The Top 10 Action/Sci-Fi Cartoons Of The 1980s

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Ahhhh, the ’80s. If you’re like me (an old fart), you remember racing home from elementary school, grabbing some Hostess snack cakes, and plopping down in front of the TV in the den or basement to watch some 30-minute toy advertisements after school action cartoons. From anthropomorphic animal warriors to mighty transforming mecha, the male-oriented animated series of the 1980s explored the never-ending battle between good and evil, taught us all basic morals and life lessons, assaulted us with Reagan-era jingoism, and turned us all into tiny consumers who were driven blind with desire over die-cast metal or injection-molded plastic playthings.

But with literally hundreds of cheaply produced cartoons to choose from over the course of the decade, which ones stand the test of time? Which ones had the most impact? Which ones have gained iconic status? Well, I am here to bring you the DEFINITIVE list of the best and boldest 1980s animated series. If it ain’t here…it didn’t matter!

(Ed. Note – Some of you may be wondering where Battle of the Planets is. I thought long and hard about including it here—in a relatively high position, too—but ultimately I decided it was a more of a 1970s show. It debuted in the U.S. in September 1978, and had burned through most of its episodes before the ’80s started, so I had to leave it off.)

10.) ThunderCats

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Thunder…THUNDER…THUNDERCATS…HOOOOOOOOO!!!! Boy, we sure loved our talking, walking, anthropomorphic animal heroes in the 1980s, didn’t we? And that love was perhaps no better exemplified than by the ThunderCats – a band of Cat-people refugees who escaped from their destroyed world of Thundera in a starship and settled on a new planet known as “Third Earth.” Together, they tried to repel attacks by an ancient evil Mummy bad guy named Mumm-Ra and somehow wake up every day and go on living with an annoying sidekick creature named Snarf always hanging around. There weren’t too many life lessons being dispensed here; The ThunderCats were unabashed action figure schills, and they were damn good ones, too. The show ran for over four years – a lifetime for a toy-based property in the ’80s.

9.) M.A.S.K.

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M.A.S.K —short for “Mobile Armored Strike Kommand” (yes, “Kommand”)—is another example of a shameless, half-hour plastic schillery showcase. Debuting in 1985, just in time to rescue Kenner’s lagging toy sales as the Star Wars line was winding down, M.A.S.K. was actually a pretty solid series with some beautiful animation; and its premise was awesome: an (apparently) privatized team of adventurers, thinkers, and badasses who piloted transforming vehicles like the Thunderhawk (a Camaro Z-28 that turned into a plane, or the Gator, a jeep that shot a speedboat out of its chassis) battled the evil forces of V.E.N.O.M. (Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem) around the world. The only real downfall of the series was the heavy amount of screen time devoted to MASK’s leader Matt Trakker’s whiny kid Scott, and Scott’s annoying robot sidekick T-Bob, who was essentially a hideous amalgamation of C-3PO and Snarf from the ThunderCats…*shudder*

8.) Force Five

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Force Five is probably my personal favorite show on this list: five weekdays, five different American edits of Japanese giant robot shows. The week started with Danguard Ace, adapted from Planetary Robot Danguard Ace. On Tuesdays you had The Starvengers, an edit of Getter Robo G. Wednesdays featured the Spaceketeers, which was Sci-Fi West Saga Starzinger in Japan. Then the week wrapped up with Grandizer (UFO Robot Grendizer)and Gaiking (Divine Demon-Dragon Gaiking). My two favorites were Grandizer and Gaiking, two of the most badass giant mecha designs of all time, but in all honesty, all of the shows were pure “giant robots shooting and punching and slicing the crap out of each other” bliss.

As an added bonus, if you were fortunate to live on the East Coast, you could catch an ad for an amazing toy store called Mr. Big’s Toyland, which stocked all sorts of die-cast robots and toys from the Force Five show and other Japanese imports. It was a glorious paradise that I unfortunately never saw with my own eyes…sigh.

