From flawless high-definition animation to robust adult fanbases, today's cartoons have a lot of advantages that didn't exist when your childhood favorites were on the air. Despite that, 1990s cartoons were extreme in a way that separated them from the kids shows that came before and after. Filled with countless animal warriors and ultra-buff soldiers in high-tech armor, that era's cartoons were defined by the over-the-top aesthetic that helped make shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men: The Animated Series massive hits. Thanks to the ever-changing tastes of the viewing public and evolving content standards, those radical qualities don't cast that kind of shadow over modern shows. Even though they might seem inherently ridiculous by today's standards, these qualities defined an action-packed era of American animation.
Now, CBR is taking a look back at some of the 1990s cartoons that are too extreme for today's kids. These cartoons are filled with lasers, ninjas, soaring guitar riffs, motorcycles, muscles, casual needless violence, rude dudes with bad 'tudes and the other radical hallmarks of 1990s cartoons. While this list is hardly comprehensive, we'll be taking a look at some of the beloved, infamous and utterly forgotten shows that could have only happened in the 1990s.
16 SWAT KATS: THE RADICAL SQUADRON
Despite its ratings success, Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron was ultimately too radical for its studio, Hanna-Barbera Productions. Created by Christian and Yvon Tremblay, the show followed two feline vigilantes, T-Bone and Razor, who fought crime in their high-tech jet fighter, the Turbokat. For two seasons, the show aired on TBS and in syndication starting in 1993.
For a total of 24 episodes, the highly-rated Swat Kats was an unusually dark and fairly violent highlight from the more comedy-focused Hanna-Barbera. After cartoon violence became a minor national issue in the mid-1990s, that studio's owner, Ted Turner, announced that he wouldn't produce violent programming in front of the U.S. Congress. This eventually led to the show's cancellation, even though several more episodes were in production. Although the Tremblay brothers launched a successful Kickstarter to revive the series in 2015, the Swat Kats relaunch has been stuck in a lengthy development process.
15 STREET SHARKS
By any measure, Street Sharks seems like a shameless attempt to replicate the formula that made the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles an international hit. Over three seasons starting in 1994, the DiC Entertainment show followed four brothers who were turned into giant, disturbingly muscular shark creatures by the mad scientist Dr. Paradigm. The Sharks battled Paradigm using a wide array of toy-friendly vehicles and puns like "Jawsome!"
While the show ran for 40 episodes, each Street Shark only had a few defining characteristics. Ripster was the team's leader, Jab was the resident mechanical expert, Slammu was the team's muscle and Streex always wore a pair of rollerblades. The Street Sharks' allies included other marine life monsters like the muscle-bound whale Moby Lick. While the show's goofy charm earned it a fair number of fans, the Sharks were never quite able to take a bite out of the Turtles' success.
Even though their comic book series only lasted for 30 issues, Malibu Comics' premiere super-team, Ultraforce, briefly starred in their own Saturday morning cartoon in 1995. That animated series, Ultraforce, lasted for one season of 13 episodes as part of USA's Action Extreme Team programming block.
Malibu's Ultraverse comics were noteworthy for their remarkably strong creative teams and unique, more aggressive twists on superhero archetypes. While it featured most of Malibu's biggest characters, the DiC-produced cartoon was heavily influenced by X-Men: The Animated Series and featured almost identical opening credits. The cartoon featured semi-memorable heroes like the Shazam-esque Prime, the Iron Man copycat Prototype and Topaz, a cross between DC's Starfire and Wonder Woman. While it was a fairly standard superhero cartoon, the teen hero Pixx died on the show and actually stayed dead in a surprising twist that raised the show's stakes dramatically.
13 BIKER MICE FROM MARS
Biker Mice From Mars was one of the more successful shows to pop up in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' gargantuan wake. Created by Rick Ungar, the Marvel Productions series ran in syndication for 65 episodes starting in 1993. For three seasons, the show followed the Biker Mice, Throttle, Modo and Vinnie, as they tried to save Chicago with their human friend Charley Davidson. Together, they fought the Plutarkians, fish-like aliens who destroyed Mars by using up its natural resources.
Visually, the Biker Mice were a memorable mix of cybernetics, biker gear and muscle-bound mouse creatures. Naturally, the team's motorcycles featured lasers, missiles and a number of other fantastic weapons. Like some of the era's other animated series, the goofy action took place against a backdrop of potential interstellar war and vaguely implied an environmental message about conserving natural resources. In 2006, the Biker Mice rode again for one 28-episode season.
12 EXTREME DINOSAURS
Given the popularity of the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park, a cartoon featuring an extreme take on dinosaurs was bound to happen sooner or later. In 1997, DiC Entertainment answered that call with the aptly-titled Extreme Dinosaurs. As the "Dino Vengers," the stars of the syndicated series were originally introduced during the last season of DiC's Street Sharks.
