20 Cartoons That Prove The 1980s Was The Greatest Decade
Start watching any of today’s child-focused animated TV offerings, and it will very quickly become clear that they’re not a patch on the cartoons that we enjoyed back in the 1980s.
Okay, so maybe some millennials will argue for the superiority of contemporary cartoons like Adventure Time, Regular Show, Gravity Falls, Phineas and Ferb and Steven Universe, but to our Generation X/Y eyes, the following shows prove the 80s was the greatest time for small screen animated entertainment.
20. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
They may not have made their mark until close to the end of the decade, but there can’t be many kids of the 80s who didn’t fall under the spell of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Launched in 1988, the cartoon series adaptation of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s comic book (source material which is most definitely not for kids!) proved an instant hit.
As bizarre as the concept was, there was something impossibly endearing about four all-American, pizza-loving teens who were also expert ninjas, lived in a sewer, and – oh yeah – happened to be mutated humanoid amphibians.
Give them a rat for a sensei/father figure (Splinter), ally them with a pretty reporter in a yellow jumpsuit (April O’Neil), then pit them against a heavily armoured evil ninja (Shredder) with mutants of his own (Rocksteady and Bebop) and throw in a giant cyborg with an alien brain in his stomach (Krang): the results are cartoon gold.
Many pretenders tried to imitate its distinct formula – Samurai Pizza Cats, Biker Mice from Mars – but none of them won our hearts in the same way as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Recently, US comedy show Saturday Night Live gave us a tragi-comic look at what our four heroes might be like today in animated skit Middle-Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Disney may have introduced Scrooge McDuck all the way back in the 40s, but for many of us that character, along with his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, are synonymous with DuckTales.
First broadcast in 1987, DuckTales took these relatives of Disney icon Donald Duck and made them superstars in their own right.
Along with their trusty pilot Launchpad McQuack, Scrooge and his nephews travelled the world on Indiana Jones-esque adventures hunting long lost treasure.
100 episodes were made, spawning a theatrical movie in 1990’s DuckTales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, and a reboot in recent years (featuring ex-Doctor Who actor David Tennant as the voice of Scrooge).
As much we all enjoyed the adventures of Scrooge and his nephews, it was really the title sequence – and, of course, the insanely memorable theme song – that really stayed with us.
How many of us dreamed of achieving Scrooge McDuck levels of wealth, and owning our very own vault of gold coins we could go swimming in? Although let’s hope no one ever actually tried to dive into a ton of metal because of the show, that wouldn’t end well.
18. The Trap Door
Few 80s kids cartoons were quite so creepy, yet at once such irresistible fun, as The Trap Door.
A claymation classic, the short episodes of The Trap Door followed the daily life of Berk, the dim-witted servant of ‘the thing upstairs’ in a creepy old mansion.
Berk’s misadventures invariably involved the trap door in the basement being somehow opened – and, as the opening theme song told us, there was always something down there.
Every episode was filled with all manner of plasticine monstrosities, with bugs, snakes and creepy-crawlies aplenty, plus Berk’s wise companion, the talking skull Boni.
In theory, it should have scared all us 80s pre-teens out of our skins, but we couldn’t get enough of The Trap Door.
The Trap Door’s co-creator Terry Brain went on to work with the iconic Aardman Animations, working on such other classics as the Wallace and Gromit films and Chicken Run.
There was a tendency in the 80s – and it continues to this day, really – to assume that action-packed animated entertainment was primarily for boys.
Hasbro, Sunbow and Marvel challenged this notion with the introduction of Jem (AKA Jem and the Holograms) in 1985.
A tantalising blend of superheroes and pop music, the show centred on Jerrica Benton, by day an ordinary record label manager, who becomes pop superstar Jem with the aid of holographic computer Synergy.
Forming supergroup The Holograms, they become a musical sensation, constantly at loggerheads with rival girl band The Misfits.
It was a fairly standard 80s cartoon set-up – but where other, more action-based shows would usually have battle scenes, Jem would have original music videos instead.
As the opening theme music told us, it was truly, truly, truly outrageous – unlike 2015’s disastrous live-action Jem and the Holgrams movie, which took basically nothing from the show except the title.
16. Danger Mouse
As much as we may have all grown up knowing that the world’s greatest secret agent was James Bond, there was another super-spy who wowed us even sooner.
Yes, we’re talking about Danger Mouse, the eyepatch-wearing white mouse who’s always called on to save the day when there’s trouble brewing.
