In 1983, Dragon's Lair promised a glimpse of the future. With its stunning animation and movie-quality productions, this laserdisc game was a sight to behold. But as impressive as the presentation was, all it took was a single play for gamers to realize how shallow the experience was. There's no way that the simple gameplay of Dragon's Lair represents the future, right?
Fast forward three decades and this overpriced arcade game is influencing some of this industry's biggest titles, from God of War to The Walking Dead to Heavy Rain. I guess Don Bluth had the last laugh after all.
Dragon's Lair's enduring success didn't happen by accident, it has taken a lot of effort to keep the franchise relevant. From the moment game consoles adopted an optical disc format, there was somebody there pushing Dragon's Lair. If you owned a Philips CD-i, 3DO, Sega CD or Jaguar CD then you had access to this novelty. These days the game is on just about everything in your house, including your DVD player, cell phone, handheld game systems and now, thanks to Digital Leisure Inc., on the Xbox Live Arcade. These days you'll have an easier time finding a copy of Dragon's Lair than Tetris.
For those who have somehow missed the dozens of releases over the years, Dragon's Lair tells the story of Dirk the Daring. Dirk is a clumsy knight on an adventure to save the beautiful (and very annoying) Daphne from a large dragon. But before Dirk can save the day, he'll need to fight off giant snakes, slay magical wizards, survive deadly pits and fly on a mechanical horse. Every second of the game is animated by Don Bluth, the man behind An American Tail, The Secret of NIMH and other children's movies.
Unfortunately you don't have direct control over Dirk. Instead of moving a character around the screen like most games, Dragon's Lair has you watch an animated movie and interact with it in the most limited way possible. From time to time the game will prompt you to push the D-pad in a specific direction or hit the attack button. If you hit the corresponding button in time you'll move deeper into the dragon's castle, but don't take too long or you'll be treated to one of the many death animations.
These days we call this game mechanic a "quick time event," a Simon Says system where you repeat everything it tells you. Back in 1983 I didn't know what to call it, but I knew that I was giving up deep gameplay for flashy graphics. Playing the game three decades later only highlights how limiting this style of game is. It's the kind of thing you can beat in less than a half hour and never want to play again. Even with the extra bells and whistles, Dragon's Lair only gets worse with each play through.
In theory the button presses are supposed to correspond with the action on screen. That is, you'll be told to push up when you need to jump or right when you need to jump out of the way of a boulder. Unfortunately, the game doesn't always play by the rules. There are more than a few questionable buttons presses, and it's next to impossible to know what the game is asking without the guide on. Even with the game telling you what button to press, you only have a split second to act. It's a stressful experience where you spend the entire game looking for arrow prompts.
The real crime isn't that the interaction is reduced to nothing more than timed button presses, but rather that the player never gets a chance to enjoy the stunning artwork in front of them. You're so busy paying attention to the guide prompt that some of the best moments just buzz right by without a notice. This is one of the few times where it's better to be person watching somebody else play.
The guide prompts offer their own unique set of frustrating problems. For one thing, the prompts don't stand out from the background. I lost far too many lives not knowing what button to press because the arrow blended in with the artwork. The timing is also screwy, with some prompts lasting longer than others. It doesn't help that the limited gameplay makes it hard to connect with any of the action on screen. There came a point where I was only playing to see it through, not because I was having fun.
The big gimmick for this Xbox Live Arcade port is the Kinect support. Here you'll jump from side to side, forwards and backwards in an attempt to interact with the action. This is goofy for a few seconds, but the Kinect inconsistencies and nonsensical actions get old quickly. Dragon's Lair was simply not designed for this style of motion control. Thankfully you aren't forced to use Kinect.
Once you've completed Dirk's daring mission, there really isn't a whole lot left to do. Players are giving a couple difficulty settings and a choice between the original arcade version or console rules. Sadly, these modes don't dramatically change the game, so you're stuck playing the same boring game once again. The achievement points do their best to offer incentive for multiple play-throughs, but there's no way I'm going to go through the entire game with the guide prompts turned off.
Dragon's Lair is an important game that everybody should play at least once; however that doesn't mean you should buy this Xbox Live Arcade release. Sure it looks pretty, but it won't take long until you realize that this thirty year old arcade game is about as interactive as a DVD menu. And just like the good old arcade days, you're better off watching somebody else play Dragon's Lair.