We all remember the big guns of Toonami. Dragon Ball Z. Sailor Moon. Gundam Wing. Justice League Unlimited. Samurai Jack. Naruto. Attack on Titan. One Punch Man. Chances are you remember at least some of these shows very fondly. In the action animation block’s 11-year run on Cartoon Network and its current five-years-and-counting revival on Adult Swim, however, there have been a number of shows that slipped through the cracks and weren’t quite so successful. Some of these shows are just as good as the hits and deserve to be given a second look, or for many of you, perhaps a first. Others deserve to be forgotten.
The classic Toonami commercials with the voice of Peter Cullen could make almost anything sound utterly amazing, but these less-than-stellar shows were too much for even Optimus Prime to make look good. These include intelligence-insulting spin-offs of past hits, unabashed toy commercials, painfully unfunny attempts at comedy, inexplicably popular cliche-fests, and in one special case, a show so bad it lasted only two episodes before being forever forgotten. It’s time to look back on the underrated best and the unbearable worst the Toonami block has had to offer over the past two decades.
16. FORGET: SWORD ART ONLINE
Unlike the rest of the worst on this list, this show is actually popular. Extremely, inexplicably, about-to-get-a-third-season popular. On one level, the popularity is understandable, in the same way that something like Ready Player One is popular: it’s a Gary Stu wish fulfillment fantasy that tells young geeks their video gaming skills can save the world and attract beautiful women.
But Ready Player One doesn’t have incest fetishism or tentacle monster molestations. That’s what’s really baffling about SAO‘s popularity: it fits almost every negative stereotype Americans have about anime, yet somehow it ended up one of the biggest mainstream hits. If you enjoy SAO in spite of its flaws, more power to you, but for those who like their anime less gross and cliche, stay away.
15. REMEMBER: DUEL MASTERS
Be honest, you were expecting this one to be on the worst list, weren’t you? It makes sense why people dismissed Duel Masters as just a brazen Yu-Gi-Oh rip-off; the pilot episode was just that, the original Japanese version was always that, and the dub reverted back to that mode when it switched studios in the second season.
But the bulk of the first season, dubbed by Plastic Cow Productions, is one of those rare gems that only comes around when you give a show nobody cares about to writers with a sense of humor. The original dub of Duel Masters was Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series before Abridged Series were a thing, a comedic creation that mercilessly parodied itself and the card game anime genre as a whole. Translation purists might be angry, but it was way better than it probably had any right to be.
14. FORGET: DRAGON BALL GT
Akira Toriyama and Toei Animation certainly want you to forget about this Dragon Ball Z sequel, which is officially no longer canon and effectively replaced by the current Dragon Ball Super series. Super is itself debatable in terms of how it lives up to the legacy of the early Dragon Ball shows, but it’s almost universally agreed upon that GT, the one Dragon Ball series made without original creator Akira Toriyama involved, was a disappointment.
There were some decent ideas to be found in GT, but between poor characterization, forgettable designs and forced twists (Goku’s a kid again), the execution just didn’t work. It tried to blend the levity of the original Dragon Ball with the scale of Z, but failed to reach the level of either series.
13. REMEMBER: IGPX
The commercial failure of IGPX might have been the beginning of the end for the old Toonami. A co-production between Cartoon Network and the legendary Production IG anime studio, Toonami put their all into this robot racing series, with high production values and an all-star voice cast including Haley Joel Osment, Michelle Rodriguez and Mark Hamill. For whatever reason, the show didn’t click with audiences, and the final episodes got sent to a Friday night death slot. Toonami wouldn’t try anything so ambitious again until their Adult Swim revival.
Maybe the premise was too weird and the pacing too “off.” But for eye candy alone, the show’s worth a watch, and the writing of the second season improves greatly on the first. Toonami on Adult Swim eventually reran the show in 2013 and Discotek released a DVD set for those interested.
12. FORGET: BOBOBO-BO BO-BOBO
Comedy, especially random absurdist comedy, is a tricky, subjective thing. In theory, Bobobo-Bo Bo-Bobo, a show about a master of nose hair-based martial arts, is worth remembering for the fact that something so patently absurd not only aired on an American children’s network, but somehow aired for 78 EPISODES! The cojones it took to do that are impressive.
The show itself, unfortunately, was less-so. Bobobo-Bo Bo-Bobo‘s randomness, gross-out humor, and reluctance to provide anything resembling a comprehensible plot had maybe enough shock value to amuse for one episode. But 78 episodes of the same shallow material over and over again… that’s just torture. Weird can be beautiful in anime (see also FLCL or our top underrated pick on this list), but this was sadly just not that funny.
