25 retro cartoons that made the 80s & 90s awesome

We bet our lunch money you remember many of these songs by heart.

Belmont Lay| March 02, 02:40 AM

Who are the knights of the magical light? Which cartoons had “illusion is the ultimate weapon” or “man and machine, power extreme” as their main taglines? Which superhero could call upon the strength of 10 tigers, and which space cowboy had the eyes of a hawk, ears of a wolf and speed of a puma? Which group of cuddly characters are always bouncing here and there and everywhere? Who was the lead singer of The Holograms?

Do any of the above ring a bell? If your answer is “yes”, that might mean you’re an 80s kid who had an awesome childhood watching some of these top 25 retro cartoons we’ve listed (in no particular order). Even though these were broadcast almost 30 years ago, we’re sure you would recall some of the kick-ass toys (we even included links to some of the toy commercials to make things even more fun) and theme songs these toons came with. So take an animated trip down memory lane with mothership, and let us know if there’re any gems we missed that you remember fondly!


1. M.A.S.K.

Almost every boy who grew up in the 80s would probably still have one of those M.A.S.K transforming vehicles - like thunderhawk, switchblade, rhino, hurricane, stinger, firefly etc - sitting around somewhere in an old storeroom or cupboard, because this cartoon series produced some of the most awesome toys! The action figures also came with masks (hence the cartoon’s name) that gave characters powerful abilities like spitting corrosive poison, invisibility, super strength and creating holographic doubles. With 75 episodes broadcast from 1985 to 1986, M.A.S.K (an acronym for the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) was one of many cartoon series during this era produced as a platform to promote toys. It followed a formula made popular by other successful cartoons created around the same period such as G.I Joe and The Transformers. We dream of the day they turn this retro cartoon into a movie!

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2. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

“By the power of Grayskull... I have the power!” These words were the battle cry for a whole generation, and we’re sure you remember pulling out an imaginary sword from behind your back while shouting this famous incantation that transformed Prince Adam of Eternia into the most powerful man in the universe, He-man. How powerful was he? Well, He-man once lifted Castle Grayskull and chucked it through an inter-dimensional portal. Another fun thing he could do was point his power sword at his cowardly pet tiger Cringer to turn it into the brave armoured Battle Cat. The toys were simply legendary especially Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain which had this funny echo microphone thingy that allowed you to sound like the evil Skeletor. The purchase of each action figure also came with a mini-comic (readable here!) that could help you follow the adventures of the character that you brought home! There was also a spin-off expounding on the exploits of He-Man’s twin sister, She-Ra: Princess of Power.

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3. Visionaries

If you know that the knights of the magical light refers to the Visionaries, then you had an awesome childhood. Divided into two opposing groups - the Spectral Knights and the Darkling Lords, each knight has both an animal totem on their armor which they can transform into, as well as a magical staff that can be activated by reciting a spell.

For example, Spectral Knight Cryotek activated his staff’s power of super strength by reciting: "Three suns aligned pour forth their light and fill the archer's bow with might!"

Or how about an invulnerability spell that can be called upon by Darkling Lord, Lexor: "The arrows turn, the swords rebel; let nothing pierce this mortal shell!"

Sadly, due to poor sales of the toys, the series, set on the planet Prysmos, an advanced society where modern technology had failed forcing the people to rely on sorcery, only lasted one season of 13 episodes, but we’ll never forget the magic this cartoon invoked.

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4. Defenders Of The Earth

For those born in the 90s and later, your first encounter with Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless was probably in the movie TED. But for 80s kids, we got to enjoy a whole cartoon series with 65 episodes that pitted Flash Gordon and the Defenders Of The Earth, which included the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, against Ming and other villains. What we recall most from this series was the Phantom , also known as the ghost who walks, calling upon the power of 10 tigers to whoop ass!

