ‘comic relief side-kicks’ to convey some kind of message about being good to one another. In fact practically all-popular action based cartoons in the 80s used their shows to tell teach kids a lesson, especially the ones primarily made for Western audiences.
Avoid: The recent reboot
Here are some other quick lists to keep you in the mood for toons!
Best comedy based cartoons or animations
1. Danger Mouse
2. Ren N Stimpy
4. Count Duckula
7. Fraggle Rock
8. Muppet Babies
9. Beavis & Butthead
Best stop-motion or puppet-based animations
4. Fraggle Rock
5. The Clangers
6. Captain Scarlet
7. Moss Chops
8. Trap Door
10. The Flumps
Worst 80s and 90s cartoons!
1. Captain Planet and the Planeteers
2. Biker Mice from Mars
3. Scooby Doo
6. Inspector Gadget
7. Around the World with Willy Fogg
8. Rude Dog & the Dweebs
9. Defenders of the Earth
10. Bucky O’Hare
The 4Ever team...
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