Cartoons are my favorite thing next to video games, and it does not seem like all that long ago that the two had a strong mix; securing their place in the world in the late 80’s early 90’s television scene. I am often accused of leaning heavily on my nostalgia for certain things, but over the past few weeks I have been diving back into many of these old video game cartoons, and I see a lot of reasons why they worked so well in their time. They may not hold up for everyone, but all of this re-lived animated adventure has me realizing that it may be time to resurrect a few things.
“Excuse me, Princess!”
There has been a wide array of video game shows: mainstays like Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mega Man, Pac-Man and even Earthworm Jim. There were educational cartoons like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?; cartoons with a live action framework like Super Mario Bros. Super Show and Video Power, or Japanese anime style, with titles like Digimon and Double Dragon. Hell, even Darkstalkers and Mortal Kombat had their own cartoons at one point. Everyone was getting in on the action back when it was good. Nintendo seemed to be at the forefront with a large number of cartoons, but they were certainly not the only ones looking to make money this way. Though all of these different cartoons may have varied in their execution, many of them had a lot of similarities.
The focal point for most (but certainly not all) of these shows was always the source material—and of course what we cared about the most—the games. These cartoons did their best to resemble their respective games, even if the creators had little to go off of, like in the case of Pole Position, because people love it when they recognize things and feel like they are on the inside of a cool reference. There was a lot of time spent building these worlds, putting in details, pulling from multiple games and creator notes, or just creating elements to fill in gaps that the games did not have to deal with. Some of these worlds expanded so much on the existing material, or did it so well, that parts of what were built were put into later installments of the game, for better or for worse. The previously mentioned Double Dragon is an example of this. Even if what the writers tried to copy was not exactly like what the player experienced in the games, many of the shows went as far as to copy exact quests, major story events, as well as character and level designs.
There was something cool about seeing the home worlds of so many of my favorite characters, everything from the Mushroom Kingdon and Hyrule to Mobius. Even when these characters traveled to worlds that were not well established, a lot of care was taken to make them feel authentic to the genre, like they belonged just as much as Castlevania. When the writers could not draw kids in with the video games alone, they added in a little celebrity power. Larry Bird showed up on Basketball world, as kind of a tribute to NBA Jam and countless other basketball games. Bo Jackson had his own baseball game, so it made sense for him to make an appearance, and other pop icons like Cyndi Lauper showed up to help the Mario Brothers. One of the Koopa kids even abducted Milli Vanilli in an episode of The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 cartoon, which is hilarious on a lot of different levels. These real world stars were mixed in with the digital ones for ratings, but also provided a set of role models and pop culture exposure for younger viewers. Bringing all of these things together though made for some magnetic programming.
My personal favorite out of all of these cartoons was Captain N: The Game Master. I am sure there may be a few groans, but I was a huge fan, and I know I was not the only one. The show left a lasting impression on many of those age-appropriate video game fans. I am pleasantly surprised with how many people I meet or talk to that not only know the show, but remember specific episodes. A good bit has been copied from the show: classic Nintendo controller belt buckles, Captain N letter jackets—which I may be a ‘little’ jealous of the people that have them—posters, t-shirts, and let us not forget the comic series. What is even cooler is that the DVDs for the show were released in 2007, and Captain N received a nod in the Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures game in 2013, by way of the world selection map, showing that the memory of the series is still alive and well.
For those who were not fortunate enough to see it, Captain N was based off of a story from Nintendo Power, but the idea was completely revamped into a Saturday morning cartoon that could incorporate a slew of Nintendo’s games and products. Sure it was a giant promotional ad—who could forget the season two introduction of the Gameboy character—but there was enough of a story and entertaining characters to ignore that.
The titular character was Kevin Keene – Captain N, who symbolized the player. Princess Lana represented an amalgamation for each of the princess archetypes. The rest of the N Team was rounded out with Mega Man and Kid Icarus, who were the backbone of the team, Simon Belmont and Gameboy, who were the comic relief, and Kevin’s dog, Duke, who was probably the most useful character in the whole show. They fought to save Videoland from the forces of Mother Brain, Eggplant Wizard, King Hippo, Dracula, and Dr. Wily. The show had great music from many different games and pop culture songs, and the voice acting was fun and memorable, especially that of Mother Brain, voiced by Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops. The show did a lot in a short time, lasting only three seasons, even if the last season was lacking due to Nintendo not wanting to pay royalties and the network cutting the time slots.
All of this ranting about how awesome a particular sub-genre of cartoons was has been leading to a pretty obvious point here: there needs to be more of these cartoons now. I know there are some newer ones like Sonic Boom and a new Bayonetta anime on the way, but I cannot say either will be good or fill the gap properly.
In my dream, a modern video game cartoon would be something similar to a new Captain N, but I would recommend removing the ‘player’ character and just mix and match various game worlds and characters. It should use recognizable characters, graphics, power-ups, but show more of the worlds of games like Final Fantasy, and introduce new worlds too like Pikmin and wherever it is Kirby is from. (No seriously. It is Dream Land, right?) These hypothetical new game cartoons should use the trademark music even more, remixes if need be, but let us stay away from the odd singing the Super Mario World cartoon toyed with. The most fun part would be mixing together a team of favored heroes and interesting villains. I, for one, would love to see something with Star Fox, Little Mac, James Bond, or possibly throw in some of the characters from Fire Emblem; and as for villains, I have a lot I think would be fun, but it will be hard to beat Mother Brain.
These shows do not necessarily need to go the comedy route, though they probably would. Anyone who remembers Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Sat AM) knows a serious and successful video game cartoon is possible. I would be happy with just getting something that felt right, even if the new project was just an updated Super Mario Bros. show, like they kept doing. Bring in the new Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D World stuff, or mix and match from them all—as long as they stay away from Super Mario Sunshine.
I say this completely void of nostalgia goggles: just bring back something to fill this void and tap this unused market here. Put the time in, and make it good. I know the limitations, licensing, and animation costs, but doing this right may mean getting a whole new generation of video game fans.