I’ll always have a soft spot for the variety of SFF (and SFF-tinged) cartoon series aimed at kids in the 1980s—partly because of the amazing sidekicks that tagged along for adventures in Eternia, Pac-Land, or a ghost-infested version of NYC. But which sidekicks reign supreme? Naturally, this requires a ranking list post.
THESE ARE MY OWN PERSONAL VIEWS. IT’S OK IF YOU LIKE SNARF.
I mean, I think you might want to talk to a therapist, but it’s probably okay, cosmically speaking.
#16 Scrappy Doo, Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo, etc.
Even as a tiny child I knew that Scrappy Doo was some bullshit. He lives at the bottom of not only this list, but of all lists, forever, until the mountains crumble and the sun is a black husk.
#15 Godzooky, The Godzilla Power Hour
Why do great cartoon heroes have such garbage nephews? The Gojipedia refers to Godzooky as a juvenile kaiju—which is honestly all I aspire to, myself. He’s low on this list because among his powers are: spewing black smoke from his mouth, flapping his tiny wings real hard, and “summoning his uncle Godzilla,” which is a thing the human characters can also do, and which only makes the hapless Godzooky look weaker.
At least try to solve your problems yourself, Godzooky!
#14 Chomp-Chomp and Sour Puss, Pac-Man: The Animated Series
Gaze into the faces of Pac-Man’s pets! Chomp-Chomp is the dog, Sour Puss is the cat, neither of them do too much, although Sour Puss does come out for a hike through the snow in “Christmas Comes to Pac-Land” and Chomp-Chomp helps Pac-Man drag Santa’s bag of toys back to the Pac-Home. And Sour Puss is always angry for some reason? There’s not much happening here.
#13 Snarf, ThunderCats (Ho!)
Ugh, Snarf. Snarf is a malformed Hellbeast who followed the ThunderCats around and prevented them from being as awesome as they might have been. He just keeps yelling his own name, and getting into scrapes from which other, better ThunderCats have to rescue him. And OK, fine, he’s older, and took care of Lion-O when Lion-O was a ThunderKitten, but still—being older just means he’s had time to learn not to scream SNARF! constantly. Which he has not done.
On the plus side, he probably inspired Smarf from “Too Many Cooks.”
#12 Relay, He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special
The Manchines are a race of tiny Etherian cyborgs who appeared in the He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special, where they rescue a pair of humans who have been trapped in Etheria due to Orko’s stupidity. Rather than simply coast on the Manchine concept, the show gave them their own adorable sidekick, a puppy (???) named Relay (????). Relay appears to be a regular organic puppy, with no visible mechanical parts. In what stands as the greatest sequence in He-Man and She-Ra’s history, the puppy softens the heart of Skeletor himself.
#11 MAD Cat, Inspector Gadget
He does NOTHING. But he is super fluffy, and he strengthens the show’s James Bond riff (exactly what you want in a Saturday Morning Cartoon?) and whenever Claw pounds his fist on his desk he jumps up and hisses.
#10 Nero, Danger Mouse
So Baron Silas von Greenback is an evil toad, Danger Mouse’s nemesis, and he, like Dr. Claw, is also based on Blofeld. (What was with kids TV and James Bond?) Since he’s a toad and not a human, he needed a diminutive pet, and since Danger Mouse is flipping brilliant, they gave him a furry white caterpillar called Nero. Nero may actually be hyper-intelligent, and more of a partner to the Baron than a pet, but this is left ambiguous.
#9 Spike, My Little Pony
Spike is a dragon among ponies. Much like Spike on Buffy, he’s trapped between two worlds: driven mad by his love for the ponies, and feeling like an outcast in the dragon world. In one episode a young knight shows up and tries to slay Spike, but the ponies talk him into finding a good deed that doesn’t involve stabbing their sentient friend to death. Spike gets a serious upgrade in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, where he becomes the coolest thing anyone can ever be: a dragon librarian.
#8 Kowl, She-Ra: Princess of Power
In my notes I had Kowl down as “that owl thing from She-Ra.” Kowl seemed to be an attempt to recreate that Orko magic, except She-Ra already had Madame Razz, a witch who knew Adora’s secret identity as She-Ra. So Kowl is a flying koala/owl, who also knows Adora’s secret, and who doesn’t have magic, but who does have ears that are also wings! He flaps around being cute and snarking on all the other characters. According to Wiki Grayskull “most of his relatives are dead.” Bummer.
#7 Orko, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Orko is a great example of why comic relief characters don’t really work in sword-and-sorcery stories. Orko is a Trollan (you know, from Trolla) who got trapped in Eternia during a terrible cosmic storm. He saved Prince Adam and his pet tiger cub, Cringer, and was then made court jester, but spends his life desperately trying to recapture his old magic…which of course backfires every time and puts all of his loved ones in terrible danger. Repeatedly. Like, every week. And this could be cool, but it clashes so starkly with the rest of the show, which is already a weird hybrid of epic fantasy and technobabble, and then Orko never gets any better, and then you learn that other Trollans are actually good at magic, and maybe it’s because he lost his magical pendant, but come on.
He does make for a great Halloween costume, though.
