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Last Updated on May 14, 2021
The 1990s were a golden age for cartoons. A treasure trove of creativity and sometimes quite daring animation, the era gave us some memorable shows. We thought we’d give you the 23 best shows of that decade.
- Duck Tales
- The Powerpuff Girls
- Rocko’s Modern Life
- Hey Arnold!
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- Pinky and the Brain
- Dexter’s Laboratory
- South Park
- Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers
- Darkwing Duck
- The Magic School Bus
- Ren and Stimpy
- Beavis and Butt-head
- The Simpsons
Donald Duck’s nephews were awesome, but at times incredibly annoying. A huge success, you’ll remember the theme tune and the wacky missions to find (and essentially steal) gold. And because the show was created by Disney, the merchandise was everywhere.
The Powerpuff Girls
The show that seemingly had no reason to exist, it became one of the most successful of the 1990s. You may remember the team’s nemesis, Mojo Jojo, a psychotic chimpanzee who also happened to be a criminal mastermind. He was the best part, because he couldn’t rob a sweetshop, never mind take over the world.
Rocko’s Modern Life
Bizarre even by 1990s standards, Rocko and his stories were firmly aimed at ‘let’s make mum and dad laugh too’. Rocko was an odd wallaby, and his exploits involved him indulging in behaviour that was blatantly sociopathic. Rather than seek professional help, he caused havoc for four seasons.
Released in the decade when cartoons were starting to look more sophisticated, this show won awards for it’s animation. Famous for having Peter Parker be a ‘freelance photographer’, it was the closest we had ever been to seeing the hero facing existential angst. Sorry, that’s a lie. However, he did have four (count ‘em) girlfriends during it’s five season run.
Seriously quirky stuff here. Arnold was various things, including a thief, a truant and a murderer (of pet fish). He was that character with outlandish hair and weird shoes. There was also that episode where one of his friends was really into chocolate. My hunch is, it meant something else though!
Fun fact: Arnold was so famous, he was on Sesame Street.
This was perhaps the cultural touchstone for many people who lived through the 90s. Remember the episode where the parents struggled to explain the birds and the bees to their child? Oh, and the one where the dad wears a nappy? Need we go on? Pure 90s craziness.
Fun fact: the babies in Rugrats were voiced by women
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
By the 90s, it was becoming a huge, incomprehensible mess of plots and weird story arcs you couldn’t quite fathom. But it was the Turtles, and we all loved it. Somehow this series spawned some seriously cheesy movies, and unwarranted screen time for Vanilla Ice.
Pinky and the Brain
The premise. Two genetically modified mice. One of them is super intelligent and evil. The other one is severely lacking in intelligence. Some of the weirdest stuff to ever hit our screens was what happened next. The Brain never took over the world like he wanted to. It took him 66 episodes before he gave up.
This had everything a kid in the 90s would want. There was violence on a regular basis, and one of the recurring segments was called Goodfeathers. In that one, you were never sure if you were going to see a character hug each other or fight each other. Steven Speilberg produced the show, but he doesn’t talk about it anymore.
Dexter had a laboratory hidden in his room. He had an IQ of roughly 3000 and was always the smartest person in the room. His sister Dee Dee was pretty much the Devil incarnate, driven by the desire to ruin everything Dexter loved. The show was about the sibling’s lives and was absolutely hilarious.
Dexter also had a fake accent, because the character genuinely believed that all famous scientists had strong accents, which is just another example of how many 90s cartoons had absolutely no respect for cultural differences.
Fun fact: Seth McFarlane was a storyboard artist on this show.
We don’t think that the makers of this show had a time machine and used it to travel to the set of The Human Centipede. But we do think this story of conjoined twins (a cat and a dog) turned into a nightmare vision two seconds after we first saw it.
This was more nightmarishly bizarre than funny. But it worked.
If Eminem was in animation rather than hip hop, he would have written this show. There were plenty of awesome aspects to this show, not least the chef with salty balls. The perfect cartoon for those people just on the brink of adulthood and desperate to upset the establishment one more time.
Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers
These two guys had found a lucrative side niche career solution by becoming detectives on cases involving animals. This kind of stuff actually goes on in the animal kingdom, and the Rescue Rangers reality show brought you the ups and downs of animal cold cases.
Okay, that’s not quite the synopsis. It had a theme tune that must be in the top ten of ‘most annoying ever’, and some truly scary bad guys. And even after retirement, the show is still shown around the world. Good stuff.
Quite a clever piece of TV, Recess had kids hanging outside during recess and having wild adventures. So far, so zany 90s cartoons.
However, the gang in recess had actually developed a hierarchy of power that avoided bullying or power struggles. Their recess ‘government’ was actually quite sophisticated and progressive. Seriously, we’re not going to point out the obvious, but there is at least one famous political figure in the world right now who would benefit from watching this show.
Back in the late 90s, the word was a dark place. Then Pokemon arrived, and everyone realised how much fun it can be to organise illegal street fights between exotic animals while singing intensely annoying theme tunes.
Our personal favourite, Oshawott, had serious anger issues. He wasn’t the most reliable fighter, but when he got angry, it was always the funniest part of the show.
As part of a Donald Duck alternate universe thing, Darkwing Duck was a crimefighter. Rather crucially, he carried a gun. Okay, it was a gas gun, but that still makes it a gun.
This duck cracked wise, like James Bond in the 1970s, and the episodes were great fun. He was also conflicted, in that he wanted to be a good father to his daughter, while still being rough and tough enough to kick butt in the mean streets of the city. Just think about that. When was the last time you watched a truly conflicted cartoon character?
Perhaps the pinnacle of ‘issue television but with cartoons’, Arthur ran for an incredible 246 episodes. The show was never a safe bet for younger children, with episodes dealing with cancer, diabetes and even autistic spectrum disorder.
We can’t remember any other cartoon that dealt with autism. Arthur was brave programming, and at one point pulled in 10 million viewers per episode.
The Magic School Bus
If you caught a bus to school in the 90s, you were guaranteed to feel a slight stab of jealousy with this show. The gang in this bus went to different places in the world, and sometimes even different eras in history. It was almost as if the show was kind of telling us to bunk off school. Or something like that.
Or use our imagination a little more. Whatever.
Ren and Stimpy
This one either enthralled you or made you sick.The cartoon was constantly under fire for its violent content and sexual innuendo. But one episode set a benchmark that cartoons have struggled to surpass ever since.
The Man’s Best Friend episode had the two lead characters adopted by a man called George Liquor. Liquor then teaches them some basic stuff like walking and talking. He does this with a clear punish/reward mechanic. Right at the end, he is almost beaten to death by Ren. Ren uses an oar, and it’s quite upsetting to watch.
Beavis and Butt-head
This was a late night show, and that made it all the more unmissable. The two characters essentially sat on the couch all day and commented on what was on their TV at the time. And that’s it. Sometimes they went outside to laugh at people.
The tale of a little French girl and the nuns who raised her was quite popular in the 90s. Gentle and full of life lessons, the show ran for 59 episodes. And to top it all off, the incredible Chrstopher Plummer narrates the show.
You know these guys. It’s pretty much common knowledge that the 90s held the best episodes, but whichever way you look at it, the show brought disruption and bad behaviour to the world of animation. Think The Flintstones but with poor table manners, existential angst and the smallest couch in history.
This kid was always in trouble or experiencing distress. Seriously, watch an episode and you’ll see a child who will need help to regulate their emotions. Famous for being the show where a child from Hell can still have the calmest, most understanding parents, it was priceless. Just don’t expect to like the character.