“Come on everybody, the Dungeons & Dragons ride, this is neat….what’s happening!” Those are the first words of the rather splendid intro of one of the best cartoons of the 1980s and one, surprisingly, that wasn’t linked to a toy line.
Now, who hasn’t wanted to go on a fairground ride that transports you into a fantasy world? It’s surely every kids’ fantasy to be transported away to a world of myths and legends, unless, of course the first thing you encounter in said land is a multi-headed dragon called Tiamat.
But, thanks to bit of quick thinking by a Yoda-like figure called the Dungeon Master, you and your stereotyped friends are ‘tooled’ up to do battle with said dragon and his demonic son Venger and ready to try, every episode, to find your way home.
Unicorns, powers, demons and dragons: and that’s just the intro sequence!
As you can see, Dungeons & Dragons was like no other cartoon you had seen before, and even with its recycled music, clichéd characters and corner-cutting animation, this 1980s cartoon from Marvel (it’s true, check out Spidey in the end credits) is what most of us who played Dungeons & Dragons really wanted.
In a land chock full of Orcs, Goblins, Slime monsters, demonic spider-women, bog-beasts and even Beholders, the world of Dungeons And Dragons was one which every table-topping gamer would have loved to be a part of and been able to visit.
With an entire world based purely on imagination, the young stars of the show could one week be in trouble in a desert, the next in a wilderness, the next in a jungle battling amphibian men. It was essentially a canvas in which any story in any scenario could play out and in which our cast of characters would try week after week to finish a quest and return home.
But it wasn’t the setting that was so compelling. It was, of course, the characters you tuned in to see and there was somebody you could relate to: Hank’s Ranger/leader character, Bobby’s childlike Barbarian, Presto the useless Magician, Sheligha the jailbait thief, Eric the irritating Cavaliar and Diana, the ‘token’ acrobat. There was somebody there as a kid you could relate to or who could be your favourite.
Each and every week the kids would work though the puzzles of Dungeon Master (who we all knew could transport them home at any time…but just chose not to) to rescue a princess, save a village or get a prize or token, all with the usual connotation that getting said item or saving said maiden in distress would be access to a way to get home.
And most times they were. However, when, on some occasions, they did get back, something would mean they could not stop, such as Eric being transformed into a bog-beast, Venger going with them or having to leave Uni behind.
Yup, as this was a cartoon of the 80s, there was a comedy sidekick in the form of Uni, who was, unsurprisingly, a unicorn, and while irritating, proved at times to be useful, as she (I think she was a she) had the power of teleportation. Always useful when Venger came knocking.
Now, it should be mentioned that for every great hero there has to be a suitable bad guy. He-Man had Skeletor, Lion-O had Mum-Ra and the kids of the Dungeons And Dragons had Venger, a massive Devil-looking creature with a baritone voice and the ability to stop the kids at every turn using magic, lightning bolts and a huge bat-winged black horse.
Menacing and seemingly impossible to stop, Venger was, by far, one of the most menacing baddies of 80s cartoons and massively more powerful than our heroes. He-Man could always overpower Skeletor, but when you watched the kids vs Venger, they were so outmatched power and cunning-wise that every time you thought they might just lose. And even when they had the ‘help’ of Tiamat or some suped up new weapons (which could be found in the Dragons Graveyard), it seemed that the odds were always in Venger’s favour.
Although the show was aimed at kids, there were some pretty dark things covered and a lot more going on than the usual rescue or retrieval missions. And while there seemed to be no over-arching story, there were little hints and suggestions to questions that would be answered, such as whether Venger and Dungeon Master were related (it was hinted that Venger was DM’s son). Plus there was the great evil which was a huge engine of destruction, and would Venger’s ‘boss’ eventually take over the realm? They were all things that were suggested, but due to the cancellation were never covered.
With stories that leapt straight from a role playing session, the cartoon had its monsters, quests, magical weapons and the perfect mixture of danger, characters, comedy and fast paced action. It was a must-see cartoon that even now, 20 years on, has stood the test of time. And while, at times, the animation is ropey and differs in quality from episode to episode, Dungeons & Dragons is still one of the most imaginative and gripping classic geek cartoons.