?The 1990s were a confusing mixture, and we’re not talking about the rise of the Internet, the rampant postmodernism, or even the way that music went from Nirvana to the Backstreet Boys. No, we’re just talking about cartoons. They were scattered and strange in the 1990s, cramming toylines, self-satire, classic remakes, and abrasive “attitude” into 22-minute packages.
Some were more annoying about it than others. Most of this can be blamed on the X-TREME movement, which decreed that cartoon heroes be pumped full of Liefeld-brand steroids and backed by no less than fourteen wailing guitars. But there were other offenders in the decade’s animated airtime, and we’ll cover the worst of both worlds here.
10) Street Sharks
Totally in-your-face cartoons of the 1990s invariably come back to Street Sharks, the totem animals of action-figure masculinity. Of all the pretenders to the throne of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Street Sharks were the only ones widely remembered once the show’s viewers grew up and discovered irony.
The opening theme is a bit lacking, though. Sure, it extolls the JAWSOME abilities of the Street Sharks in the fields of biting and fighting, but the limp guitar riffs and barely-there lyrics fall short of the 1990s standard. Still, they’re the Street Sharks. We guess.
American television didn’t know what to do with anime in the mid-1990s. Robotech, Voltron, and other imported hits of the 1980s had long since cooled, and kids were years away from fully embracing Dragon Ball Z and Pok?mon. When Saban producers diced up the space-superhero series Tekkaman Blade and served it to English-speaking audiences in 1995, they went with the trends of the day.
So Tekkaman Blade became Teknoman, complete with manful, deep-voiced narration about intergalactic warlords and “a horde of mutant spider-crabs” (which sounds like a placeholder phrase that the writers meant to punch up later on), plus an effete male character became a woman for the sake of tender American sensibilities. And, of course, there’s Teknoman and his booming, continuing saga.
8) Skysurfer Strike Force
It’s traditional that a cartoon theme song says something about the show in question, usually in lyrics or some brief, easily understood exposition. Well, that wasn’t good enough for Skysurfer Strike Force. This was a show with a story to tell, and it started right during the opening music.
So it seems that Skysurfer Strike Force is about a guy who gets framed for a mysterious explosion and his son tries to prove his innocence but there’s an evil villain who combines his brain with a computer and now he’s called Cybron but the son forms his own team of people with surfboards using the same technology and there’s a guy called Soar Loser yes really. Really, the entire thing is routine cartoon super-hero setup, and it could just as easily be summarized as “There’s a bad guy named Cybron and some good guys called the Skysurfer Strike Force. Also, here’s a close-up of cleavage for no good reason. Don’t tell your parents.”
7) Where’s Waldo?
Yes, this existed. Martin Handford’s Where’s Waldo? books (or Where’s Wally? if you’re British) grew so popular in the early 1990s that DiC put together a Saturday morning cartoon in their honor. The Waldo books are largely plotless affairs, but no one cared about that when turning them into a TV series. In fact, it’s hard to say that anyone cared about what went into the Where’s Waldo? cartoon.
In testament to the apathy of the whole production, the opening theme for Where’s Waldo? is a lazy, repetitive treatment of the eternal question: where the hell IS Waldo? Most of the cartoon themes covered here are grating and loud and horrible, but at least they try. Where’s Waldo? just sits there.
6) Sonic Underground
The downfall of Sonic the Hedgehog seems all the more tragic when you consider that it’s been going on for well over ten years. Perhaps Sonic lapsed after the Sega Genesis ended. Perhaps he hit the skids with games like Sonic R and Sonic 3D Blast. Whatever the start, Sonic was clearly on a downhill slope when Sonic Underground aired.
The theme song alone captures everything that went wrong with Sonic: the ridiculous world-building, the dated “badical” attitude, and the countless bizarre attempts to market a simple video-game character to hip 1990s children. And it’s all spelled out in lyrics about prophecies and freedom fights.
Many EXTREME cartoons of the 1990s fell short in their theme songs by not having lyrics. The otherwise hyper-manly Biker Mice from Mars is one of them, and Fox’s X-Men is another. Ultraforce nearly falls into that camp, but there are, shall we say, special circumstances.
Ultraforce’s intro is a stunning simple affair, as it consists entirely of a man yelling ULTRAFORRRRRCE while viewers meet a bunch of C-list superhero from the Malibu Comics barrel-bottom. Our favorite is Contrary, who has a terrible superhero name and rides around in a hover-chair. Her superpower apparently involves stimulating the brain’s pleasure points, but it’s hard to make that edgy without violating broadcast standards.
4) Toxic Crusaders
The Toxic Crusaders cartoon proved that parental watchdog groups weren’t really paying attention to children’s TV in the early 1990s. Shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were upbraided for their violence, but there was no outcry when Fox aired an animated series based on Troma’s notoriously tasteless Toxic Avenger films. Perhaps that’s because Toxic Crusaders was sanitized heavily and reached borderline Captain Planet levels of environmentalism. The most threatening thing about the cartoon is its opening song.
Of course, it’s not as heavy as the actual Toxic Avenger film theme song, but the show’s theme still does its best to get kids worked up over TOXIC CRUUUUU-SADERS. Those kids soon found that the cartoon’s less a violent revenge fantasy and more of a snarky-cute parody where no one really minds being hideously mutated. Oh, and it’s important to recycle.
3) Bots Master
The Bots Master is a clear case of overstaying a welcome. A cartoon about a teenage hero and his garish knockoff Transformer robots would’ve been acceptable in the fog of the 1980s, but Bots Master hails from 1993. It was even more hideous by then, and the show’s creators dressed it up with 3-D effects and a vaguely hip-hop opening number. Because those kids like that rap music, y’know. JJ Cool L and MC Hamster and all that.
Like the show itself, the Bots Master intro doesn’t know when to quit. After an agonizing roll call brings us young rebel Ziv Zoolander and his insufferable Boyzz Brigade, the music meanders on for thirty more seconds of wordless funk-techno noodling and strangely animated nonsense. It fails to distract from the fact that one robot is named Ninjzz. Say it out loud, now.
WildC.A.T.S comes not from toy lines or classic cartoon history, but from the early ’90s comic industry, which was bloated, mercenary, and unfailingly X-TREME. Among the unimaginative superhero teams that clogged many comic pages, WildC.A.T.S (that stands for Covert Action Teams!) is most flatteringly described as “Jim Lee’s X-Men rip-off that’s still better than any of Rob Liefeld’s X-Men rip-offs.” And to prove it, WildC.A.T.S actually got a cartoon while Liefeld’s Youngblood TV show died on the operating table.
It’s hard for an animated series to capture the inanity of bad ’90s comics in a single opening theme, but WildC.A.T.S did it by rhyming “heroes” and “zeroes,” a task best left to professionals like Vanilla Ice. And then it shrieked its name at kids until they gave in and watched it.
1) Stunt Dawgs
It’s very likely that many cartoon producers disdain their audiences, but Stunt Dawgs goes beyond that. Stunt Dawgs is the product of rank, unfiltered loathing. It’s a slapstick cartoon about Hollywood stuntmen (and women) and their crooked director of a rival, but like many Saturday-morning fillers that Fox inflicted on children of the 1990s, Stunt Dawgs HATES the viewer.
And that hatred starts with a screaming introduction of the STUNT DAAAAAAWGS. Every uninventive cast member gets a grating bit of verse, characters make constant honking noises to indicate surprise, and there’s a self-mocking line or two, just to show that the people responsible knew exactly what they were doing. Stunt Dawgs may deserve credit for getting a villain named “Richard Fungus” on the air, but that doesn’t excuse everything else it was.