"Bakugan" I Use 2 Mana to Special Summon The Instruction Manual!
When Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! became big international hits, you knew all the derivative knock-offs were coming. Some used monsters and cards as direct competition to the mega-franchises, while others took classic toys for their own unique little spin. Most of time, this has resulted in a pretty forgettable kids fad series, the latest of which is Bakugan: Battle Brawlers.
In another dimension called Vestoria, powerful monsters existed, but some weird science-like thing happened and a bunch of the monsters got transported to our world. Except that they couldn’t exist in our world except as little transforming marbles and their powers locked up in cards. When these marbles and cards first appeared, kids around the world created a fun little game between themselves called Bakugan. But when they started to play more and more, the marbles suddenly came to life as mighty monsters! Now, an evil dude called Masquerade is trying to conquer the two worlds (or something like that, it’s not really explained in this volume but rest assured he’s evil) and main character Dan and his compatriots-Rino, Marucho, Shun, Julie, and Alice-have to find the Infinity Core, which will somehow make everything alright. But Masquerade has taken control of five of the top ten ranked Bakugan Brawlers from around the world and sent them out to hunt down and destroy our heroes. Will they be able to find the Infinity Core before all sorts of bad stuff happens?
Now, I’m not exactly a newbie when it comes to game-based anime. I’ve been an avid Pokémon fanboy ever since the franchise launched in the US in September 1998 (and even before then I kept reading the Nintendo Power previews until the magazine wore out). I’ve seen most of Yu-Gi-Oh! and even played the TCG before Konami went bonkers with it and even watch the latest spin-off Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s. I even greatly enjoyed the parody dub of Duel Masters (Now THERE’S a series that needs some new DVDs) and caught a couple episodes of Beyblade before ABC Family got all crappy. So, when Bakugan premiered after the premiere of the 10th Pokémon movie The Rise of Darkrai, I figured I’d give it a shot. Within 5 minutes I was completely and utterly lost. There were monsters living inside transforming marbles? They somehow have the power to cross dimensions in order to play the game? There’s a giant international game league using this dimension-crossing ability (complete with apparently wild Bakugan out there to be captured) and yet not one national government seems to care? Needless to say, I haven’t been keeping up with the story.
So, when I popped in Volume 4 of this series, consisting of Episodes 14-17, I figured maybe I could at least learn some of the rules of the game similar to how the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime helped me learn to play the TCG (despite its different rules). Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. I still don’t know how these kids are able to cross dimensions so easily, I still don’t know how these Gate Cards are able to activate or what triggers their effects (or even why some cards move to other fields and why others can’t), I still don’t know what consists of a health meter or progression track, I still don’t know how one is able to figure out how much attack power a monster has or how its raised or lowered during battle, I still don’t know what HBP means or what it does, and I still don’t know what the hell the deal is with the Ability Cards. How many do you get per game? How are they activated? Where the hell do they come from? Say what you will about the tedious explanations in the various Yu-Gi-Oh! anime, but at least you know exactly what a card does and how it affects the game thanks to said tedious explanations. Here? we have monsters somehow getting destroyed but then coming back without an explanation, Ability Cards whose only purpose seem to be to make the good guys win, and for some reason a few Bakugan that can even speak, despite most Bakugan staying mute the entire time. Though I will say that I understand this game more than I do Battle B-Daman.
That all being said, these four episodes did have some narrative to them and if one actually watches these episodes, the story at least makes some sense relative to the world presented. Masquerade is evil, he hires a bunch of top-ranked Bakugan players to take out the bad guys, and the good guys find a lead on the Infinity Core while wondering who is betraying them from behind the scenes and leaking all their info. Nothing in this story is really all that original (Hell, pretty much every plot point on this disc was used during the first season of Duel Masters) but at least it’s relatively simple. And there are a few good moments, such as when Marucho and his Bakugan Preyas decide to make takoyaki for the crew and the moment its revealed exactly who is supplying the bad guys with all the info on the good guys. Unfortunately, these good moments are few and far between, as most of the show is mired in mediocrity. I’m not exactly sure how or why this show became so popular (popular enough to get Universal to make a theatrical movie out of it) but it’s all lost on me.
