Top 20 anime from the 1990s that bring instant nostalgia

A close-up image of the Cowboy Bebop anime crew.
A very close-up image of the crew from the 90s Cowboy Bebop anime series. Pic credit: Imgur/WilliamInnocent

The 1990s was a great decade for anime. Between the early days of the manga boom and the emergence of VHS, for many anime fans, this was the best time to be alive.

In fact, many of the anime series that were released during the 90s are still relevant today, with many maintaining a solid following as the best top 20 anime.

The many anime series that came out in the 1990s have influenced and shaped our generation into what we are today. Although many great series came out from this decade, these 20 really stood out.

20. Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997 – 2000)

A close-up image of the main characters in the Revolutionary Girl Utena anime series.
A few of the main characters in the Revolutionary Girl Utena anime sleeping next to one another. Pic credit: Imgur/Kairinanami

Many fans were dismayed when Revolutionary Girl Utena (which ran for 39 episodes) came to an end after only being on air for four years between 1997 and 2000. At its core, this anime series was about a woman struggling to become a prince while she undertakes numerous adventures fighting for what she believes in. 

It’s no secret that during the 90s, a common theme for many anime series was beautiful imagery and incredible sword-wielding action scenes with elements of romance sprinkled in. Yet there was perhaps no other shoujo anime series quite as subtly romantic or as underrated as Revolutionary Girl Utena. 

Even though this anime series focused primarily on breaking typical conventions and stereotypes within fairytales, it had a romantic undertone that is not easily forgotten. The sweet coming-of-age romance and angst between Utena and Anthy swept away audiences along the notes of the romantic melodies of the score. When combined with the romantic elements, this anime’s gripping action scenes were enough for it to gain the title of one of the best 90s anime.

19. Yu yu hakusho: Ghost files (1992 – 1995)

An image of the cast in Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files anime.
An episode image of the Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files anime series. Pic credit: Imgur/The YoungerChrisEvans

One of the most heartwarming and gratifying animes of the 90s that depicted beautiful character growth was Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files. Although the series focused heavily on action scenes, it also showcased a young man’s journey from delinquincy into an upstanding citizen who had found his purpose in life.

Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files follows Yusuke Urameshi, a troubled teen with a traumatic family history. His entire life, he spent his energy on creating trouble or involving himself in something problematic. That is why it came as quite a shock to everyone when he committed a true act of heroism and sacrificed his life to save a young boy from the path of a speeding vehicle.

It is upon his death that things truly get interesting. Even though he sacrificed his life for the child, he is still not immediately rewarded in the afterlife. After numerous tests, he is assigned the role of a detective in the Spirit World and eventually enlists the aid of friends he has made in the Spirit World to help him fight demons who are seeking to rule.

If you love anime with comedy, romance, and supernatural elements, and if you love adventure, thriller, and action episodes, then Yu Yu Hakusho is a perfect choice.

18. Cardcaptor Sakura (1998 – 2000)

Sakura Kinomoto hitting an enemy over the head in the Cardcaptor Sakura anime series.
Sakura hitting an enemy over the head. Pic credit: Imgur/Sue92314

Many great 90s anime series were adapted from mangas, but none are perhaps as memorable as Cardcaptor Sakura. This anime wove an adventurous tale about a young girl who tirelessly worked to right a wrong that involved her accidentally letting loose dozens of suspicious magic cards on the world.

Sakura Kinomoto didn’t know what she had released when she opened the strange book she had found, but she was still tasked with fixing the disaster by Keroberos, the guardian of the Clow Cards.

At first, Sakura thought it would be easy to capture the freed cards but was quickly shown that the task at hand would be far more complex than she first believed. Since every magic card is a powerful sentient being, she had to face each card, capturing challenge head-on while navigating the difficulties of friendships, love, family, and school.

It also tells of her growth as a person while having support from her friends Tomoyo and Syaoran. They all face various threats, ranging from fairies to dangerous Kami Class spirits. Together they try to prevent a global catastrophe while she tries to learn more about her newly awakened magical abilities. It’s truly an engaging anime series with many twists and turns along the way that you hardly ever see coming.

