Back in 1983, Cinematronics hit on a gold mine when they combined cutting edge laserdisc technology, Don Bluth’s expert animation, and video games. The result was Dragon’s Lair, a hit arcade game that rivaled the likes of Donkey Kong and Space Invaders. The technology was state of the art at the time, and gamers were blown away by the crisp visuals and fluid animation of the pre-recorded scenes. Dragon’s Lair machines had a knack for breaking down, because of the relative fragility of the laserdisc tech and the fact that they were played so much. Today a thriving cult following still exists for the game, and original arcade cabinets are prized as rare treasures of gaming lore.
The original is revered as a classic, with a number of spin-offs and sequels following, so it made sense for Digital Leisure to re-release the first game for PC. This is the first high-def, arcade faithful DVD transfer of the game. There’s just one problem: the technology that made this game so revolutionary in the 80’s has been surpassed at an exponential rate. What made Dragon’s Lair so appealing and special is ordinary these days. And so, we run into a few difficulties.
For those unfamiliar with how the game plays, let me draw some more recent parallels. The battles in Shenmue, or the action cutscenes in Resident Evil 4 are about the most accurate analogy. The player does not directly control Dirk, the hero of Dragon’s Lair, but makes split-second decisions on what he should do next. Like pressing “L and R” in RE4 to make Leon dodge a knife, players must similarly press up, down, left, right or space to make Dirk move in the right direction or use his sword. Unlike RE4 or Shenmue, however, Dragon’s Lair has no intervening gameplay—it is a continuous sequence of context-sensitive cutscenes. This fact alone tailors the game to a very specific taste.
Although there are a few options on how the game plays (difficulty, arcade mode), it pans out much like the arcade version, which can be good or bad depending on what you like. Arcade games are notoriously brutal in order to keep the quarters coming, and this port of Dragon’s Lair is no exception. You have only a second or two to make the right move, and the timing must be precise. If the current scene is a failure, Dirk will perish and be respawned if he has any lives left. However, the same scene does not play again—the game moves on to a completely new scene, so you’re dropped into a new decision with only seconds to make it. Eventually all the scenes replay until you’ve beaten them all, but I would’ve preferred to have them play in a set sequence, not in random order, so that I could focus on one problem until I figured it out. Although this is how the game played in early 80’s arcades, this trial-and-error is exceptionally frustrating for the uninitiated and could leave newcomers cold.
There is also the issue of direction within the scenes. Most of the time, there is little to clue you in on what move to make. This vagueness leads to frantic button mashing and lost lives. While RE4 shows what button combos to press to help Leon avoid fatal danger, Dragon’s Lair players are lucky to get a flashing door or enemy an instant before Dirk dies. Sometimes these telltale flashes never occur, and without clear indication of danger, you are basically left to guess. The chaotic nature of the scenes doesn’t help either. Maybe Dirk will look at a threat or pause for a second, but with so much going on in each scene, it’s difficult to distinguish what is important and what isn’t.
While the gameplay may be rather limited and archaic, the graphics are just as pretty as they were over twenty years ago. The high-def transfer really shows up when the visuals are pumped up to their highest level, and the animation is still impressive. After all, one of the animation industry’s leading names created all of the scenes in the game. Still, the distinctly Disney look is an acquired taste. The game’s audio presentation doesn’t fare as well as the visual aspect. The voice acting is minimal, the music is generic and most of the sound cuts back and forth between scenes, for a somewhat choppy audio experience.
In the extras department, Dragon’s Lair HD is rather slim. There is the option to transfer all of the movies to your hard drive, but at highest resolution it takes a rather hefty 7.8 GB. There are setting for faster performance at lower fidelity, and a link to a help website. I would have preferred a help document with the disk; the website could go under at any time.
Probably the best bonus is to watch the game from start to finish, with the option to include Dirk’s comical death scenes. In my opinion this is the best part of the package, as Dragon’s Lair is more of an interactive movie than a game. I would’ve liked some developer interviews or commentary from Don Bluth—I mean, what else is he doing these days?
When you get right down to it Dragon’s Lair HD is a basic port of a true classic, made less entertaining because of its dated nature and a lack of additional material. Old school players of the arcade version will get a nostalgia trip and the HD transfer is sure to warm the hearts of some veteran gamers, but the newer generation will just get frustrated. A clue system would have helped a lot, giving quick directions on what to do next; the cutscenes in RE4 were some of the most thrilling parts of that game, and owe a lot to ancestors like Dragon’s Lair, but they were more satisfying because there was less guesswork. As it stands this port is a novel idea that looks antiquated compared to its successors. Without the depth, control or production value of modern games, Dragon’s Lair is a technical marvel of its day that hasn’t aged very well.