Cartoons and video games are a match made in heaven. Well, maybe not when the cartoon is actually based on a video game. Single shot animated stories in cartoons always seem to capture the quirky and obsessive nature of gaming in the most meaningful and hilarious light.
This piece originally appeared 2/19/18.
It’s been nearly three years since I cobbled together my original list of gaming-inspired cartoon episodes. Since that time there have been a handful of quality parodies and tributes released, as well as some old classics rediscovered. I tried my best to only include shows that weren’t represented last time, with one unavoidable exception.
Put on your pajamas and grab a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It’s time for a dozen more of gaming’s greatest cartoon episodes.
Synopsis: Owing Gumball a birthday gift, his moronic rabbit father surprises him with a knockoff handheld gaming system. Upon powering up his new Game Child, Gumball discovers the handheld is loaded with a Final Fantasy-esque JRPG known as Inverted Paradox: The Enemy Within. Instead of getting transported into the game (a common trend in these kind of episodes), Gumball starts to realize the Game Child has warped his own reality, twisting it into a formulaic role-playing adventure. After dubbing his character MYBUTT, he sets off with his party to grind his way to the final boss.
Why It’s Great: This may seem like a cop out (especially for the first entry on the list), but my good buddy Narelle Ho Sang already dedicated an entire article to this wonderfully wacky episode back when it premiered. I highly recommend you give it a read.
Synopsis: When high school student and VR enthusiast Cory Cavalieri is invited to meet the creator of his favorite game, Sentries of the Last Cosmos, he is overjoyed. Gaming visionary Simon Harper soon explains to Cory and his new recruits that the game’s plot is real and is being used as a recruiting tool for testing galactic warriors. As it turns out, Harper is simply using his new cult of fanboys to erase all record of his former partner and fellow game developer. It’s up to Terry McGinnis, the new Batman on the block, to foil Harper’s underhanded plans and convince the sentries it’s all just a game.
Why It’s Great: Though it’s usually superheroes staring in video games and not the other way around, it’s refreshing to see a more serious gaming-related plot being brought to the table in such an established comic universe. Most impressionable young players would love to live in a world where their gaming skills and knowhow translated into meaningful and respectable attributes, even if it means following a madman. This darker angle on gaming, along with the “Jobs vs Wozniak” inspired rivalry between Harper and his former partner puts a great spin on the average superhero story.
Synopsis: As team leader Chris sits atop his throne within the Bravest Warriors’ futuristic HoloJon, he does battle with various virtual baddies. When fellow warrior Wallow arrives to use the facilities he witnesses Chris’ epic throw down with Stage 100 boss Great Planes Wildebeest, complete with wizard hat and staff. The addition of another “bathroom bro” puts Chris over the top, and he unleashes his devastating final move — Bumblebee Storm to the Eyeballs. Things just get weirder from there.
Why It’s Great: It may be just over five minutes long, but there are plenty quality one liners and bizarre plot twists in this little webisode. Who hasn’t spent all night trying to beat a game, just to be shamed by a friend who tells you you’re going to get a prolapsed anus from sitting too long? I think we’ve all been there.
Synopsis: When the cantankerous Pierce Hawthorne is called upon to receive a mysterious inheritance, everyone’s favorite Greendale study group tags along. Soon they find themselves playing a decades-old video game that Pierce’s bigoted father left behind, with the first player to reach the end receiving the Hawthorne moist towelette fortune. The study group agrees to work together to help Pierce make the arduous journey, though they’re soon pitted against a pixelated version of the devious Gilbert, executor of the Hawthorne estate.
Why It’s Great: Though only a handful of Community episodes and segments feature animation, every single one is a standout moment for the series. The gang, especially Abed, slowly learning the ins and outs of the game’s oddly complex environment is superbly well done and features loads of nods to classic titles. There’s even a quick breakdown of the Missingno Glitch from the original Pokémon games hidden in one of the NPC’s text boxes.
Synopsis: Yo, Danny Fenton, he was just fourteen when his parents built a very strange machine. I’ll cut to the chase... he’s a phantom. A super-powered teenage ghost boy. When Danny rage quits after a frustrating game of Doomed he accidentally unleashes a cybernetic ghost known as Technus. Technus is determined to sync his ghostly form with the online game so he can delve deeper into the darkness that is the internet. Danny must juggle school, gaming, and this new digital threat if he wants to survive the day.
Why It’s Great: Since its cancellation in 2007 (over 10 years ago?!) Danny Phantom has acquired something of a cult following. Unlike the never-ending torment that is Fairly Odd Parents, Danny Phantom’s premise and characters weren’t run into the ground long ago. “Teacher of the Year” is one of the show’s best offerings, packed with more game references, spooky scary ghosts, and teenage angst than a Hot Topic in October.
Synopsis: As the 10,000th customer of electronics store Computer Junkie (despite only looking at a game) Doug is gifted a top-of-the-line Pretendo gaming system. After a few lengthy gaming sessions with the unfortunately-named Space Munks, Doug begins to fantasize about the game’s otherworldly plot and characters at all hours of the day. With his social life and education suffering due to his newest obsession, he must fight the urge to play and focus on what really matters.
Why It’s Great: Most folks haven’t been lucky enough to win a cutting edge console, but every gaming enthusiast likely knows the thrill and allure of a long-awaited title. It may have been a while since we actually imagined ourselves inside a hot new game, but the mistake of shirking one’s responsibilities to sit on the couch, controller in hand, for hours on end is certainly a position most of us have been caught in. We feel you, Doug.
