Before the ’90s, anime was just for nerds. It might have been big in Japan since the 80s, but most people in the West didn’t get it. But when it rolled around in the 90s, boy, did it blow a lot of people’s minds. It was also the decade when anime became a cultural phenomenon in America.
This article offers you a list of beloved ’90s anime series that will transport you back to those nostalgic days.
Who hasn’t heard of Pokémon, the anime sensation that turned pocket monsters into a global phenomenon? Pokémon wasn’t just a TV hit; it sparked a worldwide frenzy of video games, trading cards, and merchandise that could fill a room the size of Snorlax. It’s bright, cheerful, and embodies the ’90s spirit, with its diverse cast of creatures firmly embedded in our pop culture.
Pokémon has evolved into the world’s highest-grossing multimedia franchise, encompassing beloved video games, trading card games, and the long-running anime TV series that’s still going strong today. The animated series follows the journey of a ten-year-old named Ash Ketchum, who dreams of becoming a Pokémon master. While it may have felt like it hung around a bit too long for some, the classic days of following Ash, Misty, Brock, and their adventures in the Kanto and Johto regions are pure nostalgia.
This show delved into emotional depths that surprised Western cartoon viewers and, through its societal commentary, encouraged a generation to care for one another and their environment. Plus, the epic battles and iconic soundtrack were simply fantastic.
Pokémon was an integral part of countless childhoods, arguably rivaling Dragon Ball Z in terms of impact. With its premise of meeting, catching, training, and befriending unique supernatural creatures, the “monster of the week” formula made the anime utterly addictive.
Dragon Ball Z (1989 – 1996)
If you recall that one quirky kid yelling on the playground about reaching Super Saiyan mode and unleashing a Kamehameha wave, you probably grew up in the ’90s.
Dragon Ball Z, that hyper ’90s anime, takes us on a wild ride with Goku and his crew as they soar, battle, and deliver knockout punches across a universe as vast as their gravity-defying hairstyles. While Akira Toriyama’s original Dragon Ball was a hit on its own, Dragon Ball Z propelled the franchise to new heights, introducing concepts like “Super Saiyans” and unforgettable characters such as Goku and Vegeta, who became instant pop culture icons.
The story in Dragon Ball Z picks up with Goku after his victory against King Piccolo at the Budokai Tenkaichi tournament. The narrative and world-building expanded significantly, introducing Saiyans, power levels, striking new forms, and even more high-octane action. Dragon Ball Z left an indelible mark on the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, and its influence is still palpable today.
This series is an absolute thrill ride. It’s all about characters hollering at each other and getting stronger. Without Dragon Ball Z, there would be no Naruto, no One Piece, and no Bleach. This anime practically wrote the book (or manga) on crafting an iconic Shonen protagonist! Goku, an extraterrestrial who lands on Earth, now battles to protect it from otherworldly invaders. You don’t need much more explanation than that; it’s not all that complicated!
One Piece (1999-present)
Who would have guessed that a show centered around pirates would become one of the most enduring anime series of all time? Enter the spirited yet comically wobbly-limbed Monkey D. Luffy, on a quest to claim the title of Pirate King. Alongside his trusty crew, known as the Straw Hat Pirates, he embarks on a journey across the treacherous Grand Line in pursuit of his dream treasure: the fabled “One Piece.”
The “One Piece” series offers everything you could desire from an anime. Its pacing strikes a perfect balance, even considering its impressive episode count, and character development receives meticulous attention. What starts as Monkey D. Luffy’s aspiration to become a pirate following his encounter with the legendary Shanks evolves into a vibrant pirate-themed odyssey, rich in lore, and world-building.
Although it began airing in 1999, One Piece continues to push the boundaries of its time frame, and it’s impossible to overlook its significance in ’90s anime. Eiichiro Oda’s expansive manga began just two years prior to Toei Animation’s adaptation and remains in production to this day, mirroring the longevity of its source material.
