In this article:
- For 90s and early 2000s kids, TV was packed with action-packed, eye-catching 90s anime shows that still live on in our memories.
- From the shounen anime catering to young boys to shoujo anime catering to young girls, every kid was bound to find a show they loved.
- Get ready to get nostalgic as you browse this list of 16 Must-Watch 90s anime shows.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an otaku or just a casual anime watcher, chances are anime is a big part of your childhood. The exciting storylines, action-packed fight scenes, eye-catching character design, and, yes, even romance, all make for quality entertainment that keeps you wanting more.
For those of us who grew up in the 90s all the way to the early 2000s, there’s a particular selection of anime that defines our childhood experiences.
The best of 90s anime often falls under two categories: the shounen genre or the shoujo genre.
Shounen anime draws its name from a Japanese word that means “young boy.” As you can probably guess, this genre of anime caters to a male audience that ranges from elementary school all the way to young adulthood.
Shounen anime predominantly features action and adventure elements and tends to focus on a young boy’s journey to becoming a man, whatever that means in the context of their show. For example, in Pokemon, Ash Ketchum’s journey is all for the purpose of becoming the very best that no one ever was.
Shoujo anime is shounen‘s sister genre. Its name translates to “girl” or “young woman” and is aimed at schoolgirls and young adults.
Shoujo anime also feature the action and adventure elements found in shounen anime, but shoujo does this in a decidedly feminine way, incorporating make-up and fashion into “powering up” sequences ala Sailor Moon.
That’s why this round-up of the best 90s anime shows is mostly made up of either shounen or shoujo anime. So, let’s take a nostalgia trip that’s bound to make 90s and early 2000s kids a little sentimental.
16 of the Greatest 90s Anime Shows
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
When it comes to staying power and cultural impact, there are few anime that can match the powerhouse that is Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Evangelion follows the story of protagonist Shinji, a teenage boy recruited by his father to pilot Evangelion, a mecha under the control of an organization known as Nerv. Its premise appears like a cookie-cutter hero’s journey of the shounen genre.
But if it were, it wouldn’t be on this list.
Neon Genesis Evangelion became one of the best 90s anime because of its complicated themes and, frankly, because piloting giant robots is cool. The show followed in the footsteps of Voltes V, the granddaddy of the mecha anime genre.
But instead of following the simple “let’s beat up bad guys with a giant robot” formula, Evangelion acts as a deconstruction of it and pretty much the entire idea of sending children to fight epic battles.
Compared to more optimistic shows, Neon Genesis Evangelion doesn’t shy away from showing the horrors of violence and how it affects people at a personal level.
To Evangelion, there is nothing romantic about being a hero because young teenage heroes rarely have the emotional maturity to handle the demands of saving the world. It’s also pretty progressive considering it was aired first aired on October 4, 1995.
Fans of Evangelion may remember Shinji’s relationship with the female characters of the show who follow typical anime ‘-dere’ archetypes but don’t think he’s a divine gift to womankind. Honestly, that’s more than you can say for a lot of modern isekai anime.
Sailor Moon (1992-1997)
Now, this is a 90s anime whose opening theme you can probably hear in your head when you read, “Fighting evil by moonlight. Winning love by daylight.” because this entry is about Sailor Moon.
The 1966 Sally the Witch pioneered the magical girl subgenre of shoujo anime. But it was Sailor Moon that put maho shoujo on the map. Even its Japanese name perfectly encapsulates what the genre is today: pretty soldier.
Shouting “Make Up!”, the Sailor Senshi, warrior guardians of the solar system, transform into ultra-fashionable and formidable fighters who defend the world in the name of love and justice.
It was the Legally Blonde of action anime, proving that anime girls could fight the forces of evil while looking fabulous.
The success of Sailor Moon in the 90s led to a slew of similar shows that kickstarted the golden age of maho shoujo anime. Examples of these include Pretty Cure, Sugar Sugar Rune, Princess Tutu, Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch, and Card Captor Sakura, another shoujo giant that deserves its own discussion later.
Rurouni Kenshin (1996-1999)
While this 90s anime has a recent iteration in the form of a live-action film, Rurouni Kenshin the anime is in a class of its own. Originally aired on Fuji TV, the story of Rurouni Kenshin a.k.a Samurai X follows a disgraced samurai, Hitokiri Battosai.
