Remembering 15 Great Animated Shows Of The 1990s: X-MEN, TINY TOONS, DARKWING DUCK, GARGOYLES And Much More

In the long history of animated TV shows, the 1990s was a time of speaking to the audience rather than at them, proven out by the different shows included in this guide to our cartoon yesteryears.

It was as though a mass awakening had taken place within the networks where everyone suddenly recognized that the audience out there was much savvier than they had ever realized or given them credit for being. In the years leading up to that, cartoons, to be honest, were fairly dopey, with plots that made little sense, characters whose behavior was so far removed from reality as to be unbelievable, morality lessons bludgeoning the viewer over the head, and action that never truly involved action.

What started to happen in the ‘90s is that the shows began to get a little bit more of an edge, whether that edge was dramatic or comedic. The characters, if not three-dimensional, had at least entered the second dimension. There could be genuine conflict between them, some of which would be resolved with fist-fights. In some instances, there were even weapons used!

On the humor front, in between making mega-blockbusters, Steven Spielberg helped shepherd his love letters to the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons of the 1940s and ‘50s in the form of Tiny Toons Adventures and Animaniacs; Nickelodeon captured the minds of kids everywhere with shows like Doug, Rugrats and Hey Arnold!, and blew other minds with the more surreal, adult-oriented Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life. And then there were the superheroes, thanks to the success of Batman: The Animated Series, which saw the Dark Knight joined by the likes of Spider-Man, the X-Men and Superman. And taking a more humorous approach to superheroes, there was Disney’s parody Darkwing Duck.

Those are just a handful of shows introduced to viewers throughout the 1990s. There were a lot more, and what follows is our trip back in time to take a closer look at 15 of them.

Tiny Toon Adventures (1990-95)

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Twas a time when Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the Looney Tunes characters were uber cool and part of the pop culture zeitgeist. Steven Spielberg certainly remembered those days. When approached by Warner Bros about a show focused on younger versions of the traditional characters, he wanted to go in an original direction. And so was unleashed upon the world Buster and Babs Bunny (no relation), Plucky Duck, Dizzy Devil, Hamton J. Pig, Elmyra, and Montana Max, among any others. Like the Looneys of old, the humor worked for both kids and adults, the theme song was awesome and the gang from Acme Acres even starred in their own animated film, Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation. They’re tiny, they’re tooney, they’re all a little looney...and we wouldn’t have ‘em any other way.

Darkwing Dark (1991-95)

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Let’s get dangerous! Remember how shocking it was when the shy girl from school who barely said anything, suddenly revealed that she had a naughty side? That analogy could apply to Disney, which, with this show, demonstrated a bit of unexpected comedic edge. At center stage is Drake Mallard, who fights crime as Darkwing Duck. His inner struggle is between his ego and need for media attention and the desire to be a good father to his adopted daughter Gosalyn. His sidekick is Launchpad McQuack (from the series Ducktales). The joy of Darkwing Dark is in the fact that it’s a straight-out parody of the superhero genre.

Doug (1991-99)

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Unlike the majority of animated shows that dealt with the life of kids in stereotypical ways, Doug took a fanciful yet more realistic emotional approach in its focus on 11 ½ year-old Doug Funnie. It beautifully captures the essence of being an adolescent, with all of the dumb mistakes we made, the insecurities we faced on a daily basis at home and at school (from bullies to romance), and the relationships between us and our friends. The stories are plucked out of Doug’s journal, which in turn have come from the real life experiences of series creator Jim Jenkins. In 1999, Doug’s first movie was released.

