Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dragon's Lair (1983)

In 1983, two of my great loves came together--Disney animation and video games. Now I know that Dragon's Lair (1983), the first laserdisc videogame, was created by Don Bluth, not Disney, but Bluth was an ex-Disney animator (he jumped ship to form his own studio in the late 70s) and the style and quality of the animation in Dragon's Lair was certainly of the same caliber as any Disney feature from that era.

Dragon's Lair was a huge deal when it hit arcades. It was the first video game to require 50 cents (not the usual quarter) per play, (which spawned instant grumbling from my Dad).

It was also the first video game to commonly have a second monitor installed on the top of the cabinet so people in line (often dozens deep) could watch what was going on.

There's a second monitor on the top of this machine. Trust me.

When Dragon's Lair first arrived, many people felt this was the first glimpse into the future of video games. Of course, we now know that, thanks to the increased sophistication of standard computer-generated graphics, the whole laserdisc revolution was quickly reduced to a short-term fad.

What exactly was a laserdisc video game? It was a very simple interactive movie. You are basically watching a fully animated cartoon unspooling off a laserdisc (kids, just think of it as DVD's fat older brother).

Valiant knight Dirk the Daring must rescue the Princess Daphne by exploring a spooky old castle full of booby traps, trap-doors, giant snakes, bats, and various other monsters and phantoms, before a final showdown in the lair of Singe the dragon.

You are required to trigger the correct control (up, down, left, right, or sword-button) at certain times to keep the show rolling.

You've got a bat in your face.

Hit the wrong button at the wrong time, and the laserdisc advances to a chapter showing your hero getting squished, smashed, drowned, electrocuted, or killed in some other manner appropriate to the particular scene where you messed up.

He should have pressed the button.

As you can imagine, your interaction with the virtual environment was extremely limited, and any control you thought you had over Dirk the Daring was little more than an illusion.

You are basically participating in a sophisticated game of Simon Says. So why was Dragon's Lair such a huge arcade phenomenon? Simple. Here's an example of the state of arcade game graphics circa 1983:

And here's a comparable piece of action as it appears in Dragon's Lair:

Gamers were simply dazzled by the beautiful imagery and the concept of controlling a character in a film, even if the execution fell well short.

While the popularity of laserdisc games fizzled within a few years, the timed button-keypress play-mechanic can still be found today in the modern guitar/rhythm/dance games or in the minigames (combat combinations, lock-picking, etc.) that are found within traditional games.

Of course, with Dragon's Lair, nobody is telling you what button to press or when. You just have to guess using whatever visual clues are on screen, combined with lots of trial and error.


Dragon's Lair was popular enough to spawn spin-off merchandising, including trading cards and stickers. The stickers ranged from the motivational... the (ahem) hilarious... the topical (remember, it was 1983. I believe there was a third sticker captioned "Billy Jean" but I couldn't find it).

The back of the stickers features strategy tips.

The trading cards featured a screenshot from the game, partially obscured by a maze. Using the edge of a magic sword (or if you don't have one handy, an enchanted penny or nickel will do), gently scrape off the silver coating, kind of like a lottery card. Try to make your way from one end of the card to the other without uncovering more than 8 skulls and you, uh, "win".


Anonymous said...

Ok, seriously coolest post EVAR!!!! I stumbled upon you somehow because I googled disney and halloween and the rest is history. Love your blog and love the blogs you follow and *breath breath* Ok. I'm done. :)

Brother Bill said...

Thanks for the kind words, stmonicapray4us!

Belle Dee said...

I was obsessed with this game when I was a kid. I used to play it when I had money but I was never good enough to finish the game. ONE time I got to see an older kid rescue Daphne and finish the game. So awesome. One of the highlights of my young life.

saba qazi said...

Ok, seriously coolest post EVAR!!!! I stumbled upon you somehow because I googled disney and halloween and the rest is history. Love your blog and love the blogs you follow and *breath breath* Ok. I'm done. :)
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