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5. Muppet Babies

What’s cuter than the muppets? Why the muppet babies of course! Who doesn’t love watching Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and gang as little toddlers with hyperactive imaginations transforming their large children’s nursery into imaginary worlds where their toys could become things like pirate ships or time machines taking them on wild, perilous adventures. One unique part of this cartoon at the time was the mixing in of live-action film sequences that the babies could interact with. For example, when they opened doors, books or boxes, they could encounter space ships, speeding train and sometimes walk across or interact with actors present in such stock footage. This show with its cheery theme song was definitely a Sunday morning staple .

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6. Gummi Bears

This Disney production was just super fun from start to finish. What we especially love watching was the Gummi Bears bouncing out of trapdoors that are linked to undergound tunnels in this hollow tree called Gummi Glen, where the bears live. Loosely inspired by the candy, and as the theme song goes, the Gummi Bears were “bouncing here and there and everywhere” after drinking a powerful concoction known as Gummiberry juice harvested from Gummiberries. While the juice gives Gummi Bears the ability to bounce around like rubber balls, the effect on humans is slightly different. Humans who drink the concoction are given super strength and this is probably why the shows’ main villain, Duke Igthorn, is always trying to steal the recipe to give himself and his ogre army super power.

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7. The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin

Some of you probably can’t remember this cartoon, but just watch the opening intro to this animated production and your brain will be release a flood of warm fuzzy memories with pictures of a teddy bear and his eight-legged caterpillar-like friend flying around in an old sailing ship searching for the seven magic crystals of Grundo, which bestowed powers like invisibility, flight and memory erasure. Would you also believe this was one of the first western cartoons to ever be seen during the 1980s in Bulgaria? You probably also didn’t know that the show was based on a children’s talking teddy bear of the same name, the the best-selling toy of 1985 and 1986.

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8. The Centurions

“Man and Machine, Power Extreme” was probably one of the more catchy cartoon taglines in the 80s, and branded The Centurions into our memories forever. The Centurions are a team of heroes outfitted in special exo-frames that allow them (upon shouting "Power Extreme") to fuse with advanced weapon systems, literally becoming “Man and Machine. The team consisted of sea operations commander Max Ray, land operations specialist Jake Rockwell, and air operations expert Ace McCloud, who was also a cocky womanizer with various love interests. This is probably one of the first few cartoons we watched that had such, erm, adult themes. The storylines were rather sophisticated exploring the relationship between humans and technology as well as other issues. The toys were pretty cool with many interchangeable parts you could use to arm your Centurion action figures with added firepower, as you create your own storyline as to how they’ll defeat their nemesis Doc Terror.

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9. The Real Ghostbusters

First up, shout out to the recently deceased Harold Ramis who played Dr Egon Spengler, one of the four ghostbusters from the movie of the same name - may his soul rest in peace. The Real Ghostbusters, like many cartoons during its time like Robocop , Police Academy, Karate Kid, etc, was based on a popular movie franchise. Only difference was that the bad guys the Ghostbusters were hunting down with their proton guns were mostly already dead and in the spirit world. Same as the movie, the cartoon had one of the coolest theme songs ever, and we’re sure you boogied to it at some awkward school dance event. But what’s really worth remembering is some of the fun but spooky toys this series produced, especially those monster figurines that oozed ectoplasm.

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10. Silverhawks

They had “wings of silver and nerves of steel”, as the campy theme song goes. Well, whatever the creator of this series was high on, we’d like some. The story basically revolves around a team of space heroes with bionic bodies cased in full-body metal armor with a retractible protective mask, retractible wings, and laser-weapons to fight organized crime in the Galaxy of Limbo. You would probably remember playing with Silverhawks figurines where you pressed their legs together to make their silver wings pop out from the sides.

