Pity the parents of the ’80s and ’90s. If they weren’t worrying for our safety whenever we scurried off to the smoke-filled holes once called “arcades,” they were enduring the electric noise from our endless play sessions at the Atari, NES, Super Nintendo, or Sega Genesis. And if they weren’t putting up with that, they were probably looming behind us and mourning our generation as we scooped up videogame cartoons with our Saturday morning cereal.

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Now we look back on those cartoons, laugh, and say “Oh man, those were pretty bad.” But was every single video game cartoon indigestible, or did a few have redeeming qualities? And is there a future for game cartoons outside of the elementary demographic?

The Sins of the Saturday Morning Supercade

The further back that you look, the less game cartoons had to offer. No surprise there: How can you make any kind of a story out of Pac-Man bingeing, Frogger hopping, or Q*bert swearing? Nevertheless, the animators at Ruby-Spears tried.

The Saturday Supercade aired on CBS from 1983 through part of 1985. The show rotated stories featuring characters from the golden age of the arcade and Atari, including Frogger, Q*bert, Pitfall Harry, Dexter from Space Ace, Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Junior.

The Supercade wrung stories from its one-dimensional characters by simply taking them out of their element. Frogger helped run a newspaper and was sometimes forced to leap hazards in order to get a story; Mario and Pauline chased after Donkey Kong as he wreaked havoc; Q*bert hung out with his friends and dealt with typical kids’ problems, like bullies. Ruby-Spears also saved itself some grief by giving the denizens of Q*Ville arms – even going so far as to return to Coily the Snake what God took from his species when Adam and Eve fell from grace.

The Donkey Kong cartoon cast Pauline as Mario’s niece instead of his lover, which is a little creepy. Ruby-Spears probably wanted to eliminate any implication that Mario and Pauline might attempt some premarital groping while on the open road, God forbid, but even the littlest kid at the time could still identify Pauline as Mario’s damsel in distress. Moreover, what does it say about Luigi that he seemingly fathered an illegitimate child and dumped her on Mario’s doorstep?

The Saturday Supercade offered nothing beyond average cartoon fare. Given the gruel-thin stories of arcade classics, Supercade should just be shrugged off as an animated marketing experiment from the same era that gave us Rubik the Amazing Cube.

Do the Mario (and the Zelda)

The Saturday Supercade was from an era most of us probably don’t remember all too well; we were too busy drooling on ourselves and gumming Arrowroot cookies to care about the continuity errors in Frogger. The first videogame cartoon the Internet seems to identify with is the Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, which aired in 1989 and lived in syndication until 1994.

The Super Show! half-hour was divided into bits: a live action portion wherein Mario and Luigi get up to hijinx in their Brooklyn apartment, an animated portion that usually spoofed a movie or a legend using the Mario cast, and an “exciting preview from the next episode of The Legend of Zelda.” The show ran Monday through Friday, and on every Friday the animated portion of the show was a Zelda episode.

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As kids, the live action portions of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show! was a little dull compared to the cartoon, which was full of the Brothers’ zany antics and Bowser-bashing. But watching the show as an adult throws it into a new light. The cartoon portions come off as juvenile, whereas the live action portions are worthy of a chuckle or two (the laugh track helpfully reminded us when it was time for merriment). In one instance, Mario and Luigi believe that they’ve hit the jackpot when they uncover what they think is a genuine version of The Last Supper. A professional assessment informs them that what they have is actually a copy of da Vinci’s The Second to Last Supper, which has a value of zero dollars.

Also, Captain Lou Albano reveled in his role as Mario as only Captain Lou could, God rest his leg-dropping soul.

The Legend of Zelda cartoon that was packaged with the Super Show! was an energetic piece of work that is still quoted today, for better or for worse (“Well excuuuuuuse me, Princess!“). The story for the first Zelda game didn’t offer much more than the story accompanying Super Mario Bros., but whereas the Super Show! built its world around parody, the writers for the Zelda cartoon chose to build a world of fantasy and adventure around Link, Ganon, Zelda, and the Triforces.

“I’d already gotten tired of heroes that only restored the status quo,” says Bob Forward, who wrote for the show. “Villain does something, heroes stop him. So I decided to give each side a Triforce, and have a fair percentage of the shows involving our heroes taking the initiative of trying to get Ganon’s Triforce away from him.”

The chemistry between Link and Zelda was unusually volatile for a kids’ show, which helped it stick in gamers’ memories. “The Link/Zelda relationship was based upon the show Moonlighting,” recalls Bob Forward. “VP of Creative Affairs Robby London felt that we should use it as a relationship model, and I was fine with that.”

The Legend of Zelda cartoon may have even influenced later Zelda games. It’s impossible to know for sure, but there are coincidences worth noting: Link had a mare in the cartoon, and he gained Epona in Ocarina of Time. Link also had a fairy friend, Navi, in Ocarina of Time (“Hey! Listen! Hey!”), but he met his first fairy companion in the Zelda cartoon – a story decision Forward remembers well.

“The fairy was a very minor element in the original game,” he said. “I decided to make her a character, and make her cute, because, like many males working in the animation business at the time, my first sexual fantasy character had been Tinkerbell. That scene where she stands on the mirror worrying that her butt is too big? Still gives me wood.”

