The golden age of Saturday morning cartoons is an era that will always live on in our memories. After all, who didn’t sit down with a bowl of cereal to follow the newest adventures of GI Joe, Transformers, or any number of other series to kick off their weekend as kids?
Here’s something you might not have realized, though. As it turns out, way too many of those amazing cartoons were created as nothing more than marketing tools for toys. Some of the shows made perfect sense, as action-based toy lines left plenty of room for stories to be told. Others, however, had to reach pretty far to work a storyline into what was otherwise a pretty basic and story-free line of toys.
Take a look at our favorite toy-based cartoons below, then sound off with the ones you loved in the comments. And when you’re done, make sure to check out our look at cartoons based movies. You might be surprised at some of the very adult movies that got a kid-friendly adaptation.
1. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
He-Man’s cartoon is an interesting one because the toy it’s based on was made simply to try to cash in on the Star Wars craze. One part space warrior and another part Conan the Barbarian, He-Man got comics before he became a cartoon, but once the franchise was animated, it became wildly popular and even spawned the She-Ra spin-off and a Christmas special.
2. Hot Wheels
Everyone knows the most exciting thing about the Hot Wheels toy line was the people driving the cars, right? Nope. The animated series, which only managed to squeak out 17 episodes, followed a high school student that started his own racing club. It was bad, but it’s also one of the first toy-based cartoons. Hot Wheels premiered in 1969 and had complaints lodged against it with the FCC that it was nothing more than a half-hour commercial, which… it was.
3. Pound Puppies
Pound Puppies were the saving grace of kids who didn’t have actual dogs. The toy line was simple, it was a bunch of stuffed dogs that kids would “adopt.” The show, which ran for two seasons between 1986 and 1987, gave a bunch of the dogs personalities and somehow makes the dog pound seem like a cool place for animals.
It’s rock and roll Barbie, which is kind of a perfect toy idea. It was only a matter of time before it got turned into a cartoon, which is when the Jem franchise caught fire in a truly outrageous way—truly, truly, truly outrageous. The Jem cartoon ran for three seasons in the ’80s, and a 2017 live-action movie was even released, though it was met with bad reviews and a short, disastrous box office run.
5. Mighty Max
The Mighty Max line of toys itself was a spin-off of Polly Pocket. Each variation was a tiny pocket-sized playset that would put the titular character in all kinds of danger. The cartoon, however, features the aforementioned Mighty Max as a kid with a magical baseball cap that allows him to teleport through space and time as he fights against the Skullmaster, an ancient evil being. It’s a pretty wild concept, even for a cartoon from 1993, and it lasted 40 episodes.
6. Captain N: The Game Masters
The Nintendo Entertainment System counts as a toy, right? Of course it does! Captain N was the coolest and convinced many of us that carrying around a Zapper from the NES in a holster was perfectly normal. The series featured characters from a number of Nintendo games, including Castlevania, Mega Man, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda. If that’s not exciting for you, I’m not sure what to say.
7. Sky Commanders
Sky Commanders was a very cool toy that led to a less-than-cool cartoon. The toy was essentially an action figure that traveled across strings you’d hang up throughout your bedroom. It was messy, but so much fun. The animated series saw ongoing battles between good and evil mountaineers facing off on a new continent. Like many cartoons of the era, it was a lot of gibberish. However, it took a relatively simple and very fun toy idea and made it simply too complex.
8. The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin
What’s strange about this particular animated series is that Teddy Ruxpin was essentially an animatronic tape player. There wasn’t a lot of playing to be done with this toy. Instead, you watched its mouth move while a cassette played. The cartoon, however, is a lot more intense. Teddy and his friend–an octopede named Grubby–leave their home in search of treasure before coming up against an evil group known as the Monsters and Villains Organization–in case you were wondering if they should be trusted–also searching for a magical treasure they want to use to rule the world. Teddy, sadly, was not powered by cassette tapes in this wildly convoluted show.
9. GI Joe: The Real American Hero
GI Joe is, perhaps, the second most successful cartoon adaptation of a toy. The line of soldier toys have spawned six animated series, two movies, comic books, and continue to be a household name to this day. What’s more, all of that is possible due to the original 1985 cartoon, which helped to drive the toy’s popularity.
