Chasing Dragons and Skirting Cinematics: A Celebration of Dragon’s Lair
Fully animated sequences in video games are standard practice in the video game industry as we know it. However, there was a time far back in video game history when this was not only considered an innovation, but the game that started it was almost entirely composed of fully animated sequences with some player interactivity. Games like these have had their ups and downs throughout the decades, with what we now know as quick-time events being a regular occurrence in action, adventure, and role-playing titles. Today we’re looking back at the original innovator, marking the original arrival of Dragon’s Lair in North American arcades.
In 1983, arcades had hit a wall in development and a slump in sales. Characters in arcades were primarily pixelated sprites required to traverse some sort of environment, but the hardware of the time had reached its limitations on the abilities to render increasingly appealing and advanced characters with an acceptable resolution and framerate. In short, the technology wasn’t keeping up with the demand. It was in desperation for something that could leap these boundaries that Advanced Microcomputer Systems (later RDI Video Systems) president Rick Dyer conceived a new idea: A game where the player would guide a central character through choreographed events, obstacles and enemies.
The original ideas consisted of static images and narration, which did little to market the game. It wasn’t until Dyer saw The Secret of NIMH for the first time that he realized what he needed to take his game to the next level --- an action-packed adventure guided by full animation. He needed Secret of NIMH’s director: Don Bluth. Working on top of the mechanics in place, Bluth’s studio provided all of the animation that would make Dragon’s Lair iconic. It not only gave life to a static concept. It actually made the game feel like an interactive movie. This was stressed even further in the game’s attract mode, which played out much like feature film preview.
In order to make all of these new ideas work, Dyer needed a format that would handle it. For this matter, he turned to laserdisc players. Laserdiscs had more expansive storage capacity than any standard video game hardware at the time and could store much more material. Unfortunately, it came with its own set of problems as well. Laserdisc players were made for playing movies seamlessly and Dragon’s Lair was, instead, a series of clips for which the disc reader would be forced to skip from place to place the proper portrayal of scenes, actions and death sequences. It put a strain on the players that ran in arcade cabinets and limited the life of the overall machine. Nonetheless, people lined up and dumped quarters into Dragon’s Lair by the bucket load.
Dragon’s Lair’s story is your standard damsel in distress fairy tale narrative. Players take control of Dirk the Daring on a quest to infiltrate a castle, traverse its treacherous traps and inhabitants, defeat the dragon that lays within and rescue Princess Daphne. Despite the somewhat generic beginnings, the journey to Daphne has Dirk dodging and slashing through a multitude of traps, beasts and locale. From underwater tunnels of snakes and deadly haunted crypts to winding tunnels and the dragon’s treasure hoard where Daphne lay, Dirk depends upon the player to guide his reflexes to the right path. Of course this game was unforgiving as sin. If you didn’t have the reaction times to keep up or perhaps the memory, you would be treated to any number of the vast animations featuring Dirk getting bumped off. It made for an intense world backed by trained skill and memory.
The gameplay elements of Dragon’s Lair haven’t aged all that well. The game is practically one big quick-time event. Nonetheless, it stands the test of time for elements that outweigh its gameplay. It’s another classic Don Bluth creation full of expressive characters, creatures and worlds and was such a hit back in 1983 that it almost single-handedly pulled the arcade business out of a slump in sales. We see a lot of what Dragon’s Lair offered compounded with other elements in game development now, but for what it was in terms of design and innovation, Dragon’s Lair has a certain charm that shines brightly from its place in gaming history.