11. REMEMBER: CYBORG 009
Good luck tracking this one down. The 2001 adaptation of Shotaro Ishinomori’s classic manga series about an international team of cyborgs impressed those who watched it with its combination of retro stylings, modern production values, and a powerful anti-war message. But not enough people watched, so the show was moved from weekday afternoons to a Friday late night death slot. The last four episodes didn’t air at all.
This would be one thing if there was a DVD collection for fans to enjoy, but for the longest time there was no such luck there. Sony only released the first eight episodes on DVD in the States. Finally at Otakon 2017 Discotek announced they’d rescued the license and plan to release the full show on DVD and Blu-Ray. A newer CGI series based on the same manga is also on Netflix, though it’s received a more questionable reception.
10. FORGET: D.I.C.E.
Yeah, does anyone remember this one? What even was this? So D.I.C.E., it seems, was an anime made specifically for American kids with the goal of selling toys. Did anyone buy those toys? Was it like Yu-Gi-Oh but with dice games? No, it seems D.I.C.E. was an acronym for “DNA Integrated Cybernetic Enterprises.” What does that mean? Who cares? Did anyone actually watch this growing up?
How does Wikipedia describe the plot? “DICE members use RADOC to summon the Gild suit (Gild jacket).” Now they’re just throwing nonsense words together. Does any of this make any sense? The suits turn into dinosaurs, that’s kind of cool… maybe? Of course, any kid who wants to watch kid superheroes with dinosaur robot suits can just watch Power Rangers and not this generic wannabe.
9. REMEMBER: MICHIKO & HATCHIN
Michiko & Hatchin did solid ratings on Toonami in 2015, but it arrived on the block perhaps too late to be the phenomenon it deserved to be, two years after being released on DVD in America and a full seven years since it aired in Japan. Now that director Sayo Yamamoto has her first bonafide phenomenon in the form of Yuri! on ICE, however, hopefully more people will discover her equally excellent older work.
Michiko & Hatchin is a road trip adventure series following Hana, an abused foster child rescued by Michiko, a crazy criminal who claims to be Hana’s mother and is searching for her father. Set in a fictionalized version of Brazil, the show features more racial diversity than your typical anime and Yamamoto approaches sexuality with maturity. It’s less action-driven than most Toonami fare, but well worth your time.
8. FORGET: TENCHI MUYO GXP
The original Tenchi Muyo OVA series is beloved by otaku who grew up during the ’90s and early ’00s. One of the first and best examples of the harem genre, when it made its Toonami premiere in 2000 it was like nothing else on American TV. Today, though, the Tenchi franchise has overstayed its welcome. Tenchi Universe was a decent remake, but the sequels dragged on, Tenchi in Tokyo was mediocre, and Tenchi Muyo GXP was perhaps the series’ nadir.
GXP wasn’t even about Tenchi, but his extremely similar-looking cousin Seina. Like Tenchi, he attracts a bunch of alien babes, but none of them are as memorable as the original series’ characters. The raunchiness was turned way up but the actual laughs way fewer. The director, Nabeshin, made one of the most successful anime comedies ever with Excel Saga, but his manic style was not suited for this material.
7. REMEMBER: MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM 0080: WAR IN THE POCKET
The Gundam franchise has been a mainstay of Toonami since Gundam Wing aired in 2000, but other great installments have struggled to match Wing’s success in America. The original Mobile Suit Gundam is a classic but bombed on Toonami due to dated animation. Gundam SEED attracted a solid fanbase but also struggled in ratings. The new Iron Blooded Orphans at least did well enough for Toonami to buy the second season (premiering in October 2017).
But perhaps the best overall Gundam series to air on Toonami is the relatively obscure six-episode OVA Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket. It takes place in the same continuity as the original series but you don’t need to have seen any other Gundam to follow it. The series is unique in that it focuses on the civilian perspective of war rather than the combatants. Come for the robots, stay for the tears.
6. FORGET: SD GUNDAM FORCE
Picking the worst Gundam show to air on Toonami, on the other hand, is so easy it doesn’t even require a second thought. Like D.I.C.E. earlier on the list, SD Gundam Force was an American-Japanese co-production made with the sole intent of selling action figures to kids. In doing so, it discarded all the tragedy, intrigue and political complexity that define Gundam.
