257: Year of the Dragon's Lair

Year of the Dragon's Lair

Whether you hated or loved it, playing Dragon's Lair was a memorable experience in 1983 compared to the blocky sprite graphics of the time. Brendan Main takes a look at the hubris of the team behind the first laserdisc game that was intended to change videogames forever.

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Don Bluth is one of my idols and Dragon's Lair is one of my favorite arcade games. Perhaps when I become a senior animator I can make a game of my own...

Dragons lair was true dross, I could barely be called a game. I'm old enough to remember when it was meant to be the next big thing only to watch it die a death.

The people who are currently nut hugging heavy rain should take note.

I can't deny the effort that went into making the game, or its historical significance, but I have trouble calling it a game. It's like playing a card game, where all you do is flip over a card and look at it, then flip over another and look at that one (lather, rinse, repeat). You really aren't "playing".

Great article, at any rate.

In the library here at The Savannah College of Art and Design we have a Don Bluth collection, containing many great things from his entire filmmaking career. Let me tell you though, there's nothing I'd rather wander off with than an original vintage Dragon's Lair arcade poster they have in there... It is just too good.

As for the game itself, I played it on PC quite a while after it came out. Dunno how far I got exactly but it was a fun little distraction. Not as hard or frustrating as Space Ace, to say the least.

well secret of nimh is one of my favorite movies, I remember playing dragons lair once at the arcade and not getting past the first screen, maybe if it didnt cost so much at the time

It's interesting that nowadays, when every other game looks great and photorealistic, the interest in blips and bloops is a growing industry. The blips and bloops are the game, after all; the game is not the graphics, they're what's left once you remove them.

It's curious that someone who may have made the same analysis of gaming I did, only decades ago when gaming was a different beast entirely, would come to the exact opposite conclusion of what most people did nowadays. Well, you know what they say about great truths.

One of my greatest arcade accomplishments was getting through Dragon's Lair 2: Time Warp without dying once, in front of a crowd. It wasn't easy- there's a section about halfway through the sixth level where you have to practically jackhammer the joystick in order for the game to consider it a "successful move". I ended up picking up the collection (both DL games and Space Ace) on CD-ROM a while back, and now and then I like watching through some of the scenes again, relishing the nostalgia trip with the sweet 80s corniness.

While laserdisc games were pretty much doomed to fail (incredible hardware failure rates and gameplay inflexibility just being two of the problems they faced), I like to believe that they gave the gaming industry a little kick in the pants. (Of course, it's possible that the blame for the industry's current fixation on QTEs and long stretches of minimally-interactive narration might be indirectly laid at its feet as well, but you can't really say they knew it'd happen.) And while worrying about what input you had to put in next made it hard to enjoy the games while you were playing them, they certainly were a blast to watch.

Plus they got a humorous shout-out in, of all places, an episode of Samurai Jack.
"The right fork in the road will take you to the dragon's lair!"
"Where will the other fork take me?"
"Space Ace!"
*blank stare*

I remember playing lots of Dragon's Lair, but not much of Space Ace- mainly because I was deep into my "Dungeons and Dragons" obsession way back when. Lots of people remember and talk about Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, but very few remember another Laser Disc game that I remember playing called Thayer's Quest. It also differed from the first two games in having a keyboard rather than a joystick and buttons.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thayer's_Quest

I *do* remember it costing 50 cents! I never played it at the time as a result. It was more fun to watch anyway.

I played it when it came to the computer, but I remember paying too much attention to the proper cues that I never got to really enjoy all the great animation that went into it, which was one of the major drawbacks.

It also reminds me of the wing commander series when everyone thought gaming was all going to be focused on the computer in the 90's and big name actors and big movie budgets were used to make "interactive movies", which were a big trend, but didn't change the industry completely. Though I got much more enjoyment out of that, because it was a space sim offered more aspects to play.

Excellent article. Dragon's Lair was huge step in the evolution of video gaming... in the wrong direction, IMHO.

It was the game where gameplay became secondary to flashy media. Games that more tell a story or play a movie than actually deliver a game-- it all started with Dragon's Lair.

Dragon's Lair was the first game where the game designer more than the player would dictate the experience we had with it. Beyond that it was memorizing the 80s equivalent of quicktime events, rather than actual strategy or skill, that got a player to the end of it.

