Perhaps it’s a sign of troubled times, but nostalgia for the 1990s is everywhere. The decade of bright colors, Seinfeld and grunge music has had a nostalgia craze online, on cable, in cinema, and on the pages of fashion magazines in recent years. What’s often mentioned is that the 90s were one of the greatest periods for animation in the United States, with some of the best shows and animated films in decades. Whether it was before school, after school, or during the summer holidays, television in the 90s mattered to millions who are now all grown up and working their own jobs. But they haven’t forgotten that childhood in the 90s was cartoon heaven.
Considered one of the greatest periods in animation history, it’s even been called the “American animation renaissance” which gave new vigor to the world of cartoons following a decline in the 1970s and 80s. Many people fondly remember tuning in to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Ren and Stimpy, DuckTales, Batman: the Animated Series, Darkwing Duck, Rugrats and many others. Of course, not all shows from the 90s are so well-remembered; some were forgotten because they just weren’t very good, others because they were only relevant to their time and place, and still others that probably deserve more recognition but somehow never seem to get it (looking at you, Gargoyles).
Here are 15 cartoons from the 90s that even with the ongoing nostalgia craze, no one seems to remember anymore. Now may be a great time to revisit some of them yourself!
15 Pirates of Dark Water
The Pirates of Dark Water had one of the most original and unique premises of any cartoon show in the 1990s. The tragically short-lived fantasy animated series introduces us to Ren and his crew, who sail the seas of the alien world of Mer to stop it from being destroyed by the Dark Water, a black, oozing and partially sentient substance that consumes all it touches. The main characters spend the series battling Pirate Lords and searching for the lost Thirteen Treasures of Rule, which give the power to command or banish the Dark Water forever.
The series first aired on Fox Kids in 1991 as a five-part miniseries titled Dark Water, which Hanna-Barbera would later turn into a new series. It was well-written and serious story with fleshed-out characters and a creative setting that inspired a sense of alien wonder in viewers. Despite a video game, a toy line, and a series of comic books, the show would be canceled after two seasons and 21 episodes, with only eight of the treasures found. Sadly, these days few seem to remember The Pirates of Dark Water, though a small dedicated fanbase still calls for it to be re-made.
14 SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron
Another underappreciated and now mostly forgotten Hanna-Barbera production, SWAT Kats centered on the adventures of two vigilante pilots and their beloved fighter jet in a world of anthropomorphic cats. On paper, it sounds a bit ridiculous; in practice, it was a refreshing take on an animated action series and easily one of the best shows of the era; it was exciting, tech-savvy, original, bright yet gritty, and had a rare balance of action and humor. The 90s was a time when attention to detail was important and shows like SWAT Kats had very detailed world-building and animation, particularly in regards to making the feline metropolis of Megakat City and the improbably advanced fighter jet the Turbokat (based on the real-life F-14 Tomcat) feel real.
SWAT Kats was a success in its own day. It was the number one syndicated animated show of 1994, and the plots and animation improved in the second season. It seemed primed for a good run, but the show was canceled near the end of season two’s production with three unfinished episodes. The reason is not exactly known, but rumors were that Ted Turner was displeased with the level of violence on the show, and that caused a delay in the release of merchandise and disappointing sales, which eventually spelled death for the show. Though fans from back in the day may give “oh”’s of recognition when you mention the name, this action-packed gem has largely been forgotten by popular culture.
13 The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest
Cartoon Network's 1990s reimagining of the classic 1960s cartoon Jonny Quest may be largely forgotten, but at the time it was the result of a long and troubled trip through development hell, an unprecedented marketing campaign, and a release that spanned Cartoon Network, TBS, and TNT. At its peak, it aired twenty-one times per week. The Real Adventures was just that: a more adult and grown-up version of the classic cartoon featuring teenage versions of Jonny, Jessie, and Hadji as revamped versions of the cast investigate mysteries and paranormal phenomenon.
At the time Real Adventures was unique; no other series had realistic characters taking on paranormal events, legends, and real-world mysteries, similar to an X-Files for teenagers. Action in many episodes would also take place in the virtual reality cyberspace setting of QuestWorld, a version of the Matrix before the Matrix even existed. QuestWorld was rendered by early 3D CGI animation and motion capture which was revolutionary for its time. Even after it was produced, Real Adventures seemed destined to fall short of the enormous potential it had: creator Peter Lawrence was dismissed after the first season and new producers were hired, and the character designs were reworked to be closer to the original Quest cartoon versions. The show was also criticized as being too intense for kids (many episodes featured grisly off-screen character deaths). The tone also shifted further towards science fiction and the paranormal as the series went on, which received mixed reactions.
