ByStephen Wilds/Aug. 11, 2021 1:32 pm EST
The 1980s were the Wild West of children's cartoons. It was a time when the question of whether or not something made sense never stopped a passionate idea from hitting the small screen. In these shows, kids see their heroes standing proud and bold in the face of conflict, constantly pitting themselves against new threats. But every strong protagonist needs someone to push and challenge them. These opponents are always plotting and scheming, providing the good guys with opportunities to prove themselves. In the end, the hero saves the day and the mastermind usually escapes to do it all over again.
What makes a great '80s cartoon villain? It isn't always a matter of who's the scariest or most effective — the biggest trait for many of them seems to be sheer persistence. Criminal masterminds who have style, an interesting background, and know how to deliver a wicked retort are the ones who rise to the top of the heap. These are the antagonists kids remember long after the show is done. We're here to take a look at the men, women, mutants, ghosts, robots, and mythical monsters who command the utmost respect by standing for what's wrong. Forget the chumps who play by the rules: These are the best animated villains '80s cartoons have to offer.
Genghis Rex (Dinosaucers)
"Dinosaucers" features a slew of characters. Most importantly, there are two teams of intelligent dinosaurs, and a group of humans called the Secret Scouts. The intro tries to explain them all, but there isn't much upfront info offered about individual characters' personalities. Genghis Rex, the ruthless leader of the Tyrannos who shouts in a booming voice as he flies around on his aircraft, sticks out in this crowded field. He's also a large red Tyrannosaurus in armor, giving him quite the terrifying form. This ill-tempered brute has the brains to match, evidenced in the episode "Applesaucers," in which he tries to take over a farm by abusing the legal system.
Genghis Rex has a bit of an ego: He prefers his troops to shower him with titles of respect like "bossasaur." But something isn't working, as several minions betray him on multiple occasions. Maybe if he was a bit kinder and didn't call them insulting names, that might happen less. Saying he's tyrannical may seem like a bad pun, but it's an accurate description of his drive and determination. He does show some sense of honor when fighting his fellow reptiles, and even spends some time crushing on Teryx, one of the good guys. But that's one romance that's never going to work out.
Samhain (The Real Ghostbusters)
There may be some argument over how to pronounce his name, but everyone knows that this ghost knows how to make an entrance. Some may think that Samhain's promise of a never-ending Halloween sounds appealing, but it comes with his midnight army of ghosts, ghouls, and goblins. Samhain isn't just a local problem either, as his spells slow down time and cast an endless night over the entire world. This spirit has been trapped in stone for centuries and won't go down easily, giving the Ghostbusters a couple of their fiercest fights. As he's not a simple blast-and-trap, our heroes have to figure out his weakness.
Samhain's reverberating voice demands attention, sending chills down any mortal's spine. His clawed hands and pumpkin-shaped head emerge from dirty brown robes as he floats around ominously. Not only does he have a large supply of monstrous minions, he's also powerful on his own, and has some degree of control over Slimer. He even captures the Junior Ghostbusters after taking over the firehouse in a later episode. Samhain is so formidable that the good guys can't even rest easily once he's contained — he could still escape, after all.
Venger (Dungeons and Dragons)
Many '80s villains square off against teenagers or young children. It's a bit harder to take a bad guy who keeps losing to kids seriously, so animated series balance things out by showing off their cruelty and dominance. As such, "Dungeons and Dragons" calls Venger "the force of evil." There's a reason Venger is to be feared: He has access to mighty spells, can shoot beams of energy, and is capable of some level of teleportation. But being powerful is just the beginning. Venger is formidable because he is constantly growing stronger.
Venger exudes supremacy. His ghostly pale skin stands out against the red, gray, and black attire he wears. His large, bat-like wings accent his towering form. Notably, Venger has just one horn. It isn't hard to imagine that whoever took the other one paid dearly. He's usually seated atop a solid black steed with red eyes named Nightmare, which cements his terrifying presentation. Add in his baritone voice, and you have a figure who makes our heroes tremble.
Venger has a complex backstory as well. He's not entirely evil, as it turns out: He's the Dungeon Master's son,who turned down the wrong path and needs to be redeemed. Sadly, this is all revealed in an unproduced finale.
Shredder (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
It's hard to imagine the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not having Shredder to throw down against. But indeed, that's how it is in the original comics. There, our heroes kill Oroku Saki at the end of the first issue. Thankfully, the 1987 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"cartoongives Shredder a chance to grow. The most recognizable version of the criminal mastermind comes from this cartoon, memorably voiced by "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" actor James Avery, who brings intensity and command to the legendary villain.