With his secret base underneath a London post box, and his hapless hamster assistant Penfold at his side, DM battled the nefarious toad Baron Greenback and his cronies.
Launched in 1981, Danger Mouse established animation house Cosgrove Hall as Britain’s top creators of kid-friendly cartoons.
The show also established Cosgrove Hall’s long-standing relationship with David Jason: the Only Fools and Horses actor voiced the title role in Danger Mouse, and would go on to lend his vocal talents to more of the animation studio’s cartoons.
The show’s popularity proved durable enough for Danger Mouse to get a small screen reboot in 2015, with Alexander Armstrong taking over in the title role.
15. The Real Ghostbusters
Ghostbusters is one of the most beloved blockbuster movies of the 80s – and it also spawned one of the decade’s best-loved TV cartoons.
Due to the prior existence of an otherwise largely forgotten cartoon entitled Ghostbusters, the TV spin-off had to add ‘The Real’ to its title.
Not that there was any mistaking our four wisecracking, proton-packing heroes in their ongoing mission to wipe out paranormal misbehaviour in New York City.
What made The Real Ghostbusters so special was that it served both as a direct continuation of the movie, and as a standalone show in its own right.
The characters of Peter, Ray, Egon and Winston were instantly recognisable, though all four were given a distinctive twist with colour-coded costumes and new haircuts (Egon’s blond hair being the most distinct change).
And of course, it’s been a source of endless fascination that in the first two seasons, the late Garfield voice actor Lorenzo Music played Peter Venkman, whilst Venkman actor Bill Murray later went on to voice Garfield on the big screen.
14. Garfield and Friends
Although he’d been around since the 70s in comic strip form, the 80s saw Garfield become a true cultural icon.
He’d already appeared in a number of TV specials, but it was the launch of 1988 series Garfield and Friends that really secured a place in our hearts for the lazy, lasagne-loving, Monday-hating cat.
Through this show, we really got to know the cynical feline, his long-suffering owner Jon, his witless canine housemate Odie and the annoyingly cute kitten Nermal.
Each episode gave us multiple short stories, with the added value of stories featuring the characters from another Jim Davis comic strip, US Acres (AKA Orson’s Farm).
Children’s cartoons have often been criticised, not unreasonably, for dumbing down their content – but that’s something Garfield and Friends could never be accused of.
He may have been the cat that launched a merchandising empire (who can forget those phones?), but Garfield never lost his sharp, acerbic wit.
13. Count Duckula
After Danger Mouse, British animation house Cosgrove Hall are best remembered for this tongue-in-cheek take on Gothic horror.
Originally introduced as a Danger Mouse villain, Count Duckula became the title character and hero of his own series, with David Jason again on voice duties.
To make him a slightly less monstrous mallard, this particular vampire is a vegetarian, having been resurrected by a ritual in which tomato ketchup was mistakenly used in the place of blood.
Then, in the company of Igor (the brains of the operation) and Nanny (who seems to have no brains at all), Duckula travels through time and space in his magically teleporting castle.
Count Duckula pays tribute to the British traditions of supernatural horror films in much the same way that Danger Mouse homages classic British spy shows and movies.
It was a winning formula that really got its teeth into audiences, with the ‘toon running from 1988 to 1993.
12. She-Ra: Princess of Power
After the huge success of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, someone got the bright idea of creating a spin-off centred on a female character.
The result was She-Ra, alter-ego of Princess Adora and protector of Eternia’s twin planet Etherea, who became a beloved cartoon icon in her own right.
She-Ra: Princess of Power proved to be a superior show to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in many respects, with more ambitious and sophisticated plots.
Adora is a more complex character than her long-list brother Prince Adam, with Adora becoming She-Ra after previously having been a minion of the villainous Horde and its leader Hordak.
As a result, She-Ra dealt with more mature themes, exploring oppression and social injustice – as well as bringing talking unicorns and fairy folk into the mix.
At the time, declining sales of He-Man toys were blamed on She-Ra’s introduction, but the character is still loved by many today, as demonstrated by the recent Netflix reboot (in which He-Man plays no part).
After more than 80 years in print, British comic The Beano is a national institution – yet not many of its characters have made their way to other media.
One notable exception is Bananaman, a loving lampoon of America’s comic book superheroes (who, it should be mentioned, originally appeared in Nutty and then Dandy before moving to the Beano).
After becoming a big success in comics, Bananaman came to the small screen in 1983, in a series of five-minute adventures that ran until 1986.