The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991-95)

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Back in the ‘90s, Nickelodeon was all about edgy cartoons, and at its start there was nothing more edgy than this show, which focused on the friendship between erratic chihuahua Ren and the dopey but good-natured cat Stimpy. Throwing logic out the window, without explanation the characters could be in the Old West or outer space. You never knew where you would be or what the set-up was ahead of time, but what you did know — particularly during the first couple of seasons — is that the episodes would be filled with off-color and absurdist humor, plenty of slapstick and in some instances violence. Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with the network and eventually series creator John Kricfalusi was replaced and the show continued a couple of years without him. While those seasons are not remembered as warmly, Ren & Stimpy over the years has gained the reputation of being a revolutionary animated show.

Rugrats (1991-2004)

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It’s a kid’s world and we’re just living in it. That was the message of this Nickelodeon series that was appointment television for a generation of kids (even if they didn’t know what appointment meant). Adults were present and they had their own storylines, but they were pretty clueless where the kids were concerned. Whereas the network’s Doug looked at daily life from an adolescent’s point of view, Rugrats was young kid focused and great fun. Long live Tommy, Chuckie, Phil and Lil (they’re twins) and even Angelica (the bully!). Spawned The Rugrats Movie (1998), Rugrats In Paris: The Movie (2000) and Rugrats Go Wild (2003), which was a crossover with another Nickelodeon series, The Wild Thornberrys.

Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95)

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You would be hard-pressed to find a more influential series than this one in terms of (at least temporarily) changing the animated TV landscape. Like Tim Burton’s 1989 production of Batman, this was a dark, edgy series that brought with it genuine atmosphere thanks to the character and set designs. And the scripts were amazingly complex, with a stunning regular guest cast. This show introduced the world to Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman, joined by the likes of Mark Hamill as the Joker, Ron Perlman as Clayface, Roddy McDowall as The Mad Hatter (reprising a role he played on the 1960s’ Adam West Batman series), and Melissa Gilbert as Batgirl. The show inspired the theatrical film Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (1993) and the made-for-video Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998). A new take on is being developed for HBO Max.

X-Men (1992-97)

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Nearly a decade before their live action feature film debut, Marvel’s band of mutants captured the imagination of kids everywhere. Arriving at the height of the X-Men comic book’s popularity, the show featured such characters as Wolverine, Cyclops, Rogue, Storm, Jean Grey, Gambit, Beast and many more. Some of the storylines were taken from the comics, others were original to the series. A major success, this one combined with Batman really brought superhero shows to the fore. Check it out, Bub and get your excitement going — Disney+ has announced the new animated series X-Men '97, picking up where that show left off. 

Animaniacs (1993-98)

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Much of the creative team behind Tiny Toons Adventures was at it again with this one, and they actually managed to surpass themselves. Set up as something of a variety show, with animated shorts, musical interludes, celebrity appearances (through impersonations) and a variety of characters. Serving as “hosts” are Warner brothers Yakko and Wakko, and their sister Dot, joined by the likes of Pinky and The Brain, the Goodfeathers (hilarious take-off on Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas), Slappy Squirrel, Chicken Boo and Katie Ka-Boom. Executive producer Steven Spielberg was heavily involved creatively with Animaniacs as he was on the recent Hulu revival.

Rocko’s Modern Life (1993-96)

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C’mon, the premise is just too stupid to work. An Australian wallaby named Rocko has a dog named Spunky. His best friend is a huge steer named Heffer. One of his friends is a turtle who’s about as neurotic as they come named Filburt (think classic Woody Allen in a shell), and his next door neighbors are a pair of toads named Ed and Bev Bighead. The humor was incredibly adult, oftentimes creating conflict between Nickelodeon and series creator Joe Murray. There is an innate surreal quality to Rocko that makes the show irresistible. If you loved it as a kid, you’ll get much more from it now.

