10 cartoons from the ’80s that we’d love to watch all over again
If you’re feeling nostalgic, a trip through the extraordinary cartoons of the 1980s might be just the thing you need!
We are still influenced by many cartoons that started in that bright and eclectic decade. After all, it’s when the most successful cartoon series of all time began. The first episode of The Simpsons was aired in 1989, and it’s still going strong to this day.
But it’s fair to say that The Simpsons wasn’t a typical cartoon from the 1980s. Saturday morning TV was a fun and strange place back then; where macho adventures were mixed with magical high concepts and anime. It was a time when cats could be humanoid and robots could transform. Most of all, it was when cartoon and toy line tie-ins reached its peak.
Even if you’ve never seen any episodes from the series listed below, you’re probably familiar with most. It was typical for cartoons to have shorter seasons at the time, but many have found new life on streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney-Plus. If this list sparks interest or jogs fond memories, it’s easy enough to catch up on many of these shows — even after four decades.
Pull up your neon leg-warmers, and step back to a decade when cartoons had high concepts, morals, and lots of swords. Here are the Cartoons from the ‘80s worth tracking down again.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985)
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is often considered to be a giant of ‘80s cartoons. While it’s cemented into many of our childhood memories, incredibly the original cartoon only ran for three years. The adventures of Prince Adam and his sword of power-wielding alter-ego He-Man is one of the 1980s’ greatest cartoon-toy tie-ins.
We all know the structure — plodding but charismatic animated action before a defeated Skeleton warns He-Man to mark his words. Then a moral for us at home, spoken into the camera by Eternia’s champion himself. He-Man was a machine, and we don’t just mean the hero’s work-out build. An endless supply of imaginative new heroes and villains came off the Mattel conveyor belt as this series ripped through 130 episodes of magical battles. By the Power of Grayskull! No wonder He-Man and spin-off She-Ra have seen high-profile revivals since.
With the Disney reboot just concluded, it’s an excellent time to head back to this adventure’s first flight. The adventures of Scrooge McDuck and his three grandnephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, including a great deal of treasure hunting, were compelling viewing in the 1980s.
It was such a success that it encouraged Disney to commission several similar cartoon spin-offs. Without DuckTales, there would have been no Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck, or TaleSpin. Villains had better watch out if they attempt to get their hands on Scrooge’s vast fortune or his Number One Dime.
High concept and ahead of its time — well, the cat memes were at least. Few ‘80s kids won’t have an image spring to mind when they hear the names Mumm-Ra, Snarf, or Cheetarah. Just not perhaps the same image.
Thundercats was ludicrous and utterly brilliant. It packed so much in that it’s no wonder the show’s been rebooted repeatedly for younger and older audiences. A live-action movie has been in development hell for years — it’s an itch no cat claw can scratch. Godzilla vs. Kong’s Adam Wingard is the latest director attached. Now’s a great time to catch up with the original and its incredible opening before it roars back.
Jem and the Holograms (1985-1988)
The boys got G.I. Joe, and the girls got this? Ah yes, it was the 1980s. Both cartoons were co-produced by Hasbro, Sunbow Productions, and Marvel Productions. Over this cartoon’s three seasons, record company owner Jerrica Benton assumed the persona of Jem thanks to a holographic disguise projected by her super-synthesizer, Synergy. Handy for escaping danger — particularly evil record company execs — and fantastic for her band’s live shows!
MTV’s arrival inspired the groundbreaking idea of a cartoon that combined animated action with music videos. Its music numbers complemented the stories, and it managed to include an impressive 187 music videos and 151 unique songs. The cartoon outlasted its toy line, but today it’s a great reminder of how interesting the 1980s were for pop and rock.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996)
The Turtles were a phenomenon — a throwback to the Golden and Silver Ages just as comic books were darkening. But Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s creations were also ready-made for the 1980s. Emerging in 1987, three years after its comic debut, the cartoon gained publicity outside America by having the name ‘Ninja’ replaced by ‘Hero’ in several countries. The hype didn’t hurt, but TMNT is a comic book series through and through.
Preposterous cosmic enemies? Check. A toxic ooze fuelled origin story? Check? Exploitation martial arts? Check? The heroes in a half shell are still capturing the imagination (and pizza) of kids today, but here’s where they began. It’s worth catching up on the early years of Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo, along with their mentor Splinter, ally April O’Neil, and sworn enemy Shredder. Oh, and who could forget his comedy mutant henchmen Bebop and Rocksteady.
The Smurfs (1981-1989)
When entertainment entrepreneur Stuart R. Ross spotted the small blue humanoids during a trip to Belgium in 1976, he originally thought that the comic series The Smurfs could be perfect for American Saturday morning TV. Four years later, he was proven right. The show lasted an incredible nine seasons, including over 250 episodes and specials.
Its success at translating the miniature adventures into a cartoon was primarily thanks to the involvement of Belgian cartoonist Peyo. The Smurfs creator was on board as story supervisor, so the adventures of the three-apple tall blue creatures of Smurf Village, led by Papa Smurf, became one of the most successful cartoons of all the 1980s. If you take on this good-natured and quirky marathon, watch out for evil wizard Gargamel and his cat Azrael.
The Real Ghostbusters (1986-1991)
Odd name, huh? The Real Ghostbusters is strangely different from the big screen successes of the era. It’s both a sequel and spin-off, but the name change came after a successful legal challenge from Filmation and their similarly-titled cartoon (which doesn’t make this list). The Ghostbusters’ different looks and enhanced personalities meant it was a treat in its own right, even if the dysfunctional ‘Busters weren’t the main appeal.
By its fourth year, the series was renamed Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters – an hour show with half devoted to the adorably mischievous specter. It had an excellent pedigree. Among the writers on the show was future Babylon 5 creator J Michael Strakinsky! It’s worth catching as Sony hatches plans for a massive media expansion of the brand.
Dragon Ball (1986-1989)
Dragon Ball feels so current and untapped by nostalgia it’s surprising to even see it here. It’s one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time, but this was when it first appeared on TV.
Approximately 153 episodes of this Anime were broadcast in 81 countries worldwide.
It’s where many children in the west got their first bite of anime, as well as Son Goku’s quest to find the seven orbs and summon a wish-granting dragon. A combination of 16-century Chinese journey novels and Hong Kong martial arts films, this is where the legend began. Dragon Ball spin-offs and sequels are still being produced to this day.
Who could forget the Transformers – certainly the most successful media juggernaut on this list? The film franchise has taken nearly $5 billion at the box office, and the toy-turned-cartoon’s success is a lot to do with the power of ‘80s nostalgia.
It’s easy to forget how involved, adult, and dark the original Transformers franchise was in the 1980s. The ancient struggle between the Autobots and Decepticons is one of the decade’s great battles between good and evil, and you’ll find a surprising depth to these adventures during a rewatch.
Defenders of the Earth (1986)
If nothing else, this cartoon is an antidote to the Comic book giants that dominate film and TV at the moment. The Defenders were drawn together by legendary hero Flash Gordon to combat the threat of Ming the Merciless. It’s a super team that includes Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom and a younger generation of heroes.
If they sound familiar, they were all characters under the umbrella of King Features during comics’ Golden Age. That’s how you put together a shared universe. These are some of comics’ big hitters. Catch them before they inevitably make it to the big screen in the 21st century.