Monday, May 2, 2011
Descent into Nostalgia, Part Deux
After School Cartoons were a ‘constant’ in my growing up- and another ‘tradition’ that has fallen to the wayside in the on-demand world of modern entertainment. Again, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the accessibility of modern entertainment. This post isn’t the lament the way society has changed. Rather, it is to celebrate the unique perspective my generation had on cartoon entertainment.
Much like Saturday Morning cartoons, after school shows were something to look forward to. In the earliest days (the late 70’s, early 80’s), most of these cartoons consisted of re-runs of looney toons. These were awesome, of course, but in the early 80’s, a whole slew of purpose-made after-school cartoons emerged. Admittedly, most of these shows were little more than half-hour long animated commercials, but that didn’t stop them from being a lot of fun. So, without further ado, here is my (relatively) short list of after-school cartoons. As with all things on this blog, I will endeavor to relate the cartoons to Star Wars in some way (for indeed they did give me quite a few gaming ideas over the year).
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Another in a long line of Filmation-Brand animated series. By the time this one rolled around, I was getting pretty sick of the same canned ‘rotoscope’ animations, the same sound-effects and the stilted public service announcement message crammed into the end of each episode. The stories and characters were simplistic at best and downright goofy at worst. Don’t even get me started on Prince Adam and his pink outfit. Seriously? Seriously?! The toys associated with this show also never really appealed to me. They were all just a bit too goofy for me- and their odd size (much larger than contemporary action figures) made them seem more like...well, dolls.
All that having been said, there was and is something appealing about the WORLD of He-Man- a gonzo combination of magic and science. You have guys with laser guns fighting barbarians riding giant sabre-toothed cats. THAT part I always liked. I could see a whole mini-campaign in Star Wars set on a world like Eternia- just replace ‘Magic’ with The Force and there you go. Though, you’d have to do away with the whole ‘magic transformation thing with He-Man himself- but I don’t have a problem with that. Never liked that whole concept. Skeletor would make a pretty good Dark Force user type, the Sorceress would be a good Light Side user. Yep, lots of potential- say a world far out in the ‘unknown regions’ or even isolated in a densely packed and unexplored star cluster. All the ‘high-tech’ of the Eternians would work just fine- I mean, they had never developed starflight in the show, either.
Oh, and I would also lump She-Ra into this discussion- it was the same show for the most part, only with more toys that had hair you could brush. Err.. Not that I ever did. Ahem.. right. So. Moving on!
The animation on this series was just plain awesome. It was the kind of ‘anime’ I like- lots of dynamic movement and action with characters who have ‘normal’ proportions for the most part and who don’t suddenly get all ‘cartoony’ for ‘comic’ effect. I’m sure some folks would argue it isn’t ‘anime’ at all, but whatever. It was certainly NOT traditional western animation. As with Masters of the Universe, I never got into the toys associated with the series, just the Cartoon itself. Heck, I watched re-runs into my teens.
While the storylines in Thundercats could occasionally be just as goofy as anything He-Man might throw at you, the appeal of the visual style was undeniable. So what if it had ‘Snarf’ when all the other characters just looked so cool. I mean, who didn’t think Panthro was a badass? Who didn’t think Cheetara was hot? Just me? Oh, well.. moving on again.
As with He-Man, the “Third Earth” of the Thundercats could easily exist in a Star Wars setting- home of a species of exiled feline-humanoids battling against what amounts to a group of mutant space-pirates. What really sets the setting apart from Masters of the Universe is the fact that, at some point at least, both the Thundercats and their mutant enemies had space travel. The easiest way to explain this is to have both mutant and thundercat species ‘trapped’ on the planet, having crashed there years ago. There would be a number of native species (though I would just as soon the ‘Ro-Bears’ didn’t exist, bleh). Mum-Raa could easily be the lich-like remains of an evil Force user who at one point nearly destroyed the planet. He could be awakened by the arrival of new species on his world and seek to rise to power once more. Again, lots of fodder there for a mini campaign, with heroes stumbling upon the world and resolving to aid the Thundercats in their struggle.
When I think after-school cartoons, this is what first comes to my mind. GI JOE- A Real American Hero. I already mentioned the blatant commercialism involved in all these series, but GI Joe was really a showcase of that- and it actually worked on me. I owned quite a few figures and vehicles in my day. It helped a lot in my mind that they were the same scale as Star Wars figures. Thus, they weren’t ‘another line’ of toys, they were toys that expanded my current collection. The bases I built out in the yard quickly became a mish-mash of Star Wars and GI Joe, with a fair amount of Fisher Price “Adventure People” thrown in for good measure.
But I digress. The GI Joe Cartoon itself was pretty darn hokey when you get right down to it. I mean here were all these lasers flying all over the place. Missiles blowing up planes. Bombs destroying entire bases- and nobody ever got hurt or killed? Yep, well. Whatever. The point was- it HAD lasers, and jets, and tanks and all kinds of other cool stuff going on. It was enough for me at least to set aside all the silly elements and just enjoy some action (even if it was ‘kiddified’ action. Also, the public service announcement portion of the show was just that- a separate little message tacked onto the end of the cartoon. This meant that the cartoon episodes themselves could be about pretty much ANYTHING. They didn't’ have to have an overriding ‘message’ to them- unlike He-Man (for instance) where the whole episode was geared around teaching a particular life lesson. To me, it made the shows more entertaining and less stilted.