Over one season of 52 episodes, the series followed four dinosaurs who were transformed into humanoid soldiers by the interdimensional alien Argor Zardok. After rebelling against their creator, T-Bone, Stegz, Bullzeye and Spike were cryogenically frozen until modern times. With high-tech weapons like lasers, motorcycles and jet skis, they joined together to save the Earth from Zardok and his cybernetic Raptors, who wanted to make the Earth too hot for human life. The core group was also helped by an alien named Chedra Bodzak and Hard Rock, a peaceful dinosaur from another dimension.
Long before they became part of the DC Comics universe, WildC.A.T.s was one of the defining Image Comics of the early 1990s. Filled with aliens, ninjas, mercenaries and robots, Jim Lee's chart-topping series perfectly encapsulated all of that era's biggest superhero trends. In 1995, the "Covert Action Team" jumped onto television as part of CBS' Action Zone programming block.
Over one season, WildC.A.T.s offered a fairly faithful take on the team's comic adventures. The team was made up of humans like the laser-toting Grifter, Kherbium aliens like the ninja Zealot and other members like the team's cyborg leader, Spartan. Together, they all worked to protect the Earth from the Daemonites, an ancient alien race led by Helspont. While the show offered a more sanitized, kid-friendly take on its source material, its show never caught on with a wider audience and was canceled after 13 episodes.
10 MONSTER FORCE
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Universal Studios shaped the foundation of modern horror with its iconic cinematic takes on characters like Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy. In 1994, Universal and Lacewood Productions updated those characters for the grunge era with Monster Force. In that short-lived syndicated series, a group of teenagers with high-tech armor and special powers battled the classic Universal Monsters in the year 2020.
Over 13 episodes, humans like the team's leader Doc, the martial artist Tripp, the sniper Lance and the psychic Shelly worked with a teenage Wolfman and a reformed Frankenstein to take down Dracula and other supernatural foes. Using their "Energized Monster Armor Containment" equipment, the Monster Force tried to capture the monsters through the ill-defined power of magnetism. Although the show is mostly forgotten now, it's well-regarded by its fans for its above-average plots by writers like Marv Wolfman, who co-created Blade The Vampire Hunter.
While most of the entries on this list aren't fondly remembered, Exo-Squad is often counted among the best animated shows of the 1990s. For two seasons starting in 1993, the series chronicled an intergalactic war between humans and Neosapiens, a genetically engineered race of servants bred to colonize space. For 52 episodes, Able Squad, humanity's premiere fighting force, fought on the frontlines using Exo-Suits, high-tech mech-suits stuffed with exotic weaponry.
Underneath the show's tough-guy aesthetic and neon color palate, the Universal Animation Studios show had complex characters and plots that made the show a cult favorite. Occasionally marketed as "the American anime," the show has garnered favorable comparisons to beloved "big robot" shows like Mobile Suit Gundam and Robotech. Despite its reputation, the show ended when the market for syndicated cartoons started to dry up, and a planned third season was never produced.
8 THE REAL ADVENTURES OF JONNY QUEST
In the 1960s, Jonny Quest became one of Hanna-Barbera's most famous adventure characters. After a lengthy development process, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest premiered on Cartoon Network, TBS and TNT in 1996. Over two seasons, the show followed teenage adventurer Jonny Quest, his adopted brother Hadji, their scientist dad Dr. Quest, his bodyguard Race Bannon and Race's daughter Jessie as they traveled around the world investigating mysterious phenomena.
While most of the show's 52 episodes had fairly realistic action and adventure, a handful of episodes took place in a virtual realm called QuestWorld. While the rest of the show featured traditional animation, these CGI segments featured Tron-like motorcycles and a woeful misunderstanding of technology. As the show progressed, it emphasized more fantastic stories that pushed the series into a more fantasy-influenced direction. Despite a massive marketing campaign, the show never really connected with audiences and was canceled in 1997.
7 THE TERRIBLE THUNDERLIZARDS
While most of the cartoons on this list are action-oriented, some animated comedies were even informed by the extreme aesthetic. One of those shows was The Terrible Thunderlizards. Created by Steve Holland and Bill Kopp, the show aired as part of Eek! The Cat as part of the Fox Kids programming block starting in 1993.
Over 36 segments, the Thunderlizards, a team of dinosaur mercenaries, were released from prison in a Suicide Squad-esque scenario and tasked with killing two of the first humans, Bill and Scooter. Despite advanced weaponry like grenades full of bees, Doc, Kutter and Squatt failed to kill or capture their prey. The Thunderlizards were considerably more successful at saving their home, Jurassic City, from a group of undead dinosaurs called the Thuggosaurs. The series also featured Mr. T in an inspired recurring role as the dinosaur, Mr. T-Rex.
While it never reached the success of Street Fighter, Darkstalkers was another successful fighting game franchise from Capcom in the 1990s. Even though the franchise was defined by Gothic overtones, horrific monsters and scantily-clad fighters, it still became a children's cartoon in 1995. Produced by Graz Entertainment, DarkStalkers: The Animated Series ran for one season of heavily-sanitized, kid-friendly adventures.