A Valley Boy Rescues a Counterfeit Video Land

The ’90s dawned, and Mario’s world gained a great deal of color and character through Super Mario Bros. 3. His cartoon adventures took a similar turn, leaving behind parody for some simple frolicking in the Mushroom Kingdom. Each of Mario and Luigi’s exploits were set in one of the Kingdom’s curious climate zones (Grass Land, Desert Land, Dark Land) except when the two trekked back to “The Real World” to foist lessons about the environment and racism on their young audience.

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The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 was paired with Captain N: The Game Master. The title of Captain N fell on Kevin Keene, a game-loving valley boy that no twelve-year-old girl could help crushing on. Kevin used his Zapper, Power Pad, and real-world knowledge of his videogame collection to save Videoland from Mother Brain (voiced by Levi “Feed Me, Seymour!” Stubbs) and her evil minions. Kevin traveled through game worlds to foil Mother Brain’s plans – and those worlds had some pretty marketing-minded names. Kevin didn’t visit Zebes; he visited the world of “Metroid.” He didn’t fight dragons in Alefgard; he took them down in the world of “Dragon Warrior.”

Between the awkward names and the odd character designs (Simon Belmont with fighter pilot goggles? A green Mega Man?), something about Captain N felt counterfeit. It came very close to capturing the hearts and imaginations of young gamers, but could never quite get there. It was as if Nintendo cast its shadow over the show, arms crossed in disapproval.

“The Fastest Thing Alive”

A parent company’s blessing in an animation project can make a difference in quality. In the first half of the ’90s, Sega was determined to prove that anything Mario could do, Sonic the Hedgehog could do better. And in the world of animation, Sonic largely came out the victor.

The hedgehog starred in two DIC productions that ran side-by-side beginning in 1993. Each cartoon was put together by a different team of writers and animators, and therefore had very different styles. The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, which ran on weekday afternoons, emphasized Mobius’ crazy corkscrew environment and Sonic’s gravity-defying antics. Sonic and Robotnik, voiced by Jaleel White and Long John Baldry respectively, performed all kinds of wacky Looney Tunes-style slapstick. Sonic also appeared at the end of every episode to remind kids to do their homework and to refrain from dialing 911 for the thrill of it.

On Saturday mornings, ABC aired the other half of the Sonic animation initiative: Sonic the Hedgehog, often labeled as “SatAM” by its still-functioning fanbase. Written by Ben Hurst, the cartoon presented an interesting situation: An occupied Mobius, ruled with a literal iron fist by Robotnik and his roboticized slaves. Sonic teamed up with several other furry friends to thwart the dictator and return peace and nature back to the grim and grimy Robotropolis.

On the DVD collection, Ben Hurst talks at length about the challenges he faced writing up the cartoon’s early episodes. He had very little to go on aside from “Sonic doesn’t much like Doctor Robotnik.” But he squeezed what he could out of the story bible and decided that you can’t go wrong with tropes like rebellion and the classic struggle between good and evil. The result is apparent; there aren’t many Saturday morning cartoons that let the bad guy win from the start.

Avalanche of Capcom

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The latter half of the ’90s saw a surge in Capcom-flavored programming. Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Dark Stalkers all got their turn at the animator’s table, and the results were varied.

The Street Fighter cartoon premiered in 1995. It hobbled onto television with busted kneecaps thanks to the godawful Street Fighter movie, but it took steps to fix the beloved story elements that were chewed up and expelled by the film. Dhalsim turned his back on science and returned to a mystic way of life. Cammy fell under Bison’s control and betrayed the Street Fighters at key moments. Ken was a rich boy with daddy issues, and Guile dealt with a failed marriage.

There was even a one-episode crossover with Final Fight (and another with a lesser-known Capcom classic, Magic Sword). The Final Fight crossover was interesting simply because Cody had the intelligence and emotional restraint of a gorilla with one half of its brain blown out. The Street Fighter cartoon also gets mega bonus points for the single greatest villain line in cartoon history. Quoth Bison: “What’s with you women, anyway? I killed my father, and you don’t hear me whining about it.”

The Future

Videogame cartoons spiked in the mid-’90s. When Pokemon conquered the Game Boy and English television stations in 1998, American-made videogame cartoons dwindled in favor of imports. But regardless of their country of origin, most videogame cartoons still don’t offer riveting stories and memorable adventures. Maybe it’s time for game cartoons to mature along with the audience that it enraptured through the ’80s.

It would also be beneficial for a game’s producer/writer to become more involved in proposed cartoon adaptations. 1995’s Earthworm Jim cartoon was a genuinely funny kid’s show thanks in no small part to the supervision of Jim’s dad, Doug TenNapel. Not every game cartoon proposal needs to be immediately categorized as a Saturday morning distraction. The maturation of specialty channels and broadband Internet access should have diversified game-based animation projects years ago.

Let’s give game cartoons another chance to capture our hearts. Prime-time BioShock cartoon, anyone?

Nadia fell into freelance writing in 2002, and she’s been helpless to wash off the inky residue since. She writes for 1UP.com, WhatTheyPlay.com, Gamepro Magazine, and other fine publications that are available on the Internet and at your local newsprint merchant. She’s About.com’s guide to the Nintendo DS at ds.about.com.

Question of the Day, June 8, 2010

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