The Wet and Wild History of American Nintendo Cartoons

Mario sez: If you do drugs, you go to hell before you die

Video games and animation have had an interesting relationship over the years. In Japan, video games commonly lead to anime series and vice versa, with some of the most popular anime series starting out as visual novels or dating sim games and some of the most popular video games being tied to major anime properties. The relationship between American animation and video games is a bit different; there have been no notable instances of America adapting American-made games into animated series.

What there has been plenty of in the world of American animation are series based on Japanese video games. In total, there are around twenty instances of this — infamously bizzare shows like the Ruby-Spears Mega Man and all of DIC’s Sonic shows — with some of the weirdest in the bunch being based on Nintendo games. So please, journey with me down this rabbit hole of weird American cartoons based on Nintendo properties, as we remember that decades before Sonic had human teeth, Mega Man was an irritating green imp.

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One Saturday Morning

The earliest example of America producing cartoons based on Nintendo games was a program by the name of Saturday Supercade. The series was a half-hour collection of shorts based on popular arcade games at the time including Frogger, Q*bert, Pitfall Harry, Space Ace, Kangaroo and, of course, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr.

The Saturday morning cartoon was produced by Ruby-Spears Productions and premiered on CBS in September of 1983, gifting us with some of the weirdest interpretations of beloved Nintendo characters the world has ever seen. The Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. segments were essentially two sides of the same coin, the former following DK being chased by Mario and Pauline after he escaped from the circus and the latter focusing on DK’s son getting into trouble while looking for his dad.

One of the most bonkers aspects of the series was its voice cast, since Donkey Kong was voiced by comedian and children’s show host, Soupy Sales, who once encouraged kids to steal their parents’ money and mail it to him. Well, you can’t deny that this makes him the perfect person to voice a mischievous ape. Also worth noting is that a pre-Transformers Peter Cullen played the part of Mario in these shorts, portraying the character with neither an Italian nor a Brooklyn accent. Aside from this, the strangest part of the Nintendo segments in Saturday Supercade were their classic “American cartoon” approach, featuring tons of slapstick that made it feel a lot like a classic Hanna-Barbera series.

Well Excuuuuuuuse Me, Princess!

The next major American production featuring Nintendo games was the far more widely-known, Super Mario Bros. Super Show, a 1989 syndicated program that consisted of both live-action segments and animated shorts. The live-action segments featured professional wrestler Lou Albano in the role of Mario and Danny Wells playing the part of Luigi, the two taking part in a comedy sketch that played out throughout the episode. These segments were broken up by animated serials, with Super Mario Bros. (with Albano and Wells voicing the characters) airing on Monday through Thursday, and The Legend of Zelda airing on fridays.

Many are already familiar with the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda serials, especially the latter, which was known for it’s strange incorporation of a Steve Martin bit as Link’s catchphrase, the now famous “Excuuuuuuse me, Princess!” Yes, that’s what the kids want, Steve Martin and their favorite Japanese fantasy game mashed together. Plus, let’s not forget all of the sexual harassment that the hero of time and his fairy friend both attempted to and actually did commit throughout each episode of the series. Good god, this series is a trip to look back on.

The Super Mario Bros. shorts had their own strange claim to fame, depicting a moment in which Toad reveals his mushroom head is actually a hat. This sparked debate in the heated hat/head Toad wars, but was recently put to bed by the decanonization of the series. Other strange highlights from this series include the ending credits, which instructed the audience in how to “Do The Mario,” Lou Albano’s very intense, somewhat in-character anti-drug PSA, and a number of celebrity guest appearances.

But The Super Mario Bros. Super Show was somehow not the strangest Nintendo cartoon to come out of America in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. No, that award goes to Captain N: The Game Master.

Oh Captain N, My Captain N

Okay, look, Captain N is weird. Really, really weird. I’ve researched and chronicled some strange, obscure media before, but nothing compares to Captain N. The series, its creation, airing, history and even its DVD releases are all part of a long, unbelievable story that I will attempt to abridge as best as I can.