Following his transgressions against his shogun, a military dictator who commands samurai, Battosai sheds his old name and starts going by Himura Kenshin.
Despite their stark differences in setting, the show is similar to Neon Genesis Evangelion when it comes to handling serious themes and subverting genre expectations. Unlike your typical upbeat shounen protagonist who’s ready to rush into the next fight, Himura Kenshin is a battle heartened veteran.
He still values his honor but he’s the last person who would glorify bloodshed. Still, he can’t help but get drawn into fights and protects common folk from bandits and tyrants alike with his reversed blade katana.
Rurouni Kenshin also bears similarities to our previous 90s anime, Sailor Moon. Just like the maho shoujo visionary, Kenshin gave birth to another samurai anime giant, Samurai Champloo.
Like Kenshin, Samurai Champloo depicts the realities of life in a dictatorship and explores what it means to be honorable through its male leads, a ronin and a self-taught swordsman.
Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997)
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a 90s anime that takes the common high school setting of shoujo anime on a ride for the twisted. This is Kakegurui before Kakegurui but with fencing instead of gambling and a dash of fairytale elements.
Revolutionary Girl Utena toys with elements of fantasy, idealism, folklore, psychology, and the wisdom of not meeting your heroes. The story stars a girl named, you guessed it, Utena who was given a ring by a prince following the death of her parents.
His kindness made an impression on Utena and she vowed to be a ‘prince’ like him, at least in terms of honor and noble conduct.
This idealistic drive for heroism brings Utena to the gates of Ohtori Academy where she dresses up as a male student. After a duel with a member of the Student Council, Utena finds herself engaged to the Rose Bride, Athy.
Her engagement to Athy pulls her deeper into the dark underbelly of Ohtori Academy which she begins to uncover while trying to keep Athy safe by her side.
And yes, it does have LGBTQ+ undertones.
Detective Conan (1996-)
Detective Conan a.k.a Case Closed is shounen anime starring Shinichi Kudo, a tall and intelligent high school detective who lends his genius to the police in solving crimes together. An incident during one investigation turns him into a child after the Black Organization forces him to drink an experimental poison.
Since his child-ification, Shinichi starts going by the name of Conan Edogawa, a child prodigy who lives with his friend, Ran Mori, and her father, a private investigator who he solves cases for whether Kogoro wants him to or not.
You can watch this 90s anime again with its new movie, Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet which features a mystery set on a train, a classic whodunnit media premise popularized by Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Yu Yu Hakusho
Yu Yu Hakusho is a supernatural action shounen series that follows a brash, hard-headed delinquent with a heart of gold. When 14-year-old Yusukei Urameshi sacrifices his life to save a child from being hit by a car, even the denizens of the afterlife are surprised given his reputation for being a bad person.
This 90s anime is one of the greatest classics of the shounen genre and was created by Yoshihiro Togahashi, the same genius behind Hunter x Hunter and Biohazard 3: The Last Escape.
Fans of the anime may recall its seemingly abrupt ending which fans suspect is because of the harsh working conditions in the manga and anime industry. It’s an open secret in Japanese animation that everybody is overworked and underpaid.
Considering the hiatuses that Yoshihiro Togahashi also made when he was working on Hunter x Hunter, the Yu Yu Hakusho fandom’s speculation that Togahashi is working himself into an early grave may not be too far off.
If you’ve been up to date on recently released shounen anime, you may have heard of Jujutsu Kaisen. It’s another shounen action anime with supernatural themes.
If you start to feel like Jujutsu Kaisen has similarities to Yu Yu Hakusho, then you’re spot on. Manga artist Gege Akutami, creator of Jujutsu Kaisen, was born on February 26, 1992 which makes it no big stretch to assume he’s seen a few of the anime on this list.
It’s no surprise that he would later tweet about his inspirations and reveal that his character Geto was inspired by Yoshihiro Togahashi’s Sensui.
This next 90s anime was the introduction to reverse harems that girls got in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The best part? It’s an isekai before the isekai genre really took off.
Created by Yuu Watase, Fushigi Yugi means ‘Mysterious Play’. It’s a fitting title given that our heroine, Miaka Yuuki, finds herself isekai‘d into the Universe of the Four Gods after picking up the wrong ancient Chinese text.