The first five episodes of the show give Shredder plenty of room to prove he's a legitimate threat to our heroes. Some of his prowess comes from his access to technological resources, allies, and the disposable robotic Foot Clan members. But none of his victories would be possible without his brilliant scheming. Shredder is also a skilled fighter, capable of taking on multiple enemies at a time — even, temporarily, all four turtles. Moments where he stops to wallow in how cruel and evil he is are especially memorable, making him harder to dislike. It's a shame that later seasons use the character for comedic value, and even attempt to replace him. Still, there is no denying Shredder's impressive presence.
Marvel Productions/Sunbow Productions
Megatron is so villainous, he literally transforms into a gun his allies use against our heroes. He isn't the best boss either, as this robotic conqueror doesn't suffer traitors and is often seen beating (and sometimes even sacrificing) his own troops for the cause. Megatron has a sleek look, an incredibly gravelly and menacing voice provided by Frank Welker, and a whole lot of pure enmity for Optimus Prime and the Autobots. Whatever his scheme to gather Energon is, it always has room for collateral damage and crushing his enemies.
This leader of the Decepticons has been battling for a long time. To seal his spot at the top, Megatron takes a step that many other villains can't: He actually destroys his nemesis after murdering several other iconic characters. Optimus Prime's death scarred many young viewers and cemented Megatron as one of the greatest cartoon villains of the 1980s, even if his victory is fleeting. Sure, he's ultimately outdone by Unicron as the big bad, and ends up turning into Galvatron so they'd have a new toy to sell. But every '80s kid remembers Megatron, the villain who killed their childhood.
Dr. Claw (Inspector Gadget)
Some villains have intricate backstories, or are propelled by strong motivations that ingratiate them to viewers. But some remain mysterious, like Dr. Claw. He's a driving and resourceful force of evil whose constant plotting keeps the pressure on his foes, yet he never quite manages to succeed. This isn't because Inspector Gadget is a real threat — he bumbles through most adventures without knowing what's going on. No, Penny and Brain are Dr. Claw's real adversaries. He has to work extra hard to get a little evil done with them around, no matter how many M.A.D. agents he employs. However, he always has an escape plan, and he never lets anyone get too close to his secrets.
The usual glimpse fans get of Dr. Claw is of a magnificent chair, an arm in a familiar metal gauntlet, and his pet feline, who has a wicked laugh. This adds to Dr. Claw's elusive nature, but in truth, it was probably done to save money on animation. His actual appearance is never revealed in the 1983 cartoon, though he's seen in full in the franchise's other films, video games, and action figures. Luckily, Frank Welker's memorable performance provides all the menace Dr. Claw needs.
Marvel Productions/Sunbow Productions
When Starscream isn't hogging the screen, the real power behind the Decepticons is revealed as Soundwave. Though the Decepticons are constantly blackmailing and backstabbing each other, Soundwave is always loyal to Megatron and the cause. He's regarded as one of the great warriors of his side, and manages to outlast many of his comrades through cunning. Soundwave is a spy, acting as the Decepticons' communications officer. His ability to intercept most transmissions and read minds helps with this. These factors usually mean he deals in information, though he's a more than capable soldier with a cannon on his shoulder. His value to the Decepticons cannot be understated, as he may be the most competent one among them, other than their leader.
Soundwave is also one of the coolest robots in the "Transformers" universe. Instantly recognizable by his modulated computer voice and his ability to turn into a microcassette player, Soundwave provides the boom. He also brings his own small army to any battle: Miniature soldiers reside within him as cassettes, which can transform to act as spies in their own right, fight, and do a lot of structural damage. The varied nature of his tiny friends makes Soundwave prepared for anything the Autobots could be planning. It's good that he has his own portable friends, because the other Decepticons don't like him, but that won't stop Soundwave from achieving his goals.
Ganon (The Legend of Zelda)
DIC Entertainment/Nintendo of America
Nintendo hadn't put a lot of work into fleshing out the villain for "The Legend of Zelda" franchise by the time the 1989 cartoon came out. As a result, the animated series was tasked with giving this robed menace a personality. Step one was to saddle him with an annoying squealy voice. This matches his swine-like features, and can also drop down to sound threatening as needed. Then he needed a personality. Ganon thinks highly of himself, being the kind of baddie who teleports everywhere instead of walking, or gets carried around by his servants. Ganon also doesn't understand concepts like love, and acts in a scatterbrained manner, though this might be caused by his own corruption.
Most memorably, Ganon is extremely powerful and quick to anger. But that doesn't mean he's a loose cannon. This evil wizard has plenty of vile plots to take over Hyrule and a slew of respawning minions to carry them out. We know he doesn't mind sacrificing these troops if it means having a chance to get something he wants, as happens in Episode 5, "Sing for the Unicorn." Ganon will do whatever it takes to win. His victory is terrifying to contemplate, and, to make matters worse, he's already halfway there. This villain possesses the Triforce of Power, which raises the stakes for our heroes and keeps the series' central struggle tense.
