Kids like playing with toys and watching cartoons, and it’s rare to find a popular animated show or movie that doesn’t have action figures, dolls, and other merchandise determined to take advantage of these mutual interests. Therefore, in the true spirit of capitalism, toy manufacturers have have continually teamed up with film and TV companies to produce toys based on their properties – and vice versa – for generations. It’s proven to be quite a prosperous set-up in some cases, too.
This trend took off in the ‘80s when multiple cartoons emerged based on toylines, and Saturday mornings were synonymous with showcasing them alongside effective commercials. During the heyday of Saturday morning cartoons, some shows created with the sole purpose of draining bank accounts surpassed their toy counterparts to achieve cult immortality. On the other hand, some didn’t fare so well and fell off as fast as they were introduced. This list looks back at cartoons of this nature – from the classics to the forgotten gems, and even a couple that sucked for good measure.
Due to the sheer volume of cartoons established with these intentions, however, we haven’t been able to include everything, so be sure to sound off in the comments with some we didn’t include. In the meantime, here are 19 Cartoon That Were Just Made To Sell Toys.
19. CABBAGE PATCH KIDS
The Cabbage Patch Kids dolls were allegedly invented by an artist named Martha Nelson in the 1970s, but her design was stolen by manufacturer Xavier Roberts and he made a small fortune after re-branding the dolls under the moniker we know them as today. Nelson did not see a penny of that profit either. The history of the Cabbage Patch Kids is a controversial one, but there’s no denying the impact they’ve had on toy culture.
The Cabbage Patch Kids animated adaptations aren’t as interesting as the disputes behind the toyline. The first screen adaptation arrived in the form of 1984s TV special, First Christmas. A couple have come along since, but they’re nothing to write home about. The Cabbage Patch Kids have yet to experience a cartoon on par with their cultural legacy as a toy brand, but never say never.
18. SKELETON WARRIORS
No one remembers Skeleton Warriors, in toy form or as a TV show. That’s because neither made a significant impact upon their releases in the early ’90s. The series aired for 13 episodes before its eventual cancellation, which is hardly enough time to become ingrained in the widespread pop culture consensus. Which is a shame really, as the show is an action-packed gem, brimming with adventure… and skeletons, of course.
The story takes place on the distant planet of Luminaire and follows a trio of royal siblings who must take the fight to the evil Baron Dark and his army of darkness. Each side holds their own special crystal which grants them special powers, but should Dark obtain both then he would become truly indestructible and his evil ways would know no bounds.
In addition to a toyline, the cartoon spawned a comic book series which was published by Marvel, as well as a video game of the same name released for the Sega Saturn and PS1.
17. SWAMP THING
Despite his icon status in the medium of comics, Swamp Thing’s screen adaptations have yet to give the character the portrayal he deserves. Sure, the live-action films are both entertaining in their own way and the 1990 TV series has its charms; but it is not unfair to say that the world is still waiting for that amazing Swamp Thing movie or show that will blow our collective mind to smithereens. That said, the 1991 animated series is pretty good, even if it only contains a handful of episodes.
Like Troma’s Toxic Crusaders cartoon, the Swamp Thing animated series aimed to repackage a character primarily associated with mature horror stories as a family-friendly environmental anti-hero. For a few episodes, we got to see Swampy fight mutants and save the day while promoting a positive message about this wonderful earth we share. It’s just a shame that we didn’t get to see more of it.
Launched by Mattel in 1959, Barbie has remained at the forefront of toys geared towards young females for nearly 60 years. At this point, she’s more than a simple doll – she’s a cultural icon, whose brand has extended to cover multiple prosperous mediums. She’s been regarded as a strong symbol for female independence, and she’s been criticized for promoting a negative materialist lifestyle. Regardless, Barbie is popular across various mediums, including a long-running animated film series which goes back 30 years.
Her first outing, Barbie and the Rockers: Out of this World, was released in 1987. In the film, Barbie and the gang go to space and achieve musical super stardom, and it just so happened to be based on a line of dolls portraying the popular blonde as a rock star. At the time of writing, a total of 35 films exist in the Barbie animated canon, with the next instalment set to be released later this year.
