Dragon Drive Vol. #01 (of 10) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Friday, April 30, 2004
Release Date: Tuesday, May 11, 2004

What They Say
Reiji Oozora is a completely lazy bum. He's the 'tardy champion' at school, a terrible student and he gives up on everything! Unable to stand seeing her childhood friend waste away his youth, Maiko Yukino introduces Reiji to a virtual-reality game called 'Dragon Drive', a fighting game in which players are partnered with dragons and then fight each other in a virtual-reality city.

Will Reiji's underachieving personality and a less than spectacular looking dragon be enough to take on the strongest players and dragons in the world? Chances are likely he'll fail miserably... But maybe this time, Reiji's finally found something he won't give up on!

The Review!
Dragon Drive is the last children's oriented kind of show to come over that's managed to make it mostly unscathed with a bilingual track. While the show opens to some standard material for series like this, there looks to be much more than meets the eye.

For our primary viewing session, we alternated between English and Japanese for the four episodes here, spending an entire episode in one language and switching during the next. Both tracks came across well in their stereo mix, though most of the dialogue continues to be center channel based. The music, particularly the opening theme, sounds full here and fills up the soundstage nicely when it starts off. Dialogue throughout the show is clean and clear and we had no issues with dropouts or distortions.

Originally airing in 2002, Dragon Drive is presented in its original full frame format and full of the vibrant eye-catching colors that are the norm in many kid's shows. The transfer for this show looks almost spotless with only a bit of noticeable aliasing in a few areas, mostly from some of the mixed CG of the dragons, and a few very minor spots of cross coloration that look source material related. The colors schemes are rich and vibrant with hardly any macroblocking. The bright blue skies during the daytime scenes are great looking and maintain a really solid look and feel. While the animation itself may be a bit sub par in a few scenes, the transfer for it is spot on.

Using the same artwork as the first Japanese DVD release, we get the shot of Reiji and Chibisuke together against a red and orange tinted backdrop that's not really anything at all. It's a decent looking cover and gives you a look at the lead characters and basic design feel of the show but not much more than that. That works better for the Japanese release since people had seen it on TV and it was a known commodity but it's harder to sell here. The back cover has a few shots from the show itself but the bulk of the backdrop image is from episodes that haven't come yet (next volume!) so it's a bit disingenuous to have it here. The summary is decent if simple and we get a clean listing of the discs features and basic technical information. While the spine and front cover thankfully list the volume number, we also get episode numbers and titles on the back here. The insert replicates the front cover and opens up to provide more specific summaries for each of the four episodes along with some artwork. The back of the insert has the full production credits translation and bilingual credits for the main voice cast. This release also came with a lenticular insert of Kanper! Very neat.

The menu layout is pretty simple for this release and likely for the whole series since they're pushing it somewhat more towards the kids market. The main menu and the submenus are all static pieces, with the main menu having a shot of Reiji and Chibisuke set against a backdrop of the monitors used for the game and some of the equipment. Selections are pretty standard and are easy to access and navigate. The menus load quickly and we had no trouble with language setup or defaults.

The extras are pretty minimal with this release, being just a few illustrations in full color of some of the dragons and some of the cast. There isn't even a clean opening or closing sequence provided.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Back when Dragon Drive was first licensed, there was some interesting excited buzz about it from some people that surprised me that they'd be into it, from what little I know of the show. From all the promotional material, Dragon Drive comes off as the next in line of the usual kids show staples about cards, collecting, battling and young angst. While I didn't place it too high on my list of things I was looking forward to, I knew it'd time out well to a place where my kids would be into something like that. And besides, the main dragon is cute. Stuff like this is required to hook the young ones into anime.

Dragon Drive is pretty deceptive though, but I can see the pinch Bandai is in. The first four or five episodes of the show play out much like I describe above, but once you get past that and connect a few brief scenes from the early episodes, some aspects of the show change into something almost completely different.