While the show featured a good chunk of the franchise's cast, many were cast in decidedly different roles. The game's arguable star, Morrigan, was recast as a supporting villain in the service of the alien fire entity Pyron. The show also introduced Harry Grimoire, a young boy who was the modern descendant of the legendary wizard Merlin. Despite the presence of characters like Lord Raptor, an undead Australian rockstar with a laser-shooting guitar, the show ended after 13 unmemorable episodes.
5 SKELETON WARRIORS
Long before the White Walkers and the Wights plagued Game of Thrones, Skeleton Warriors brought skeleton-centric combat to Saturday morning cartoons. Produced by Graz Entertainment, the show aired as part of CBS' short-lived Action Zone programming block. During its only season, the cartoon followed the Legion of Light as they battled the evil Baron Dark and his living skeletons. Most of the show's action revolved around capturing the Lightstar Crystal, an object that could, among others things, transform "those with evil hearts" into the titular Skeleton Warriors.
While the show only lasted for 13 episodes, Skeleton Warriors produced some memorable images like hordes of skeletons shooting lasers on top of flying motorcycles. With its emphasis on skeletons and the show's noble lead, Prince Lightstar, the cartoon almost serves as a more extreme, post-apocalyptic 1990s update on the iconic 1980s fantasy series Masters of the Universe.
4 THE BUREAU OF ALIEN DETECTORS
Thanks to shows like The X-Files, aliens were all the rage in the 1990s. While aliens had been a mainstay of cartoons for decades, a few new cartons tried to cash in on the surge in extra-terrestrial popularity. One of those shows was The Bureau of Alien Detectors, or B.A.D. Produced by Saban Entertainment, the show aired on the UPN Kids programming block starting in 1996.
Over the course of 13 episodes, B.A.D.'s elite Phalanx Squad tried to keep tabs on aliens who had secretly invaded Earth. Led by the heroic Ben Packer, the members of the Phalanx Squad fell into stereotypical roles and primarily dealt with the kind of bloodless, laser-heavy action that was common in 1990s cartoons. Although the show was canceled after 13 episodes, Men in Black and its subsequent animated series found tremendous success with a similar concept in 1997.
3 ACTION MAN
The Action Man franchise began life in 1966 as the United Kingdom's answer to G.I. Joe. In the 1990s, Hasbro, the toy giant behind G.I. Joe, took over the Action Man franchise and transformed him into a broader adventure hero. Shortly after that relaunch, Action Man starred in his first TV series thanks to DiC Entertainment starting in 1995. For two seasons totaling 26 episodes, Action Man gave the long-running franchise a G.I. Joe-influenced makeover.
Using a number of toy-friendly costume changes and vehicles, an amnesiac Action Man tried to rebuild his past and fought his traditional nemesis Dr. X in the espionage-influenced series. The title character was part of Action Force, a team of international heroes that included Knuck, Natalie and Jock. In an unusual twist, each episode of the cartoon featured unintentionally campy live-action segments that starred British bodybuilder Mark Griffin as the titular man of action.
2 G.I. JOE EXTREME
After G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero faded in the early 1990s, Hasbro and its new subsidiary Kenner relaunched the storied franchise as G.I. Joe Extreme in 1995. Set in the distant future of 2006, the show followed a new generation of military heroes as they battled the would-be conqueror Iron Klaw and S.K.A.R., the Soldiers of Khaos, Anarchy and Ruin. With a largely indistinguishable team led by Lt. Stone, the show aired in syndication for two seasons.
While the show did moderately well, it was ultimately domed by the relative failure of its accompanying toyline. Even though it had a greater level of detail than other G.I. Joe toys, the G.I. Joe Extreme line was poorly received and ended after one wave. Despite that, several characters and aspects of the series were eventually woven into the revitalized worlds of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Hasbro's other powerhouse, Transformers.
1 BEAST WARS: TRANSFORMERS
In theory, Beast Wars: Transformers could've easily fallen prey to some of the worst tendencies of 1990s cartoons. Ostensibly, the Mainframe Entertainment-produced show was about alien robots who turned into animals and battled on a prehistoric Earth. Led by the gorilla Optimus Primal, the heroic Maximals battled Megatron and his Predacons to keep him from gathering powerful crystals called Energon. Despite that inherently silly set-up, this iteration of Hasbro's Transformers franchise earned fans and acclaim with incredibly sharp plotlines, legitimate emotional stakes and complex characters.
Starting in 1996, Beast Wars aired in syndication and later on the Fox Kids programming block for a total of three seasons. After its 52-episode run ended in 1999, the show spawned a short-lived sequel, Beast Machines. While the show's CGI-generated animation looks primitive by today's standards, Beast Wars' impeccable writing helped it live on in fans' memories long after the 1990s ended.
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