15. RUBIK, THE AMAZING CUBE
If you were a kid in the early to mid-’80s and had access to Rubik’s Cube, chances are you spent hours trying to match up the colored squares just to see if the box sprung to life emblazoned with special powers – like it did in this underrated Saturday morning cartoon.
Originally airing as part of a block alongside Pac-Man: The Animated Series, Rubik, the Amazing Cube tells the story of a group of kids who, along with the help of the titular magical puzzle, solve mysteries and stand up to adversaries in their day-to-day lives. Their biggest enemy, however, is an evil magician who wants to obtain Rubik for his own nefarious deeds.
When it comes to anthropomorphic heroes, then look no further than Thundercats for some of the finest you’re ever likely to encounter. Although the show was originally created in 1983, it did not air until 1985 due to difficulties at the time. Therefore, LJN’s action figure line based on the show actually pre-dated its network premiere. LJN continued to produce toys and other merchandise until 1987, but action figures pertaining to the show and its 2011 reboot is still widely available.
ThunderCats follows the adventures of a group of humanoid alien cats who are forced to flee from their planet when it’s destroyed by the nasty Mutants of Plun-Darr. Their evacuation eventually leads them to a new world known Third Earth, and under the leadership of the courageous Lion-O, our fierce felines their new planet of residence from mutant scum. This is one cartoon that has stood the test of time and offers more than a few simple nostalgic thrills.
13. EXTREME DINOSAURS
Originally conceived under the much better title of Dino Vengers in 1996 by Mattel, these toys were eventually re-branded as Extreme Dinosaurs and spawned a short-lived cartoon of the same name in 1997. The story follows a group of teenage college students who possess the ability to transform into prehistoric beasts whenever trouble is afoot. Their main objective is to stop a group of Velociraptors from speeding up global warming to make the climate friendlier for dinosaurs to roam the lands once again.
Extreme Dinosaurs is a spin-off of Street Sharks (which we’ll come to later), but it failed to live up to the success of its predecessor. Deciding that it wasn’t commercially viable, the powers that be decided to make the show extinct shortly thereafter. However, the DVD is available in some regions, and the it has been known to pop up on Netflix occasionally as well.
12. MAX STEEL
Max Steel began life as a Mattel action figure in 1997. Four years later, he was given his own animated TV series of the same name, followed by a series of nine direct-to-video movies beginning with Endangered Species in 2004. Then in 2013, the TV series was rebooted by Disney for a short time, but our hero did eventually find his way to the live-action arena in 2016. Spoiler: it wasn’t well-received.
The series follows a teenage boy who becomes a spy after he gains powers which give him superhuman abilities. His work takes him all around the world fighting evil and saving the day in thrilling ways. The toys and series have both been compared to Action Man, and while Steel might not be as universally popular as that particular dude, he deserves some credit. Hopefully they decide to reboot the series in future, because one can never be too old for CGI-generated espionage.
11. HOT WHEELS
For many kids around the world, their love of cars came about through Hot Wheels. The popular line of vehicular toys were originally introduced by Mattel in 1968 and they’ve continued to please kids and adults alike ever since. In fact, they are just as popular among grown-ups due to their status as valuable collector’s items. But who wants to keep toy cars locked in boxes when you can play with them roll them around the carpet making “vroom vroom’’ sounds? That’s like buying a DeLorean and keeping it in the garage.
As to be expected from a toy line dedicated entirely to cars, the short-lived Hot Wheels animated series was about racing. Sounds innocent enough, right? Well apparently not: the show was banned in 1971 because the Federal Trade Commission deemed it a half-hour advertisement for the toys as opposed to a legitimate, entertaining TV show.
10. MY LITTLE PONY
These days, My Little Pony is an all-encompassing entertainment franchise worth billions of dollars. However, when the toyline was first introduced by Hasbro as My Pretty Pony in 1981, it wasn’t an immediate success. That said, when it was re-branded in 1982 under the brand name we all know and love – with more colorful and creative horses in its pony palette – it blew up.