The premise was simple: Eric is an ordinary schoolboy, until he eats a banana – and an amazing transformation occurs!
The cartoon proved almost as popular with the parents as it did with the kids, as the voices were provided by much-loved TV comedy trio and sometime pop stars The Goodies.
The late Tim Brooke-Taylor voiced Eric and Graeme Garden voiced Bananaman, while Bill Oddie was his sidekick Crow – and between the three of them, the comedians voiced most of the other characters including villains such as General Blight, Doctor Gloom and Appleman.
10. Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds
Snooty types will always complain that cartoons are not educational – but they overlook just how many of our childhood favourites were based on literary classics.
One such example was the brilliant Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, which updated the classic Three Musketeers stories by Alexandre Dumas.
There has been no shortage of live-action takes on Dumas’ iconic adventure, but how many of those adaptations featured talking dogs? None, that’s how many.
Although it’s set in France just like Dumas’ original story, you might not have realised that Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds is technically an anime series, made entirely in Japan (although later dubbed into English for us westerners).
The 26 episodes adhered pretty closely to the novel, following the young and ambitious Dogtanian as he travels to Paris to become a Muskehound, learning the true meaning of friendship and honour along the way.
Also, like so many great 80s TV shows, it had a theme song you could never get out of your head: “One for all and all for one, Muskehounds are always ready…”
9. Dungeons & Dragons
Everyone’s heard of the iconic role-playing game (even if they haven’t necessarily played it) – but for kids in the mid-80s, the Dungeons & Dragons title was synonymous with the awesome fantasy cartoon show.
Never directly referencing the game itself, the series sees a quintet of youngsters – four teens, and one pre-teen sibling (who’s a bit of a brat, if we’re honest) – mystically transported to a land of sword and sorcery via a fairground ride.
Next thing they know, the kids have taken on the roles of five fantasy adventure archetypes – archer, cavalier, thief, acrobat and barbarian – and must complete adventures under the guidance of the enigmatic Dungeon Master, in the hopes of finding their way home.
And when we say the Dungeon Master was ‘enigmatic,’ we mean it – he had that kind of cool, but kind of annoying tendency to appear out of nowhere, give our heroes some very cryptic instruction, then vanish again.
It was a fun, thrilling show, and not without its share of genuine scares thanks to such menacing, monstrous creations as the evil Venger and the five-headed dragon Tiamat.
Sadly for our heroes (and us eager viewers), Dungeons & Dragons was cancelled after its third season, meaning the plucky teens never actually got to go home again.
8. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
If we had to choose just one show to define how brilliant the 1980s was, then it would have to be the one about the most powerful man in the entire universe.
Filmation’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe presented us with the ultimate battle of good versus evil – albeit in a very safe, kid-friendly way.
While the original mythos created for the Mattel toy line was fairly dark and violent, the cartoon played up the slapstick comedy that bit more.
Not that this did anything to deter from the coolness of the central concept of Prince Adam, beset with magical powers by the Sword of Grayskull, caught in an eternal conflict with the evil Skeletor.
It may have been light-hearted and goofy, but the character and background designs were still amazing, particularly the key settings of Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain.
There’s no denying that ultimately He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was just a toy advert, but it certainly worked, as every child of the 80s ended up begging their parents for those action figures and playsets.
7. Inspector Gadget
Featuring a bad guy we never saw and a hero who had an enormous amount of very inventive gadgets up his sleeve, Inspector Gadget is unlike any show on children’s TV these days.
Running from 1983 to 1986 in its original incarnation, the show following the eponymous police officer whose lack of detection is compensated for by his deluge of cybernetic body parts.
Who knows how many biomechanical upgrades Inspector Gadget had undergone, but typically a cry of “go go gadget legs/arms/neck!” etc. would result in some kind of bizarre, often spring-mounted reaction.
Most of the real detective work was done by Gadget’s considerably smarter niece Penny and her equally brainy dog Brain.
However, as cute and colourful as our heroes were, Gadget’s nemesis Dr Claw was really quite terrifying – not least because of his horrifically deep voice, and the fact that all we ever saw of him was his menacing mechanical gauntlet.
The show also happened to feature another of the catchiest theme tunes of all time, one that we challenge you to watch without shouting “go Gadget go!” at least once.
Everybody loves a good acronym, and M.A.S.K. gave us a couple of corkers – even if the acronym of the title has a glaring spelling mistake.
Based on the Kenner toy line, the series centred on the heroes of the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand; yes that’s Kommand. Correct spelling be damned.