Eventually, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest failed to gain ratings traction with its targeted demographics, its merchandise failed to sell and it was canceled after two seasons and 52 episodes. Though some may remember it as a bold experiment in remaking an old classic into a grown-up kids’ adventure show, it remains largely obscure, and the closest thing to a new Quest series is Adult Swim’s The Venture Bros.
ReBoot is a curiosity: everyone watched it, but hardly anyone remembers it despite it being the first completely computer-animated half-hour TV series. Toy Story seems to get all the credit for revolutionizing CGI, though the Canadian ReBoot predated its release by a year and it was conceived by the same British think-tank, the Hub Collective, whose members had been responsible for the blocky CGI characters in Dire Straits' music video “Money for Nothing,” which is often credited with introducing the world to computer animation. Airing from 1994 to 2001, ReBoot followed the adventures of a Guardian named Bob and his companions in their attempts to protect the world of Mainframe (in reality the personal computer of an unnamed user) from attacks by the viruses Megabyte and Hexadecimal.
ReBoot started off as a fairly light-hearted romp with self-contained episodes but took a noticeably dark turn in its third season when it introduced the Web, appeared to kill off Bob, and had the comic relief character of Enzo become “Matrix,” a warrior anti-hero and the new protagonist.
From there the show started targeting kids aged 12 and older, resulting in a much more mature and gritty story. Unlike most others on this list, ReBoot was allowed to reach a series finale and avoid early cancellation, but hardly anyone these days still talks about Bob, Enzo, Dot Matrix, Phong, and the other characters of Mainframe.
11 Mighty Max
Marketed as a Polly Pocket for boys, the Mighty Max series of sci-fi/adventure playsets sold like hotcakes on the toy market, but few people remember that there was a TV show made out of it. The cartoon about a young boy with a magic baseball cap that transports him across dimensions ran for 40 episodes between 1993 and 1994. Starring the wise-cracking Max, the wise talking bird Virgil (voiced by Tony Jay), and the warrior bodyguard Norman, Mighty Max was an action-packed cartoon that pitted the trio against the villainous Skullmaster (voiced by Tim Curry) and his servants.
Mighty Max seemed poised for success following the popularity of the toys, but the show never gathered the following that the merchandise did. Almost all the episodes were based on one or more of the play-sets, and the heroes were placed in extremely deadly situations. In one episode the protagonists are nearly mummified alive and in the show’s last airing the Skullmaster did kill Virgil and Norman (though this was undone with time travel back to the events of the first episode). Perhaps predictably, Mighty Max was criticized as being too violent for a kid’s cartoon. The show was never able to break away from its legacy of being created to promote the Max toys, and to this day is not as fondly remembered as the innovative and delightfully morbid playsets.
Gargoyles is one of those cartoons that you’ve definitely seen if you grew up in the 90s, but it rarely gets mentioned these days in spite of all it did for pop culture. In many ways, Gargoyles was ahead of its time: it was dark, smartly-written, and complex, and the characters were some of the best developed in animation history. It was surprisingly adult for a kid’s cartoon, including Shakespearian references, mythology, contemporary issues such as gun safety and prejudice, and one of the greatest villains ever conceived in David Xanatos, who was awesome enough to have an entire trope named after his style of planning.
Running from 1994 to 1997, Gargoyles had an intelligence and an edge to it that was rare to find in a show aimed at children. The depth of its lore, with multiple Gargoyle clans and the ties to ancient Scotland and Arthurian legends, also blended seamlessly with its near-future science fiction elements. But despite being wildly popular in its day and leaving a lasting impression, Gargoyles simply isn’t credited its due when it comes to influencing how cartoons were made, and few people talk about it nowadays.
9 Mighty Ducks
Folks may remember the 1992 comedy-drama sports film starring Emilio Estevez about a minor ice hockey team of underdogs named the Mighty Ducks which became a surprise hit with audiences and spawned two sequels. What far fewer people remember is that there was an animated cartoon series based on it that turned it into a science fiction adventure starring half-human, half-ducks with superpowers and futuristic weapons technology fighting off an alien menace threatening Earth. Yes, you read that right.
While the concept of anthropomorphic animal superheroes is nothing new, and especially not for Disney, The Mighty Ducks cartoon show had one of the most bizarre premises of any mainstream television adaptation. The humanoid ducks are originally from a planet called Puckworld, which was invaded and conquered by a race of dino-like aliens called the Saurians. The series revolves around the six ducks going through an interdimensional portal and landing in Anaheim, California, where they continue to use a high-tech legendary goalie mask to fight the last of the Saurian Overlords, Lord Dragaunus. All the while the Ducks are an actual legitimate NHL team on the side, despite being...well, ducks.