My Little Pony: The Movie was released theatrically in 1986 and the TV series followed a few months later. The show follows a human girl named Megan who finds herself living the dream when she winds up in Pony Land, embarking on all kinds of adventures with the ponies that live there. It’s charming, if you’re into that sort of thing.
9. CREEPY CRAWLERS
Based on a line of spooky action figures by ToyMax, the Creepy Crawlers TV show debuted in October 1994, just in time for the Halloween season. Furthermore, the show was produced by the Saban Entertainment company, who are primarily known for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and other live-action programs of a similar ilk.
The series follows Chris, a teenager who discovers a box of green super-ooze which unleashes five grotesque superheroes who would fit right in with Universal’s Dark Universe. The shows villain is the evil wizard Gugengrime, a mischievous sort who steals the goo and uses it to create of monsters hell-bent on world domination. That means Chris and his chums must step up and protect the well-being of all mankind.
Creepy Crawlers aired for two seasons during its original syndication run between 1994 and 1996 before returning to the shadows. When Nelly Furtado sang about how all good things come to an end, she meant this show being canned. Probably.
Dino-Riders was primarily a promotional show to support the Tyco toyline of the same name. Only 14 episodes were produced and they aired in 1988 as part of the Marvel Action Universe alongside shows like Robocop: The Animated Series and Pryde of the X-Men.
The series takes place on a prehistoric Earth and focuses on the battle between the good Valorians and the evil Rulons, who have travelled back in time and recruited the planet’s dinosaur population to help with their respective objectives. Furthermore, as if dinosaurs aren’t deadly enough, imagine the mighty beasts equipped with weapons. This is the type of madness you can expect to find in an average episode of Dino-Riders.
While the show was short-lived and isn’t exactly renowned in the modern era, a film reboot has been in the works since 2015. Let’s hope it materializes: the world needs more dinosaurs movies – especially ones where the monsters are packing lasers.
7. CHALLENGE OF THE GOBOTS
When the GoBots burst on the scene, many considered them to be a poor man’s Transformers. To an extent, they sort of are: both of their respective cartoons are based on toylines, both are transforming robots, and both originate from warring planets. However, the GoBots have human brains, so that makes them somewhat different from their counterparts at the end of the day. That said, the parallels between both are uncanny; so when Hasbro inherited the GoBots property after buying out Tonka in the early ’90s, it made sense to merge them with the Transformers universe.
But when the Hanna Barbera series, Challenge of the GoBots, aired between 1984 and 1985, it was considered a Transformers knock-off. While it’s not of the same quality, the show still packs some charm. The story follows the conflict between Guardians, lead by the noble Leader-1, and the Renegades, lead by Cy-Kill, who intends to destroy the Earth. Sound familiar?
6. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
Although the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters originate from the influential comic book series created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the 1987 TV series is associated with its coinciding toyline. When Playmate Toys were developing the action figures, they felt that the comic books were too violent and dark for kids. On top of that, the fan base consisted of small cult audience of mature readers. In a bid to garner attention from a wider and younger demographic, they obtained a television deal and a series was produced by the studio Murakami-Wolf-Swenson and the French company IDDH.
While the series moved away from the story and tone of the comics quite considerably, it is perhaps the most successful – and arguably, most influential – incarnation of a TMNT property to date. Peter Laird wasn’t too happy with the approach they adopted for the TV series, but the show’s success at the time and subsequent legacy proves that plenty people did enjoy the re-interpretation.
5. STREET SHARKS
Based on the Mattel action figures of the same name, Street Sharks was produced by DIC Entertainment and aired from 1994 to 1997. During its first-run syndication the show featured as part of the BKN’s Amazin’ Adventures line-up, which also included Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders and Skysurfer Strike Force. Who remembers those?
Street Sharks follows a group of half-man/half-shark hybrids as they protect their city from the evil Dr. Paradigm. However, the show’s biggest contribution to the pop culture discourse is the phrase “jawsome”, which remains a go to word for many when describing something awesome involving sharks.