17. Rurôuni Kenshin (1996 – 1999)

A close-up image of Rurouni Kenshin with his samurai katana.
Shadow image of Rurouni Kenshin. Pic credit: Imgur/xxxcombatxxx90

Not every memorable 90s anime had a redeemable morally grey character, but Rurouni Kenshin crept its way into our hearts and burrowed out a spot for our favorite reformed assassin. Rurouni Kenshin beautifully depicts a ruthless killer’s path to redemption.

This anime follows Hitokiri Battousai, a legendary assassin who is unmatched in skill throughout Japan. Yet, at the peak of the Japanese revolution, he vanished and was unseen for a decade but little do those who fear mentioning his name know that Battousai chose to abandon his villainous ways in favor of repenting for his sins.

After adopting the name Kenshin Himura he adapts his personality to become that of a cheerful swordsman. Throughout the anime, we are shown how he tries to save those who need saving while at the same time contending with his past. As these enemies resurface, Himura’s new ideals are tested.

In each episode, audiences are kept on the edge of their seat, wondering if he will become a merciless killer once again or hold onto the tenuous ties that make him a hero.

16. Slam Dunk (1993 – 1996)

The male characters in the Slam Dunk anime series.
A close-up of the male main characters in the Slam Dunk anime. Pic credit: Imgur/Elmilloranime

Although Slam Dunk only ran for only two seasons, this was long enough for this sports anime to ingrain its very essence into the depths of our memories. In fact, this 90s anime had such a profound impact on the minds of audiences that a Slam Dunk movie is in the works and set to be released in the fall of 2022.

In this Slam Dunk, audiences are shown that it’s okay to try and try again even if you fail more times than you can potentially count. The anime had an immediacy to it with likable characters and an interesting storyline that went beyond the sport from which the series drew its inspiration. Not only did this anime create a passion for basketball in Japan, but it also managed to connect with audiences of both genders.

Slam Dunk can be fondly described as a coming-of-age anime that focuses on Hanamichi Sakuragi, a teenage boy. Sakuragi doesn’t only stand apart from his peers because of his immense height, temper, and fiery red hair. He also stands out because he holds the record at his previous school for being rejected 50 times each time he tried to get a girlfriend.

At his lowest point, Sakuragi meets a girl named Haruko Akagi, with who he proceeds to fall in love. This chance meeting sets in motion the development of a beautiful anime about love, friendship, sportsmanship, basketball, and controlling one’s emotions. Shortly after meeting Akagi, he begins to realize his passion for basketball, leading audiences along an action-packed journey of sporting matches and the spirit of competition.

15. Detective Conan (1996 – Present)

Detective Conan with his friend Ran in episode 692.
Detective Conan sitting and reading with his friend Ran. Pic credit: Imgur/Yozorii

For more than 17 years, the Detective Conan anime series has been gracing our screens. On March 6th, 2022, the 1,000th episode aired, so it’s unsurprising that this anime which began in the 90s, is an all-time favorite that fans cannot get enough of.

This anime series still has a considerable following, as it is one of the best detective anime because it’s unpredictable, mysterious, exciting, and has just enough comedic relief and romance to create a balanced story. Additionally, best of all, Detective Conan brings out the inner Sherlock Holmes in each of us.

The plot follows Shinichi Kudo, also known as Jimmy Kudo, a young detective genius who has been shrunk into a child’s body due to being given poison that members of a criminal syndicate force-fed him.

With the shock of being shrunk into a child’s body, Kudo is at a loss of what to do. Fortunately, neighbor and family friend Professor Agasa comes to the rescue and strongly suggests Shinichi hide his identity to prevent them from killing him and the people he cares about. Kudo accepts the sound advice of his friend and decides to change his name to ‘Conan Edogawa.’

As the plot develops and he seeks the truth and a solution to his predicament, he goes to live with his childhood friend Ran Mouri and her father, Kogoro. While living with Ran, he tries to use Kogoro’s detective agency as a way to find the people who shrank him—without letting Ran figure out who he really is. Thus begins the highly entertaining journey of solving multiple cases in the hopes it will bring him closer to obtaining justice and returning to normal.

