They shaped our lives and became the definition of “Must See TV” before that was even a thing. With very little other forms of entertainment, cartoon shows provided the ultimate in amusement for kids growing up in the 80s and that’s why I want to look at the top 10 80s cartoons.
Even though there were A LOT of them…
The 80s was a golden age of cartoons as thanks to deregulation by Ronald Reagan, companies now had free reign to push anything they wanted at kids. Before that, there were restrictions on what could be directly targeted, and marketed, towards children. But with the restrictions lifted there came to be a tidal wave of cartoons and toys associated with it.
We weren’t complaining though, and we were the ones reaping all the benefits. In a lot of cases, we were unaware that we were basically watching a 22-minute commercial – we just loved what we saw.
So with all that in mind, let’s take a look back at the top 10 80s cartoons.
10. She-Ra: Princess Of Power
How do you capitalize on the success of a massively successful franchise? Why you spin it off of course!
She-Ra: Princess of Power came out in 1985 and was done to push the massively popular He-Man cartoon, and toy line, but directed more at young girls. Regardless of whether you were a boy or girl, She-Ra was still a great cartoon and embraced all the elements that made He-Man and the Masters of the Universe so successful.
She-Ra aka Princess Adora is the twin sister of Adam/He-Man and she lives in Eternia. Instead of Skeletor, her adversary is Hordak and she leads the rebellion against him.
This cartoon featured a lot of great supporting charcters including:
- Light Hope
- Madam Razz
She-Ra would only last two seasons but put out an impressive 93 episodes along with its very successful toy line making both a big part of the 80s.
9. Inspector Gadget
Inspector Gadget was a definitive part of the 80s and a cartoon that everyone watched – at least for a little while. With one of the catchiest cartoon themes ever written, Inspector Gadget told the story of a bumbling half man/half cyborg, his niece Penny, dog Brain, and adversary – the evil Dr. Claw.
Inspector Gadget was put out by DiC Entertainment in 1983 and the original pilot had a very different feel to what you remember. Gadget had a completely different voice, a mustache, and was a rip off of Inspector Clouseau. They were forced into changing all this into the show you’re now familiar with.
Inspector Gadget carries on a theme created from the old cartoon “The Blue Falcon and Dynomutt” where Dynomutt was outfitted with a lot of contraptions similar to Gadget.
There’s also the iconic theme song that, if you listen closely, takes a lot of its influence from “Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg. It also takes some influence from the Pink Panther theme song and wasn’t even created until the morning of its recording!
Go-Go Gadget procrastination!
Check out the full blog I did all about the story of Inspector Gadget!
8. The Gobots
This may be a surprise in the top 10 80s cartoons but I loved the Gobots even though they are often considered the poor man’s Transformers. But, the cartoon and the toys debuted before Transformers did and they paved the way for a lot of the success of Transformers.
The Gobots also originate in Japan as “Machine Robo” and it was actually truck makers Tonka that brought them to North America. The “Challenge of the Gobots” cartoon came out on September 8, 1984 – nine days before Transformers debuted.
It featured the evil Renegades vs the good guy Guardians and included characters like Leader-One and Cykill. The cartoon was put together by Hanna-Barbara and they put out a massive 65 episodes over just one season.
Everything you see in Transformers as far as backstory, mythology, character development, and themes were all originated by the Gobots. The cartoon even featured the voices of Frank Welker and Peter Cullen who voiced Megatron and Optimus Prime.
7. Garfield & Friends
Garfield and Friends was a cartoon that was embraced by all ages and featured one of the most famous comic strip characters ever. Cartoons based on characters like these -a la The Peanuts – always have a good chance of succeeding because everyone is already familiar with the characters – in this case: Garfield, Jon, Odie, and Nermal.
Garfield and Friends was a very successful cartoon and ran a lot longer than most ever do. It debuted on September 17, 1988, and ran until December 10, 1994, on CBS for a total of 121 episodes.
This cartoon was interesting in that it didn’t follow the regular format of other cartoons. There would be original stories but it would also feature short 30-45 second “Garfield quickies” like a sketch comedy show.
