Looking back at: Dragon’s Lair [arcade]

The 1980’s were in many ways a very technology-driven decade, and in both fact and fiction, computers were making their presence known, from video computer game systems, computer animation and even music videos. And whilst Pac-mania is a well-remembered slice of ’80s popular culture, and film enthusiasts can cite Tron as a hallmark computer-animated release of the decade, arguably none of these were as innovative as Dragon’s Lair; a laserdisc arcade machine released in 1983.

Dragon's Lair animation cel - in this way, the production of the games graphics differed from games of the time, but not animated film.
Dragon’s Lair animation cel – in this way, the production of the games graphics differed from games of the time, but not animated film.

The game itself

To categorise Dragon’s Lair, at the time, was a hard task. Games of the era fell broadly into categories of action-adventure, shooting and simulation (A broad term encompassing sports, racing and flight amongst other permutations of ‘simulation’) and Dragon’s Lair, by means of comparison, could not sit comfortably even in the closest definition, action-adventure. However, modern times have retroactively defined the game as an “action interactive movie”. Of course, it is also opined by many that as a game it simply wasn’t as satisfying an experience as its more interactive contemporaries, but this does not change the game’s impact.

dlair2 It was innovative

A visual comparison of Dragon’s Lair to other games released for public consumption in the arcade gaming climate of 1983 simply defied belief. Computer hardware of the time was either rudimentary or cheap, or a combination of the two. In order for arcade operators to be able to afford the game cabinets, the graphic and sound capabilities of the machines had to be considerably lower than the top specification available at the time; as such visuals were of a very low resolution with very limited colour palettes (Usually limited to a combination of additive primary and secondary colours) and sounds were basic, arguably uncomfortable to listen to, being comprised of synthesized square waves and white noise; often used creatively in conjunction to create effects such as laser fire. Neither of these applied to Dragon’s Lair, which had full-motion video for visuals and an accompanying soundtrack, composed not with the usual ‘beeps and boops’, but keyboards.

“Few [coin-operated arcade machines] manage to stop arcade-goers in their tracks, forcing them to do a double-take in order to assure themselves that what they’d seen was actually real. In 1983, [Dragon’s Lair] did exactly that.”

How Dragon's Lair appears during game; note the lack of HUD or other play information. Players had only the occasional flashing scenery object as a prompt to action.
How Dragon’s Lair appears during game; note the lack of HUD or other play information. Players had only the occasional flashing scenery object as a prompt to action.

Unfortunately, since the game never achieved the same recognition as ’80s classics like Donkey Kong, one can quite safely assume that it wasn’t so well-received, despite it’s initial reception; The game’s enormous contrast with other arcade games of the time created a sensation when it appeared, and was reportedly played so heavily that many machines often broke due to the strain of overuse.

It was well-produced

Rick Dyer, who produced the game, decided upon the look of Dragon’s Lair very early into its development;

“I went to see ‘The Secret of Nimh’ and I pointed to the screen, saying ‘That’s who I want to animate Dragon’s Lair’”

And so Don Bluth and his production team were employed to bring the idea of an interactive laserdisc cartoon to realisation. During the development, it was established that the scenarios of the game couldn’t be developed properly from a game-maker’s point of view, being animated in the manner of a feature cartoon, and of course, the inevitable power struggle that would ensue when employing a veteran Disney animator, no less;

As Bluth recalls, “Rick was trying to write the story and I was saying ‘Let’s go to a different place.’ He bought the project to us, but he’s not going to tell us how to animate it… He had done some little sketches and drawing which I looked at. And by my standard, I said, ‘No Way’”

In fact, Bluth would eventually have much sway with the project, dictating much of the structure and gameplay; The original project brought to him by Dyer and Cinematronics was a fairly simple concept with simple graphics. Don, though, opted to restructure the game. This would ultimately mean that the game would go over it’s million dollar budget, even forcing the animators to work many unpaid hours in order to get the game finished and ready for shipping.

Animation storyboards
Animation storyboards

It wasn’t actually very good

The game is the first arcade system with filmed, animated action, but it is barely interactive. The game has not had a very long-lasting legacy in and of itself, possibly due to this lack of interaction; despite the splinter-legacy that is the ‘Quick Time Event’ subsystem, named after its inclusion in Shenmue. Given the lack of sophisticated technology at the time, the game had to be a stream of video with certain ‘threat moments’ where the player had to make a decision, either with the joystick controller or with the ‘sword’ button. Upon success the next scene is played, but failure results in a different animation – of the protagonist’s demise. Such gameplay lacked the scope for exploration and experimentation other games offered, and as such it is not as well-remembered as its contemporaries – the original Mario Bros. was released for arcade consumption in the same year, and games of that franchise continue to be developed some decades after its release.

Character model sheet for 'Dirk the Daring'
Character model sheet for ‘Dirk the Daring’

Presentation

Since video computer games are still not as well known as other entertainment media, describing the difference between Dragon’s Lair and other games of the same era is very difficult. Instead of attempting to describe the difference between sprites and raster graphics when compared with streaming full-motion video, a comparison follows of Dragon’s Lair to two other titles released in the arcades of 1983; Hunchback – a game with a very similar fantasy setting- and Crystal Castles – a game which, like Dragon’s Lair, attempted to distance itself from the competition with ‘advanced’ graphics.

These were released to arcades in the same year, 1983. The difference is tremendous, and this can be very easily viewed when footage from all titles are played in comparison.

Summary

Dragon’s Lair, although not as well-remembered as it could have been, remains a landmark title in terms of the visual leap between itself and it’s contemporaries. Although time would be too kind to the ‘game’, it was a work of true innovation nonetheless.

Ah, Singe. what a QT(E).
Ah, Singe. what a QT(E).

Bibliography

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon%27s_lair [web]
EDGE presents RETRO ‘The Making of…’ special, Future Publishing
http://www.cataroo.com/DBlair1.html [web]
http://www.thedoteaters.com/ [web]
http://www.dragons-lair-project.com/games/materials/artwork/dl.asp [web]

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