Now saddled with the responsibilities of being the priestess of the phoenix god Suzaku, our clumsy, food loving heroine is forced to navigate the horrors of war and men fighting over her.
For all its campy and comedic moments, Fushigi Yugi can get into Revolutionary Girl Utena levels of uncomfortable. Yuu Watase’s heroine is often the subject of sexual harassment, either at the hands of villains or her own protectors.
Nonetheless, Yuu Watase is a master of touching shoujo anime love stories that are sure to keep you at the edge of your seat, screaming at Miaka that, obviously, Hotohori would be the better choice given his gentle nature and being a literal emperor.
All of the anime on this list started as manga before being adapted to anime and, later, live action formats. But Hanayori Dango is unmatched in the live action department.
Fans of this 90s anime who are also into Asian dramas will know the anime has three different drama series adaptations. You would have to be an Asian in Asia to understand the full cultural impact of Hanayori Dango.
This anime singlehandedly shaped the trajectory of Asian dramas, starting with the release of Meteor Garden in the early 2000s. More hit adaptations like the Japanese Hanayori Dango live-action and the Korean Boys Over Flowers would follow with the latter catapulting Korean dramas onto an international stage.
Hanayori Dango is a reverse harem shoujo anime with all the trappings of modern Asian dramas.
It has a poor ugly duckling, good-looking and rich male leads, and angry friends and family who oppose a poor-rich romance. Throw in a love triangle and it’s equal parts cheesy, fun, and enjoyable.
Ranma 1/2 is a shounen anime in the comedy genre. The story is centered around two premises: an arranged marriage between a himbo and a tsundere and the fact that said himbo turns into a woman when he’s put in contact with water.
The 90s anime started as a manga series written and illustrated by the artist Rumiko Takahashi.
The story starts when Ranma Saotome and his father Genma accidentally submerge themselves in a cursed spring that turns people into whatever previously died in the water. Ranma now turns into a redheaded girl whenever he’s doused in cold water and he has no hang-ups about transforming into a woman as a means to an end.
That said, the anime does have some jokes that haven’t aged well, namely gags centering around sexual harassment. But if you can chalk it up to the anime being made in 90s Japan, you’ll have a great time laughing along to its slapstick comedy.
Yu-Gi-Oh is a 90s anime that was originally aired on TV Asahi. The show was a product of Toei Animation, the same studio behind One Piece. Artist Kazuki Takahashi initially illustrated and wrote the story as a manga.
It tells the story of Yugi Mutou, a young boy who solves the Millennium Puzzle and becomes a reverse Detective Conan. Instead of being an older boy turning into a child, Yugi turns into a genius card game duelist in his mid to late teens.
Apparently, Takahashi initially wanted to draw a horror manga, not a shounen one. But his love for horror shows in the way he drew certain scenes in Yu-Gi-Oh. Neither the manga, anime, or trading card game shy away from depicting eldritch horrors.
The 90s shounen anime did for game anime what Sailor Moon did for the mahou shojo genre. Following the popularity of Yu-Gi-Oh, similar shows like Digimon Adventures, Beyblade, Bakugan Battle Brawlers, and Duel Masters came into the picture.
A more direct successor is Cardfight! Vanguard, who’s creation involved members of the original Yu-Gi-Oh team.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t at least recognize the blue, chubby Doraemon. Though it still counts as a 90s anime, given its longevity, Doraemon actually had its start in the 70s.
Say what you will about its older artistic style, but that is some serious staying power. Its long run time also means that Doraemon didn’t just raise 90s kids, it raised their parents too.
The show was initially conceived as a manga by artist Fujiko F. Fujio, well, artists is the better term given that the artist is a pen name shared by Hiroshi Fujimoto and Motoo Abiko.
Doraemon tells the adventures (and mishaps) of the titular Doraemon, an alien/mythical creature armed with overpowered gadgets, and the lazy Nobita, a schoolboy who often asks Doraemon for help in solving problems he created.
Considering Doraemon aired for roughly three decades, it’s not surprising that the kids who grew up watching the show would later incorporate it into their work. One Piece‘s creator Eiichiro Oda had revealed that Doraemon gave him the idea for his shwo’s “Devil Fruits.”
It’s also pretty obvious that even Japan’s government officials are fans of Doraemon given that they made him an ambassador.