Garfield and Friends is also unique as it was one of the last remaining cartoons of Saturday mornings which had begun a serious decline. The ratings were so good that this allowed it to last longer than a lot of its competition. But since CBS had to cut its cartoon budget, the show had to pack it in.
One of the coolest cartoons ever, with one of the greatest theme songs to go with it. The ThunderCats were a group of feline-like humanoids and basically like the Broadway show of Cats but on steroids.
ThunderCats ran from 1985 to 1989 and was actually co-produced by Rankin-Bass Animated Entertainment which of course brought us the iconic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
This show, however, was a purely Japanese animated cartoon but would be produced, written, and voice acted in the United States. Marvel comics would even put out a series based on the cartoon and it feels like this property still has some life in it. I can see some sort of remake popping up at some point.
5. The Muppet Babies
Everyone loved the Muppet Babies whether you want to admit it or not. Whereas most cartoons were designed to sell a toy line – and it’s not like the Muppet Babies didn’t – they focus always seemed to be on creativity.
Commerce is always the name of the game but with the Muppet Babies cartoon, their intention seemed to genuinely be about entertaining and inspiring kids. This is the takeaway that I got from it and at the core of the show was the idea of using your imagination.
This was another cartoon that had a low barrier of entry because everyone in the world is familiar with the Muppet characters, so putting out cute baby versions in cartoon form couldn’t miss.
The series came out in 1984 and ran impressively until November 2, 1991, on CBS. The idea of putting forth a cartoon show based on the Muppets as babies were introduced in the movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan from the dream sequence by Miss Piggy. This sequence was so popular it’s what inspired Henson to create the cartoon.
The Muppet Babies would focus on adventures and include popular movies interconnected with real-life clips. The creativity and imagination that was the focal point was obvious due to this being a Jim Henson Production. Henson’s priority was always to entertain, inspire, and create magic and the show was also produced by Marvel Productions – but I can’t imagine Gonzo as an Avenger…
Muppet Babies was so popular that they would take 30-minute episodes and put them into 60 and 90-minute blocks of programming. They would continue to air as re-runs into 1992. They were also so successful it inspired other productions to create “baby” versions of their main characters including:
- A Pup Named Scooby-Doo
- The Flinstones Kids
- Tiny Toon Adventures
- Tom and Jerry Kids
- Jungle Cubs
So all in all, The Muppet Babies was for sure one of the top 10 cartoons of the 80s. It also includes the amazing fact that Frank Welker – aka Megatron – did the voice of baby Kermit.
4. Voltron: Defender of the Universe
Voltron was awesome and definitely one of the top 10 80s cartoons. It could have been a bit higher on this list but just can’t compare to the mythology created by the top three. Based on the story of a team of space explorers who pilot a giant super robot, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, came out on September 10, 1984.
To me, this was one of the coolest toys of all time but it didn’t lend itself to much more than just the 5 main toys. There weren’t a ton of vehicles, playsets, and other characters that you would find compared to things like G.I. Joe, or Transformers.
Voltron was a little different than other cartoons in that it was a fully syndicated show. This allowed for cheaper production as you didn’t have to have an original air date slot on TV and it could be aired at various times.
Voltron ran from 1984 till November 18, 1985, and was actually the highest-rated syndicated children’s show for two years during the original run. The one thing that also came with it was the huge amount of spinoffs over the years including:
- Gladiator Voltron
- Voltron: Fleet of Doom
- Voltron: The Third Dimension
- Voltron Force
- Voltron: Legendary Defender
Voltron had still been going strong some 34 years after it debuted showing what an original, and impactful, cartoon show it really was.
3. G.I. Joe
This could be first on the list, and once we get into the top three here, they can definitely be interchangeable. Not a lot has to be said about G.I. Joe and it exists as one of the longest-running toys out there going back to the 60s.
If it wasn’t for Star Wars, we might not have G.I. Joe as we know it. G.I. Joe started out as a 12-inch figure and due to increasing oil prices, action figures – like the ones Star Wars would release in the late 70s – would have to be shrunk down. G.I. Joe observed this, and the success of Star Wars, and would go on to re-introduce G.I. Joe in this new smaller format.