While I say that I enjoyed the gunfights and vehicles in this show, it was really the characters who I enjoyed the most. That’s what set GI Joe apart from other shows of its ilk- instead of a steady cast of 4-6 ‘regulars’, they had an ever-expanding supporting cast. And from this cast, they would switch focus every few episodes to a new group. Duke, Scarlett, Lady Jaye, Flint, Shipwreck, Snake-Eyes, Roadblock- heck, even a lot of the supporting characters got their chance to shine. Of course, some of that I could have done without. Alpine and Bazooka, for instance. This ‘comic’ duo was just downright annoying. I mean, seriously- how stupid WAS Bazooka. Yeesh. Thankfully, annoyances like that were overshadowed by characters I DID like. Flint was my favorite Joe guy (followed closely by Snake Eyes- who was MUCH cooler in the comics than the TV show) and Lady Jaye was by far the most awesome female Joe.
The Villains of GI Joe were quite memorable as well- though portrayed (ultimately) as idiots. Still, they all had interesting ‘hooks’- and would make great NPC villains in most games. You had the stereotypical megalomaniacal Cobra Commander; the plotting Destro with his distinctive iron-mask; the femme-fatale Baroness; the chameleon-like Zartan; and so on into the even more silly Tomax and Xamot and the incredibly silly “Dr. Mindbender” and “Serpentor”.
And then you have the stories. As mentioned above, GI Joe stories were universally goofy, but wow did they cover a lot of ground. Many were simply ‘Cobra’s Super-Weapon of the week’, but there were some truly bizarre ones mixed in there as well- like the time Lady Jaye was tricked into visiting the Scottish estate of her remote family- only to discover that she was actually related to Destro and that HIS part of the family evidently worshipped Cthulu in their basement. Yeah. Look that one up. Oh, and the time where some of the Joes got sent into an alternate future where Cobra had won- and eventually decided to STAY in that dimension to help (this was how they ‘weeded out’ a lot of the old/original joes in favor of the new/flashy ones). And who can forget the multi-episode ‘epics’ that usually revolved around some ‘artifact’ that is in several pieces and both Joes and Cobra have to race to find them all. I have used this particular structure in more than one of my own adventures.
As you can see from all of the gushing above, I was a fan of the show. Indeed, I have used names and even characterizations from it in various RPGs. One of my favorite sub-hobbies is ‘translating’ the JOE team into various settings/game systems. GI Joe in Twilight 2000? Yep. Done it. GI Joe in Battletech? Yep. GI Joe in Dark Conspiracy? Yep. GI Joe in Star Wars? Yep, done that, too. They exist as a ‘cell’ of the Rebel alliance, an elite, self-contained unit with their own distinctive vehicles and equipment. Likewise, the villains of the series could fit in QUITE well in a Star Wars setting, even if a “Cobra” organization doesn’t exist. Destro the Arms Dealer works great- even better with the Baroness as his agent. Zartan could be a REAL shapeshifter and Serpentor…well, he’s still kind of goofy, but I think you get the point.
So yeah. Yo Joe!
I’m tempted to lump this in with GI Joe, as the cartoons were produced simultaneously by the same companies. They share a lot of similarities in their structure (lots of characters, gonzo storylines, etc.). I was never into the Transformers as toys, but I did enjoy the cartoons well enough. Oddly enough, they seemed to be set in an ‘alternate future’ Earth- and equally odd was the fact that despite all the horrific combats going on, most episodes had little or no involvement with the government/military forces of humanity. The Autobots were almost ALWAYS the ‘only’ response to Decepticon aggression. Very odd.
After a couple years, the focus of the stories seemed to shift from earth to other planets, what with the addition of the world-devouring Unicron in ‘Transformers The Movie’. Indeed, this movie (despite being incredibly hokey) was quite memorable. First of all, it had that awesome song (“You’ve got the Touch!”), then it had characters die. And I mean a LOT of characters. Seriously, I think they killed every single original autobot. THAT was certainly memorable in a day and age where NOBODY every got hurt in cartoons. But more interesting to geeks like me was the after-school episode in which the Decepticons hire a human ‘strategic advisor’ to help them in their battles with the Autobots. This advisor (portrayed as an ancient man in a mask who speaks with a lisping accent), is revealed at the end of the episode to be none-other than Cobra Commander, himself. So it seems that the Autobots were actually set in the same universe as the Joes. Neat, huh? Well, I think so, anyway.
In any case, I find the Transformers to be a lot less…transformable into a Star Wars setting than any of the other cartoons mentioned in this post. I suppose you could have a race of sentient machines (droids), but it just wouldn’t be all that extraordinary. And if you had them ‘transform’ into various things it would just seem…hokey to me. Even so, thinking back on it I would have to say that a Unicron-like planet-devouring machine would be an AWESOME superweapon to use in a Star Wars campaign- though I’d steer away from it being a ‘current’ invention (as it would rather upstage the Death Star). Rather, I’d see it as an ancient machine built by a long-dead (or lost) race. Perhaps it wanders into the known galaxy. The Empire tries to sieze it for their own use. The Rebellion tries to destroy it (or at the very least prevent the Empire from getting it). Yeah, that does have possibilities.
I’ll stop there. I could reminisce for hours on this kind of stuff, but I think I’ve said the core of what I wanted. As goofy as cartoons of the day were, they left me with some great ideas and inspiration for my own imagination and gaming.