Airing on ABC and The Disney Afternoon in late 1996, The Mighty Ducks received extensive marketing but was canceled after a mere 26 episodes and a single season, though it proved popular enough with audiences to be run in syndication until November 2004.
Ask anyone who grew up in the 90s about sketch comedy back then and the first thing they’ll say is how much they loved watching All That. But few people remember All That’s experimental and abstract spin-off series KaBlam!, which embraced the weird and bizarre more readily than its SNL-esque sister show. Hosted by two cartoon characters named Henry and June who introduced shorts and had shenanigans of their own in-between, KaBlam! was developed as a showcase for alternative and indie forms of animation. Some of its most popular regularly-featured cartoons included Sniz & Fondue, Action League Now!, Prometheus and Bob, and Life with Loopy. Other cartoons such as The Off-Beats and Angela Anaconda also made semi-regular appearances.
KaBlam! was something of an anomaly in how popular it became in spite of its seemingly proud weirdness and sometimes off-beat productions. The intro sequence itself featured bright colors and a postmodern collage aesthetic, including the Egyptian Sphinx, a hawk crashing into the camera, the United States Capitol getting destroyed by UFOs, Godzilla destroying a city, and finally landing in a comic book store with the slogan, “Where cartoons and comics collide!” The show itself seemed baffled by its own fame at times since its conception was to show non-mainstream animation. Co-creator Chris Viscardi once quipped, “We crammed more cartoons into a half-hour than anyone else.”
Though it became influential in the decade, the legacy of KaBlam! has faded with the times as its distinctly 90s look and attitude has become more dated. The show was removed by Nickelodeon in 2001, seemingly as the final nail in the coffin of the decade, with part of season four and two seasons left unaired. Since then, attempted talks of a revival of the series and all subsequent adaptations of the sketches have ended in failure. Action League Now! became a short-lived series with almost no new non-KaBlam! material, Henry and June were retired as the hosts of Nick’s U-Pick block, a television special called The Henry and June Show aired in 1999 but was never shown again after its premiere, and a live-action adaptation of Prometheus and Bob was announced in 1998 but fell through due to lack of interest.
7 Street Sharks
One of the many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle knock-off series, Street Sharks was an action/comedy cartoon about four brothers who mutated into massive, muscular, half-man half-shark creatures as the result of being exposed to a machine called the “gene-slammer.” The four Street Sharks - Ripster, Jab, Streex, and Slammu - spent their time battling mad scientists and their monstrous creations in episodes named after terrible shark puns. As if that wasn’t enough, their catchphrase of choice was “jawsome!” and they very vocally disliked pizza.
Street Sharks only had a 40 episode run from 1994 to 1995, during which time it was more famous for its action figures and rubber hand puppets than anything else. When Street Sharks is remembered at all, it’s remembered as one of the most blatant cash-ins on mid-90s Turtlemania and a perfect example of cheesy 90s pop culture. But to its credit, it did have a young Vin Diesel praise its famous toy line.
6 Ronin Warriors
An English dub of the anime Yoroiden Samurai Troopers, the Ronin Warriors first began airing on American television in the summer of 1995, though it didn’t gain much attention until it premiered on the Toonami cartoon block in 1999. The show featured the five Ronins each one possessing mystical armor and weapons with elemental powers. They were opposed by Talpa, Emperor of the Dynasty of the Netherworld (in the Japanese original a demon sovereign), who seeks to conquer the mortal world. They are assisted in their endeavors by a young teacher and a boy (who pretty much do nothing except get captured periodically) and a mysterious monk known only as the Ancient One.
Akin to the Power Rangers with a more samurai-esque flair, Ronin Warriors showed up at a time when American interest in anime was just beginning to peak. But like many late 80s/early 90s anime adapted for American television, Ronin Warriors has not aged well. The animation is dated, the plot is simplistic, and most of the characters are one-dimensional, but the series had appeal because of just how shamelessly trope-heavy yet enthusiastic it was, and the action and pacing was excellent. Character development on the part of Anubis, one of Talpa’s Dark Warlords who eventually defects, and a pretty awesome giant white tiger sidekick also contributed to the show’s appeal.
Ronin Warriors would end its run in 2001, just in time to see Gundam Wing and Dragon Ball Z also appear on Toonami to overwhelming popularity, far overshadowing the legacy of the Ronins.
Though Tim Burton would develop and produce this cartoon adaptation of his 1988 film of the same name, Beetlejuice the animated series changed several key elements of the story. This time around Beetlejuice is the anti-hero protagonist of the series instead of the antagonist, and he and the eccentric Goth girl Lydia Deetz are best friends who explore the wacky afterlife realm of the Neitherworld together, encountering various misadventures along the way. The show addressed one of the major criticisms of the movie - that the character of Beetlejuice had very little actual screen time - by making him the focus of the show, and the animation freed up his powers to be used as often as the plot (or the bad jokes) required without the worry of special effects budgets.