Breaking from Gundam tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing; G Gundam has its fans due to just how over the top and silly it gets, and the older SD Gundam shorts work as parodies. But SD Gundam Force reduced everything to just the blandest of kiddy show formula, with crappy CG animation to boot. Damningly, despite being made for American audiences, it bombed so hard the second season never aired in the States!
5. REMEMBER: MEGAS XLR
Sing along if you remember the theme song: “Living here in Jersey/fighting villains from afar/You gotta find first gear/in your giant robot car!/You dig giant robots!/I dig giant robots!/We dig giant robots!/Chicks dig giant robots!/Nice…” The perfect theme song to an awesome show, a loving parody of the mecha genre owing equally to retro anime and early Kevin Smith. Episodes spoofing G-Force, Sailor Moon and Captain Harlock were riots, while the hints at a greater mythology made for some compelling stories in their own right.
MEGAS XLR got canceled after two seasons, but it’s become a cult classic. The old episodes are available on iTunes and the XBox store, but sadly a tax write-off killed any hopes of reruns airing on Toonami. A full-on revival would make sense after the success of Samurai Jack on Adult Swim, but unfortunately can’t happen.
4. FORGET: BAKUGAN
When Toonami moved from weekday afternoons to Saturday evenings in 2004, the stated reason was that the block’s audience skewing older than most of Cartoon Network. By 2008, the year Toonami would end up cancelled, Cartoon Network seemed to have forgotten that reasoning by placing Bakugan: Battle Brawlers, a shameless rip-off of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, on Toonami. And this wasn’t in one of the earlier timeslots when more young kids would be viewing, this was at 10 PM!
Bakugan ultimately only lasted a week on Toonami, replaced with the forgettable but not as egregiously bad Blue Dragon, though it continued to air regularly on Cartoon Network until 2012. Unlike their other anime, the network owned the merchandising rights and really wanted this to be the next big thing. After Toonami was canceled, it was one of the only anime left on the schedule outside of Adult Swim.
3. REMEMBER: SYM-BIONIC TITAN
Of all of Cartoon Network’s premature cancelations, Sym-Bionic Titan‘s might just sting the most. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Voltron-meets-John Hughes action-comedy was funny, exciting, at times surprisingly sexy and one of the most beautiful-looking pieces of animation on television. It ended on a huge cliffhanger, and the reasoning for its cancelation is just the worst. The ratings were good, but kids’ action shows need toylines to profit, and Titan never got a toyline. Why? Because you need the female lead Illana and her pink robot to form the Titan, and kids’ toy companies are sexist.
Shortly after their Adult Swim revival began, Toonami gave Titan a second chance to find an older, more appreciative audience. Unfortunately, producing original content was too expensive for the recently revived block, and like MEGAS before it, Cartoon Network did a tax write-off on the show preventing them from continuing it. Does their accountant just hate robots?
2. FORGET: WULIN WARRIORS
Here it is: Toonami’s darkest hour. Exactly an hour, because only two half-hour episodes actually made it to air before being canceled forever. Wulin Warriors feels like a half-remembered nightmare, something that doesn’t feel like it could have happened even though all evidence indicates that it did.
Some background on Wulin: the show it was adapting — a martial arts puppet show called Pili — has been airing continuously since 1985 in Taiwan. Those puppeteers have some genuine talent; their Japanese co-production Thunderbolt Fantasy is on Crunchyroll if you’re curious. But a puppet show was a questionable sell for Americans, and the people in charge of dubbing Wulin Warriors did the worst job possible, filling silent scenes with the worst puns and throwing in a terrible rap theme song as the cherry on the crap sundae.
1. REMEMBER: SPACE DANDY
If this were a just universe, Space Dandy would be as beloved among anime fandom as its predecessor Cowboy Bebop, as acclaimed among mainstream critics as its Adult Swim contemporary, Rick and Morty. It’s really that good, and while the show did decently in the ratings, it’s still seriously under-appreciated considering just how good it is. Space Dandy was a 26-episode blast of pure creativity, a collection of Japan’s greatest animators let loose to do anything they desired.
Each episode took place in its own alternate universe (the heroes would often die at the end of episodes), and every artist who worked on the show brought their own distinctive style to the adventures of a dandy guy in space. Over-the-top action, ridiculous comedy, mind-blowing psychedelia, bootylicious fanservice, witty sci-fi storytelling, and jolting turns towards philosophical profundity, Space Dandy had everything. Anime doesn’t get much better than this, baby!
Which Toonami classics did you love, or indeed loathe? Let us know in the comments!