What truly sets this ’90s gem apart is its embrace of the era’s unbridled optimism. Whether it’s Luffy’s indomitable spirit or the epic adventures that await, Eiichiro Oda’s creation embodies a sense of wonder as boundless as the Grand Line itself.
Sailor Moon (1992 – 1997)
Forget about caped superheroes from the West; the ’90s introduced us to the magical, miniskirt-wearing sensation that is Sailor Moon. It revolves around Usagi Tsukino, a teenager turned intergalactic heroine, and her superpowered squad. Together, they battle extraterrestrial foes, navigate high school drama, and still find time for heart-fluttering romance.
While Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon grabbed most of the anime’s attention in the 90s, Sailor Moon made a significant impact that shouldn’t be underestimated. If the former two were defining series for the shounen audience, Sailor Moon achieved a similar feat for shoujo.
This anime played a crucial role in expanding the female audience in the world of anime. It brilliantly combined typical shoujo storytelling elements with the “magical girl” theme, following the adventures of Usagi Tsukino and her fellow Sailor Soldiers as they defended Earth against various villains. Sailor Moon’s legacy endures today, praised for its unique cast of characters and its exploration of their distinctive personalities.
The series celebrates friendship empowerment, and adds a dash of cheesy drama for extra flavor. With its twirl-worthy transformations and catchy theme song, Sailor Moon is a sweet ’90s throwback that’s impossible not to love.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 – 1996)
Neon Genesis Evangelion (or EVA for short) quietly entered the 1990s as yet another blend of teen mecha and monster battles. But just as you’re getting accustomed to the perpetually gloomy Shinji and epic space monster showdowns, EVA plunges headfirst into a profound pool of psychological drama.
EVA may have had its profound and dark themes go over the heads of younger viewers when it first aired. This isn’t your typical mecha anime – it deconstructs the genre to explore complex themes of moral ambiguity, the human psyche, and the repercussions of depression. It’s set in a futuristic Tokyo-3, fifteen years after a catastrophic global event. In this narrative, a teenage boy is reluctantly recruited by his estranged father into a mysterious organization called Nerv. His mission is to pilot a colossal bio-mechanical robot known as an “Evangelion” to defend against otherworldly entities known as “Angels.”
Studio Gainax, alongside the visionary Hideaki Anno, must have thought, “Let’s combine introspection and destruction and do it stylishly!” And guess what? It worked! With mind-blowing Eva-Angel confrontations, moody synth vibes, and a twisty psycho-philosophical narrative, EVA shattered mecha conventions, became a cult classic, and sparked endless debates (that ending, right?). EVA didn’t merely pass through the 1990s—it dominated them.
If you weren’t a fan of that ending, a series of four films called “Rebuild of Evangelion,” released from 2007 to 2021, essentially reimagined the original storyline with a different conclusion.
Cardcaptor Sakura (1998-2000)
In the 1990s, the world of Shoujo anime was ruled by Magical Girls, showcasing complex female characters. Cardcaptors, also known as Cardcaptor Sakura (CCS), introduces us to ten-year-old Sakura Kinomoto, who accidentally unleashes a collection of magical cards from a book in her basement. When Kero, the guardian of the cards, appears, he reveals that only someone with magical abilities can open the book. Now, it’s Sakura’s duty to retrieve the lost cards, which means facing off against the personification of each card and encountering Syaoran Li, the descendant of the Card Master.
Beyond its captivating “magic card catch-a-thon” premise, Cardcaptor Sakura is a heartwarming coming-of-age tale. It explores childhood themes like friendship and first crushes, all set to an irresistible J-pop soundtrack. With its wide-eyed characters, mesmerizing transformation sequences, and an abundance of emotions, Cardcaptor Sakura is the timeless classic in the world of magical girl anime that continues to enchant viewers.
This anime won hearts with its humor, artwork, and animation, appealing to a broad audience and helping diversify the Magical Girl subgenre. It even gained a significant male fanbase. The creators of CCS, along with the manga artist group Clamp, later incorporated the designs of Sakura and Syaoran into a new series called Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, uniting their previous works in a shared universe.
Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999)
Cowboy Bebop, often hailed as one of the finest anime creations, offers a unique fusion of sci-fi and Western genres. This anime-original series revolves around a team of space bounty hunters: Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and their faithful corgi companion, Ein.
The anime unfolds in the intergalactic era of 2071, where Earth’s inhabitants have spread to other planets, only to find themselves entangled with drugs and thieves. Spike and Jet Black journey through space in pursuit of a comfortable living. Yet, Spike’s shadowy history looms, and Jet Black serves as both his emotional anchor and the ship’s caretaker. Along the way, they encounter companions who become integral to their crew, venturing across the universe in pursuit of riches.
What sets Cowboy Bebop apart is its exceptional ability to craft atmosphere. It boasts stylish art direction and a soundtrack infused with elements of acid jazz and blues, perfectly complementing its immersive universe and diverse cast. While the series primarily follows an anthology/episodic format to explore its space bounty hunter concept, it also weaves a thematically profound overarching narrative about the human condition.
In its twenty-six episodes, Shinichirō Watanabe achieved something many strive for but few attain an enduring masterpiece with a timeless legacy. Cowboy Bebop is an anime that remains stylistically rich and emotionally haunting, sparking vibrant conversations to this day. It stands as a testament to the heights that anime can reach and continues to capture hearts because it is, without a doubt, timeless.
Slam Dunk (1993-1996)
This anime serves as a time capsule of ’90s attitude, complete with a Bon Jovi-style soundtrack, spirited trash-talking, and electrifying basketball action that’s sure to make a slam-dunk impression. A legendary anime and manga series by the highly skilled Takahiro Inoue, Slam Dunk stands out in the world of sports anime. It tackles emotions with a level of maturity that sets it apart from modern sports anime, showcasing the gradual growth of its characters. It’s brimming with heart, capable of filling an entire arena, evoking laughter, cheers, and even tears.
The story centers around Sakuragi Hanamichi, a high school troublemaker who constantly finds himself in fights and rejected by girls. However, a new chapter unfolds as he switches schools in pursuit of a fresh start and falls in love with a girl named Haruko.
Beyond the court, the series delves into the themes of camaraderie, ambition, and the exhilaration of the underdog’s triumph. In fact, it ignited a nationwide basketball craze in Japan, proving that Slam Dunk wasn’t just playing the game; it was reshaping it!
Rurouni Kenshin (1996-1998)
Rurouni Kenshin, known in the West as Samurai X, transports you back to Japan’s Meiji era, set against the backdrop of Japan’s transition from a feudal system to a federal government in 1878. Our protagonist, Kenshin Himura, once a deadly assassin, now roams as a wandering samurai, protecting the innocent with a reverse-blade sword that’s about as lethal as a butter knife. Little did they know that his infamous past would attract a host of vengeful warriors to their doorstep.
This anime’s brilliance lies in its straightforward yet captivating premise, which injects humor and depth into this adventurous tale. While some of the violence was toned down for the Toonami audience (and a few episodes were edited out), it’s the diverse cast of characters and their personal growth throughout the series that cements this classic’s place on numerous “best of” lists.
Known as Samurai X in the West, it’s one of Japan’s most-watched anime series of all time, spawning spin-offs, movies, and faithful live-action adaptations. With a sprinkle of romance and a cast of charmingly eccentric characters, this vintage classic strikes the perfect balance between touching and humorous. Kenshin, you had us at “oro.”
Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
If you think the internet is a wild place today, just wait until you dive into the enigmatic world of Serial Experiments Lain. Imagine going from an ordinary teenager to a digital messiah in the blink of an eye – that’s the surreal journey of Lain. She’s an introvert navigating the bewildering virtual realm known as The Wired.
Don’t expect cheerful tones or doe-eyed characters in this enigmatic mystery anime. Serial Experiments Lain is an on-screen existential crisis tailor-made for the dial-up generation. It stands as one of the most unsettling anime creations ever crafted. It’s a wholly original series, not based on any source material, and its atmosphere is so suffocatingly eerie that you’ll feel its grip tightening with each passing episode.
