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If, like me, you’re a child of the 80s, chances are when you think back to your favourite animated series Dungeons & Dragons will probably feature quite prominently. I remember many a frenzied dash home from school to catch the latest adventures of Hank, Sheila, Diana, Bobby, Eric and ‘Presto’, as they battled the fiendish Venger with the aid of the all-powerful Dungeon Master. Now, thanks to this first volume of the show from the folks at Contender Entertainment, D&D fans can relive those childhood memories time and time again.

Dungeons & Dragons: Volume One
This fist volume of Dungeons & Dragons includes seven episodes from the series, and before we go any further I’d like to present a brief synopsis of each in the words of Contender themselves.

Episode One: The Night of No Tomorrow
Tricked by the nasty and ever so evil Venger, Presto conjures up a hoard of fire-breathing dragons to threaten the town of Helix. The kids must rescue Presto and save the town before it’s too late.

Episode Two: The Eye of the Beholder
Led by a cowardly knight named Sir John, the children must seek and destroy an evil monster known as The Beholder to find the gateway back to their own world.

Episode Three: The Hall of Bones
Dungeon Master sends the kids on a journey to the Ancient Hall of Bones, where they must recharge their magical weapons. As usual, trouble awaits them at every corner.

Episode Four: Valley of the Unicorns
Bobby and the others must rescue Uni when he is captured by a fiendish sorcerer named Kelek, who plans to remove the horns of all unicorns and steal their magical power.

Episode Five: In Search of the Dungeon Master
Dungeon Master is captured by Warduke and frozen in a magical crystal. When the kids discover this terrible truth, they try to rescue him before Venger gets there first.

Episode Six: Beauty and the Bogbeast
Eric is turned into a comical but ugly bogbeast when he sniffs a forbidden flower. Now he must help the others of this cowardly race defeat an evil ogre who is damming The River That rains Upside Down.

Episode Seven: The Prison Without Walls
The search for the gateway home leads the kids into the Sawmp of Sorrow, where they meet a fearsome monster and the dwarf wizard, Lukyon, who guides them on a journey to the Heart of the Dragon.

Dungeons & Dragons: Volume One
Other than the title sequence, the series opens without much explanation as to exactly how the characters entered the realm of Dungeons & Dragons. While it’s easy enough to follow what’s happening from the outset, I can’t help thinking that the first episode could have benefited from some more expositional stuff about how the kids ended up in their current predicament. Still, this is only a minor gripe, and it doesn’t take long at all to get into the show and discover the various characters’ personality traits.

As the eldest Hank, the ranger, is the group’s reluctant leader, while Sheila, the thief, is the somewhat over-emotional material figure. Eric, the cavalier, is the cowardly one, and as a result is usually the butt of most of the jokes, while Diana, the acrobat, is possibly the most level-headed of the group, and acts as a strong female counterpart to Hank. Presto (I never knew his real name), the magician, provides the comic relief, while little Bobby the barbarian is full of the recklessness of youth, often endangering both himself and the others by rushing headlong into dangerous situations. The group is completed by the addition of Bobby’s pet unicorn, the imaginatively named Uni.

We’re also introduced to the enigmatic Dungeon Master, the little fellow who seems to be pulling the strings in the realm. As a child I was always wary of DM (as he is affectionately known), if for no other reason than it would seem he dragged these poor kids into a nightmare world for his own mysterious purpose—how benevolent can he be? The first episode also sets up the ongoing feud between arch-villain of the piece, Venger, and the indestructible, multi-headed Queen of the Dragons, Tiamat, one of the coolest characters to be found in the series.

