It’s amazing to think that, in the midst of all the sprites, Mario hiding away in Donkey Kong and machines that only cost 10p each to play was a game that was – graphically – way ahead of its time. It’s name? Dragon’s Lair. And using laserdisc technology Don Bluth and company created one of the most memorable computer games of all time
The year was 1983, Nu-romantics and punks fought for dominance on the dance floors and kids in playgrounds everywhere were looking forward to a film they had heard of only in rumours and here-say called Ghostbusters. And when not pretending to be either Michael Knight or BA from The A-Team, kids were asking parents everywhere to buy them a ZX Spectrum for Christmas. All was fun in the world. Apart from, er, mass unemployment, strikes and politics. But hey! I was a kid so it didn’t affect me. These were good days
What did effect me however was going on holiday to Cornwall that year with my parents and going to an arcade and standing in awe in front of a arcade cabinet that seemed to be showing a cartoon, yup a real life cartoon….in a computer game.
The cartoon of course was Dragon’s Lair, a game developed Rick Dyer at AMS (which later became RDI Video Systems) who, with the help of Disney animator Don Bluth created something akin to a quantum leap in the visuals of computer games. And quite franky, it blew my mind the first time I saw it.
Instead of developing games along the lines of Atari, Sega or Nintendo, the AMS team tackled the realatively new discipline of computer gaming as an animated movie. The developers used the expertise of Bluth to go down the more traditionals roots of animation development – with storyboards and cell frame animaton – to put together the entire script of Dragon’s Lair, before any of the game itself was developed. Concepts and studies of all the characters were done, with adventurer Dirk the Daring going through numerous designs (with his over the top facial expressions being a key factor to the appeal) and his fiance Princess Daphne’s sensual appearance was based on various Playboy models.
The rest of the characters also went through the traditional animation development process so minor characters such as the spiders and undead soliders to the main ‘big-boss’, the evil dragon Singe, were designed to be both scary yet fun and to appeal to kids (as after the game, cartoons and merchadise were an avenue that AMS wanted to exploit). So once the character, scenarios and setting were deveoped, the game’s main innovation came to the fore as the company used the recently developed Laserdisc technology to drive the game.
This innovative use of technology was a staggering jump from other arcade games, that used sprites or vector graphics to drive the player through game levels. And to see a Dragon’s Lair cabinet sitting side by side with Pac-Man, Galaxians and Space Invaders seemed very strange at the time. Having no knowledge of the technology driving the machine it was perplexing for me seeing the game for the first time, leaving me wondering why all computer games couldn’t look like this.
This of course was the big issue, as while Dragon’s Lair looked superb, the fact that it was so ahead of its time contributed to making the the game pretty much unplayable. Resorting to only a push of the joystick one way or the occasional push of the ‘fire’ button, the game itself was nothing more than a player going through a set of pre-programmed actions to activate a command that would in turn move the laserdisc to the next section to reveal the next section of cartoon action. The technology was that good, it simply couldn’t handle any kind of game to go with it.
With no real gameplay interaction or even skill involved ,the game had virtually no replay value once the proper sequence of button or joystick moves was known, essentially making the entire thing an experiment in timing and memory. It was more akin to you pumping in cash to a machine to watch a very nice cartoon.
Dragon’s Lair was, for all its shortcomings, a big success and sold 16,000 units globally. It created a brief demand for laserdisc games, which included numerous sequels as well the companion game Space Ace, which came on another laserdisc. That meant that the arcade could take out the Dragon’s Lair disc, replace it with Space Ace and effectivly rig up their existing Dragon’s Lair cabinet to play Space Ace instead.
Althought laserdiscs were an expensive, yet impressive fad, the legend of Dragon’s Lair still has a place in computer game history as it showed gamers and developers alike what could be done with the medium. And with the game being pumped out on pretty much every format under the sun since, it’s also the game that simply won’t die. So happy birthday, Dragon’s Lair, which officially turns 25 in June.
That said, we never want to play you again ever in our lives. Ever.