Slam Dunk (1993 – 1996)
Slam Dunk is the 90s anime that walked so that Haikyuu!! could run. Slam Dunk is a story of love, camaraderie, basketball, and the good memories made in high school. It starts when Hanamichi Sakuragi joins the Shohoku High School Basketball Team for a reason as old as time: He wanted to impress a girl.
While Sakuragi starts playing because of Haruko Akagi, he later develops a personal love for the sport as he becomes a great player.
The show is a gripping basketball anime with a wholesome set of lessons at its core. The time that Sakuragi takes to discover himself and develop his character pays off as Slam Dunk later hints that he and Haruko Akagi get together.
Plus, his involvement in the basketball team allow him to develop healthy friendships with his fellow players.
So, how large of a cultural impact does Slam Dunk have? For one, it’s the reason the NBA has a large following in Japan. The 90s anime also did a great job of conveying the characters’ love for basketball, to the point that it inspired children to pick up the sport.
It’s already 2022 and I still hear kids at basketball courts pretending to be Sakuragi.
Initial D (1998)
Dejavu! You’ve just seen this show before. Initial D follows Takumi Fujiwara, a young delivery boy on his journey to becoming a living legend in drag racing.
Written by Shuichi Shigeno, Initial D is a classic case of when art imitates life. The anime and manga are based on real life events with many scenes, settings, and even people in the show having a real life counterpart.
The wildest part? Somebody found the real Takumi Fujiwara.
The team behind Drift Hunter, a YouTube documentary with a focus on the Japanese racing scene, had a serendipitous encounter with Jun Fujinoki, the guy who inspired Takumi Fujiwara. Fujinoki’s grandfather owned a tofu shop just like the anime’s Fujiwara tofu shop.
Even better, Fujinoki drove a grey GC8 GRX STi which he used to deliver tofu along Mt. Haruna.
The underdog story of Initial D still inspires petrolheads today. The show remains a massive hit among car enthusiasts and racing fans, with many aspiring to go to Japan and take a speedy drift down Mt. Haruna.
Hunter X Hunter (1991-2001)
It takes an exceptional artist to create one 90s anime hit and a truly legendary one to make two. Yoshihiro Togahashi managed the latter. His Hunter x Hunter is another shounen classic with a focus on the supernatural.
Hunter x Hunter makes this list by the skin of its teeth but not because it’s a bad show. The anime was released in October 1991, putting it at the tail end of the 90s.
It features a charming protagonist named Gon Frecss who attempts to reconnect with the father that abandoned him by becoming a world-famous Hunter, a role that’s basically a Dungeons & Dragons adventurer.
Hunter x Hunter‘s story of a set of young men training to be heroes through perseverance shaped the face of shounen anime in a way that has some fans thinking it may be more influencial than Yu Yu Hakusho.
We can’t talk about 90s anime without bringing up Pokemon. This shounen adventure anime is arguably the most popular and globally recognizable anime of all time. It’s the first anime show for a majority of people, especially for anime fans in the West.
Pokemon needs no introduction. It follows the journey of Ash Ketchum on his path to becoming the very best that no one ever was. His dream is to become a Pokemon master, following in the footsteps of his father who disappeared when he was a child.
Though he clearly does well for himself with Pikachu by his side, we can only hope Ash’s father pays child support.
Cardcaptor Sakura (1998-2000)
If sci-fi has Star Wars and Star Trekk, then shoujo anime has Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. This mahou shoujo subgenre classic features Sakura, another unlucky heroine that has an encounter with the magical in a library.
Its premise has clear inspirations from Greek mythology seeing as Sakura gets her powers because she must now recapture all the card spirits she had released into the world by accident. Mahou shoujo Pandora, basically.
Cardcaptor Sakura still has a strong follower base, often made up of female cosplayers, otakus, and gamers. For women who grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s, CCS is the quintessential mahou shoujo adventure.
Its popularity is to thank for the following projects of female manga artist group CLAMP such as Chobits and xxxHolic, a dark fantasy with slight horror elements.
The show later had a sequel in the form of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle that left fans disappointed given its more shounen flavor. The sequel did away with most of the wonder and girly elements of CCS and threw the original show’s charm away with it.
There you have it. That’s the sixteen biggest 90s anime with lasting legacies and significant impact on the anime industry. If I missed any of your favorites, tell me in the comments down below. The 90s were a golden age for anime and this shoujo is bound to miss a few.