Gargoyles (1994-97)

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It would seem that Disney, inspired by the success of Batman: The Animated Series, went for their own darker, more mythologically based series. The result was this show that featured a group of beings known as Gargoyles, a clan led by Goliath. They transform into stone during the day but are alive at night. Wikipedia handles the premise description nicely: “In the year 994, the clan lives in a castle in Scotland. Most are betrayed and killed by humans and the remainder are magically cursed to sleep [as stone] until the castle ‘rises above the clouds.’” Jump to 1994, and billionaire David Xanatos has purchased the castle and had it reconstructed atop the Eyrie Building, his New York skyscraper. Now above the clouds, the Gargoyles can live at night, but quickly find themselves pawns in a power game launched by Xanatos. Helping them is NYPD officer Elisa Maza. It’s a wonderfully complex show (no surprise considering its creator is Young Justice’s co-creator Greg Weisman) with genuine character development. There are rumblings of a live action movie version, but nothing carved in stone (you decide if we’re being punny).

Space Ghost: Coast to Coast (1994-2008)

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Admittedly this entry is a little dicey in that it wasn’t strictly an animated series. Back in the 1960s Hanna-Barbera introduced a number of superhero series, among them was Space Ghost. Well a producer name Mike Lazzo came up with the idea of taking footage from the old show and using it to create a unique talk show hosted by the Space Ghost character, with arch enemies Zorn (a talking mantis) as bandleader and lavaman Moltar serving as director and producer. It’s a parody of talk shows, and probably one of the weirdest you’re likely to see. There’s an on-air awkwardness that draws you in to see what happens next.

Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994-98)

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With Spider-Man: No Way Home still filling our minds, this is a show worth checking out. It’s one of the most faithful focusing on Spidey, and showrunner John Semper, Jr. ensures that everything feels like it’s come from the comics page. The set-up is pretty standard — Peter Parker tries to balance having a real life (both the good and bad aspects of it) while living up to his responsibility as a superhero. A very good bonus is the liberal use of other Marvel characters, among them Iron Man, the X-Men, Blade, Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, Captain America and The Punisher. And then there are the villains, like Green Goblin, Doc Ock and Venom. Many of the stories were loosely adapted from the comics and the concept of the Spider-Verse was introduced here.

Hey Arnold! (1996-2004)

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The closest animated relative to Hey Arnold! is probably Doug as the focus is on an adolescent — in this case nine-year-old Arnold (aka "Football Head") — and his interactions with family (grandparents Phil and Gertrude), friends (best friend Gerald) and a frenemy (Helga, who bullies him in an effort to hide the love she feels for him). Things can get pretty fanciful, with episodes involving elements of superheroes and mythological figures. The film Hey Arnold!: The Movie was released in 2012, followed more recently by the TV movie Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie.

Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000)

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The team behind Batman: The Animated Series, that success ringing in their creative ears, turned their attention to the Man Of Steel. Their intent was to be sure to focus as much on the “man” as the “super” by depowering the character somewhat. Tim Daly (Private Practice, Madam Secretary) provides the dual voice of Clark Kent and Superman, while Dana Delaney (Desperate Housewives, Hand Of God, The Comedians) voiced Lois Lane. For comic book fans, check out the episodes where Supes battles Darkseid. One of the best animated interpretations of the character ever.

Pokemon (1998-2006 In America)

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If ‘90s cartoons had to be summarized by one show, it would have to be Pokemon. This thing was huge! Based on the Japanese video games turned anime TV series, it was imported to the US and drew kids all over America in with the battlecry “gotta catch ‘em all!” There were also video games here, trading cards (a phenomenon in its own right), movies and almost ridiculous amounts of merchandise, but the fans loved them all. Details carm.org, “The Pokemon are supposed to be ‘monsters’ that have special powers and share the world with humans. The idea of the game [and in fact the series] is to have the children learn how to collect as many Pokemon as possible, train them and use them against other people’s Pokemon by invoking the various abilities of each Pokemon creature.” Characters like Ash Ketchum, Charmander, Grimer, Jynx and, of course, Pikachu (!) became a part of the popular vernacular and still are. And anyone who feels that the monsters in this franchise are kind of abused, they got their revenge with the release of the Pokemon Go mobile game that resulted in all sorts of mayhem with its distracted users.

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