Dungeons & Dragons: Volume One
It is this strong characterisation that has ensured the continuing popularity of the series among fans, even after twenty years. In fact the writing is the program’s greatest strength, and I found the series less patronising than shows like He-Man, which had a tendency to ram its morals down your throat. It’s not that D&D doesn’t preach non-violent resolutions to confrontations, it does, but it accomplishes this in a subtle manner that appeals to both adults and kids alike. Obviously the violence is still ‘cartoon’ by its very nature, but there are adult themes and genuinely scary moments that give it an edge over similar animated series. While the show lacks the continuity of programs such as Ulysses 31, you really care about the characters and their plight. Of course long time fans of the series will know that they never actually made it home due to the cancellation of the third series part way in, but in this instance it is the journey that makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Dungeons & Dragons is presented in its original 4:3 (1.33:1) ratio. I was pleasantly surprised by the transfer, which is relatively free from artefacts considering the age of the program. The animation, while not up to the standard of today’s animated shows, also possesses a certain charm. As for the image itself, well colour rendition is good throughout, and the creators took full advantage of the fantastical locations to deliver a myriad of weird and wonderful creatures to showcase this. As I mentioned before, I found the cleanliness of the transfer most surprising, but also most welcome. Overall I found Dungeons & Dragons to be of a higher quality than Contender’s recent He-Man DVDs, which is actually more impressive than it sounds.

Each episode is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, and while they’re unlikely to set the world alight, the tracks are perfectly adequate for this kind of material. While clearly no match for even the most lowly of audio equipment, dialogue remains clear throughout, showcasing the fine voice performances of actors such as Peter Cullen and Frank Welker (Venger and Uni/Tiamat). Both actors played parts in shows such as Transformers and G.I. Joe, where they provided the voices for characters such as Optimus Prime and Megatron. Those of you familiar with the TV show Happy Days might also recognise Don ‘Ralph Malph’ Most as the voice of Eric the cavalier.

Dungeons & Dragons: Volume One
Sound effects also share more than a little in common with other animated shows of the time, and Venger’s magical bolts would later go on to be used as the sound of Megatron’s Fusion Canon! While not as memorable as certain theme tunes, lacking as it did a vocal hook, the Dungeons & Dragons theme is still capable of evoking a flood of childhood reminiscences. All in all this is a solid aural presentation, and you really couldn’t expect more from a twenty year old animated kids show.

As with the He-Man DVDs before it, the disc includes some nice animated menus and transitions featuring clips and voices from the series. Also similar to the He-Man releases are the fan commentaries on the episodes The Night of No Tomorrow and Beauty and the Bogbeast. Once again the commentaries are a decent blend of interesting facts and humorous banter from people who really know far too much about the show. However, this time around the testosterone is tempered somewhat by the presence of a female commentator. The group discuss everything from the underlying sexual tension between Hank and Sheila, to Bobby’s unhealthy obsession with his unicorn!

Next up we have the Original Series Bible, which outlines the premise of the show and details the various character’s powers and personalities. Although interesting, the biggest problem with this feature is that the text is quite small, making it somewhat difficult to read. Also on the disc are Character Profiles for Hank and Sheila (ranger and thief respectively), and Character Model Sheets for most of the principal characters. These include hand-drawn sketches of the characters in various action poses, as well as facial close-ups with a number of different expressions.

Last but not least we have a couple of DVD-Rom Features, namely an original script for the episode Beauty and the Bogbeast, and some original Story Premises for episodes of the show.

Dungeons & Dragons: Volume One
So there you have it—a fine presentation of fine animated series. Dungeons & Dragons has more than stood the test of time; a testament to the writing talents of all involved with its ability to appeal to both children and adults alike. As with their He-Man releases, Contender has delivered a worthy package that features solid audio-visual elements and a great selection of bonus content (especially considering the limited amount of material available). I will admit to enjoying this more than my recent He-Man acquisition, if only because of the slightly more mature themes found in D&D, but in any event I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this disc to fans of the show both old and new. What with Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Battle of the Planets, Visionaries and now Dungeons & Dragons, this is a good time for 80s nostalgia freaks. Now if there is any justice in the world someone will pick up more of my old favourites, such as M.A.S.K., Inhumanoids, Centurions, and Mysterious Cities of Gold!