Sunday, October 14, 2012

Video Games: Dragon's Lair

I remember my brother telling me about this amazing video game where you actually played a cartoon character trying to rescue a princess from a dragon's castle.  When I was told that it looked just like a real cartoon, I just dismissed it as a euphemism for good graphics.  In 1983, video game graphics were pretty damned crude, and I just thought this game would be slightly better than the stuff I was used to.

But Dragon's Lair was something truly different.  It was like no video game that anybody else had ever seen.  Seeing it for the first time was mind-blowing.  It was like living in a society where horses were the dominant mode of transportation, and then seeing a guy fly by in an X-wing fighter.

Hell, it STILL looks better than any conventional video game!

Of course, Dragon's Lair "cheated" and used a laser-disk for it's graphics, which greatly limited your options, but that didn't matter when the only video games that we had seen up to this point featured blocky, abstract shapes that only vaguely resembled the things they were supposed to represent.

Dragon's Lair not only looked like a cartoon, it looked like the best cartoon I'd ever seen.  At the time, I had no idea who Don Bluth was, or any idea that he had revolutionized the art of animation for Disney... all I knew was that this was the most bad-ass thing that I had ever laid eyes on.

It had everything... a brave knight (Dirk the Daring), a bimbo princess (Daphne), blood and guts,  monsters beyond my wildest dreams, and an epic showdown with a dragon in a room piled high with treasure.

Dragon's Lair was always kind of special.  It wasn't the sort of game you'd usually find in a pizza parlor.  Usually only the bigger arcades had a console, and I always made a beeline for this game when I was at Disneyland, or Great America, or the Santa Cruz boardwalk.

At the time it was controversial because it was the first game to cost 50 cents instead of the industry standard 25 cents.  I always knew it was going to soak up a few of my hard-earned dollars, but it was worth every second, and every gruesome death.  I remember that I went to the Six Flags in Atlanta and the arcades there were FREE.  I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven when I found a Dragon's Lair console.

Dragon's Lair wasn't perfect.  It was a linear game that allowed for no improvisation from the player.  Each room had the same solution because the animation didn't allow for any solutions that weren't animated into it. The only deviation you'd come across is when the game would reverse the animation, which meant that you couldn't memorize a simple left/right pattern, you had to actually react to what was on the screen.

And it could be frustrating.  I don't know how many times I got squished by the giant marbles.

But even dying was a lot of fun in a game that had so many amazing death animations.  Each room had a couple of different ways to die... most of them gruesome, horrifying, or humorous.  Even the monsters sometimes got this treatment.  When Dirk slices into a Giddy Goon, you can see the pink guts of the creature... when Dirk cuts a tentacle in half, you can see the innards and the spray of monster fluids.

More than 25 years later, Dragon's Lair still sends a visceral thrill through me every time I think of it.  It was obviously influenced by D&D, but at the same time, it has always been hugely influential on the way I've always seen the game.  What else is Dirk's mission if not a dungeon crawl?

If I have any misgivings about the game they aren't about the gameplay (which works just fine for what it is), but about the fact that Dragon's Lair could have been an epic animated fantasy movie instead of a passing fad of a video game.

Years later, when Disney released The Black Cauldron, I was hoping that it would capture the awesomeness of Dragon's Lair.  By this time, I actually knew who Don Bluth was and tried to watch all of his movies, but unfortunately, The Black Cauldron wasn't the movie I had been craving, and it wasn't a particularly successful movie for Disney either.

Nevertheless, Dragon's Lair still remains near and dear to my heart.  I still borrow ideas from it, and take inspiration from it for my own games.  I eventually got a copy on CD-Rom and finally beat it, and I was thrilled to actually be able to experience the whole thing from beginning to end.

I've included a link to the complete walkthrough so you can see the game in it's entirety.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.  There was a sequel to it a few years later but I never liked as well, and it is notoriously difficult to beat.  It is also made up of a single linear animated sequence, rather than the separate rooms of the original game, which always seemed more creative and fun to me.

There was also a Saturday morning cartoon based on the game, but I remember it being much less awesome than the game.  It did have an unusual gimmick where the cartoon would give two options that Dirk could take, and it was up to the viewer to decide the right option during the commercial break.  One option would always turn out bad, and one option would always turn out well, but it would show you the results of both choices, which was kind of neat.

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