Honorable Mention: Family Guy, Super Mario Bros. Super Show, Flinstones, South Park
Popeye- No other cartoon character could make a generation of little boys want to actually eat vegetables. Sailors and pirates are always cool, and Popeye is the coolest of them all. Between beating up his adversary Bluto, protecting the love of his life Olive Oyl, or babysitting his mischievous alleged son Swee’Pea, Popeye could handle it all after a few bites of spinach.
Inspector Gadget- I’ll freely admit that the show itself was somewhat ridiculous, but the lead protagonist was awesome. Gadget looked, dressed, and acted like Inspector Clouseau, but he had the added benefit of being a cyborg. Need a magnifying glass? He’s got it inside his hat. Falling out of a building … Gadget has a helicopter in his hat, and his body can become a blimp if he blows on his thumb. Inspector’s coolest feature is that his limbs and neck are metal, so he can extend their lengths at his whim. We all wanted to be Inspector Gadget at one point because he was awesome.
Captain N the Game Master- Nintendo was king in the 80s and early 90s, and this was the only video game cartoon that mattered. Captain N was armed with a zapper and Nintendo controller that gave him special powers, and the show had such video game stars such as: Mega Man, Simon and Mother Brain (from Castelvania), Pit (from Kid Icarus), King Hippo (from Mike Tyson’s Punch-out), and Dr. Wiley (from Mega Man).
ProStars- If there was an 80s cartoon that featured Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, or Wayne Gretzky it would have been a certifiable monster. Prostars was an 80s cartoon that starred all three of these sports giants, so it was obviously a huge success. The show had the athletes work together to help kids who get into precarious situations, and they used their athletic prowess to defeat villains. A couple of engineers worked with the trio to inject special gadgets that would increase how high MJ could jump, how fast/strong Bo was, or how hard The Great One could shoot an object with his stick. Best show on Saturday mornings for a long time.
ThunderCats- Four human/cat-like aliens fight against a weird mummy with evil magic powers. This premise sounds stupid, but ThundarCats was tremendous. The leader Lion-O wielded this rowdy sword that could change size, see the future, sense danger, and summon his allies. Every episode followed the same plot line, but it didn’t matter, because that plot was incredible.
G.I.- Joe- Another example of how certain plot lines just cannot fail. Carrying momentum from the popular action figures, GI Joe featured all four branches of the United States military fighting to protect citizens from a group of terrorists. Just that little bit of information would guarantee success, but this show had so much more. Both sides were equipped with high tech weapons and top flight ninjas, and there was tons of hand to hand combat in every episode. Without G.I. Joe no one would ever know about the legend Cobra Commander, and thanks to the include public service announcements, the infamous phrase, “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”
X-men- When Fox began televising the most popular comic book series ever created it was an obvious goldmine. What translates better to a cartoon than good versus evil, humans with supernatural abilities, and subtle sexual tension? The cartoon spawned the success of the live action movies, and of course everyone’s favorite badass, Wolverine, was prominently involved in lots of destruction.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe- The self proclaimed most powerful man in the world is a prince who turns into a badass when he shouts the words, “By the power ofGrayskull.” Nothing was cooler than seeing this hero ride on Battlecat and kick Skeletor’s ass.
Looney Tunes- If this show never achieved success, none of the other creations on this list would have existed. What would the history of cartoons be like without Bugs Bunny Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, etc. All of these iconic stars paved the way daily animated television success. Some complain about the racial stereotypes depicted in many of the episodes, but the cartoons only portrayed the common political thoughts of that era.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles- Ninjas are cool, mutants are cool, and pizza is the best food ever. Combine those three, and you have one of the best cartoons ever. TMNT went through several iterations, had 4 feature films, and countless toys and video games. The series was actually started by a comic book, but the iconic cartoon spearheaded the hype machine.
Voltron- Five lions flying around space doing damage is cool as hell, but those same lions turning into a world class fighting robot is even better. I still get goose bumps when I hear the words “form blazing sword!” or when I see a clip like this.
The Simpsons- Matt Groening’s creation is the longest running American cartoon of all time, the longest running American sitcom of all time, and the longest running American primetime series of all time. The Simpsons’ success allowed the entry of several adult comics into the mainstream, like South Park, Boondocks, Family Guy, King of Hill. 22 years is a long time to produce a cartoon, and there may be no end in sight for the Simpsons creative machine.
Transformers- Despite the damage that Michael Bay has done to the brand, Transformers is the best cartoon ever made. Nothing has or will beat vehicles tranforming into hi-tech robots and doing battle. Optimus Prime is the coolest television robot in the world bar none. Interestingly enough, the voice of Optimus is a man named Peter Cullen, who actually provides the opening credits for Voltron. I think he deserves a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.