14. The Vision of Escaflowne (1996)

An elf in The Vision of Escaflowne anime using her powers.
An elf using her powers in the magical realm in the anime The Vision of Escaflowne. Pic credit: Imgur/MakotoYoko

The awe-inspiring Vision of Escaflowne is a 90s anime that immediately inspires mystique and wonder. This anime masterfully blends different elements of various anime genres to create something truly magical. The fantasy world in Vision of Escaflowne is arguably one of the most gorgeous the anime genre has offered thus far. It was released in 1996 and ran for 26 episodes.

The story is about Hitomi Kanzaki, who appears to be just an ordinary 15-year-old schoolgirl interested in tarot cards and fortune-telling. Things take a drastic turn when Kanzaki meets a boy named Van Fanel when he suddenly manifests from seemingly thin air while dueling a vicious dragon. When Fanel disposes of the dragon and is transported back to his realm Kanzaki gets dragged along with him to the adventure of a lifetime.

It’s true that there is no need to be an anime fan to enjoy Escaflowne. This beautiful anime takes place in a fantasy world where humans, elves, and “mazoku” engage in battles with mystical creatures from another dimension. The characters are young and cool, and the storyline is complex and interesting. It’s definitely an anime worth watching today, even if more than two decades have passed since its release.

13. Outlaw Star (1998)

A poster image of the Outlaw Star anime crew.
A poster image of the crew from Outlaw Star. Pic credit: Imgur/AliEatlsCHZ

Outlaw Star centers around Gene Starwind, who has always dreamt of piloting a ship he can call his own, but he knows that his dream is unlikely to come true. He spends his days on the planet Sentinel III working odd jobs with James Hawking, his partner.

Yet, his life suddenly takes a change when he accepts a job that entails protecting the mysterious Melfina from Rachel Sweet. Unbeknownst to him, Sweet is actually a treasure-hunting outlaw who has landed them in a troublesome situation.

What ensues is a space journey of the ages with dangerous battles with bounty hunters, space pirates, taorist mages, a new adventure around every corner. At least Starwin gets to pilot his own ship!

12. Great Teacher Onizuka (1999 – 2000)

Onizuka from the Great Teacher Onizuka anime series surrounded by his students.
Eikich Onizuka teaches in a classroom surrounded by his students. Pic credit: IMDB

Although some might not agree, Great Teacher Onizuka is one of the most well-thought-out anime to come out of the 90s. This series displayed the profound impact a good teacher can have in the students’ lives they teach.

Great Teacher Onizuka follows twenty-two-year-old ex-biker gang leader turned teacher Eikichi Onizuka. On the surface, Onizuka appears to be a perverted young man. It’s easy to believe that his only goal is to become the greatest high school teacher in Japan to secure a young teenage wife for when he is old and gray.

Yet, there is far more to this character and the plot of this anime than meets the eye. Although Onizuka is a delinquent at heart, he is a caring teacher who tries to help his students that deal with complex worldly problems every day. His methods might be unconventional and unpredictable, but he manages to somehow be a positive influence on the children he teaches.

Despite the psychological warfare and underhanded tactics the children he teaches try to use against him, he is infinitely patient and manages to get through to them when others cannot. Great Teacher Onizuka is an enjoyable watch that is bound to pull on a few of the old heartstrings a time or two.

11. Trigun (1998)

Close-up image of Vash the Stampede with his gun.
A close-up image of Vash the Stampede. Pic credit: Imgur/MrFrank046

Who doesn’t love an anime that focuses on a main character who is supposed to be a villain? Trigun is not your typical anime. This series focuses on donut-eating Vash the Stampede, who is believed to be such a merciless villain that he has managed to accrue a bounty of $60,000,000.

How you might ask. Well, according to rumor, Vash is someone who doesn’t take kindly to others opposing him, so he lays waste to them, and in his spare time, he flattens cities for fun. No matter where Vash goes, he leaves a trail of destruction in his wake. Yet the truth couldn’t be further from this assumption.

Trigun follows Vash as he traverses the wasteland of the planet Gunsmoke while being followed by two insurance agents and those seeking the bounty on his head. This outlandish anime surprises at every turn and provides comedic relief when you least expect it and an insight into the moral dilemma a person faces when being accosted for things they have not committed.