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11. BraveStarr

BraveStarr was a “space western” cartoon, combining both sci-fi and western genres and maybe a predecessor of sci-fi westerns like Wild Wild West and Cowboys & Aliens. The story’s title character, BraveStarr, is a Galactic Marshall stationed on the planet “New Texas”. He is also a Native American who can call upon “spirit animal” powers such as “Eyes of the Hawk” (super- vision), “Ears of the Wolf” (super-hearing) , “Strength of the Bear (super-strength ) and “Speed of the Puma” (super-speed). Together with his trusty horse, Thirty Thirty, who can transform to walk on two legs and wield a giant energy rifle, Bravestarr and his friends fight against evil villain Tex Hex who has his own formidable powers, including teleportation, energy bolts, and shape-shifting. Despite the rather original and creative story, the toys that were marketed in line with this cartoon weren’t too exciting.

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12. Bionic Six

Bionic Six are a “super future family” of machine-enhanced humans, each given unique powers after being physically enhanced with bionic technology, similar to The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Each member of the family not only has a unique power, but a distinctive though somewhat stereotypical personality to go with it. For example, Jack Bennet aka Bionic-1, the overachieving alpha male team leader and father, is an engineer and energy test pilot who enjoys gourmet cooking, even taking part in the Paris Food Conference while the team’s real children consist of the typical athletic jock Eric Bennet aka Sport-1 and ditzy teen Meg Bennet aka Rock-1(who looks like Meg Ryan). The family is also interestingly multiracial, with team leader Jack having both an adopted African-American son, who’s empowered with super strength and a Japanese foster son, who is a super-skilled martial arts expert. The powers they’re given also fit with their individual persona, for example, daughter Meg Bennet who loves music, can emit sonic beams. The show has one of our favorite theme songs, but the toys were not very memorable.

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13. Care Bears

Furry, friendly and adorable, the Care Bears are a group of multi-coloured bears, who guide small children and protect them from evil, sort of like guardian angels. They live in a caring kingdom called Care-a-lot. Instead of death rays, the Care Bears are armed with the “Care Bear Stare” in which the Bears can stand together and emit light from their cute tummy symbols, which form a ray of love that brings joy and “caring” into their target’s heart. The Care Bear characters were originally created by American Greetings in 1981 for use on greeting cards. But they soon spawned not just a cartoon but a line of cute cuddly plush toys still sold today that are not just great for children but can be also be a sweet Valentine’s day gift for that special someone.

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14. My Little Pony

This was another franchise that produced cute toys, mainly marketed to girls. The ponies have colorful bodies, manes and a unique symbol on one or both sides of their bodies called “cutie marks”. The interesting thing about this cartoon was it had a second segment unrelated to the ponies that featured The Glo Friends, MoonDreamers and the Potato Head Kids. As for the cartoon’s main characters, the Little Ponies live a peaceful life of song and games in Ponyland, which is a mystical place that’s home to all manner of magical creatures. The Ponies find themselves often fighting against the not so peaceful beings in their kingdom including witches, goblins and trolls that try to harm, enslave or destroy them. But why would any one want to destroy these cute beings with colourful sparkly hair that you could comb all day?

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15. JEM

Today, when you hear the name Jem, you probably would think of the faltering shopping mall in Jurong East. But in the 80s, Jem was the lead singer of girl group, the Holograms, in a cartoon simply titled Jem. The alter-ego of Jerrica Benton, owner of Starlight Music and a foster home for girls known as "Starlight House", Jem transforms into her rockstar self by touching her special “Jemstar earrings”, which are powered by Synergy, a powerful computer with holographic capabilities. Most of the series centres around Jerrica hiding her Jem identity from others, especially her long-time boyfriend, Rio Pacheco. Like many young aspiring stars in the real world, Jerrica keeps her life compartmentalized and even gets jealous of Jem, her own self-created alter ego. Jem also has to compete with rival girl rock band The Misfits, whose lead singer Pizzazz is also trying to steal Jem’s boyfriend. Due to the rising success and popularity of MTV during this era, the Jem series also contained 187 music videos with 151 unique songs, propelling it to become the #1 Nielsen rated syndicated cartoon show in November 1986. By 1987, it became the third most watched syndicated children's program with 2.5 million viewers a week.