And the enemies of our heroic fighting force? The Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem – otherwise known as V.E.N.O.M.
Of course, the heroes of M.A.S.K. also wore masks, which both protected their real identity and enabled them to control their super-powered vehicles.
And yes, of course, the vehicles of M.A.S.K. were the main draw – once again, this toy advert cartoon did a very good job of making us want the toys in question.
Sure, the work/family balance of the M.A.S.K crusaders may have suffered somewhat as they slaved at a full-time job in the day before spending all evening fighting crime – but with vehicles that cool, who cares?
5. The Mysterious Cities of Gold
The Mysterious Cities of Gold really was unlike anything that we’ve seen before or since.
Inspired by the novel The King’s Fifth by Scott O’Dell, the show gave us an account of the search for gold during the European conquest of South America.
While it’s inevitably a fictionalised account with fantasy elements, it was rooted in history and the storytelling was surprisingly sophisticated.
These days a show of such quality would be marketed to adults just as much as children, meaning that back in the 1980s we really didn’t know how lucky we were.
And yet again, The Mysterious Cities of Gold is another 80s cartoon with one of the most incredibly catchy theme tunes in TV history.
We’re not sure that a show featuring a cute teddy bear shedding his skin would even get past the concept stage these days.
However, after starting life as a character in a series of books, SuperTed started whispering his magic word on our TV screens and never looked back.
After being rescued from an old dark storeroom by Spotty (from the planet Spot) using cosmic dust, SuperTed got whisked away to a magic cloud where Mother Nature gave him the special powers that would transform him into a furry superhero.
SuperTed’s adventures saw him up against the villainous cowboy Texas Pete and his henchmen, the dim-witted Bulk and the rather camp Skeleton.
After spawning three seasons in its original Welsh version, SuperTed later spawned an American reboot named The Further Adventures of SuperTed.
It may all seem rather silly, but that’s kids’ TV for you – and we would love to see SuperTed return to our TV screens.
We felt the magic, we felt the roar, and we can still remember how much we loved watching the amazing ThunderCats during the 1980s.
Launched in 1985, the fantasy adventure cartoon centred on the last survivors of the planet Thundera, dead home of a race of humanoid felines.
Finding a new home on the mysterious Third Earth, the ThunderCats soon find themselves at loggerheads with the evil mummy Mumm-Ra and his monstrous henchmen.
While similar in concept to He-Man with its blend of space opera and sword & sorcery, ThunderCats had an energy all of its own.
ThunderCats presented a relatable hero in Lion-O, a boy in a fully grown body thanks to a stasis malfunction. It also gave us a truly scary bad guy in Mumm-Ra – and, for some of us, a strangely alluring cat-lady in Cheetara.
Unlike some of the cartoons listed here, the electrifying animation of ThunderCats still looks as great today as it did at the time.
2. The Transformers
Thanks to the blockbusting Transformers movies, this is one 80s franchise that’s as alive and well today as it was back when we were young (yes, that long ago).
However, most fans will agree that the mega-budget Michael Bay movies never came close to capturing the spirit of the beloved cartoon series.
The Transformers cartoon centres on the long-standing battle between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons, shape-shifting metallic lifeforms from the distant planet Cybertron.
In order to better blend in on Earth, these aliens assume the form of native vehicles and technology, rendering them robots in disguise.
As with so many 80s cartoon hits, The Transformers was very much a commercial for the Hasbro toy line, and you had zero cred in the playground if you didn’t have an Optimus Prime or Megatron to your name.
Still, Hasbro’s determination to sell us more toys backfired with 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie, which killed off all the original Transformers including Optimus Prime order to promote the next generation of characters, and left young fans traumatised as a result.
1. Ulysses 31
Ulysses 31 may have only lasted for 26 episodes, but it gave us one of the greatest science fiction adventures of our childhoods.
A space opera update of Greek classic The Odyssey (see? Cartoons can be educational), Ulysses 31 centred on the titular hero, a 31st century space explorer.
The show is notable for giving us the most amazingly hirsute hero in all of 80s kids cartoon shows. Just look at that luxurious beard and mane.
The interstellar travels of Ulysses and the crew of his mighty ship the Odyssey mirror the trials faced by the heroes of the classic Greek tale, but done in a sci-fi style.
However, as a lot of the action had a distinctly Star Wars-esque feel to it, the makers of the cartoon faced legal action from Lucasfilm.
But regardless of whether it was reminiscent of other space-set adventures, Ulysses 31 was one of those shows we always looked forward to.