7.) He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe

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He-Man & The Masters Of The Universe is historically significant because it was the first syndicated animated series to be based on a toy line. Laws designed to protect children from being directly marketed to and exposed to the evils of unchecked consumerism prevented a toy-based intellectual property like He-Man from even being considered for television, but thanks to the Reagan era, all of those pesky regulations were thrown out the window and Capitalism reigned supreme. Thus, legendary (and legendarily cheap and fast) animation studio Filmation quickly cranked out 65 [!] episodes of the Masters of the Universe cartoon in 1983. The 65 episode order finally ran out in 1985, but that staggering number was enough to air in reruns until 1990 – long after the toy line dried up.

The show set the template for many ’80s action/sci-fi shows to follow: strong, beefy lead protagonist; sexy companion/love interest; loyal best friend/advisor; screechy, bumbling villain; annoying creature sidekick; and—naturally—plenty of side characters and vehicles to sell to the kiddies.

6.) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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The Turtles’ animated series had absolutely impeccable timing. In 1987-88, when the show first aired, Star Wars was long dead, and Transformers, MASK, ThunderCats, He-Man, and G.I. Joe were all gasping for breath. There was a pop culture and male action toy sales void to fill, and the Turtles not only filled it, they caused the void to collapse in on itself, creating a vast singularity that sucked in billions of dollars from parents’ wallets for well over a decade.

Sunnier, goofier, and more G-Rated than the dark, Frank Miller-esque original TMNT comic books by Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird, the Turtles’ animated adventures introduced “Cowabunga!” into the vocabulary of millions of kids and made surfer dude Michaelangleo, Stoic leader Leonardo, Nerdy Donatello, and Tough-Guy Rebel Raphael into fully fledged pop culture icons, right up there with Superman, Mickey Mouse, and Luke Skywalker.

5.) Voltron

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When Voltron hit the airwaves in 1984, it was an overnight sensation. I mean, kids went absolutely apeshit over the concept of five space heroes piloting giant steel lions who could then combine to form a towering robot so impossibly badass, he made all other giant Japanese mechas look like that “Gonk” droid from Star Wars. Like many shows on this list, Voltron was pieced together from an older Japanese series called Beast King Go Lion, which had so much blood, gore, and horrific violence in it, that footage from another series had to be edited in to fill in the gaps. This footage mostly consisted of some random guys in space sitting around a big table discussing what they should do about the continuing giant monster crisis.

At any rate, kids completely latched on to the “Voltron Force” composed of Keith, Lance, Hunk, Sven (who was later replaced by Princess Allura), and Pidge. These characters followed a “team” aesthetic that was prevalent in many Japanese series: big fat guy, beautiful woman, skinny nerdy kid, heroic black-haired guy, etc. The format of the show was formulaic – The evil King Zarkon would unleash a RoBeast to destroy the planet Arus, and it would knock the crap out of the individual lions until they wised up and combined to form Voltron. One blazing sword later, the RoBeast would be sliced deli meat and everyone would laugh. It was genius.

4.) Transformers

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“More Than Meets The Eye!!”

In the early ’80s Hasbro acquired the rights to repaint  and repackage a popular line of die-cast, transforming robot toys known as “Diaclone.” But in order to sell the merchandise to American kids, the toys would need new names, new backstories, and—most importantly—a daily cartoon like He-Man to really hook the kiddies. Enter Marvel Comics and Sunbow animation, who created The Transformers animated series, which chronicled the epic battle between the heroic Optimus Prime and the Autobots, and the evil Megatron and the Decepticons. Spanning four seasons, 92 episodes, and a movie, the Transformers was—and remains—one of the hottest pop culture properties ever created. The movie is particularly memorable for the brutal murders of several beloved characters, and for Stan Bush’s amazing rock magnum opus, “You’ve Got The Touch.”

I cannot convey the sheer fervor created by the prospect of toy robots that a kid could manipulate and transform into a car, jet, gun, and even a cassette player. It was a nationwide phenomenon the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Star Wars.

3.) Star Blazers

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“We’re off to outer space…we’re leaving mother earth…to save the human race…our star blazerrrrrrrrs!”