The opening episodes are pretty standard. We're introduced to Reiji, a fairly normal junior high school student that doesn't follow through on things and has something of a minor run of bad luck. He's the type that will give up rather than really put any effort into anything and just sort of float through life at times. His luck sometimes really screws him over and he ends up in trouble with the wrong people. For example, on his way to school on his book, he ends up getting smacked by a soccer ball and plunges right into schoolmate Daisuke. Daisuke's a short tempered little punk who gets away with things since he lives in the shadow of Kyoji, the best of the best of the students, the kind of kid who fails at absolutely nothing. For Daisuke, Reiji's even worse than most people since he's actually close to his childhood friend Maiko. Maiko's actually got a crush on Reiji and continually tries to get him to do better in life, but Daisuke keeps holding out for Maiko's attention since she was so kind to him in the past.

Maiko thinks she's finally found something for Reiji to sink his teeth into and she takes him to a secret entrance at the back of the Sea Palace store that leads to a massive underground gaming center. It's here that the kids come to play the Dragon Drive game, a game where a persons genetic code is read and a dragon is custom designed based on that. The dragon is then encoded onto a card with its image on it and the card can be inserted into a cel phone (or gaming device as they call it in the dub). When you sit down in the special chairs to play the game, your device gets hooked into that and a large monitor lowers over your face. From here, you're transported into the virtual D-Zone, a place where cities and other environments are replicated in pure virtual reality and everyone battles it out in different contests, from battle royale's to all sorts of other more specific competitions.

Reiji is completely hooked on this concept and loves the idea of waking his own sleeping dragon and discovering the thrill of virtual reality combat, commanding his dragon against others. So once he goes through the process, he's rather upset to find that his coded dragon is a small white critter that's quite sleepy and apparently very underpowered. Even those in charge of the game are surprised about it since they can't believe or remember coding such a weak dragon to be played. But the game is off and running and Reiji, who hasn't read one lick of the rules, is now fighting for his life in his first virtual reality Dragon Drive game.

Can you see how the next few episodes play out? Reiji finds that his dragon, Chibisuke, is actually surprisingly well powered and has some tricks up its sleeve. He's able to synch with it like nobody else at his level has been able to before, which causes some interest in the higher-ups of the game. Reiji isn't an instant winner every time however since he only manages to synch well with Chibisuke when he's in danger or so emotionally charged that his mind of focused and clear. That's obviously not clear to Reiji though since he continually loses in many matches. But when he ends up against characters that are the top of their ladders and other gifted players, he always manages to salvage things in some way. And yes, you can tell as it goes along that the people he defeats are becoming part of his "party" that will be crucial as time goes on.

That said, the obvious way things play out is competently done. It's also amusing since Reiji really only sees his wins. Never mind the last thirty losses in a row, he'll still rave about his status and winning over the champion of the B block of competitors or something else. He's got no modesty and is just pumped about the game and his abilities in it, as well as those of Chibisuke. Maiko tries to get him to be a bit more grounded but even she has trouble keeping him down. There are a number of other characters that are keeping an eye on him as it progresses and there are some larger motivations that are going on that we see in a few scenes. The biggest difference between this and a lot of other similar shows is that there really does seem to be an underlying story that's going to come out once they get past the opening concept that's designed to sell more toys and card games. The implied bits and the snippets we see are intriguing however.

In Summary:
While the show is obviously a kid's show, it's managed to make it's way to the US relatively unscathed, with the dub being only somewhat dumbed down in a few places to account for some cultural difference. These episodes aren't indicative of the series as a whole as I keep being told and that what it really is is just around the corner. Regardless, we're still looking at this volume as we see it and it's a good kids show that has some really good dragon designs with some striking colors and imagery attached to them all wrapped around a basic card game concept. We're obviously sticking with it, but I'm not entirely sure that I would for just myself based on the first four episodes. There's some good material here and it does rise above the usual kiddie fare, but if this is all that it was, I'd be moving along. The second volume will be what we're looking forward to seeing to really get an idea of what this series is about.

Japanese 2.0 Language,English 2.0 Language,English Subtitles,Character Gallery,Dragon Gallery,Lenticular Card

Review Equipment
Panasonic PT50LC13 50" LCD RP HDTV, Panasonic RP-82 Progressive Scan codefree DVD player, Sony STR-DE835 DD/DTS receiver, Monster component cable and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

Mania Grade: C+
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: A-
Packaging Rating: B
Menus Rating: B
Extras Rating: C
Age Rating: 3 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Bandai Entertainment
MSRP: 24.98
Running time: 100
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Dragon Drive