Comparisons to TMNT are undeniable – and the turtles were undoubtedly an inspiration during its conception – but Street Sharks’ anarchic spirit, cool catchphrases, and action-packed episodes encapsulate everything that is jawsome about ‘90s cartoons.
Bravestarr will go down in history as the last ever animated show produced by the hugely influential production company Filmation, which closed its doors in 1989 after 27 years. During that time, the company delivered treats like the Batman/Superman Hour, Fat Albert, Ghostbusters, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Along with The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, Bravestarr is arguably the definitive space western cartoon – a genre which was at its apex during the 1960s and 1980s. One year before Bravestarr was released, Mattel produced action figures to promote it, which were notable for their larger size compared to other figures on the market at the time.
Taking place in the frontier planet of New Texas, Bravestarr employs the basic tropes of the Wild West in space backdrop which were prominent in the genre back then. The story follows the titular lawman who, along with his Shaman deputy and talking horse, protect the planet from the wild Tex Hex and his band of rogues. The show is also remembered for its bold and controversial content, including an anti-drug episode which culminated with a kid dying from an overdose. Yikes.
3. MIGHTY MAX
Mighty Max was created to promote a line of action figures released by Bluebird Toys in 1992. The show ran for two seasons, featuring a total of 40 episodes chronicling the adventures of a 12-year-old boy who travels throughout dimensions with his Viking guardian and talking fowl battling evil. An example of one such embodiment of all things wicked is Skullmaster, voiced by the legendary Tim Curry at his delightfully deviant best.
Mighty Max ended prematurely, but it’s a prime example of a cartoon that respects the intelligence of younger viewers. The show contains some of the smartest writing and most original concepts ever to emerge from the glory days of Saturday morning cartoons. Mighty Max isn’t just a good kids show – it’s quality science fiction storytelling.
Overall, Mighty Max is one of those cartoons that’s perhaps too mature for younger viewers and too geared towards the youth for older audiences; but for those who appreciate shows which occupy that middle ground, there is a lot to gain from revisiting this one. Even though the animation is dated by today’s standards, the show holds up remarkably well through its strong characters, conceptual ideas and storytelling prowess.
2. HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE
Who doesn’t love this masterpiece? Based on the Masters of the Universe toyline manufactured by Mattel in 1982, the story revolves around the conflict between the heroic He-Man and the evil Skeletor on the planet Eternia, with a line-up of supporting characters who are just as memorable in their own right. The show employs an excellent blend of classic sword and sorcery, futuristic science fiction and action, making it an absolute genre-bending treat to devour.
Produced by Filmation, He-Man and the Masters of the Universal is considered by many as the quintessential ’80s cartoon. The show retains a massive cult following to this day, and a live-action reboot is reportedly on its way in 2019. Will it be better than the first movie starring the magnificent Dolph Lundgren, which is also a revered cult classic among ’80s aficionados? Only time will tell. But the cartoon is where it’s at.
1. THE TRANSFORMERS
Michael Bay’s Transformers movies haven’t exactly been embraced by fans of the animated franchise. Whenever a new one comes along, it only re-enforces just how cherished the original cartoon series remains in the 21st century. With The Last Knight now upon us, Transformers fever is in the air once again – but for a lot of fans, that means revisiting the classics as opposed to seeing the new one.
Originally inspired by Japanese company Takara’s Diaclone and Microman toylines, Hasbro bought the distribution rights for North America in 1984 and presented them as Transformers. The first animated incarnation debuted the same year and ended in 1987, with a brilliant movie in 1986 serving as a bridge between the first two seasons. The series depicts a war between transforming robots factions, the Autobots and Decepticons, led by their power leaders Optimus Prime and Megatron, respectively.
Transformers has remained a relevant part of cartoon pop culture since the toys and subsequent cartoon emerged in the ’80s, with multiple series having followed in the wake of Generation One. Toys are still being produced as well, because as long as kids are human, there is unlimited fun to be had with robot action figures.
Are there any cartoons on the list you watched back in the day? Did you play with any of the toy tie-ins? Let us know in the comments below.
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