World Events Productions
Though names like Zarkon and Lotor may ring more bells when discussing "Voltron," these wannabe dictators would be nowhere without their personal witch, Haggar. Haggar is a powerful woman with a devastating level of control over magic, potions, and some sciences. She is capable of manipulating DNA, and even experiments upon herself. It's implied in later episodes that she may have shared some sort of relationship with King Zarkon, but the real reason she's kept around is because she's the brains and brawn of the operation.
Not only is Haggar responsible for creating the Robeasts — even putting Zarkon inside of one in one episode — she's the one who breaks the mighty defender into the five lions, which is a huge strike against our heroes. She's so cunning and skilled that in episodes like "The Witch Gets a Facelift," Haggar acts as a solo agent, using her magic to appear as one of Allura's relatives. She almost gets close enough to take the princess down without anyone knowing about it. Haggar's appearance is memorably twisted: She has glowing yellow eyes, a raspy voice, and carries a staff. Completing her witchy look is the blue cat familiar she is often seen with.
Zartan (G.I. Joe)
Marvel Productions/Sunbow Productions
Cobra is a feared organization in the "G.I. Joe" universe. That's not necessarily because of their resources, and it's certainly not because of their courageous leadership — it's because of the skills and abilities of their individual agents. Of those soldiers, Zartan may be the scariest. Zartan is a master of espionage, being unmatched when it comes to the art of disguise. He's also not the easiest guy to predict or control. Sometimes, Zartan simply goes with the highest bidder, as in "The Revenge of Cobra," a story arc that sees him try to sell recovered tech to both sides.
On top of this, Zartan is a natural linguist and ventriloquist who's trained under a ninja master. He also has access to holographic and special effects technology to help with infiltration. And then there are the Dreadnoks, his own group of mercenary swamp rats who supply a bit of force when necessary. Zartan isn't all-powerful: His camouflage ability is incredibly useful, but it's often stopped by sunlight, and is outright ignored in later episodes. He can also be a bit cowardly, as he is in "Countdown to Zartan." But there is no denying his versatility. No wonder Cobra relies on him so heavily.
Hordak (She-Ra: Princess of Power)
The truth is that Hordak is a better villain than Skeletor, and old Skull-Face knows this. That's why they keep fighting. There may also be something about one of them leaving the other trapped in a different dimension and Hordak being Skeletor's former mentor, but it's best not to get lost in the details.
Hordak is no slouch as a villain, having a stronger grip on Etheria than his skeletal counterpart ever has on Eternia. He even controls the show's hero at the beginning of the series. The people are under his thumb, and that's the way Hordak likes it, allowing him to revel in their suffering. He's such a potent foe that later canon names him as the one who killed King Grayskull.
Hordak's features are quite gruesome at first glance. He has a pale, bat-like face, a flattened nose he snorts from constantly, and red eyes that match his winged emblem. This startling appearance is accented by the bones lining his outfit. The animalistic elements of his visage are contrasted by his robotic powers: Hordak can change large parts of his body into anything he wants, from bladed weapons and flamethrowers to rockets that allow him to fly. Hordak's abilities come from a unique mixture of technology and magic, making him a vicious and formidable nemesis for She-Ra.
Miles Mayhem (M.A.S.K.)
The enemy of M.A.S.K. (Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) is the criminal organization known as V.E.N.O.M (Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem). These names may seem a bit excessive, but you have to appreciate how clearly they make their points. "M.A.S.K." is a cartoon where the good guys stop the villains simply because it's the right thing to do — for the most part. Matt Trakker, leader of M.A.S.K., has a personal history with Miles Mayhem, founder of V.E.N.O.M. According to the comics, Mayhem once worked with Trakker and his brother Andy, but he betrayed them and killed the latterman while making off with half the blueprints and prototypes they'd been working on.
Miles Mayhem looks like a military veteran, his stylish suit hung heavily with medals. It's possible that he stole them, but he might have earned them genuinely, before betraying everything he stood for. He has a gruff voice provided by Brendan McKane and almost fatherly-looking features. But they disappear when he puts on his helmet, Viper, which shoots corrosive acid. Then, his true intimidating nature takes center stage. Mayhem's aggressive attitude and cruelty are often highlighted, even though he rarely succeeds. His personal vehicle, Switchblade, is a slick red and black helicopter that can change into a jet loaded with weapons. These dual forms give him control of the skies and the ability to deal with any pesky lackey of Trakker's who wants to challenge him.