Saturday Mornings: Video Game Cartoons
We now live in a world where new cartoons are produced with great speed and variety. So much is being produced even, that it is impossible to consume and enjoy it all. I believe there is a Pac-Man allegory in there somewhere.
But the buffet table is open and you can have whatever you want. Where once there was only one renegade channel channel dedicated to cartoons and kid shows, now there are many. The science fiction genre not only has its own channel, but major networks feature sci-fi shows during their prime-time hours. Comic book fan? Choose your poison, because both major publishers as well as a few others are producing full seasons of superhero shows. And a majority of this can all be enjoyed on-demand, on-line, 24-7.
But movies and cartoons relating to video games is still somewhat sparse and usually feature strange interpretations of the source materials. Hey, why is Sonic the Hedgehog now dating a normal human girl? Growing up in the 80's and 90's, cartoons based on video games were still relatively rare, but they were made with a certain charm. They were also cash-grabs, but they were fun cash-grabs and I felt like the advertising message was blended well enough the stories they were trying to tell.
Let's sort through some of the most popular (and a few of the strangest) video game cartoons of this golden era.
Pac-Man: This cartoon was kind of the granddaddy of video game cartoons, coming from the granddaddy of video games. Coming out in 1982 and only having 2 seasons, I was too young to remember watching it live, but it ran on repeat for years. The show starred Pac-Man, his wife Pepper Pac-Man, their child Pac-Baby, their dog Chomp-Chomp and their cat Sour Puss. It was a strange outing indeed.
Q-bert - Coming out in 1983 was a cartoon starring a figure who was arguably Pac-Man's greatest rival for video game mascot supremacy. Well, in my memory it was all about Q*bert, but it was a show called, Saturday Supercade. It ran for two seasons, composed of several shorter segments featuring characters from the golden age of arcade video games. Included were Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr, Frogger, and Pitfall Harry.
Pole Position - The show featured the Darretts, a family of stunt-driving crime fighters, operating under the front of a traveling show known as "Pole Position Stunt Show", which was sponsored by the United States government. Their cars, Roadie and Wheels, with artificial intelligence inside giving them personalities. The show had very little in common with the game, but it was a fair action show, with an amazing theme song. I can here it echoing in my head now!
Captain N: The Game Master - The first cartoon that was purely about video games all existing in the same world was Captain N: The Game Master. Coming out in 1989, they relied on name recognition more so that excellent writing and animation, but the product was still really interesting. A teenager named Kevin and his dog Duke were suddenly sucked into a vortex in his television, into a universe known as Videoland. In order to fulfill an ancient prophecy, Kevin is destined to become the hero "Captain N: The Game Master" and save Videoland from evil forces led by Mother Brain. He is joined by Princess Lana (the acting ruler of Videoland), Simon Belmont, Mega Man, and Kid Icarus. Some of these characters are significantly different than their video game counterparts, but the show was fun and innovative for the time so kids wouldn't really have noticed. This show shared a 1 hour block in Season 2 with...
The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 - This was a true love letter, written to our favorite mustachioed plumbers. The writers and animators took some extreme liberties with the source material, but I felt they still captured the essence of the original games. Many episodes even had a little chase scene that doubled as a music video. It was a little too silly for me at times, but I thought they at least tried to explore the fantastic lands of the Mushroom Kingdom and give it life. This show was later relaunched as the Super Mario World cartoon, including a lot more of the prehistoric flavor of its namesake.
The Legend of Zelda - Debuting in 1986, with its epic story and beloved characters, the Legend of Zelda seems a natural fit for a cartoon. But what we received was hokey, poorly animated, and made the titular character into a surfer-dude imbecile. Link was always trying to kiss Princess Zelda more than he was ever acting as a hero, and he even had the catchphrase "Well excuuuuuuuse me, Princess!" Enough said.
The Power Team - Emulating Captain N, The Power Team was another cartoon that came out in 1990 about a teenager running around with video game characters. All of the game characters were from Acclaim games, including Max Force from NARC, Kuros from the Wizards and Warriors series, Kwirk from the game of the same name, Tyrone from Arch Rivals, and BigFoot the monster truck. The cartoon show also featured a cartoon version of the host of Video Power, Johnny Arcade, as they fought against villains from the Acclaim lineup, mainly Mr. Big from NARC,
The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog - Debuting in 1993, this was a bit of a bare bones and zany cartoon starring Sonic and his best friend Tails. They were constantly thwarting Dr. Robotniks plans and battling his robot minions, but it was not until the show changed in 1994 that the plot evolved dramatically. Now the world they inhabited was less Looney Tunes and much more apocalyptic! They had a whole new cast of allies with different personalities, and the plot continued to advance through several seasons. It was darker, it was grim, but it made sense and really worked for Sonic!
Mega Man - Mega Man finally had his own show in 1994, and this outing was much more accurate to the games and abilities than his Captain N predecessor. Joined by Roll, his sister, and Rush, his robot dog. MegaMan fought against a massive list of Robot Masters, to thwart the maniacle Dr Wily. This was a great cartoon and still holds up today.
Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego – This show came out as I was aging out of Saturday morning cartoons in 1994, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. This cartoon was so open to adventuring around the world that it made sense to have globetrotting episodes that were very different in theme from episode to episode. Where on earth can she be???
A small handful more of video game cartoons would debut on in to the late 1990's, but the lines really begin to blur from there between franchises that were games, comic books, and movies before becoming cartoons. More networks beyond the Big 3 were producing their own content, with edgier options higher up the channel list.
1983-1993 was a good era for cartoons, because they were free to explore the words of video games, taking them in dramatic new directions that their original creators had never dreamed. And for the most part, this was a very good thing.