From the Console to the TV Station: Part 1

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A while back, I wrote about two of my favorite subjects combined: videogames and cereal. Now I want to take you through another avenue of pop culture history that will help to complete the trifecta of the things that, for over 20 years, have made gamer children’s days brighter; heck, adults love ’em too!

I’m talking about the marriage of television shows, namely cartoons, with videogames. There really is nothing better to go along with a big bowl of game themed cereal than a morning block filled with game themed programming. And fortunately for us, there have been plenty of them broadcast all over the world for the past 20 years. But this means that there is way too much to cover to contain it all in a single article.

The following is just part one of this journey back through television and gaming history, with screenshots, video, and commentary covering the first two videogame cartoons ever made.

Like many other things, videogame television all started with Pac-Man.

Pac-Man: The Animated Series/1982-1984/Hanna-Barbera

The epidemic of Pac-Man Fever in the early 80s was responsible for the kick start of real-world game paraphernalia, including t-shirts, Pac shaped food products, and of course, a cartoon. Pac-Man: The Animated Series was first of its kind, and the first in a long line of cartoons based on games that have little to no back story. This gave the creators a lot of freedom with the settings and situations they can put the game’s characters in.

In Pac-Man‘s case, they made him a family man, which makes sense seeing as how the games chronicled his meeting Ms. Pac-Man, falling in love, and having a child. The three lived together in a very Pac-centric world, where everything was spherical, bright, and Power Pellets grew freely on trees. Here, their world may have no longer been a maze set against a black background, but it did retain one environmental aspect from the games: there were a bunch of pesky ghosts always flying about. The four original boy ghosts and the girl ghost Sue from Ms. Pac-Man all served to be a constant collective pain in the Pacs’ nonexistent necks.

The natural progression of the cartoon Pac
Because the ghosts themselves weren’t proper cartoon enemies, due to their non-threatening appearances and weaknesses to Power Pellets, their menacing, human-esque boss, Mezmaron, was created to fill the need to put some semblance of evil in this world. Pac-Man consisted mostly of unconnected stories, but most of them centered around Mezmaron’s desire to seize control of the hidden Power Forest, which contained all of the world’s Power Pellets. These items are the food and power source for all of the Pacs, so if he were to succeed in his mission, the population of Pac-people would have died out. This total disregard and disgust for the main species of the cartoon ultimately colored Mezmaron the same as the ruthless Gargamel, essentially making Pac-Man: The Animated Series a game-themed Smurfs (which was also a Hanna-Barbera property).

Many of the plots used for Pac-Man were loosely derived from or inspired by other works in television and film. Take for example the episodes Mr. Jekyll and Mr. Pac-Man and Super-Pac vs. Pac-Ape, which have pretty predictable plots if you take the titles into consideration. Nearly every episode of this program borrowed some element from a work of media other than the videogames, perhaps because it was kind of hard to squeeze a bunch of varied stories out of the game series.

From femme fatale to plain Jane
Even though the show enjoyed a much longer pre-syndication run than most that followed, the producers obviously had very little faith in it. Originally, Pac-Man was never aired alone, instead sandwiched in between well-established cartoons such as Richie Rich. But turnabout is fair play, as they eventually propped the doomed-to-failure Rubik, the Amazing Cube up against it during Pac-Man‘s final year. Additionally, the series has been seen in syndication on TV as recently as last year, refusing to die out completely. It is also currently available on Xbox Live.

Pac-Man: The Animated Series was also very interesting in that it inspired a few completely new Pac-Man games based on the mythos of the television series. Pac-Land and Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures both gave Pac-Man arms, legs, a hat, and the world of Pac-Land to romp through, sidescroller style. Ideas traveling from games to TV and then back to games is a phenomenon that, to my knowledge, has not happened with another videogame cartoon to date. EDIT: Apparently, Pitfall II : The Lost Caverns for the Atari 2600 was based off of the Pitfall cartoon described in the next section. But these are the only ones.. I think!