10. Care Bears
If you were a child of the ’80s, chances are you spent some time trying to perfect the Care Bear Stare. What’s interesting about the Care Bears, though, is that while the cartoon–and movies that followed–were based on the popular plush toys from the early ’80s, the entire franchise actually started as a line of greeting cards.
11. Creepy Crawlers
It’s a cartoon based on a toy that’s sort of like an Easy Bake Oven, but for rubber bugs you should never eat. If you had a Creepy Crawlers toy, chances are you made gross-looking bugs for about a week then lost interest because it does literally nothing else. However, the cartoon actually got 23 episodes and was about a kid who wanted to be a magician that created creepy bug-like mutant creatures. Oddly enough, the animated series got its own line of action figures. Thus, they were toys based on a cartoon based on a toy.
Dino-Riders is the perfect concept of both an ’80s action toy and an exciting Saturday morning cartoon. Two warring alien races crash on Earth during prehistoric times and equip dinosaurs with all manner of weaponry to continue their battle. The possibilities for toy varieties were endless and the animated series–which somehow only lasted 14 episodes–was fantastic.
13. Dungeons & Dragons
Turning an RPG game like Dungeons & Dragons into an animated series seems like an easy choice. Simply adapt one of the games stories for kids. Instead, the D&D cartoon is about a group of kids that get sucked into the world of the game after taking a ride on a magical rollercoaster. They then spend the rest of the series trying to get home, you know, because they’re children stuck in a horrifying world. And, of course, the series ended before they actually had the chance to escape. So, in theory, they all probably died stuck in whatever realm they landed in.
14. Challenge of the GoBots
GoBots! They’re like Transformers but way less exciting. Honestly, the two toy lines are so alike, down to them being warring factions from a distant fictional planet. However, while GoBots lasted an impressive 65 episodes, it was always seen as the second-rate Transformers knockoff. Of course, that’s until Hasbro bought the property and incorporated it into the Transformers canon.
15. My Little Pony
This might come as a surprise but the My Little Pony animated series and theatrical movie didn’t debut until 1986, four years after the launch of the toyline. Prior to that, there were two syndicated half-hour specials set in the world of the toy.
M.A.S.K.–short for Mobile Armored Strike Kommand–was a weird mix of GI Joe and Transformers. But if you’re going to copy two things, copy two of the best! The toys and animated series featured an elite task force drove special vehicles that transformed into battle tanks, fighter jets, and the like to fight against an enemy called V.E.N.O.M., which totally isn’t a riff on GI Joe’s Cobra at all.
17. Ring Raiders
Do you even remember Ring Raiders? They were essentially the Micro Machines version of airplanes, mounted to plastic rings, and they were awesome. As much fun as the toys were, though, the cartoon is a bit baffling. It was, naturally, about a group of special fighter pilots. To work the rings into the lore, though, each pilot wore one that could call the fellow Ring Raiders. It lasted five episodes.
Honestly, Popples more-or-less looked like neon teddy bears. In the series, several of them were given personalities and a human family they lived with. Unlike many cartoons of the time, the Popples series wasn’t about going to mystic lands or searching for treasure. Instead, the kids simply tried to keep their parents from finding out the Popples were real. The series was able to sustain that for 41 episodes–plus three more that never aired.
19. Street Sharks
The ’80s and ’90s were a strange time where mutant animal warriors reigned supreme. Whether it was the Ninja Turtles, Biker Mice from Mars, or Street Sharks, somewhere there was a normal animal turned into a human-like beast out there defeating evil. Of those three, though, Street Sharks was the only one that was a toy first.
It gave the bizarre toys an even more bizarre backstory about an evil scientist genetically modifying four brothers to turn them into humanoid sharks. From there, the brothers attempt to stop him from doing further heinous deeds, while also doing battle against a wide range of even creepier creations he’s come up with, like a mutant lobster with the DNA of Genghis Khan for some reason. Street Sharks is super weird.
It’s hard to argue that Transformers is the king of this particular mountain. The vehicles that transform into robot warriors were all the rage in the ’80s and the animated series that launched in 1984 spun off into a long list of cartoons, animated movies and, now, six live-action films. Talk about more than meets the eye.