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16. Alvin and The Chipmunks

There are some great retro cartoons out there that were made into awesome live action movies in recent years. We’re not sure if Alvin and The Chipmunks was one of them. But just like Jem, we loved this show for its singing characters. The storyline was also pretty straightforward and likable, following the musical exploits of the rambunctious singing Chipmunk trio led by the mischievous Alvin, in contrast to his taller, brainy brother Simon and his chubby, gluttonous brother Theodore. You probably would also remember their long-suffering, manager-father figure, David Seville, who always screams “ALVIN!!!!!!!”, whenever things go wrong with the Chipmunks. The cartoon also introduced a female version of the Chipmunks, called the Chipettes. The Chipmunks did covers of many popular songs during that time, and some of you might even recall buying some Chipmunk cassette tapes to play on your stereo.

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17. Chip ‘N’ Dale Rescue Rangers

This cartoon is about another set of very popular Chipmunks, Disney’s Chip ‘N’ Dale who were already famous since the 1940s playing antagonists to two other well-loved Disney characters in Pluto and Donald Duck. However, the 80s saw them getting revamped and made the title characters of a new show called Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, where the two chipmunks start a detective agency, Rescue Rangers, along with their friends Gadget, Monterey Jack, and Zipper. The pint-sized sleuths deal with crimes that are deemed "too small" for the regular police, taking on other animals as their clients, and going against villains like the Mafia-style tabby cat Fat Cat and mad scientist Norton Nimnul. The show’s conception was prompted by the success of Disney's popular DuckTales series, which is the next cartoon on our list

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18. DuckTales

The one thing we felt most like doing after watching Ducktales was take a dive into a giant vault filled with money and gold, the way the cartoon’s lead character Uncle Scrooge did in many episodes of this show. The show follows the adventures of Scrooge McDuck, the richest duck in the world, and his three grandnephews, Huey, Dewey and Louise (who are also the nephews of Donald Duck), as they protect their granduncle’s fortune from being robbed by villains like Magica De Spell and the Beagle Boys. Scrooge is also constantly worried that his rival, industrialist Flintheart Glomgold, will unseat his position as richest duck in the world. Other memorable characters that play supporting roles in the show include Donald Duck, pilot Launchpad McQuack and inventor Gyro Gearloose.

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19. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Cowabunga dude! This was probably one of the most popular cartoon series conceived in the 80s, running 10 seasons until 1996. Some of you might also remember the long queues outside cinemas islandwide to buy tickets to the franchise’s first feature film in 1990.

Operating from their hideout in the sewer, the Ninja Turtles are a team of four wise-cracking, pizza-chomping mutant heroes named after renaissance artists - Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo - who are trained to fight by their master Hamato Yoshi, who himself has mutated into a giant rat named Splinter.The shows main antagonists are Shredder and Krang, who’s this weird alien brain thingy living inside the abdomen of a humanoid host. One memorable characteristic of the show was the turtles’ heavy use of surfer lingo, which was popular at the time, with phrases like "bummer", "dude", "bogus", "radical", "far-out", "tubuloso", "bodacious", and of course "cowabunga!” whenever they crashed in on the bad guys. Apart from fun toys, there were also video games and even snack foods produced based on the popular series, which ruled the world of children’s television before the rise of the Power Rangers era.

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20. G.I Joe: A Real American Hero

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was an animated cartoon series based on the successful toyline from Hasbro and the comic book series from Marvel Comics. According to the show’s opening sequence, “G.I. Joe is the code name for America's daring, highly-trained, Special Mission force. Its purpose: To defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world". Each episode tended to focus on one individual G.I Joe Character, probably because the cartoon was a vehicle to market the over 500 action figures produced by Hasbro. Like many cartoons during that era, every episode ended with a public education segment that imparted tips to children about health, safety and good social behaviour, signing off with the tagline: “And knowing is half the battle”. Like Transformers, another successful Hasbro toyline, G.I. Joe was made into a hit movie for the big screen after the millennium.