Captain N: The Game Master was a 1989 animated series following live-action Kevin Keen, a teenager who was sucked into the animated, video-game-inspired world of Videoland, where he was armed with a game controller belt buckle and an NES Zapper that he used to fight alongside Simon Belmont, Kid Icarus/Pit, Mega Man, and Princess Lana against the evil Mother Brain and her army of video game villains.

The series was originally the brainchild of Randy Studdard, who developed a “Captain Nintendo” superhero comic that was featured in an issue of Nintendo Power. Studdard packaged the concept of this comic with ideas for an entire marketing campaign that also included plans for a Saturday morning cartoon. Nintendo of America then stole the concept from Studdard, failing to give him credit or compensation for the idea as they developed it into his planned animated series, changing quite a bit during production.

Early in the production of Captain N, the Children’s Television Act of 1990 was passed. The CTA was an attempt to prevent cartoons and other children’s programming from simply being extended toy commercials strung together by a loose plot. As a result, Nintendo of America couldn’t actually call the series or character “Captain Nintendo,” and so changed both to “Captain N.” Additionally, the staff working on the series were largely unacquainted with video games of the time, leading the entire series to feel off-model from the beloved games that inspired it.

One of the most notable examples of this was Mega Man being depicted as a weird little green gnome of a character with an annoying penchant for adding “Mega” to words and whose voice and design were just as horrifying as the infamous Bad Box Art Megaman. Additionally, Pit was referred to as “Kid Icarus,” Samus Aran never showed up in the series (despite Mother Brain being the main antagonist), Simon Belmont became a mountain-climber-looking himbo and, most bizarre of all, Alucard was depicted as a rad skater dude.

Other bizarre aspects of the series included its pop hits cover-driven soundtrack, episodes that went missing during DVD releases, voice actors making up their character simply based on appearance rather than their video game origins and, of course, the comic adaptation, which included an issue where Samus Aran fell in love with Captain N after he had aged 15 years in an apocalyptic wasteland.  

The Last Mario Cartoons

Despite being a show made to promote Nintendo products and characters, Nintendo’s mascot, Mario, was noticeably missing from Captain N, with only his old enemy, Donkey Kong, making a few appearances. The reason for this was because, at the same time that Captain N was airing, the Super Mario Bros. Super Show was broadcasting its Super Mario Bros. shorts.

Additionally, two other Mario cartoons came out during Captain N’s three season run: The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990) and Super Mario World (1991). Because Mario had his own string of cartoons to exist in, he was more or less off-limits to Captain N, leading Capcom and Konami to fill in the gaps with Mega Man and Simon Belmont, furthering the series’ off-brand, carbon copy feel.

Where Captain N failed to be authentic to its origins, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 made a point to keep the series more faithful to the source material, with additional efforts being made to give the series a sense of serialized continuity. Because of this, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 was much more well-received than the likes of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and Captain N.

Unfortunately, America couldn’t keep up this quality, since the following Mario cartoon, Super Mario World was heavily criticized for its poor writing and low-quality animation, both of which have spawned a collection of memes as well as a collaborative re-animated version of the beyond strange episode “Mama Luigi.”

Despicable Mario

The final episode of Super Mario World aired on December 7, 1991, marking the last time Mario graced the medium of animation, American or Japanese. In fact, following Super Mario World, we’ve yet to have another instance of America producing an Americanized animated series based on a Nintendo property, an occurrence that is likely never to happen again given that Nintendo of Japan and Nintendo of America are now much more in-line with each other than they were during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

However, with Universal and Illumination planning an animated Super Mario film for 2022, it seems like the Nintendo mascot will finally be making his return to the world of animation. Will we see the return of hatless Toad or Mama Luigi? Will Captain N make a special guest appearance? Probably not, but we can dream.

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Sean Aitchison

Sean Aitchison is a big fan of cartoons and anime and is therefore a huge nerd who you should all make fun of. He also loves digging up the lost, and often cursed, treasures of pop culture's forgotten media. For more of his work, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcasts, Pop Love and Influenca.

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