The imminent release of the animated feature Ultraman: Rising on Netflix might have you curious as to learning more about this weird “Ultraman” thing. You may have heard of Shin Ultraman which came out in North America in 2022, but did you know the Ultra series is one of the longest running in TV history? Take a hike, Doctor Who! Get outta here, The Simpsons! Ultraman and its spinoffs have been going in some form since 1966! 35 official seasons, plus special seasons, miniseries, and dozens of movies. That is, by anyone’s estimation, a long-ass time.

Ultraman Zero stands heroically brandishing a weapon, surrounded by many other Ultramans, while the massive, foreboding visage of Ultraman Belial looms.
Tsuburaya Productions

But, you may ask, which seasons are the best? Lucky for you, yours truly has watched all of the Ultra series and has you covered. Below is a list of my favorite seasons, with an edge toward people who haven’t seen any or much of it. I’ve already written about why you should watch Ultraman, so check that out. Like all tokusatsu shows, every Ultra season is standalone, however with occasional crossovers with other seasons and characters. By and large, very easy to watch since they have their own circumstances and worlds.

10. Ultraman: Towards the Future (1990)

Tsuburaya Productions/South Australian Film Corporation

Perhaps an out-there choice for many people. This was one of two English-language productions from the ’90s. The second of those, Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero from 1993, was an American co-production and is largely quite terrible. However, this first one from Australia is super fun. It was actually the very first Ultraman thing I ever saw, likely in 1990 or ’91 when I was five or six.

This is an easy show to like. The characters are fun, the monsters—original and unique to this particular production—are great looking, and the central Ultra (Ultraman Great) is incredibly likable. That’s often the key to an enjoyable season: do you like the main hero who turns into Ultraman?

Towards the Future has a lot to recommend it, and I think it just gets the vibe of what the Japanese Ultraman seasons offer.

9. Ultraman Geed (2017)

Tsuburaya Productions

I confess to not being the biggest fan of the early “New Generation” era, which began in 2013. The seasons are fine, but they feel very small in a lot of ways. However, Ultraman Geed is another matter entirely. Like other seasons it deals with a young person who becomes an Ultra with the aid of a small group of experts and/or friends. Unlike others, it brings in a huge amount of story from the greater Ultra universe and especially the Ultraman Zero continuity, a smattering of feature films that sustained the franchise during the fallow period.

Geed concerns the son of Ultraman Belial, a once-great warrior who succumbed to evil. Belial became the main antagonist of the Zero movies, and Zero himself (a fan-favorite) became the secondary Ultra of the season. Geed, and his human form Riku Asakura, have to learn about their legacy and choose whether to follow in their father’s footsteps or attempt to bring him back to the Light. It’s a rad season.

8. Ultraman Nexus (2004-2005)

Tsuburaya Productions

Tsuburaya Productions took some risks in the 2000s while attempting a full, darker reboot of the franchise. Among the films that tried to age-up the saga was the season Ultraman Nexus, the first specifically aimed at adults. Most seasons before this employed an episodic, monster-of-the-week ethos. Nexus went for deeper character development and a continuing, unfolding narrative. The titular Ultra and his host was not the main character, instead following a young member of the kaiju-fighting organization Night Raider as they investigate the mysterious Ultra.

The experiment at the time didn’t really work, and the Tokyo Broadcasting System shortened the series order of Ultraman Nexus from 50 to 37. Even truncated, it’s still an interesting and complex series with great action and a pretty dope design. Plus the theme song kinda rips.

7. Ultraman Decker (2022)

Tsuburaya Productions

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of perennial favorite Ultraman Tiga in 2021, the Ultra series have audiences Ultraman Trigger: New Generation Tiga. The series—owing in no small part to COVID—felt very jumbled and disjointed, and seemed like it didn’t know what kind of show it wanted to be. It wasn’t my favorite. That’s why I was pretty unsure if I’d enjoy the following year’s Ultraman Decker, a 25th anniversary season for Ultraman Dyna. What we got instead was a fantastic, fun, and thought-provoking season.

The series takes place years after Trigger with Earth in a period of peace and kaiju having long since disappeared. Right then, the alien Spheres decide to strike, cutting Earth off from the rest of the solar system. A young shop worker obtains the means to embody Ultraman Decker and joins up with GUTS-Select, the small group of specialists who try to take down these new threats.

Decker deals with some heavy sci-fi ideas, including a very cool arc in which a descendant of our hero comes from the future with the ability to become an Ultra himself. Decker also brings back many characters and storylines from Trigger, retroactively making me like that earlier series better. Truly a feat in and of itself.

6. Ultraman (1966)

Tsuburaya Productions

The very first series to feature an Ultraman and the second in the Ultra series overall. This one is essentially the most important series of them all. The first in color, it also gave us the basic setup for everything going forward. A government agency employs a small monster investigating unit (here, the Science Special Search Party, or SSSP) to keep Japan safe from kaiju. One member (rookie Shin Hayata in this case) obtains the ability to grow to the size of the kaiju and become the alien hero Ultraman. It’s beautiful in its simplicity.