I remember hating it the first time I laid eyes on it. I played it in the arcades maybe 10 or so times and feared that this is what computer games would become. Few have ever gone to the extreme that Dragon's Lair did, but its influence still weighs heavily on the whole industry.

I guess the princess was still pretty hot, though.

As others mentioned, one of the real killers of this game was hardware failure. In the 80's, if you found a Dragon's Lair machine, it was probably out of order. To cope with the crushing trial and error problems these games introduced, later manifestations put all the moves onscreen as hints. Super Don Quixote would superimpose the correct action to take in every scene; you just had to follow its lead. It still was crushingly hard.

I was reminded of these games too when I heard the gushing reviews of Heavy Rain. Is there really a difference beyond the modern controls/graphics? Aren't they all essentially one long QTE?

I miss classical animation.

That last line is an awesome throwback.
I miss hearing The Logdriver's Waltz. I would SO get that as a laserdisc game. ^_^
Awesome article, fellow nostalgic Canuck.

You wonder whether the hyperbolic claims about the industry changing nature of Dragon's Lair were directed more at the hardware or the idea of melding game and film. If it were the hardware it's obvious that their claims were dead wrong, though the laserdisc's spiritual successor, cd-rom, was they lynchpin of change form the 16 to 32 bit eras.

But was the idea of melding game and film so off base? Sure that sinister euphemism for mindless button pressing we call quicktime events is considered the most vulgar form of "cinematic gaming", but the idea itself is played out in nearly every game released. Whether it's cut scenes, dynamic camera angles, voice acting, or the tension created by atmospheric music, Bluth's vision is re-iterated in everything from Heavy Rain to Super Mario Galaxy. We may disagree on what uses of "cinematic" techniques are successful in games and what aren't, or whether Dragon's Lair itself should even be honored as a trend-setter. But there's no arguing the fact that Bluth and company were one of the first - if not the first - to attempt to make that vision a reality.

KTPrymus:
You wonder whether the hyperbolic claims about the industry changing nature of Dragon's Lair were directed more at the hardware or the idea of melding game and film. If it were the hardware it's obvious that their claims were dead wrong, though the laserdisc's spiritual successor, cd-rom, was they lynchpin of change form the 16 to 32 bit eras.

But was the idea of melding game and film so off base? Sure that sinister euphemism for mindless button pressing we call quicktime events is considered the most vulgar form of "cinematic gaming", but the idea itself is played out in nearly every game released. Whether it's cut scenes, dynamic camera angles, voice acting, or the tension created by atmospheric music, Bluth's vision is re-iterated in everything from Heavy Rain to Super Mario Galaxy. We may disagree on what uses of "cinematic" techniques are successful in games and what aren't, or whether Dragon's Lair itself should even be honored as a trend-setter. But there's no arguing the fact that Bluth and company were one of the first - if not the first - to attempt to make that vision a reality.

I absolutely agree that Bluth's vision of gaming seems prescient today, especially when compared to Dyer's endless hawking of the laserdisc. Between the two, Bluth comes across as canny and intuitive, with a real love of craft. Dyer comes across as a space alien here to harvest our skin cells.

They also seem to be extolling the virtues of two very different games. In Dyer's case, it's formalistic and rote - how best to train machines to spit out engaging and engrossing experiences. Bluth, on the other hand, seems honestly interested in the process of creation, including how best to juggle the elements involved. They had an art team! An orchestra! Princess Daphne's gazungas! That's showbiz, baby!

That said, I think it's important to remember that Bluth's argument towards the melding of film and game wasn't generic, but rather fixed to a specific process. As a classical animator, he was ultimately interested in the ways in which animation would move forward and reach new audiences. From this perspective, the Dragon's Lair offered a film-through-game, rather than a game accentuated by the cinematic techniques you mentioned - cut scenes, voice acting, framing choices, the works. The "art" of the game is top down, rather than bottom up.

But to hear Dyer and Bluth square off on their very different visions of Dragon's Lair, I'm reminded of that classic causality dilemma: "Which game first, the artist or the egghead?"

Totally aside from the main article:
What video games are part of the Smithsonian collection now?

At one time I read that Virtua Fighter was the only game on permanent display and now it's Dragon's Lair + Pong + Pac-Man? What's going on here?

Dragon Lair is to quarters, what Kirby is to everything else, a vacuum. As for the animation it was good at the time but some of the sections were annoying, the only other game to give me this much of a headache is Battle-toads.

 

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