90s Dark Sci-Fi Cartoon Was Supposed To Be An American Gundam

By Jonathan Klotz | Updated

Before the rise of dedicated networks to cartoons, the Saturday morning and after-school animation blocks were the day’s highlight for most kids. We got to enjoy such classics as Denver the Last Dinosaur, Cowboys of Moo Mesa, Dinosaucers, Bravestar, and not one but two Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons. As fun as those shows were, story and character development weren’t their selling point, which is what Exosquad was created to change about American animation.

Anime-Style From America

Airing from 1993 through 1994, for 52 episodes, Exosquad was the response of Jeff Segal, the head writer from Challenge of the Go-Bots, to match the quality output of Japanese anime. Typically, American cartoons were structured more like sitcoms than dramas, and the status quo would always be reset by the end of the 22-minute episode. Taking heavy inspiration from Mobile Suit Gundam, the original storyboard designs for the series even refer to it as “American Anime.”

In The Grim Darkness Of The Far Future

Exosquad is set in the future after humanity has colonized and terraformed Venus and Mars, where the Neosapiens, a bio-engineered slave race used by humanity for menial labor, have launched an uprising. Taking control of the planets, the Exosuit pilots that form Able Squad and their allies form the core of humanity’s fight against the Neosapiens.

Unusual for an American cartoon of the time, Exosquad treats the war completely seriously, with characters dying and multiple episodes of fighting followed by more episodes of clean-up and what to do as an occupying force.

The Exoframes

While the long-form storytelling was something unique and groundbreaking, what wasn’t new and different was that each member of Able Squad had a different exoframe that they would pilot. From the winged blue frame used by squad leader J.T. Marsh, to the green reconnaissance frame of Alec DeLeon, and the extra-large two-pilot vehicle design of Diana and Thrax’s frame, it’s clear that while Exosqaud broke storytelling ground, it was still designed to sell toys.

A Shockingly Dark Story For An After School Cartoon

The colorful designs of the exoframes covered the dark nature of the story, with Episode 22, “Fire Ship,” remaining a standout that has stuck with me for decades. After being betrayed, Able Squad is captured and held on board a captured ship rigged with explosives as a booby trap for the Terran leadership. I was 10, and here was an episode with the heroes contemplating mortality and debating a plan to explode the ship prematurely so that no one else would die.

In 1993, this was unlike anything else on the air, and while yes, the heroes survived this time, that wasn’t always the case. Characters would routinely be injured and unseen for episodes at a time as they recovered, nameless pilots would die in almost every episode, and there was a very palpable sense of dread as the war ramped up and it was clear that not everyone would be making it home alive.

A Well-Known Animation Studio

No matter how dark the story became, the animation remained spectacular throughout, but it was the same studio, AKOM, in South Korea, that handled X-Men ’92, Batman: The Animated Series, and Gargoyles, so of course, it’s going to look good. For an American 90s cartoon that is, compared to its contemporary, Gundam Wing, Exosquad doesn’t hold up.

Streaming On Peacock


Exosquad came out during an interesting time for American animation, as the industry was quickly evolving and changing, going from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the start of the decade, to Spongebob Squarepants by the time it came to a close. The saga of Able Squad and the Neosapien War still stands out as a series that was unique and ahead of its time. Thankfully, if you want to experience the war yourself, Exosquad is streaming in its entirety on Peacock.