Since it was released 30 years ago, Dragon's Lair has gone on to achieve legendary status as of the most remarkable and influential coin-operated machines to ever light up an arcade. It has also been ported over to just about every system out there, including an iOS port back in 2009. For its 30th Anniversary, Dragon's Lair has found its way into the App Store again with an HD upgrade for the latest iPhones. And throughout all of the different versions, one thing has remained unchanged -- the game itself.
Okay, well that's not technically 100% accurate... there have been 2D versions released among the many ports. But the point is that Dragon's Lair made a huge impact when it was released and the core experience has remained the more or less the same. There's good reason for that too. I know this is some of the nostalgia talking here, but imagine seeing it in action in 1983. Back then, gamers were used to graphics that never got more complicated than a few pixels mushed together in different combinations.
In comparison, Don Bluth's gorgeous animation playing out on the screen must have been like taking the red pill and unplugging from the Matrix. The experience wasn't just watching a cartoon, it was controlling one! To many '80s kids, the fact that it was hand drawn animation didn't even register. It was as if video game graphics suddenly evolved at light speed overnight. Whoa indeed.
Even all these years later, on a certain level, it's still impressive to interact with the animations and help guide Dirk the Daring through that dangerous castle to the foxy Princess Daphne. But in order to cash in with that babe, you and Dirk have to die. A lot. There's almost as many different ways to die as the amount of times you will have to kick the bucket during the trial and error process that is playing Dragon's Lair. In fact, Dirk's deaths are one of the best parts of this version of the game. True to form for Don Bluth, the death animations somehow manage to be both hilarious and oddly disturbing.
While it would be the last thing you'd want to happen while playing the arcade game (especially considering this was a two quarter game), I found myself going out of my way to see how many different ways I could get 'ol Dirk to bite it in order to appreciate the animation. That is where the toughest part of judging Dragon's Lair comes into play. Unlike the animation, the one thing that's not quite so impressive? Again -- the game itself.
If you're old enough to remember it when it was out, it's hard to reconcile those early memories with what the experience is like playing it now. While there's no question that the game carries some serious weight (it's got a permanent spot in the Smithsonian alongside Pac Man and Pong), it's pretty clear that some of that weight is baggage.
By that, I mean the actual game play, which boils down to nothing more than an extended session of d-pad dodging and twitch reactions. You have four directions to go and an attack button that you must hit at the right moments, or else Dirk will suffer one of the many deaths that await him.
The timing doesn't take long to pick up and if you stick with it, the whole game should be playable in under an hour. It's kind of a shame that through the many variations that have been released, there hasn't been much in the way of tweaks or add-ons. The same can be said for the iOS versions as well. If anyone played the Dragon's Lair that came out a few years ago, there's really no reason to get the anniversary addition, as it's still same old experience.
Even the controls, which have always been the weakest point of Dragon's Lair, haven't been touched up at all. It would have been nice if there was an effort to try and smooth out some of the rough edges, making the responsiveness of the controls match up better with the animations. But that's always been an issue with Dragon's Lair, even back in the early arcade days.
Which is why I can't knock it too much for the game play not holding up. It was never really there to begin with. While I am a little puzzled that there wasn't more to this 30th Anniversary Edition, I can say without reservation that anyone looking for a good lesson in video game history should not hesitate to check out this old classic. For only five bucks, it's a heck of a lot less than you'd have to spend in the arcade in order to play this through to the end.