Best 1980s Saturday Morning Cartoons, From Transformers to ThunderCats

For those of us of a certain age, nothing from childhood was better than Saturday mornings. The weekend was here, which meant no school for the next two days. To celebrate, we’d wake up early on Saturdays, clad in our Care Bears or He-Man pajamas, for ourselves an overflowing bowl of sugary cereal, and flop down in front of the TV for hours to watch our favorite cartoons.

It’s a hugely sentimental memory for many adults now in their 40s, with a lot of us searching out our past loves on streaming platforms, so we can relive the stories one more time. While everyone has their own favorite, here’s a sample of some of the best Saturday morning cartoons from the 1980s.


11. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985)

Every boy four decades ago (and probably some girls, too) had He-Man toys. He was our favorite superhero. Prince Adam, with his Sword of Power, and his Battle Cat sidekick, had us in awe. We wanted to be just like him. While the series about his adventures only lasted two seasons, each of those seasons consisted of a whopping 65 episodes. That meant countless reruns where kids could rewatch the likes of He-Man, Okro, Man at Arms, Teela, and The Sorceress battle the scary skull-faced Skeletor. It might be a bit dated and cheesy to look back on now, but there’s no doubting its lasting impact. There would be spinoffs, She-Ra: Princess of Power (1985), has Dolph Lundgren led Masters of Universe live-action film, and most recently, two Netflix series, proving that the power of Grayskull will live forever.

RELATED: From ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle’ to ‘Animaniacs’: What Happened to Saturday Morning Cartoons?

10. Jem (1985-1988)

Also known as Jem and the Holograms, this cartoon put girls in the spotlight. Jem is the alter ego of Jerrica Benton, who runs her own record company called Starlight Music. With the help of a computer that creates holograms, Jerrica becomes Jem, the lead singer of an all-girl rock band. We get the flashy clothes and big, bright hair of the ’80s, but this isn’t just a glorified animated music video. Jem is always in some dangerous adventure while fighting to hide his identity. The popular series showed little girls that they could be just as cool as the boys. It was one of the highest rated Saturday morning cartoons of the late ’80s, leading to a 2015 live-action film starring Aubrey Peeples. The reimagining was a box office dud, but throughout the 2000s, reruns of the original show aired, with new comics and dolls still being produced.

9. Garfield And Friends (1988-1994)

Tea Jim Davis created comic strip Garfield, first published in 1976, has become the most widely syndicated in the world. In the 1980s, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing plushies of the lazy, lasagna loving grumpy cat clinging to the back of a car window. Before it became a Saturday morning hit, Garfield appeared in several Emmy-nominated and winning primetime specials such as the annual ratings hits, Garfield’s Halloween Adventure and Garfield’s Thanksgiving. The seven-season series brought back Lorenzo Music as the voice of Garfield. Every weekend, children watched not just the usual adventures of Garfield with his owner Jon Arbuckle and clueless dog Odie, but also of various farm animals that Garfield knew. There would be several spinoffs throughout the years and a few Bill Murray starring live-action films that we’d all like to expunge from our memories.

8. The Smurfs (1981-1989)

Adapted from a Belgian comic that started in the 1950s before becoming an animated series first in the ’60s, this was one of the weirder Saturday morning cartoons. It’s interesting premise of a group of short, blue creatures living in the woods in mushroom houses was something that kids hadn’t seen before. There was a unique cast of characters, each with their own specific personality. There was Papa Smurf, Brainy Smurf, Lazy Smurf…you get the idea. They even had their own language, with many English words replaced by the word “smurf.” Each episode saw the hidden away Smurfs thwarting the likes of Gargamel, the evil wizard, and his bad kitty, Azrael. Just as with so many ’80s cartoons, the series’ popularity would lead to it becoming its own nostalgia fueled live-action film franchise decades later.

7. Transformers (1984-1987)

Not all film adaptations of popular children’s cartoons are duds. That’s certainly the case with the Michael Bay directed film series that chewed up the box office in the 2000s. Before it was a movie franchise that made Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox household names, it was a Hasbro toy. To promote it, the toys were shown off in its own Saturday morning cartoon. Even though it had a unique jumping off point, telling the story about vehicles who can transform into robots (what kid wouldn’t want one of those?!), it followed a simple yet effective formula of good guys, The Autobots, versus bad guys, The Decepticons. A great voice cast, led by the likes of Peter Cullen as the heroic Optimus Prime (he would reprise the role for the Michael Bay films), helped to turn what could have been flat nonhuman characters into lifelike creations that jumped through the screen. Its success led to a successful animated film, The Transformers: The Moviewhich was released between Seasons 2 and 3.