Despite not being released in the 1990’s, we should also mention that the series came back in 2010 for the Trigun: Badlands Rumble movie. The standalone film gave anime fans a story about Vash based on the manga that can be watched after finishing the TV series, or after you’ve watched at least several episodes and you’re familiar with the characters.

10. Serial Experiments Lain (1998)

A scene where Lain from the Serial Experiments Lain anime finds herself in "The Wired."
An episode where Lain has found herself immersed in The Wired while she seeks answers to her questions. Pic credit: Imgur/LuisKrayt

Serial Experiments Lain is a disturbing psychological avant-garde mystery anime series that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Unlike other 90s anime, this series is gritty, dark, mysterious, and unpredictable. Serial Experiments Lain follows the character, Lain Iwakura, as she struggles with the mysteries and subsequent chaos created by ‘The Wired’ website.

After having an email sent to her by one of her classmates who committed suicide, Lain finds herself facing an array of electronic phenomena and entities. During this anime as the plot unfolds she must try and unravel where reality ends and where the internet begins as she tries to discover who is responsible for subjecting her to the viewing of this bizarre video.

However, it quickly becomes apparent that only Lain will understand the significance of closing one world and opening another as only she has a unique and perplexingly disturbing connection to the virtual reality world that is ‘The Wired.’ Serial Experiments Lain is not for the faint of heart but rather for those seeking a complex story that explores themes that are as far away from reality as one can get.

9. Berserk (1997 – 1998)

A fight scene where Guts is teaching his enemies a lesson.
Guts fighting his enemies and displaying his immense strength. Pic credit: Imgur/TryToEpic

There are not many anime series from the 90s that have managed to age, as well as the dark anime series Berserk. Since the first time it aired in 1997, this series has constantly garnered new followers. If you haven’t seen the series yourself, you have likely heard about it because of its incredible plot and controversial animation style.

In this popular and sensational series, the main character, Guts, is the lone survivor of a 100-man massacre and is branded for death by the demonic forces he enraged. Yet Gut’s story does not end with his death sentence. Instead of accepting defeat, he becomes capable of incredible feats of strength and a verifiable force to be reckoned with. With his giant blade Dragonslayer, and a small elf named Puck for company, Guts fights nightmarish creatures on his journey to take revenge on the man who branded him for death – the one-eyed swordsman).

8. Pokémon (1997 – Present )

A scene between Ash, Pikachu, and Gou.
A scene where Ash and Pikachu are trying to intervene when Gou is trying to leave. Imgur/domu221

There’s no doubt that we’ve all heard of Pokémon, whether you were seriously into this anime during the 90s or not. The Pokémon anime series aired in 1997 and became a commercial and critical success. Over the years, it has led to the creation of multiple movies, many video games, a mobile app game, clothing, and various merchandise items.

The anime itself is about ten-year-old Ash Ketchum, who is an average kid with a dream to become the world’s greatest Pokémon Trainer. He loves making new friends and training his Charizard, Pikachu & Squirtle Pokémon. After all, he – “Gotta catch ’em all!”

Throughout the anime, audiences are treated to many Pokemon battles, burgeoning love stories, tales of friendship, exciting Pokemon reveals, and engaging adventures. To date, this fantastically developed anime is still ongoing and continues to gain new fans each year as the series has almost begun to take on a life of its own.

7. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 – 1996)

A battle scene with the main character of Neon Genesis going up against the monsters.
An intense battle scene from the Neon Genesis anime. Pic credit: Imgur/Xenon3g

Neon Genisis Evangelion is one of the animes that defined the genre during the 90s. This anime series took the basic archetypal hook of a young man destined for greatness and to save the world and turned it into something unique. This anime extrapolated this premise into an incredibly complex mythological extravaganza and grounded it in an all-too-realistic struggle with self-worth and depression.

The story begins fifteen years after the Second Impact, a cataclysmic event that decimated the earth’s population and resulted in the near-extinction of humanity. It is now the summer of 2015, and an Angel is attacking Tokyo-3. To fight this extraterrestrial enemy, humankind has constructed massive humanoid-powered exoskeletons called Evangelions with support from the United Nations Earth Defence Force. Created originally as a manga by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and developed into an equally iconic anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a must-see sci-fi epic.

