11 Retro TV Shows Based on Toys

Carlos Tischler/Getty Images
Carlos Tischler/Getty Images / Carlos Tischler/Getty Images

In the 1980s, kids didn't need to rely on imagination alone to create elaborate worlds for their toys. They just had to watch Saturday morning cartoons to learn about the personalities, backstories, and adventures of their favorite stuffed animals and action figures. Tie-in shows were a huge marketing tool for toy companies in this era, and in some cases, the cultural impact of the series outlasted that of the product. In others, the show was as disposable as the box the toy came in. Here are some of the most notable retro TV shows made to sell toys.

1. My Little Pony 'n Friends

Before My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic became a phenomenon in the 2010s, the original My Little Pony series from Sunbow and Marvel Productions premiered in 1986. Based on the line of colorful toy horses of the same name, My Little Pony 'n Friends wasn't all magic and rainbows, though. The gang fought demonic villains on a regular basis, including Tirek, a red-faced centaur bearing a strong resemblance to Satan who wanted to capture the ponies and force them to pull his Chariot of Midnight. The subsequent reboots were thankfully less dark.

2. The Care Bears Family

After getting their start as greeting card designs, the Care Bears took over toy stores in the 1980s. The characters were beloved enough to get their own cartoon series set in a place in the clouds called Care-a-Lot (which itself is a part of the Kingdom of Caring). The Care Bears even made it to theaters in their own feature film.

3. Transformers

Transformers—which combined cool robots and vehicles into one toy—were the perfect fit for an action-packed cartoon. The original 98-episode series from the 1980s cast the mechanical characters as warring space aliens that take their battle to Earth. A couple of decades later, the Transformers universe would make the jump to live-action as a blockbuster movie franchise.

4. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe started as a line of unique action figures from Mattel in 1982—and a year later, the cartoon series from Filmation premiered to provide a backstory for the characters and their world. Set on the planet Eternia with She-Ra, Skeletor, and He-Man as the stars, the show was successful enough to inspire several spin-offs.

5. Jem and the Holograms

Hasbro developed Jem and the Holograms with Marvel/Sunbow Productions in an effort to promote a new line of dolls. The show, which follows a glam rock girl band, premiered in 1985 and has since gained a cult following of adult fans. The toys, however, were unable to compete in the Barbie-dominated doll market.

6. Rubik, the Amazing Cube

Rubik, the Amazing Cube proved that any toy could be made into a show (but whether or not it should be is a different question). It starred a Rubik’s cube, appropriately named Rubik, who comes to life and spends most of his time escaping an evil magician’s clutches. After premiering on ABC in 1983, the show ended after just 13 episodes, making it one of the more obscure titles on this list.

7. The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin

Many of the names behind the animatronic Teddy Ruxpin toy also had a role in bringing the show to life. The doll’s inventor, Ken Forsse, created the series, and Phil Baron, who provided the voice for the doll, also voiced the cartoon bear. DIC Entertainment produced 65 episodes of the show from 1986 to 1987.

8. Pound Puppies

The Pound Puppies—Tonka’s line of floppy-eared plush rescue dogs—were popular enough to get their own television special in 1985, which then led to a Hanna-Barbera produced a spin-off series that ran for 28 episodes from 1985 through 1987.

9. Hot Wheels

Premiering in 1969, Hot Wheels the animated series was one of the earlier programs based on a toy. The ABC show from Mattel followed a group of car enthusiasts who worked on hot rods at a local garage. Critics accused it of being a half-hour commercial disguised as a kid’s show, and the FCC responded by effectively banning direct product tie-ins to entertainment programming. Though the show was off the air by 1971, toy companies didn’t have to wait very long to start making more like it. This type of programming was deregulated in the 1980s, ushering in a wave of cartoons based on toys.

10. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero

The first G.I. Joe action figures debuted in the 1960s, and the cartoon series G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero that ran through the mid-'80s got a whole new generation of kids invested in the character. The Marvel/Sunbow Productions show followed Joe and his team of soldiers as they stopped the evil Cobra organization’s quest for world domination. It ran for two seasons from 1985 to 1986.

11. Dino-Riders

When Tyco came up with Dino-Riders—a toy line that gave dinosaur action figures futuristic tech—they wanted a show to promote the launch. Dino-Riders the series created an elaborate mythology around the toys that involved time traveling and various humanoid races. It ended in 1988 after just 14 episodes.