Dragon Booster is an animated ABC Kids show about a futuristic civilization where humans and dragons coexist…and race for some reason. Regardless of how improbable it might seem, racing dragons sounds like it could be a decent premise for a video game. Apparently Konami thought so, at least, because it has published a racing game for the Nintendo DS based on the show. However, Dragon Booster the game is only a racing game in the most basic sense. There is a starting line and a finishing line, and the objective is to make it to the end of the course before your opponents do. Other than that there isn't much actual racing involved. You have no direct control over the speed of your dragon, and steering is automatic. The result is a hollow and utterly joyless rail shooter with some ancillary racing tenets tacked on, and it's one that should be avoided by even the most devout fans of the show.
The story behind Dragon Booster is a poor attempt at imitating some of the anime-inspired kids' shows that have been successful in the past. The world in Dragon Booster is inhabited by dragons and humans, who live in symbiosis thanks to some cosmic energy transfer between the two species. Eventually the humans began to exploit the dragons and they started breeding specialized dragons to be used to build cities and create all kinds of powerful weapons. As the humans developed their power, they fought and nearly destroyed the world in what is known as the Dragon-Human War. A heroic dragon and rider emerged and became the first of the so-called Dragon Boosters, and they saved the world by showing everyone that dragons and humans could coexist peacefully. The game takes place 3,000 years after the war, and the humans are making the same mistakes again. So, as you might expect, you have to become a Dragon Booster and save the world from destruction by… racing dragons? What? OK, so it doesn't make a lot of sense, and the game does a terrible job of conveying the story, but those are the least of the problems with Dragon Booster.
There are five modes to choose from when you start, including training, free run, grudge match, mini-challenge, and all-city races. The majority of the action takes place in the all-city races mode, which is basically a career mode where you choose a rider and dragon, and then participate in a series of races to move up the ranks and eventually save the world. You start out as a class C racer, and after you finish first in each of the six races you'll unlock a new dragon and rider and move up to the B class, where you can do it all again at a slightly higher difficulty level.
You control a dragon and rider and you have to battle your way past five opponents to be the first to cross the finish line. The races take place on long, winding courses set in dismal futuristic settings like a desolate slum, a lava-filled cavern, sky-high cityscapes, and so on. You don't have to worry about accelerating, braking, cornering, or any of the other stuff that makes racing games fun and challenging. Here you can only jump, move left and right across the track, attack, and use speed boost. The boost doesn't seem to have much of an effect on your speed though, and if not for the white speed lines that appear at the edge of the screen, you would never know when boost is activated. The dragons supposedly have different stats for speed, jumping, and power, but they all have the same sluggish handling on the track, and none of them are fun to race. You might think that a dragon would fly at least occasionally, but instead these dragons just plod along on the ground, clumsily tripping over hurdles that are placed in their path, running into walls, and falling off the edge of the course where sections of roadway are missing.
As soon as a race begins all of your opponents will just take off and disappear down the track, so you always start out in last place. This is intentional because it forces you to battle your way through the pack, taking out all the other racers until you're left in the lead. You only ever encounter one other racer at a time, and you actually seem to encounter them in predetermined intervals. Once you catch up to enemies, they will stick with you until the end if you let them. You can't outrun your opponents, and even if they fall off the track or get tripped up by a hurdle they'll instantly respawn right on top of you. Since you can't outrace them, you have to take your opponents out of commission by attacking them. You can purchase special gear, including weapons that can be used to take out your enemies, but mostly you'll just be using the basic attack, which involves launching your human rider (tethered to the dragon by an elastic electric field) at opponents and objects on the course. Do this enough and you will knock the other racer out of commission, and you can keep racing for a little while before encountering the next rider in line. It never feels like you're actually racing in Dragon Booster, it just feels like you're stuck in a lame shooting gallery that requires you to hit the right targets at the right time over and over again on the same few dull, repetitive courses.
By winning races you'll earn money, which you can spend on gear for your dragon. You can purchase weapons and upgrades to increase speed and defense. There aren't very many items to choose from though, and most of them are exceedingly expensive. Since you get no money for second place, it takes awhile to save up enough credits to actually get any worthwhile items.
Dragon Booster has its share of control problems as well. Most of the time you'll control the dragon with the touch screen and the directional pad. You tap the dragon to jump, touch objects or opponents to attack, and slide an icon to initiate a speed boost. This method of control is clumsy and annoying, because the touch screen isn't always responsive, which results in a lot of missed jumps or attacks. FFor example, when you're trying to attack an enemy in close quarters the screen will sometimes register your touch as a jump instead of an attack, since the two targets are too close together. There's a minigame that plays like a side-scrolling shooting gallery where you have to hit colored targets to earn points, but it isn't fun and it just serves to highlight the imprecision of the touch screen controls.
The graphics in Dragon Booster look jagged and ugly. The scenery is repetitive and seems to scroll endlessly without really going anywhere. Most of the time you don't really have much of a sense of the race track either--it just sort of appears in front of you as you run along, and there are rarely points when you can actually see very far ahead. The animation is limited as well. Aside from a clumsy gait, each racer has a single attack animation and that's it. There's nothing interesting to look at here, but even if Dragon Booster had great graphics, the gameplay would still disappoint.
The music in Dragon Booster is actually pretty good, but the sound effects are merely average. The soundtrack consists of some nice, dramatic orchestrated themes that actually do a fair job of conveying a sense of urgency. The sound effects, on the other hand, sound distorted, and while they fill the noise void just fine, you could turn them off and enjoy the game just as little as you would if they were on.
Dragon Booster is an exceedingly lousy attempt at making a licensed game out of a license that isn't all that great to begin with. The single-player game is shallow and uninteresting, and multiplayer is worthless. There's a two-player mode with single-card play, but the only thing you can do in that mode is play a couple mini games against a friend, including the aforementioned side-scrolling target shooting gallery game, and the other is just a truncated version of a regular race that only has two racers total. Add it all up and you get a terribly clumsy game that should be avoided regardless of age or affinity for the show.