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21. Transformers

This is probably the Mecca of all 80s cartoons, and the most successful translation of an 80s animated TV series into blockbuster feature films. “More than Meets the Eye” and “Robots in Disguise” are catchphrases that have become immortalised by this franchise’s continuing success some 30 years after it was first launched. The good robots were the Autobots led by Optimus Prime who battled the evil Decepticons led by Megatron. The best thing that came out of this cartoon series, apart from the movies, was the very awesome transforming robot toys, especially the special robot teams that could combine to form an even bigger more powerful robot - like the Constructicons (Devastator), the Combaticons (Bruticus), the Protectobots (Defensor) and the Aerialbots (Superion).

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22. Challenge of the Gobots

Somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you probably might have stored some faint memories of this other transforming robot cartoon called Challenge of the Gobots. This cartoon was based on the Gobots toy-line released by Tonka. Similar to the Transformers, the Gobots consisted of two opposing forces of transforming robots from the planet GoBotron (like the Transformers’ Cybertron): the heroic Guardians and the evil Renegades. The funny thing about these robots is that they rarely used guns, instead shooting out blasts of energy through their fists. Although the Gobots hit store shelves five months before the Transformers did, the Gobots lost the war for children’s hearts and minds to the Transformers, which you can read about here. The retail war ended in 1991 with Hasbro, which produced the Transformers toyline, buying over Tonka, effectively ending the battle between the two robot franchises.

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23. Spiderman and his Amazing Friends

We all know who Spiderman is thanks to the popular Marvel comics and movies, but only 80s kids will remember that he teamed up with the subzero ice blasting Iceman (who was an original X-man) and the microwave heat energy generating Firestar (another member of the X-men). Best part of this show was watching Iceman transform by encasing himself in a wall of ice before breaking out to complete his transformation, and then blasting these ice highways that he could skate on to go wherever he wanted to go. Spiderman’s amazing friends were so amazing that they probably stole the show from our web-slinging hero in this cartoon series.

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24. The Smurfs

La la la la la la... was like an alarm clock every Sunday morning that told you it was time to get out of bed and watch The Smurfs! Created in Belgium, these cute blue creatures lived in mushrooms, wore white trousers with a hole for their short tails as well as a white hat. Most of the over 100 different smurfs looked similar, except for some that were dressed differently to emphasize unique personality traits such as Handy Smurf who wore overalls and a brimmed hat instead of the standard Smurf get-up. Most of the smurfs, led by Papa Smurf, were males, with a few exceptions like Smurfette and Nanny Smurf who were female. Some of the more memorable smurfs are Brainy Smurf, Baker Smurf and Jokey Smurf. Their biggest enemy was the evil wizard Gargamel who was always trying to find some way to locate the Smurf village and capture the Smurfs for use in his magic.

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25. Captain Planet and the Planeteers

As environmental concerns came to the forefront at the end of the 80s, Captain Planet and the Planeteers was created as a form of edutainment advocating environmentalism.

Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, sends five magic rings, four with the power to control nature’s elements (earth, wind, fire and water) and one controlling the element of Heart (which allows the wearer to communicate telepathically with people and animals, instilling empathy in them) to five youths (dubbed the Planeteers) chosen from major continents and countries from around the world: Kwame from Africa, Wheeler from North America, Linka from the Soviet Union , Gi from Asia, and Ma-Ti from South America.

The Planeteers are assigned to defend the Earth from great disasters which they are alerted to by Gaia, who uses her “Planet Vision” to see where the destruction is the most devastating. When they’re unable to handle some of villains behind the devastation, they can combine their powers to summon Captain Planet, who possesses a magnified version of all their powers, to clean out the bad guys and set things right on our planet.

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Top photo from Collider.