#6 Glomer, It’s Punky Brewster
Like a lot of successful TV shows and movies of the 80s, Punky Brewster got an animated spinoff. This allowed the writers to add a fantasy element that wouldn’t work in the live-action sitcom, which meant that Punky’s longtime canine companion Brandon is busted down to second-tier sidekick status in favor of one GLOMER, a raccoon I guess? magical creature from the land of “Chaudoon,” a tiny community at the foot of a rainbow that disappears when the rainbow does and is totally its own thing and not a Brigadoon rip-off at all. The theme song explains that Glomer, having been left behind by his rainbow and separated forever from all that he knows and love, must secretly live with Punky in Chicago. He uses his magic (yes, of course he’s magical) to transport her all over the world. In one episode, his magical intervention causes Social Services to rip Punky away from her guardian Henry, and leave her with a woman who owns a candy factory who uses foster kids as slave labor! (Saturday Morning Cartoons FTW!) Realizing his error Glomer says, and this is a direct quote: “Glomer boo-booed—Punky friend in hot soup!”
#5 Uni, Dungeons and Dragons
If you’re going to turn D&D into a TV show, you damn well better make it with the magical creatures. 1983’s Dungeons and Dragons did not disappoint, and in the pilot episode Bobby—the party’s Barbarian and youngest member—adopts a baby unicorn named Uni. Uni could kind of talk (mostly echoing Bobby’s words) and could teleport using her horn, but as she was a tiny adorable baby, she could only do this intermittently. And of course, since Bobby was the youngest, and very attached to her, she could easily become a liability for the evil Venger to exploit.
But who cares, look at her! She’s so cute.
#4 Slimer, The Real Ghostbusters
In the 1984 hit Ghostbusters, Slimer is a kind of B-level antagonist. He’s a big sloppy ghost who just wants to eat everything he can fit into his mouth, he coats Peter Venkman in ectoplasm, and he’s explicitly based on John Belushi.
In the cartoon spinoff of Ghostbusters, Slimer is suddenly the Ghostbusters’…pet? He hangs out with Janine in the office, he goes along on cases and helps the guys bust fellow ghosts, and for this complicity he is spared the horrors of the holding tank. This show was already called The Real Ghostbusters to appease Filmation, who had its own animated show called Ghostbusters, based on a television show from the 1970s. Later on, after producers noticed that children freaking loved Slimer, he took over the show Webster-style. Suddenly we lived in a bizarro world where Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters was a thing, as though Slimer had always been the true founder of the Ghostbusting franchise, and the Real Ghostbusters were but his human sidekicks. Slimer also fought his own nemesis, mad scientist Professor Norman Dweeb, who also had an animal sidekick in the form of a pink poodle called Elizabeth, but that’s just too damn many sidekicks and she’s not getting her own entry.
My main discovery in writing this article is that the world of children’s cartoons is a mine field.
#3 Cringer/Battle Cat, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Cringer is a classic children television character because if you look at him, he should be terrifying: a huge green and yellow tiger with long, human-eating-sized fangs! But instead he’s a neurotic, literal scaredy cat, cowering behind Prince Adam and avoiding conflict harder than an annoyed Minnesotan. But! When Prince Adam transforms into He-Man, he zaps Cringer with a bolt of lightning from his sword, transforming his pet into Battle Cat—bigger, be-muscled, and outfitted with a nifty red saddle and face horned face plate. Cringer speaks in a frightened, Scooby Doo-ish voice, but Battle Cat snarls his lines, because he is All Business.
#3 (Yes, it’s a tie!) Spirit/Swift Wind, She-Ra: Princess of Power
Spirit is a lovely white horse who proved that he was awesome by remaining loyal to Princess Adora when she defected from the evil Horde. When Adora was transformed into She-Ra, Spirit becomes Swift Wind—a unicorn/pegasus hybrid (easily the coolest fantasy animal) with rainbow wings and a fabulous bisexual pride mask. He also spoke in a startlingly deep and sonorous voice. In a world of garish Lisa Frank unicorns, Swift Wind is an icon of strength and subtlety.
#2 Brain, Inspector Gadget
Inspector Gadget was already kind of a hard sell? A cyborg detective parody of Inspector Clouseau crossed with James Bond’s Q—except spectacularly unintelligent—is locked in an eternal battle with a criminal organization called MAD, headed up by one Dr. Claw, himself a Dr. No/Blofeld pastiche. Add in that the fact that Gadget’s tween niece, Penny is the one who actually solves the crimes, and you have a deeply weird show. But then the writers decided to blow everything straight to hell and give Penny a hyper-intelligent dog (referred to as her “adopted brother” by the show’s Wikipedia page) and make him the one who does the legwork of thwarting Claw, usually while wearing disguises that make Gadget think he’s a MAD agent. And he can kinda talk? And clearly understands spoken and written English?
#1 Penfold, Danger Mouse
Some of you may not agree with my choice of Penfold for number one sidekick. And yet! He is the perfect blend of bumbling-and-cowardly, but also sometimes surprisingly brave. His comic relief gags are actually funny. He has a variety of catchphrases, ranging from “Cor!” to “Oh, crumbs!” that are incredibly British and inoffensive, but he can make them sound like swears if he’s distressed enough. The scrapes he gets into are borne out of a desire to help, and to be a great secret agent like his mentor/employer/life-partner, DM. And every once in a while he pulls off some heroics!
Plus? He wears a suit to work.
How many of you wear a suit to work?
Originally published November 2018