The reason this one is relatively low (one might argue) on the list is for a few reasons. First, while very fun, the episodes all eventually feel very samey. Of the series’ 39 episodes, you probably could only watch half and feel like you’ve seen everything integral. Second, the episodes all hew very close to the edict that Ultraman himself only appears for three minutes toward the end of the episode. It’s a good series, an important series, a fun series, but—honestly, for the best—the franchise continued to grow from here.

5. Ultraman Tiga, Ultraman Dyna, Ultraman Gaia (1996-1999)

Tsuburaya Productions

This is 100% a cheat and I don’t care. I’m putting three seasons in this spot because it’s so hard to split them up, and they’re all of such high quality that they all deserve your time. Beginning with Ultraman Tiga in 1996, the Ultra franchise’s triumphant return to Japanese production after 16 years made a big splash. The effects were great, the cast of characters were huge and varied, and these seasons all explicitly took place in a different universe, with more a focus on myth and legend than science and tech.

The TDG seasons, as people call them, are consistently great. It’s hard to say if I had to give an edge to any one of them, however Gaia (the third one) feels to me a lot like Space Battleship Yamato. These seasons also introduce the concept of different forms or power types for the Ultras, each with a different color scheme. I just love them all, and they each give something a little different.

4. Ultraman Mebius (2006-2007)

Tsuburaya Productions

The 40th anniversary season, Mebius is in many ways the same as pretty much all the shows before it. However, as the series progresses, it begins to overlap with the entire Showa era. Each legacy Ultra makes an appearance or two, and each teach this season’s young hero, Mirai, a lesson on how to be a better Ultra. This is also the first mainline season to have a regular secondary Ultra—Ultraman Hikari—who takes human form and joins the crew.

I will say, it’s perhaps better to check out at least a few episodes of each of the 1966-1980 seasons to better appreciate the last half. But even if you don’t, Mebius is an epic and exciting story with endearing characters and fun action.

3. Ultraman Z (2020)

Tsuburaya Productions

Here’s where we get into the heavy hitters for me. Ultraman Z, along with the two seasons next on the list, are the reason I love this franchise. Z aired in 2020 when we really knew lockdown was going to go on and on. This was the first of the seasons to drop on YouTube concurrently in North America and on TV in Japan. It also coincided with me catching up on earlier seasons, making my enjoyment grow week to week.

Ultraman Z again follows a small, underfunded group of kaiju fighters who utilize mechs to fight them off. Haruki, a young and naive member of the team, meets Ultraman Z, a young and naive Ultra, and the two team up to merge and fight against alien threats both large and very large. This season has a few big guest stars, including Ultramans Geed, Zero, and Ace, and a couple of surprise crossovers I won’t spoil here.

These shows will occasionally have a (very, very chaste) romance between the hero and the touch gal on the crew and this show’s (along with Tiga and Dyna) is maybe my favorite. Due to the pandemic we never got a post-season movie for Z but that didn’t stop him from being a beloved Ultra among the fandom.

It also has absolutely the very best theme song in show history. Friggin’ banger.

2. Ultra Q (1996)

Tsuburaya Productions

The very first Ultra show, its success led TBS to ask Tsuburaya for another show quickly, and in color, which gave us Ultraman. Ultra Q is essentially the Japanese X-Files, 30 years earlier. A helicopter pilot, his goofy sidekick, and a plucky young woman reporter team up to investigate strange, paranormal occurrences in the country. These usually include giant monsters, utilizing Eiji Tsuburaya’s knowhow from directing the effects for all of Toho’s Godzilla movies.

Some of the episodes don’t involved giant monsters and instead focus on bizarre and often terrifying phenomena. The writing on the series is top notch, the acting from the leads is uniformly great, and the camaraderie between the three of them is truly special. I love Ultra Q to bits, as I’ve written about here. Even if giant silver superheroes isn’t your thing, give this one a try.

1. Ultraseven (1967-1968)

Tsuburaya Productions

And finally, the very best Ultra show and my personal favorite. Think of it like a mix of Ultra Q and Ultraman, with an alien as our lead character working for an investigative unit. Ultraseven was not meant to connect to Ultraman beyond similar premises, however it proved to popular that by the time of The Return of Ultraman in 1971, it was firmly ensconced. Seven himself also recurs the most of any Ultra in the series, because he’s incredibly popular.

Ultraseven is a little bit more mature than Ultraman, with a little more focus on alien invasion plots rather than simple monster fights. The writing and direction here are some of the best ever, especially the work of the legendary director Akio Jissoji. Seven can also change size to fit the situation, so he can be human-sized if needed, or even smaller. The theme song will get stuck in your head, just be prepared. But for 48 episodes, you’re going to be in tokusatsu heaven.

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. He hosts the weekly pop culture deep-dive podcast Laser Focus. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.