6. ThunderCats (1985-1989)

Nothing sums up the wild creativity of ’80s cartoons like this one, which tells the tale of a group of talking humanoid catlike creatures that were the epitome of what a kid thought was cool. There was the amazing logo, the awesome swords, one heck of a giant hangout known as The Cat’s Lair, and a catchy theme song. While there are many similarities to be found to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, this cartoon survived on its own inventiveness, thanks to characters like leader Lion-O and female ThunderCat Cheeatra. Even the cringe worthy comedic presence of Snarf couldn’t hold this one back from being one of the most popular animated series of the decade. The Cartoon Network would try to relaunch the brand a few times for one season apiece in 2011 and 2020, but neither could recapture the magic of the original. ThunderCats-Ho!

5. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1983-1986)

As with transformers, this is another Saturday morning classic that was used to promote a Hasbro toy. It started off as a group of animated commercials for the comic book tie-in, but its immense popularity led to its own series. When you think of the ultimate ’80s cartoon, this is the one that comes to mind for many. Today’s demand for the superhero genre finds its roots in the ongoing popularity of this American icon. It works by being more grounded than the likes of others on this list. It also plays as an ensemble, with no hero being immensely more important than the other. Even though they have rankings, it’s how Hawk, Duke, Flint, etc. work as a team against the evil Cobra that matters. The series was so popular that even wrestler Sgt. Slaughter would become a character.

4. Alvin and the Chipmunks (1983-1990)

For eight seasons, kids sang along with this rock band made up of chipmunk brothers Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. Everyone had their favorite chipmunk. Alvin, the leader, was a bit of a troublemaker. The bespectacled Simon was the nerd of the group. And then there was innocent Theodore. The brothers live with their manager, a human named Dave. In each episode the Chipmunks find themselves in trouble, hijinks ensue, Dave gets annoyed with his signature yell of “Alllvviinn!” but 30 minutes later the unusual family unit is whole again because they love each other. While Hollywood diluted the trio through numerous subpar computer animation combined with live action films, their voices will forever live on in our youthful memories. They were the perfect cartoon for every child, a pleasure for toddlers who loved the squeaky voices, and big kids who loved the music and Alvin’s rebellion.

3. Muppet Babies (1984-1991)

Nothing dominated the TV airwaves and cinemas in the 1980s like Jim Henson‘s Muppets. There was the highly transformative The Muppet Showand an array of feature films like The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan. It was only natural that they would progress to becoming a cartoon as well. This series takes The Muppets we know in a different direction, however, by showing them as toddlers. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy, and the rest of the gang are shown together in a nursery, run by a nanny that we only see from the shoulders down. The theme of the series is the power of imagination. Each episode finds The Muppet Babies playing a game, using their imagination to transform the scene around them. It’s the life every child dreamed of playing out before them. Its success led to other well known animated programs developing spinoffs with younger characters, such as the ’90s hit Tiny Toon Adventures.

2. The Real Ghostbusters (1986-1991)

1984’s ghostbusters was a box office earthquake, whose aftershocks are still being felt today with Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Acting as a sequel to the events of the original film, the cartoon series keeps its focus on the same four characters of Peter Venkman, Egon Spengler, Ray Stantz, and Winston Zeddemore. The original cast of Bill Muray and company wouldn’t reprise their roles, which could have spelled doom, potentially making the cartoon too different from what fans had come to love. Arguably, it’s the new voice actors who make it work by taking the show in its own direction instead of trying to recreate the past. Voice acting legend Lorenzo Music, who also played the voice of Garfield, helped to make this series stand on its own footing. Still, the characters themselves are pretty much the ones we already loved, and each week was a new crazy adventure. The series is also noteworthy for turning the scene stealing ghost Slimer into a hilarious sidekick character.

1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996)

This series finds itself at the top of the list for combining everything that was successful about other series on this list. It had a premise that got your attention, by having four turtles transformed into humanoid ninjas. It had strong, independent, and well written characters who came together as a family. Adults still debate today on whom the best Ninja Turtle was. Each one’s colored headband and choice of weapon seemed to speak to their personality. The series’ creators knew how to make them distinguishable when they looked exactly the same on the surface. As with each great 80s action cartoon, TMNT had a great villain in the masked Shredder. What should have been absurd, with talking turtles led by a sense talking rat, became believable by the voices behind the drawings and the strong writing of the stories. Even though the series held on too long and the quality dipped in the latter stages of the 90s, the early years have held their place for 35 years as a massive part of popular culture.

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