Yet another Japanese import, Star Blazers was compiled from three different seasons of a legendary Anime called Space Battleship Yamato, and it was one of the very first animated series brought over to the States that had a serialized narrative, so the episodes had to be aired in order. The “Star Blazers” were a group of heroes led by Derek Wildstar and Captain Avatar, who manned a retrofitted battleship called the Argo into deep space, seeking aid from the planet Iscandar to repair the damage caused to the planet Earth by the evil Gamilons. It’s pretty epic stuff for an adult, but to a kid, it was impenetrable, mind-blowing stuff. I don’t remember if I ever saw the end of the journey, but to my 7-year-old mind, it made Homer’s The Odyssey seem like a trip down to the corner store and back.

2.) Robotech

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Robotech was yet another show cobbled together from three different Japanese series: Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA (Jeez, the Japanese love wordy titles). But the Macross portion was the only one worth a damn, and it had every kid in America over the age of eight glued to the screen after school to see if the show’s hero Rick Hunter would continue chasing after spoiled, petulant J-POP star Lynn Minmei, or get with the determined, badass spaceship X-O Lisa Hayes, all the while fighting giant aliens across a ravaged hellscape in his transforming jet/robot. Yeah, Robotech was flat-out awesome. It combined the best elements of Transformers, giant robot shows, space exploration shows like Starblazers, and character-oriented space opera like Star Wars, into one incredible package.

1.) G.I. Joe

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“Now I know…and knowing is half the battle!”

And here it is, the cartoon series that epitomizes the 1980s: Garishly-colored characters, clearly defined good guys vs. clearly defined bad guys, heavy-handed morals, Cold War-era jingoism, pew-pew-pew laser battles, and of course, lots of vehicles, hardware, bases, and characters all readily available on the aisles of the local Toys R Us.

Like The Transformers—which ran concurrently—G.I. Joe was produced by Sunbow animation and ran from 1983-1986. The 1983 and 1984 “seasons” only consisted of two, five-part mini-series (better known as the “MASS Device and Weather Dominator” sagas), with regular daily episodes beginning in the Fall of 1985. Kids quickly fell in love with “Real American Heroes” like Duke, Scarlett, Snake-Eyes, Shipwreck, Roadblock, Flint, and Lady Jaye and tuned in daily to see how they would foil yet another insane scheme from the crown prince of ’80’s cartoon baddies – Cobra Commander, famously voiced by Chris Latta (he also did double duty as Starscream on The Transformers).

Though the comic book was far superior (characters were allowed to fire actual military machineguns and injure/kill other characters; Cobra Commander wasn’t an inept, screaming lunatic), the G.I. Joe animated series was a crucial element in the overall success of the single greatest male action toy line of all time.

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About Author

Jeff Carter

Jeff is the defining voice of his generation. Sadly, that generation exists only in an alternate dimension where George Lucas became supreme overlord of the Earth in 1979 and replaced every television broadcast and theatrical film on the planet with Star Wars and Godzilla movies. In this dimension, he’s just a guy from New England who likes writing snarky things about superheroes, monsters, and robots.

  • Ben Rollier

    – BraveStarr
    – Silverhawks
    – C.O.P.S.

    • Jeffree Lee Trubble

      Hardly anyone I talk to remembers Silver Hawks!

    • Nathan Fleischman

      I would say they are honorable mentions.

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  • Crimson Mask

    Thundercats toys were not popular or widespread. In the entire decade of the 80s I only ever saw one Lion-O figure in a Target (not even one of the major chains) and iirc it wasn’t much of an “action figure,” being oversized and not very articulated. To say that the show was designed to sell that plastic crap is a mistake — if toy sales had been important to the franchise it would not have survived a single season.

    Fact is, plastic toys were not the real money-maker for most of the syndicated cartoons of the 80s. The reliable money was in sugar-coated cereal. Syndication in the 80s was mostly about selling ad time in the UHF market, and those were the prime advertisers for most of the year, with toy companies ramping up ads only in the fall, when Commercialized Christmas was coming on.

  • Lucio

    The only cartoon here that could be classified as science fiction is Robotech

    • Nathan Fleischman

      Why is that?

  • Jeffree Lee Trubble

    Star Blazers should be #1