Let Sleeping Dragons Lie
Developer Digital Leisure has dug deep into the retro barrel to roll out Cinematronics classic arcade hit, Dragon’s Lair, and once again port it to a home console. The game, made famous by its beautiful movie-quality animation and its extremely limited gameplay, is available for the first time to Xbox 360 owners via Xbox Live. Responding to on-screen prompts with well-timed button presses, players take on the role of Dirk the Daring, valiant yet reluctant savior and knight in shining armor, to rescue the beautiful Princess Daphne from the clutching talons of the vile dragon Singe, who resides deep in the bowels of the evil wizard Mordroc’s castle.
The game plays essentially like an episode of an animated ’80s children’s cartoon show, playing out entirely in cartoon cinematics that transition seamlessly from one to the next (in fact, the game includes the option to simply watch the animation as one uninterrupted game-length video). Unfortunately, while the simple button-press gameplay coupled with the featured animation worked well in arcades to suck in audiences and suck up pocket change and tokens by the bucketful, as an experience the title really shows its age; twenty-first century home consoles were not what this game was built for, relying far too much on twitch button presses and the visual glamour it would have had as an arcade cabinet standing next to the likes of Pole Position II, Atari’s Star Wars, and Mario Bros. in 1983. As a token-free console game, it is like trying to fit a suspiciously poo-shaped peg into a square-shaped hole.
Dragon’s Lair has a certain appeal as an extremely storied game, and carries on its back a piece of history of this business. The year of its release saw the beginning of the video games slump of the ’80s, and it stands out all the more as a highlight of this period of decline. It also stood head and shoulders above the competition due to its unprecedented approach to visuals (Cinematronics employed Don Bluth’s animation studio to provide the game’s perpetually-in-motion animation footage). It is currently one of only three games on display in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., keeping excellent company with the likes of Pac-Man and Pong.
The game relies entirely on entering movement commands during the animated clips, prompting Dirk to jump in a specific direction or perform an action such as swinging his sword or grabbing a rope. Mordroc’s castle is full of pitfalls and traps, and Dirk will unwittingly trigger each and every one of them on his quest. Arrows shoot out of walls, ceilings crumble, giant spiders descend on you, suction-cupped tentacles slither towards you, and general mayhem and malaise are only a few seconds away at every turn. Perform the correct button press quickly enough and Dirk will dip and dodge his way past the danger. Respond too slowly, and the game will switch to a custom death animation for Dirk, with a unique clip for each area of the game.
These clips are often humorous, as Dirk meets his end at the hands of various weapons and monsters as much as possible, which would have prompted paying additional coins to keep the adventure going in the game’s arcade heyday. However, as a modern gameplay mechanic, the often unrealistically fast response time required to clear each area leads to an abundance of cheap deaths, and forces you to have to memorize the order of required inputs to proceed to the next scene way too frequently.
The scenes themselves all operate independent of each other, and in fact occur in a random order throughout the game. A second playthrough of the game revealed that the rooms and chambers within its walls came at me in a completely different order, and many later stages are simply mirror-reverse images of previous scenes, artificially lengthening the game (which is still embarrassingly short – my first full playthrough, including deaths and continues, lasted an earth-shattering 25 minutes or so!). The whole experience is bookended by the opening scene, in which Dirk crosses the moat and enters the castle, and the final battle with Singe – winner gets the girl!
Do the Wyrm
The Xbox 360 edition of Dragon’s Lair does include a few extras, such as the game’s original advert; an option to watch the animated footage spliced together, mimicking a pantomime version of an episode of your favorite children’s adventure cartoon; and Kinect compatibility, letting you step into the iron-soled boots of Dirk the Daring himself. There are also various difficulty settings available, letting you customize your game from arcade true-death challenge to a forgiving, never-die beginner’s mode, and everything in between.
As for the Kinect integration, I wish I could offer up a bit more enthusiasm on being able to bodily control a game almost 30 years old, but the peripheral’s functionality is, predictably, restricted to making basic gestures and jumps, corresponding to on-screen prompts. No degree in rocket science required here: jump right for a right jump, swing your arm up and down for a sword swipe, etc. The same “repeat and memorize” formula applies, with the caveat that it is simpler to press a button than to jump your whole body to the side. Specific sections that require lightning-fast reaction or make you perform multiple movements in quick succession will be a physical challenge even after memorizing the proper sequence, as you sometimes simply cannot make your muscles work to overcome your body’s state of rest fast enough to please the game. Even getting off the couch and bodily participating in the game brings very little joy or satisfaction.
The Final Verdict
At this point in time, Dragon’s Lair really is better suited at being a historical sidenote rather than a full-fledged gaming experience. While the animation has held up well and is still enjoyable, there is simply no gaming to be had here. I liken this title to navigating through a prolonged series of animated Disney DVD menus; ultimately, it doesn’t so much matter what happens to the protagonist, you’ll just want the experience to end! I could understand collectors of gaming memorabilia working up a lather for Dragon’s Lair, if only we didn’t already have sufficiently numerous home console ports of all sizes and colors of the game. Not to mention, I can well imagine that any interested collector buffs have long since acquired an arcade cabinet version of the game.
As it stands, I definitely think that Dragon’s Lair is a game that everyone remotely interested in gaming should know and be educated about – especially its significance for the rest of the industry – and no one should still be looking to play. This is what we have history books for, people!