If the ’80s started the era of iconic cartoons, the ’90s took it to the next level with series like Batman, Gargoyles, SWAT Kats, and many more. The toyetic quality of the ’80s cartoons faded as writers started to take the medium more seriously, raising the quality of the writing and churning out some of the most classic cartoons in history. This is part of why the nostalgia for the ’90s runs so deep in all of us — many of that decade’s cartoons were legitimately great.
Many of them, but not all of them. Sometimes nostalgia can blind us, and shows that felt classic to us when we were kids can look…far less interesting now. Sometimes it’s the writing, other times it’s the animation. More often than not, it’s simply the fact that the series was just too much a product of the times, and simply does not hold up outside of that specific era, where it made sense to constantly use words like “radical” and “tubular”, and it was okay to disparage our teenagers as slackers. It can be pretty rough on your rose-colored glasses to re-watch those series, so that’s why CBR did it for you, and we’re looking at the 15 ’90s cartoons that are completely unwatchable today.
The Pokemon craze swept over America in the late ’90s as a fad, but twenty years later the games are just as popular as ever, selling in monster numbers and making sure Nintendo will have fans for years to come. But the game isn’t the show, and the show is terrible. It’s refusal to actually move on to new protagonist means the show’s been airing for twenty years with nearly a thousand episodes but hasn’t actually gone anywhere plot-wise in that time.
Ash is the perpetual 13 year old, facing league after Pokemon League (usually losing), and setting free all of his Pokemon just in time for the next series. The utter lack of continuity between seasons just makes it feel like you’re wasting your time from week to week, because nothing ever matters.
14. BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD
Before Mike Judge created the legendary satire series King of the Hill, he first got a little show onto MTV called Beavis and Butthead. The series followed a pair of teenaged kids who were obsessed metal and had zero adult supervision. At the time, it was just funny to see that a network would actually air a cartoon where teenaged kids could swear and make crude adult jokes.
But watching it today, its commentary is nowhere near as insightful and its characters are nowhere near as likable as the creator’s far superior King of the Hill. And this far removed from the ’90s, the idea of a guy running around with a T-shirt over their head calling themselves “Cornholio” and claiming they need “TP for their bunghole” just isn’t as funny.
13. MORTAL KOMBAT: DEFENDERS OF THE REALM
The Mortal Kombat cartoon is one of those things where the existence alone is actually kind of amazing. Sure it only lasted a single season, but there are so many steps between conception of an idea and actually airing on television that you’d think someone would have stopped and realized they were going to show kids a cartoon about a game where characters are routinely killed in creative, but brutal fashion at the end of most matches.
Sure, it was a sanitized version where Raiden lead Earthrealm’s warriors as a special team to battle against Shao Khan, but there’s no way it didn’t lead kids to ask their parents to buy the video game when they saw it in stores. The saddest part? Because it is a sanitized version, the show holds zero value to those kids now that they’ve grown up.
12. JAMES BOND JR.
As a kid, the idea of James Bond having an American nephew who went on cool adventures all by himself felt like one of the best ideas ever. Even the theme song felt iconic at the time. But watching it as an adult, it often comes off more like a kid trying to play at being an adult. He actually asked for “chocolate milk, shaken, not stirred”. Y’know, like how the real 007 liked martinis, except you can’t mention alcohol on kid’s television?
The show even has a collection of Bond Girls complete with ridiculous names like Lotta Dinero and Terri Firma, none of which are at all provocative like the Bond Girls from the actual 007 films. The lesson here is that adult properties and kids shows probably shouldn’t mix.
11. IRON MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
With Robert Downey Jr. over a decade away from donning the red-and-gold armor, Iron Man was far from being the face of a burgeoning film franchise, so fans of the character were probably just happy that he even had a cartoon at all in the 90’s. Unfortunately, giving the series a watch in the present leaves quite a bit to be desired.
The first season sees the Mandarin using Iron Man’s rogues gallery like a bunch of easily beaten flunkies, devaluing both the villains and the hero who overcomes them. And nearly every episode has some kind of plot about how his armor is nearly out of power, which gets repetitive and makes Tony seem like a chump who can’t develop a good suit. It’s sad when the series about “Teen Tony” is somehow more watchable.
10. SUPER MARIO BROS. SUPER SHOW
For what it’s worth, the actual cartoon parts of Super Mario Bros. aren’t that terrible. It stays faithful to the base plot line of Mario and Luigi saving Princess Peach and the Mushroom Kingdom from the machinations of the evil King Koopa, at least. It’s by no means great, but no better or worse than your average cartoon from most eras.
What makes this show so unwatchable today is how it inexplicably switches between an animated form and a weird Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-esque live action format. This comes complete with a pair of guys dressed up like Mario and Luigi who meet strange, unrelated-to-the-game guests like famous wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, and rap the show’s intro, where they claim to be “faster than the others” and that “you’ll be hooked on the brothers”. Making it through the intro alone proves you’re made of tougher stuff than most.
9. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
Technically a cheat since this series started in the ’80s, but given the series had most of its run into the ’90s, it still counts. When 4Kids announced they were rebooting the TMNT cartoon in 2003, fans were initially reluctant to check out the new series, viewing the original as an untouchable classic, most likely because they hadn’t seen it in years.
But a re-watch of even one episode reveals the truth — Shredder was a bumbling idiot who could’ve been foiled by the kid from Home Alone, while the Turtles could barely even use their weapons and spent most of their time cracking jokes and repeating ’90s “radical” catchphrases instead of being awesome ninja. Meanwhile the sequel managed to churn out some of the best plots in cartoons of the ’00s, proving that maybe sometimes the original isn’t the best.
8. SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
“The Animated Series” — we tend to look back on the Timm/Dini-verse as a singular monolith, all deserving of being called awesome, but… Superman might not be worthy of being part of such an honor. People’s biggest problem with the Man of Steel has always been that he was too invincible, and thus it’s often too difficult to find a way to actually challenge him in a physical fight.
What was the writers for this show’s solution to this issue? Well, they powered him down. Massively. Lasers could knock him down, electricity hurt him and far too many villains had a supply of Kryptonite or a Red Sun lamp to make him as ineffective as possible. This was a purposeful decision, as the writers found it too difficult to write the character with his usual power-levels, but that makes it no more tolerable to watch if you’re a fan of Big Blue.
7. BEAST WARS
Beast Wars is often hailed for its complex characterization and serial plots, something that was fairly novel for cartoons at the time it was airing on televisions. And while it’s still possible to watch the series and enjoy it for those specific features, there’s a different, glaring problem that the series can’t get away from in this era.
One of the first television series to be animated with 3D CGI techniques, Beast Wars has aged absolutely horribly. The backgrounds are almost always non-existent, with characters often existing on flat planes with absolutely nothing behind them; it often feels like they exist in some kind of strange limbo rather than pre-historic planet Earth. It’s unfortunate that as forward-thinking as the show was during the ’90s, its visuals have caused it to be one of the most dated series in the modern era.
6. STREET SHARKS
With the advent of cable, the amount of content needed to fill the airwaves increased exponentially both for adults and children. Sometimes this resulted in interesting shows like Exo Squad or SWAT Kats… and then other times you wound up with blatant rip-offs. Street Sharks was the latter, one of several shows to try and rip off TMNT, along with Biker Mice from Mars and Extreme Dinosaurs.
A group of human brothers who had their DNA altered by a device known as the “gene slammer”, the four teens become sharks capable of “swimming” through concrete, and battle the mad scientist responsible for their transformation. This series is so ’90s it hurts, with each of the brothers engaging in exreme sports popular from the era, and having “radicool” names like Ripster, Streex and Big Slammu.
5. YO! YOGI
Yo Yogi isn’t anyone’s idea of a classic. It aired on NBC in 1991 for thirteen episodes before being cancelled. Launched at the height of the “kids versions of classic cartoons” craze, it re-cast most of the Hanna-Barbera characters as teenaged mallrats who hung out in Jellystone Town’s local mall. It carried some appeal at the time to any kid with a love of modern pop culture, but watching it now it just feels dated and makes you wonder what they were thinking airing it in the first place.
The greatest tragedy is that Yo Yogi has seemingly managed to kill off some of the longest-lived cartoon characters in history. The adorable talking animals of the Hanna-Barbera universe managed to live on past their original incarnations for nearly thirty years until Yo Yogi came along, and since then there hasn’t been a Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, or Snagglepuss series since.
4. BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURES
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures is a little hard to swallow even in film form: a pair of slacker kids grow up to form a band so insightful that their music inspires the world to transform into a utopia. But even though the film eventually found its own fanbase, the cartoon had a bit more trouble. Initially maintaining the same cast from the films, eventually muddling from Fox lead to them changing the voice actors to match Fox’s television series.
But even without the change in quality, there’s just so much ’90s to this show that it’s hard to sit through in the modern era. Regardless of what people say about millennials, slacker culture is definitely a relic of the past, and no amount of cool voices from Keanu Reeves and George Carlin can change that.
3. STREET FIGHTER
One of many, many video game adaptations that would exist in the ’90s, Street Fighter isn’t nearly as baffling a choice as others, but it’s still one of the least faithful you’ll ever sit through. As a kid, without a doubt it was just awesome to watch characters from one of your favorite video games on TV.
But as an adult, all of its flaws start to come falling out. Its animation is questionable. For whatever reason, Guile is the main character rather than Ryu, or even Ken — while Ryu and Ken both are presented as goofballs that are largely unimportant. And the World Warriors have somehow become an actual team of international agents instead of disconnected people with their own reason for getting involved with Shadaloo. It’s not just tough to watch, it’s just downright weird.
2. JOHNNY BRAVO
Alongside Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo was one of the original of Cartoon Network’s groundbreaking series of Cartoon Cartoons, their network original animated comedies. The series ran from 1997 to 2004 for 65 episodes, following the daily adventures of a muscle-bound jock who sounded strangely like Elvis.
Though people didn’t have a problem with it at the time, it was pretty weird to follow a series about a character who actually admitted to being a womanizer. While he was rebuffed by nearly any woman he ever spoke to, the fact that this character’s sole purpose seemed to be hitting on as many women as possible, as often as possible, until one of them acquiesced to his advances, is probably pretty problematic to say the least.
1. CAPTAIN PLANET AND THE PLANETEERS
Captain Planet was popular enough to run for three seasons before getting a sequel that ran for another three, and kids certainly loved it, but watching it again can be a pretty painful experience for most people. The whole purpose of the series is to be a “Very Special Episode” — every episode.
On top of that, the villains are comedically evil, often specifically saying they intend to ruin the Earth for their own monetary gain. It’s not even that they have secret utopian places they can hide at to enjoy their immense wealth — they embrace how terrible the world will be once they’ve ruined it, which is both baffling and oddly accepting of them. And all that before you get to how Captain Planet was both meant to fight pollution while somehow being weak to it, which is like if Superman’s entire rogues gallery… was the Kryptonite Man.
What classic 90’s toons do you think are unwatchable today? Let us know in the comments!
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