To top it all off, we don’t even get any memorable characters or designs to leave an impression. Yu-Gi-Oh! had some very memorable character designs and a pretty cool main character in Yugi/Atem. Duel Masters had everybody spouting ridiculous, fourth-wall breaking dialog that made everybody remember the characters simply for the jokes they told. Bakugan doesn’t really have anything like that. Dan is about as generic a lead as you can get in one of these series and it doesn’t help him any that the three female leads are all in love with him. Marucho is your typical half-pint smart guy who’s super-rich. Sadly, this is the best character in the show (well, best main character anyway, as Chan Lee gets points for wearing a Chinese dress, though she loses points for the obvious reference in her name) as for once, he is not only a participant in the battle instead of just a cheerleader, but he is also fairly skilled to boot. None of the girls gain any real notice, as Runo is your typical shonen series female lead, Julie is your typical modern gal everybody hates on TV, and Alice, while being the most normal, is still plain. As for Shun, he may be the brooder of the bunch, but even he is generic as hell, especially compared to Kai from Beyblade, Kokujo from Duel Masters, and especially Seto Kaiba from Yu-Gi-Oh!
The show doesn’t even really stand out visually either. Much of the show consists of either stock footage or limited movements to show what little action there is and even that pales in comparison to other low-budget series like Pokémon or Chaotic. The locales visited in the episodes here are at least somewhat different from the generic Tokyo city landscape seen in other shows, since the majority of the episodes take place in a Grand Canyon-type area, but the backgrounds excite about as much as Pokémon‘s endless forest backgrounds. Even Vestoria doesn’t even pop since it seems like all the worlds are just miniature galaxies with creatures flying around with no signs of civilization, structure, or even land to live on. Some CG is used, but its mostly to animated the various Bakugan as they are in their marble forms. I know the CG in other series (again, Duel Masters) can stick out like a sore thumb, but I’d rather have generic monster designs in 3D than generic monster designs in static 2D.
The show doesn’t get much better in the audio department. The voice cast is made up of Ocean Group rejects and it really shows. No character in the entire show has a standout voice and the acting behind each of them is pretty awful, with main character Dan being one of the worst of the bunch. Scott McCord’s acting as Dan is extremely wooden, with any real emotion other than excitement lacking greatly. It also seems like the dub doesn’t quite know what it’s talking about, as there are a couple errors that are obvious even to one who has never seen the original Japanese version, the most notable being during a preview saying that the heroes would meet a certain character who had previously been behind the scenes, but during the next episode said character is never mentioned and the “new” character is one introduced at the beginning of this little arc. One would think Nelvana would NOT want to copy 4Kids in this aspect, but I guess not. I do have to give the dub props for keeping in some Japanese terms, most notably calling takoyaki “takoyaki” instead of making it some random American pastry dish like 4Kids would’ve done. The background music is as generic as the rest of the show, but the opening theme is one of the worst openings I’ve ever heard. People rant about how bad the themes to Digimon, Rave Master, 4Kids One Piece dub, and others are, but at least they had a melody and structure to the song. This opening is a mishmash of rock combined with lyrics that make even less sense than the titular game itself. Just once I’d like to see a game-based anime get an opening by an actual band instead of the English version’s PR staff.
Extras are few and far between. The disc itself has trailers for Ben 10: Alien Force Volume 3, Bakugan Volume 3, and Green Lantern: First Flight, but said trailers can only be viewed when you pop in the disc. For some reason, they aren’t selectable from the menu screen. The insert includes an ad for the previous volumes of Bakugan, the first 2 volumes of Chowder, the first 3 volumes of Ben 10: Alien Force, and the Wii video games Ben 10: Alien Force: Vilgax Attacks and Secret Saturdays: Beasts of the 5th Sun. The insert also advertises the various Bakugan toys one can buy at Toys ‘R’ Us or Wal-Mart or some such place. Also included is a holofoil “Dark Power Boost” promo card, allowing ones Bakugan to gain additional G-Power under certain conditions.
Overall, Bakugan Volume 4 is strictly for current fans of the TV show. If one wishes to get started on this series, I suggest looking for the first 3 volumes first. Maybe then you’ll know what the hell the game is about, because I sure don’t.