Of course, what was success in the 90s without a toy line and a cartoon show to make a tidy profit? The animated version proved so successful that it aired on ABC Saturday mornings and Fox on weekday afternoons. Though the Beetlejuice the animated series lasted 4 whole seasons and would haunt 90s television in syndication on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network Monday through Friday for many years, it now seems largely forgotten.
During the animation renaissance of the 1990s, Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. Animation teamed up to create Animaniacs, which would go on to become one of the defining cartoons of the decade. A more obscure project by the same team around the same time was Freakazoid. A whacked-out parody of superhero tropes, the Kids’ WB series chronicled the adventures of an insane, red-suited superhero with all the information on the internet in his brain. Freakazoid featured the same surreal, slapstick, fourth-wall-breaking sense of humor as Animaniacs and the same producers and animation style as Batman: the Animated Series.
During its run, Freakazoid attracted a loyal following but encountered problems with its demographics. It received low ratings because the audience that it gathered was older than what Kids’ WB was aiming for, i.e., not young children. It also ran into problems with its frequently-changing timeslot, which baffled viewers. This combination led to it being canceled after two seasons, though it retains a cult following.
Freakazoid was another show that was simply ahead of its time, anticipating the power of the internet before such things as 4chan or memes even existed. Now that millennials who grew up watching the show have been actually surfing the internet for more than a decade, it may be time for the world to be sucked into cyberspace with Freakazoid again. His internet-based powers would be more timely than they were in the mid-90s. Imagine a superhero speaking entirely in memes. Yeah.
3 Life with Louie
It’s common for stand-up comedians to get their own television sitcoms: Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Drew Carey, and Tim Allen all had their own live-action TV shows in the 90s. But it was Louie Anderson who got his own cartoon. Unlike some animated TV shows which embrace fantasy and fictional adventure, Life with Louie was based around events from Anderson’s childhood and his own previous stand-up material. Among topics of choice were Anderson’s 10 siblings, the antics of his homemaker mother and his loud and difficult but caring World War II veteran father, and stories about growing up. Each episode usually began with live-action footage of Anderson monologuing about the theme of the week.
Surprisingly personal in its portrayal of how Anderson used his comedy to deal with his struggles, Life with Louie rose above its humble autobiographical origins to be a surprise three-year hit on Fox, airing Saturday mornings and even winning two Daytime Emmy Awards. Though it has a concept that set it apart from other TV sitcoms at the time, Life with Louie lasted less than forty episodes and now seems to be fondly remembered by a chosen few.
2 The Real Ghostbusters
Everyone knows Ghostbusters, the beloved supernatural comedy starring Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd that was a surprise smash hit in 1984. But the animated series The Real Ghostbusters is far less known today. A loose adaptation of the film universe, the cartoon continued the adventures of the four Ghostbusters, their secretary Janine and their accountant Louis. The series also introduced the famous green ghost mascot Slimer, who would become ubiquitous on kids’ merchandise in the 90s.
While technically The Real Ghostbusters began airing in the 80s, it continued airing all the way until 1992 and continued in syndication as late as 2012, and one of the most iconic symbols of the 1990s is the Hi-C Ecto Cooler drink boxes featuring Slimer. In fact, Slimer may be the only thing remembered from The Real Ghostbusters today; a fitting end to a show that increasingly based itself around the green specter, even featuring an expanded hour-long format to accommodate a half-hour Slimer sub-series. By the fourth season, the show was even retitled to Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters. Though the show itself was decent enough, it became overshadowed by its own mascot and merchandise.
1 Samurai Pizza Cats
Yet another attempt to capitalize on the explosive popularity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Samurai Pizza Cats certainly deserve points for shamelessness, but also for its unique artistic direction. The tale goes that when Saban Entertainment licensed the original anime, Kyatto Ninden Teyandee, difficulty was found in obtaining proper Japanese translations and the pop culture references didn’t translate well to an American audience. So they did what they thought was a logical move: to completely re-write all the dialogue for the English dub and make it into an Animaniacs-style comedy that parodied “superhero team” shows.
Samurai Pizza Cats followed the antics of three armor-wearing cat samurai who run their own pizza shop in between stopping the villainous Big Cheese and his henchmen’s plans to take over the city of Little Tokyo. Though the Pizza Cats still remain largely unknown, the English dub series has gained a cult following in recent years due to its irreverent humor and farcical nature.
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