Best Games - Dragon’s Lair
What if one of the best games is actually a very bad game. I mean that’s nonsense right? It can’t be both one of the best games and be bad right? It absolutely can if that game is Dragon’s Lair.
Dragon’s Lair was released into arcades in 1983 and it’s safe to say that no one had ever seen anything like it. Every other arcade game at the time featured screens filled with blocky pixelated graphics or sharp but simple vector graphics. Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and Mario Bros. were bright and colorful. They were accompanied by memorable bits of music and catchy sound effects. Not one of them looked and sounded like Dragon’s Lair. How could they. Dragon’s Lair was a fully voiced, orchestrated, and animated production created by Don Bluth’s studio. Former Disney animators had worked on this game. All of the movement and life that went into an animated feature film was on display in this stand up arcade machine. No video game had ever looked and sounded like Dragon’s Lair.
It was the most popular game of it’s time, and one of the most popular games of all time. There are three arcade games on permanent display in the Smithsonian and Dragon’s Lair is one of them. It also absolutely sucks.
The technological beating heart of the Dragon’s Lair arcade cabinet was a laserdisc video player. Laserdiscs weren’t a new technology in 1983. The format was created more than a decade earlier and enjoyed a limited commercial release during the late 1970’s. To oversimplify it, a Laserdisc is like a video record that is read with a laser rather than a physical needle. Because the video is stored on a disc, the laser can move to a new track very quickly and play back a video clip in a blink. Someone at some point noted this fact and wondered if it would be fast enough to react to a person’s inputs, like a video game.
It sort of almost works too.
When you play Dragon’s Lair it starts playing a video clip of a gangly looking knight walking across a drawbridge. You are told during the attract animation that this is Dirk the Daring and you are leading him in his quest through a wizard’s castle to save Princess Daphne from an evil dragon. Pretty standard fare.
In an instant, part of the drawbridge collapses and Dirk almost plunges into the monster infested water below. In that sliver of a moment you are able to select from one of five different inputs. Up, down, left, right, or sword. If you do nothing you will be pulled down by the monster. If you attempt to move in any direction you will be pulled down by the monster. If you use the sword and then push up on the joystick you will succeed and Dirk will move on to the next scene. There is no nuance, zero room for error. You enter the correct inputs within the time window available or you watch Dirk succumb to one of many grisly ends.
What you are really doing when you enter inputs into a Dragon’s Lair cabinet is selecting what video clip will play next. Most inputs are accompanied by a slight pause in the video while the Laserdisc player’s read head is seeking for the appropriate clip. Since the outcomes of each scene are predetermined and had been hand animated, painted, and transferred to that Laserdisc months earlier, all of the clips are laid out in such a way to minimize those seek times. It is hard to imagine that anyone was ever convinced that they were actually in control of Dirk’s movements. You were absolutely at the helm of the world’s quickest (at the time) fast forward and rewind buttons.
The animation on display is absolutely top quality, but as a game experience Dragon’s Lair is terrible. There is only a tenuous connection between what you are doing with the controls and what happens on screen. The game often requires inputs that would be impossible to decipher in a time window that borders on prescience. While some of the scenes provide flashing hints toward your next action the only real way through a lot of the scenes is by trial and error. When you break it down there really isn’t much ‘game’ to this game. No decisions to make, no puzzles to solve, no emergent behaviors to react to. Nothing gamelike at all. You tap out the predetermined inputs to watch a video.
Dragon’s Lair did something to video games. Something important. Dragon’s Lair was the push. Every game released through the rest of the 80s and 90s would be compared to Dragon’s Lair.
That game is great, but it doesn’t look like Dragon’s Lair.
That game is great, but it doesn’t sound like Dragon’s Lair.
That game is great, but the animation isn’t as good as Dragon’s Lair.
This was the game that set the impossible standard. A standard that even it didn’t live up to. The standard that would drive game creators to try to make a game that looked as good as Dragon’s Lair but actually played as well as you hoped it would when you stepped up to the cabinet.
We have hit that point now. Many times. Games with fluid, responsive animation that looks and plays beautifully. Fully voiced and orchestrated games that sound at least as good as their non-interactive film counterparts. Games with life and energy and dazzling visual effects. Games that make good on the promise that Dragon’s Lair offered.
So why is Dragon’s Lair one of the best games? It set the standard in presentation for decades and influenced countless creators. It was a bar to leap over, a record to break. Had it been a film or a saturday morning cartoon, game creators would have paid little to no attention to it. But it wasn’t. It was a game. And a challenge. People who create, enjoy nothing more than a challenge. From the moment that the first Dragon’s Lair cabinet was powered in an arcade it was inevitable that another game would eventually be made that would look as good or better and would play as well as you wished Dragon’s Lair did. It was a goal too tempting. A challenge too worth undertaking.
Dragon’s Lair is a terrible game, but it is absolutely one of the best games.