6. Perfect Blue (1998)

Mima from the Perfect Blue anime movie is lying down on an assortment of items.
Mima Kirigoe lies on many different types of items as she experiences a dissociative episode. Pic credit: Imgur/GhostsOtaku

On a surface level, Perfect Blue might appear to be an anime movie with very little substance, but at its core, it is about dissociative identity and the chilling effects it can have on a person. This iconic psychological horror film featured gruelingly moody visuals that spectacularly meshed with the fantastical elements depicted in the movie to create an uneasy atmosphere that hooked audiences and kept their eyes trained to the unfolding plot.

In this ’98 film Mima Kirigoe, a former member of the J-pop group CHAM!, finds her life becoming more complicated after she leaves the group. In an attempt to create a happier new life for herself, she attempts a career in acting, only to find that the role she has accepted is not what she expected and this leads to her having to make difficult decisions and become involved in the seedier side of show business.

Shortly after transitioning to this new stage in her life, Mima’s life becomes even more complicated as she discovers she is being followed by a shadow that is punishing the people it believes have wronged her. Unfortunately, the stress of her failing acting career and the genuine threat of physical violence plague Mimi’s every move and drive her to birth an alternate version of herself. This alternate version of herself tries to convince the real Mimi that she is the fake. Thus her life is thrown into a whirlwind of twists, turns, and deception that even Hollywood would be proud to call a thriller!

5. Sailor Moon (1995 – 2000)

A close-up image of the warrior Sailor Moon from the Sailor Moon anime.
A close-up image of Sailor Moon in her Lunar warrior outfit. Pic credit: Imgur/Vigorosp640

Growing up, I’m sure all of us have heard about this popular anime show. It would be hard to find a reincarnation anime in the 90s that topped Sailor Moon. It’s likey that those who grew up amid 90s anime found Sailor Moon to be the series that revitalized the magic girl genre. This series helped boost the popularity of anime in the western world and explored themes of feminism and female empowerment.

Sailor Moon is an anime about a magical group of girls who fight monsters and evil forces. As a young teenager, Usagi Tsukino is faced with the everyday problems of everyday life. She is a student who struggles with exams, a klutz who falls over repeatedly, and an angst-ridden crybaby looking for true love.

Fans don’t have to put up with this version of the star of the anime very long as her character slowly grows when she learns that she is the reincarnation of an ancient Lunar warrior from the Moon Kingdom. During the show, she is forced to mature and not only come to terms with her own feelings on what it means to be a hero or friend but also learn to accept the responsibilities that come with becoming the magical girl Sailor Moon.

4. Bastard!!! (1992 – 1993)

Schneider uses his power during a battle scene.
Dark Schneider uses his powers during a brutal battle scene. Pic credit: Imgur/MultiFacets

Arguably one of the very best dark fantasy anime to ever be created was Bastard!!!. This anime series only had six episodes and ran from 1992 to 1993, much to the disappointment of those who enjoyed the dark yet entertaining storyline.

In this anime, the four lords of havoc are attacking the kingdom of Metallicana. These four lords by the names of Gera, who was a lethal ninja master, Kall-Su, who was a conniving and cold mastermind, Nei Arshes, a deadly thunder empress, and mysterious dark priest Abigail will stop at nothing to reach their goal.

These four lords don’t care about how devastating the trail of destruction could be in their wake, which is why a high priest Geo in his desperation, releases the mighty wizard Schneider. Schneider used to be an ally of the four lords, and no one truly knows if he plans to join the villainous four lords or save the kingdom until the last episode. In six captivating episodes, this anime was able to secure its spot as one that needs to be watched at least once in your life.

The news is that series is getting a Bastard!! 2022 anime adaptation. The show was announced officially just this month. The only burning question that remained was, “when will it premiere?”. Thanks to a new tweet from Netflix, we have our answer — 2022.

3. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

An intense action scene takes place in the Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex anime.
An action scene occurs in the Ghost in the Shell with Major Kusanagi and her partner working together. Pic credit: Imgur/Seanhiruki

Many people have been introduced to Ghost in the Shell thanks to the recent Scarlet Johannsen movie, but anime fans were introduced to this immersive anime during the 80s and 90s. This revolutionary cyberpunk anime gave us a glimpse into the future and how technological advancements can propel the human race forward. Many watched in wonder as each episode aired that did the legendary movie justice.

Let’s look at the anime movie that laid the foundation for the 2002 anime series. In the 1995 Japanese animated movie Ghost in the Shell, a cyborg federal agent named Major Motoko Kusanagi was working alongside her partner to try and catch ‘The Puppet Master.” This ‘Puppet Master’ was wanted by the police for illegally hacking into the complex computerized minds of cyborg-human hybrids to modify their identities.

While pursuing this criminal, Kusanagi begins to question herself, which makes her wonder what her life would be like if she possessed more human traits. It is this curiosity that sends the case in an unexpected direction. Twists’ turns and action scenes galore follow with the movie’s ending, leaving many questioning everything they know.

In the anime, the story is set in 2029, 16 years after the third world war that devastated entire cities. The main character of this story is also Motoko Kusanagi, depicted again as a talented and strong-willed female special agent who joined Japan’s government intelligence firm (Public Security Section 9). Interestingly, in this series the technology has allowed humans to be replaced with prosthetic bodies, eliminating the need for humans to even have a living body.

The beginning of Ghost in the Shell series focused heavily on cyberization, but as it progressed, it also included exploration of metaphysical themes such as self-identity in a technologically advanced world. The show deserves all the praise that it has been given, as it truly has earned its place as one of the greatest anime of all time, but it wouldn’t have been successful if the 1995 movie was not as well received by audiences.

2. Cowboy Bebop (1998 – 1999)

A mugshot image of the Cowboy Bebop crew acting blase.
A mugshot of the Cowboy Bebop crew. Pic credit: Imgur/HereComeTheBeats

One of the immortalized animes of the 90s is Cowboy Bebop. This anime has gone on to transcend the medium and has even spurred a live-action series that Netflix produced. Netflix supposedly greenlit Cowboy Bebop Season 2 ahead of time since they had wrongly expected fans to embrace it, but after the backlash from fans, the Cowboy Bebop sequel was canceled. Unlike the Netflix series, the original anime was a hit amongst many fans. Cowboy Bebop is a 26 episode series that is part western, part noir, and part science fiction.

This anime successfully drew in audiences that usually avoid this form of animated entertainment. Although no one can claim that Cowboy Bebop tried to reinvent the anime genre, it did bring untold joy with its entertaining slew of unlikely characters. Another aspect that set this anime apart was its exceptional soundtrack and animation. 

This imaginative story is set in the future in 2071, with the central plot focusing on a pair of bounty hunters (Cowboys) and their crew who are chasing bounties at a whirlwind pace. The entire series was a space adventure unlike any other.

Unlike other animes of the 90s, it avoided dating itself. Instead of adding inconsequential elements that dragged the story down, the series focused on strong plot points that allowed the show to cement itself in animation history.

1. One Piece (1999 – Present)

A poster of many of the characters in the One Piece anime.
One Piece anime character compilation poster. Pic credit: Imgur/Pippoffside

Although the plot of the anime One Piece might have come across as superficial initially, it quickly becomes engaging, captivating, and interesting. With the plot almost doing a complete 360, it’s clear why this anime that began in 1999 is still ongoing. 

This anime brilliantly sets the scene by introducing audiences to the story of the death of the legendary pirate king Gol D. Roger. Roger revealed before his execution the existence of a treasure that would be coveted by all “One Piece.” 

Upon this revelation, the Grand Age of Pirates began with countless searches for this treasure taking place. Not only would finding this treasure make the lucky finder eternally rich, but it would also grant them the title of the pirate king. 

Interestingly the anime develops further to introduce Monkey D. Luffy, who is a 17-year-old pirate that looks nothing like a pirate. Unlike the other pirates like him, Luffy has chosen a pirate’s life so that he can go on many exciting adventures with a crew he calls his friends. This anime takes audiences on an epic sea journey as Luffy meets intriguing people, battles enemies, and tries to find One Piece and become the pirate king.

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