Synopsis: Mystery Shack handyman Soos isn’t the smoothest operator when it comes to talking to the opposite sex. After striking out multiple times at the Gravity Falls mall he stumbles upon Romance Academy 7, an often-returned PC dating sim. When his awkward social tendencies do nothing to scare off the adorable in-game girl Giffany, Soos begins to feel more confident, as well as a bit concerned by her obsessive nature. Soos soon works up the courage to ask out a cute mall employee, but Giffany isn’t willing to share.
Why It’s Great: There’s a reason Gravity Falls is the only cartoon that managed to land two episodes on the “best of” list — they’re both just phenomenally well done. Pixel pro Paul Robertson’s smooth retro animation, along with dozens of gaming nods and the normal barrage of goofy character banter, push “Soos and the Real Girl” to dizzying heights of hilarity. It’s hard not to crack a smile when Soos admits that he doesn’t actually know how to pronounce “Giffany.”
Synopsis: Bumbling sidekick Ron Stoppable wants to take his relationship with girlfriend Zita “to the next level” by impressing her with online gaming skills. Unfortunately, Ron doesn’t know the first thing about her favorite game, Everlot, and must turn to tech wizard Wade for advice. Things take a sinister (and rather predictable) turn when Ron and Zita are invited to an Everlot event, only to find themselves *dun dun dun* trapped within the game. It’s up to Kim and Wade to rescue the couple and thwart the plans of the overpowered Wraithmaster.
Why It’s Great: Most cartoon series make the choice to change their animation style for the in-game sections of a gaming episode, and Kim Possible is no different. What sets the show apart is the fact that the creators didn’t spring for the obvious pixelated look and instead featured a slick, borderless, and geometric appearance. The visuals and action sequences within Everlot are very reminiscent of the Cartoon Network hit Samurai Jack, and that’s always a good thing.
Synopsis: Honor student Kevin French treats himself to a new computer game on his brother’s dime after another semester of stellar grades. Andy French, who is currently housing his nerdy younger brother as a favor to his parents, is none too pleased, especially when he is forced to attend a PTA meeting in their stead. While Andy falls for Kevin’s stunning English teacher, Kevin slips further and further into his new MMORPG game Virtual Valkyrie. Kevin and his online ally Toby soon have a falling out and begin to sabotage each other at every turn.
Why It’s Great: Mission Hill, created by classic Simpsons executive producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, was far ahead of its time in the mature cartoon scene. Though it only made it through eight episodes before being cancelled by The WB, Adult Swim later premiered the remainder of its first and only season. Kevin’s intense dedication to his virtual castle as well as his friendship-turned-rivalry with the dopey Toby may take a backseat to Andy’s PTA story arc, but the whole episode culminates in a wonderfully chaotic fashion.
Synopsis: Hoping to boost his hero ranking to level one, K.O. puts his bodega duties on hold to assist the traveling swordsman Hero on his never-ending quest. With spiky blond hair and an enormous buster sword in hand (sound familiar?), Hero teaches K.O. everything he knows about battling monsters, chugging potions, and all the repetition that comes with grinding to the top. As their adventures wears on, K.O. starts to realize that there might be more to life than just leveling up.
Why It’s Great: Back before he helped shape shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, OK K.O.! creator Ian Jones-Quartey was just another teenage artist with a dorky webcomic. Who would have thought that a decade later he would slipping his RPG World characters into his very own hit show? “A Hero’s Fate” represents more than just a well thought out parody of the RPG and JRPG genre: It also brings closure to the story behind Jones-Quartey’s long unfinished webcomic.
Synopsis: Smart guy and computer nerd Sam “Squid” Dullard doesn’t have the athletic prowess to keep up with his talented friends Otto, Reggie, and Twister when it comes to extreme sports. Little do his friends know he’s been programing his own computer game, dubbed Squid Power, where he’s the most popular and knowledgeable rider in all of Ocean Shores. When the game catches on around town, Sam’s real world buddies are less than pleased to discover their incompetent and exaggerated virtual doppelgängers. Busted!
Why It’s Great: There are few gaming episodes that focus on a character, especially a child, actually developing their own game. Sam’s intense all-nighter in which he attempts to improve his game (and accidentally tries to eat his mouse) is surprisingly reminiscent of modern game development crunch. “Sim Sammy” does a great job of avoiding a generic gaming competition storyline and instead dips its toes into the escapism that many players engage in on a daily basis.
Synopsis: Robin excitedly reveals a new virtual reality training room to the rest of the Teen Titans, who aren’t nearly as enthused. By using their imagination, each Titan is whisked off to a different gaming world based on classic franchises. Standouts include Starfire refusing weaponry in Starfire’s Quest: The Legend of the Legendary Quest, Raven’s attempts to stop a dot-munching intruder in Circle Guy, and Robin slowly drowning in sewage after a unfortunate venture down a pipe in Save the Princess.
Why It’s Great: Of all the choices on this list, Teen Titans GO is probably the most controversial. People love to hate this show. Yes, it’s a silly spin-off of a formally well-made action series, and yes, Cartoon Network airs it far too often, but when it’s funny, it’s really funny. Teen Titans GO is stupid humor done right (at least most of the time), and “Video Game References” is chock-full of enough solid chuckles to warrant at least a single viewing.
T-t-t-that’s all, folks! I’ll hopefully be back in three years’ time for round three. Until then, feel free to leave a comment below for any gaming episodes you think deserves a shoutout.