Take the original formula, mess with the colors, add some hats
Additional material:
Christmas Comes to Pacland
Chomp-Out at the O.K. Corral
A Bad Case of the Chomps
The Bionic Pac Woman
Journey to the Center of Pacland
Nighty Nightmare
More Pac-Man: The Animated Series episodes


Saturday Supercade/1983-1985/Ruby-Spears

Next, in 1983, came Saturday Supercade, a block of videogame cartoons that aired Saturday mornings on CBS. The shorts included in this 30 minute block were inspired by Frogger, Kangaroo, Q*Bert, Space Ace and Pitfall. Its two flagship cartoons were based on the wildly popular Donkey Kong series of games, with Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior getting their own respective cartoon segments.

Like Pac Man: The Animated Series, most of these simplistic games had very little about their worlds set in stone. This caused some of these arcade favorites to be dropped into very odd settings. For example, Q*Bert was still a fuzzy orange ball who had to hop away from purple snake enemies, but he wore a letter jacket and lived in 1950s era America. Frogger would still be flattened on a regular basis, but he worked as a newspaper reporter with a female frog and a turtle.

Just a few examples of the craziness the show entailed
The cartoons based off of Kangaroo, Pitfall and Space Ace were more grounded in their source material, but were still just a little bit off by decision of the producers. While the game Kangaroo had the player control a mother kangaroo searching for her joey, the cartoon centered around the mother and son’s joint efforts to stop a bunch of troublesome monkeys living in the zoo with them. The Pitfall portion of the show chronicled all of Pitfall Harry’s jungle adventures, but they gave him a niece and a goofy talking mountain lion for company. Space Ace was just slightly offbeat for two reasons: the animation was done by Ruby-Spears instead of Don Bluth, and they made Kimberly be Ace’s sister instead of his girlfriend.

The Kong cartoons were interesting in that they were separate entities, yet linked to one another. Donkey Kong was a methodical program, centering around Mario and Paulina’s futile chase to recapture the big ape after he escapes from the circus. Meanwhile, Donkey Kong Junior was a continual story that nipped at the heels of the parent show, as Junior and a human biker follow Senior’s trail so that father and son can be reunited. Ruby-Spears again chose to change a pretty blatant relationship by making Paulina into Mario’s niece. What they had against romance in videogames, we’ll never know.

The freedom of the writers to fill in the blanks in these characters’ personalities also caused many of them to fall into well-established cartoon stereotypes. The characters of Q*Bert tended to tack the letter Q onto every word, in the same way that the Smurfs often replaced random words with “smurf” (Pac-Man also did this to a certain extent with the prefix “Pac”). Donkey Kong Junior was given a catchphrase (“Monkey muscle!”), which drew many parallels to a certain small cartoon dog’s battle cry (“Puppy power!”).

It is only here that these two unlikely heroes meet
However uninspired or ludicrous these things may seem to us now, the show was a rather ambitious project to be the second videogame cartoon ever made. It pretty much covered all of the bases that it possibly could, grabbing the biggest stars of the time and giving them about ten minutes each to grace children’s television screens with wackiness on Saturday mornings. CBS even used bumpers that resembled Space Invaders and other arcade games during the years the show was broadcast. I may have been just a year shy of seeing the program, but I can bet that it made a lot of budding young gamers very happy to have so much gaming present in their Saturday morning cartoons.

Saturday Supercade may not ever be able to live on as Pac-Man has due to licensing issues. There’s not much left of it today, but what is still around has been graciously ripped from VHS recordings of old broadcasts and uploaded to the Internet to share with everyone.

Additional material:
Donkey Kong: The Great Ape Escape
Donkey Kong Junior: A Christmas Story
Q*Bert: Q-urf’s Up
Frogger: Here Today, Pawned Tomorrow
Kangaroo: Trunkful of Trouble
Pitfall: Masked Menace Mess
Space Ace: Wanted: Dexter!
CBS bumpers, 1982-1985


Dragon’s Lair/1984-1985/Ruby-Spears

There isn’t much to say about this cartoon; it was basically the game in an uncontrollable, episodic format. Like Space Ace, Don Bluth was not responsible for the animation, making it a much lower quality production than the original. Oddly enough, even though its sister cartoon Space Ace was part of the Saturday Supercade, Dragon’s Lair was aired around the same time on CBS’ competition, ABC.

Additional material:
More Dragon’s Lair episodes


That’s all for part one of From the Console to the TV Station, but there is plenty more to come! Be sure to tune in next week for, among other things, a comprehensive look at the many television shows that featured gaming’s two biggest stars: Mario and Sonic. See you then!

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Ashley Davis
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