Is it odd and unsettling? Undoubtedly. Also, the series maintains a relatively brisk pace, although it may challenge some viewers to keep up. However, the climax offers a reprieve from the pervasive gloom that permeates the entire anime. Yet, like any exceptional abstract art, you can’t help but step back and admire its complexity and depth.
Berserk (1997 – 1998)
Berserk was the epitome of ’90s edginess, catering to the tastes of those who relished ’90s comics like Punisher or Frank Miller’s Batman. The series unfolds in a grim medieval world, centering on Guts, a young mercenary who thrives on the battlefield, carving a path of vengeance through a world shattered by the betrayal of his former comrade, Griffith. Initially, it’s a tale of retribution, but Berserk transforms it into a narrative of healing, both psychological and physical, enriched by thrilling action sequences.
This epic saga delves into ambition, betrayal, and chilling encounters that defy description. Berserk revitalized the anime landscape with its unapologetic gore and existential dread. It popularized the notion of ‘dark and gritty,’ propelling seinen anime into the spotlight. Despite its modest animation budget, Berserk’s storytelling prowess outshone flashy visuals, leaving an indelible mark on its viewers. Dive in, but be prepared – it’s a series that burrows deep under your skin and refuses to let go. While other anime of the era focused on friendship, Berserk embraced a complex blend of dark fantasy, political intrigue, and visceral horrors.
For fans of Berserk, the ’97 adaptation stands as a shining beacon in the realm of anime. Subsequent adaptations failed to capture its essence, leaving much to be desired. This 1997 rendition emerged as a dark horse, initially underappreciated until we were confronted with the modernized versions of Berserk.
Yu Yu Hakusho (1992 – 1995)
Prepare for a nostalgic trip to ’90s anime with Yu Yu Hakusho, a certified classic from that golden era. The series revolves around Yusuke Urameshi, a teenage delinquent with a penchant for brawling. One day, in a surprising turn of events, Yusuke saves a young boy’s life by sacrificing his own, defying his personality’s expectations. That’s the unique premise of Yu Yu Hakusho. As a reward, Yusuke is granted a second lease on life as a spirit detective. Now, he must solve ghostly mysteries and confront demons plotting to conquer the human world.
The series transitions into a martial arts-focused narrative, with Yusuke engaging in battles against demons in various tournaments.
This dark-action series is based on one of the best-selling shonen manga of the 1990s. It earned acclaim as the best anime of the year in both 1994 and 1995. It also gained popularity among young males worldwide, particularly in the USA and the Philippines.
In a fun twist, “Yu Yu Hakusho” was only surpassed by “Sailor Moon” in the 1993 Anime Grand Prix. Interestingly, the creator of “Yu Yu Hakusho,” Yoshihiro Togashi, is married to Naoko Takeuchi, the author of the “Sailor Moon” series.“
Detective Conan (1996-present)
Detective Conan, also known as Case Closed, serves up a unique blend of high school drama and Sherlock Holmes-style sleuthing. Our hero, high school detective prodigy Shinichi Kudo, faces a rather unusual twist of fate. After an unsavory encounter with a crime syndicate, he finds himself shrunken down to the size of a grade schooler. But does this setback deter his unwavering pursuit of justice? Absolutely not!
Now living under the alias Conan, he accompanies Ran Mori, his childhood friend, and her father, Kogoro Mori, a private detective. The series unfolds as Conan shadows Kogoro in various cases. When Conan cracks a case, he takes matters into his own hands, tranquilizing Kogoro and then revealing his findings by impersonating the seasoned private detective with the help of a voice changer.
What sets this anime apart is its remarkable fusion of suspense, humor, and a plethora of plot twists. Each episode unfolds as an intricate whodunit rollercoaster, guaranteed to leave you repeatedly picking up your jaw from the floor. But the real icing on the cake is our diminutive hero’s penchant for delivering epic “the-reason-you-suck” speeches to clueless adults. It’s a testament to the fact that you don’t need towering stature to reach the pinnacle of classic ’90s anime.