This is where cartoons and marketing start to blur as G.I. Joe was one of the first properties that would take advertising to children to another level. Even though we loved it, the cartoon completely served as a 22-minute commercial to introduce new toys, characters, and vehicles.
It’s why you may notice that in every episode, characters are referred to by their full names, and vehicles are described by their full name – just like you would see on the packaging in the stores. Over the course of the cartoon, Hasbro would release 250 different vehicles alone.
But we were kids and didn’t give a crap because all of this was awesome. The toyline came out in 1982 along with a Marvel comic series to introduce everything. This would be followed by 30-second commercials to promote the toys which were so successful it led to a five-part miniseries that came out in 1983.
A second five-part series came out in in 1984 called “The Revenge of Cobra” and G.I. Joe would then become a full series in 1985. They had to crank out another 55 episodes pretty quick as 65 were required for syndication and that way, this could get them on during the coveted after-school slot on TV.
Due to the violent nature of the show, they weren’t allowed to show firearms being used or anyone killed on-screen – they would have to follow each episode with a public safety lesson that we all know as “knowing is half the battle”.
2. He-Man And The Masters of the Universe
This is a tough one and G.I. Joe could easily be in this spot but, to me, He-Man captured the imagination a bit more than G.I. Joe. When you watch anything to do with G.I. Joe – or the toys – it’s already familiar. Army based toys and entertainment have been around since the advent of TV and movies.
With He-Man, you were getting something more mythical and engaging. The story of Adam of Eternia that can transform into He-Man is the stuff of fantasy for little kids. It’s one of the few 80s cartoons that was a totally original idea – and one that did things a bit differently.
Whereas the other cartoons were made primarily to launch a toy line, He-Man started with the toyline and then evolved into the cartoon show. You might forget how far back He-Man goes and I always think of it as a mid 80s franchise but the toy goes all the way back to 1982 with the cartoon going back to 1983.
He-Man got a lot of inspiration from Conan the Barbarian and was quite an interesting cartoon as this was still the early days of the deregulation that was happening. Before this, a lot of censorship was applied to cartoons and He-Man was one of the first that featured an overly muscled character and one that was actually hitting people.
He-Man was still controversial because as the toys came out people realized all of this was a combination of advertising and promotion. To offset this a bit, He-Man would feature “life lessons” or “moral of the story” at the end of each episode similar to “knowing is half the battle”.
Either way, He-Man was as epic as a cartoon could get. Clearly obvious good guys vs clearly obvious bad guys. It had action, humor, mythology, and the quintessential superhero of the 80s all rolled into one.
It has to be number one. The perfect combination of action, adventure, transforming robots, and toys you wanted more than life itself. Transformers is one of the ultimate in a cartoon series used to launch a toy lineup.
Originally from Japan, the Transformers started their lives as the Diaclone toy line before being, um, “borrowed” by Hasbro at the Tokyo toy fair in 1983. Everything was there from the beginning with the Diaclone toys and all Hasbro needed to do was come up with new character names and backstories.
They would actually turn to Marvel to help develop more of this mythology and the cartoon would start as a three-part cartoon series, and four-part comic book series.
The three-part series debuted in September 1984 and was an obvious massive hit right away. The next season – or technically first season – included 13 episodes that had already been commissioned before the three-part series had even aired. They were pretty confident in how well the toys were going to go over…
Even though commerce was at the heart of the Transformers (but isn’t it for all cartoons really?) there was still a lot of creativity, character development, and story arcs that took place over the coming seasons. The story of the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons is a pivotal part of the childhoods of many kids in the 80s, mine included.
When I think of the 80s, and cartoons, it’s Transformers that always comes to mind.
Wrapping It Up
So that’s my list of the top 10 80s cartoons and hopefully, I’ve covered my bases pretty well. You might have a few favorites that didn’t make the list like Rubik, The Amazing Cube but I think I covered the universal choices.
Some of these cartoons, looking back, don’t hold up as we remembered but its the memory of the time that stays with us. Saturday mornings were a sacred time and a cartoon Utopia that just doesn’t exist today.
There’s nothing wrong with being able to stream anything on demand, but having designated times to see the very best in entertainment will always be remembered fondly.