The year is 1983. Arcades were filled with video games considered archaic by today’s standards; Mario Bros. (the original), Spy Hunter, Track and Field, Cloak & Dagger and Food Fight – just to name a few. The home video game market was collapsing and the NES had just hit Japan, but wouldn’t hit our shores for another two years. Theaters were playing movies like Risky Business, Scarface and The Dead Zone. Michael Jackson was still black and groups like Eurythmics, Duran Duran and Prince topped the music charts. Chicago elected the first black mayor, Sally Ride was the first woman in outer space and a suicide bomb attack in Beirut killed 241 Marines.
Are you firmly dialed back into the ’80s now? Good – because video games like Dragon’s Lair and its ilk are “period pieces” – and they require a proper mindset to be enjoyed fully.
Dragon’s Lair appeared in the arcades in summer of 1983 to a technology hungry audience that simply went rabid for the cinema-quality animation and full audio soundtrack which immediately separated it from the rest of the games. Within a year, the game had made the developers over $30 million. The game spawned dozens of laserdisc based games (some similar to Dragon’s Lair, some featuring computer graphics overlayed on real video) from companies like Stern and Sega. Some of them were mildly successful, but none of them reached the status that Dragon’s Lair did.
One of only three games to be featured in the Smithsonian Institute (along with Pong and Pac-Man), the legacy of Dragon’s Lair is story unto itself.
Dragon’s Lair pioneered the concept of Quick Time Events (QTE) later brought back to gamers in titles such as Shenmue, God of War and Resident Evil. Instead of directly controlling your on screen persona, you flick the stick or press the button during a sequence of events to successfully carry the game forward. Failing to make the right sequence of moves results in tragedy – usually the death of the player and the process has to be restarted. If you’ve ever killed a Minotaur or jerked the head off a Medusa in God of War, you know what QTE is.
In Dragon’s Lair, you take on the role of Dirk the Daring – a bumbling but charismatic knight – navigating a monster-filled castle complete with a big scary dragon to fight at the end of the journey. Your reward? The rescue of arguably the hottest princess ever to grace a video game.
The journey through the castle is set up through a series of rooms or scenes. Each room requires precision QTE solving to move on to the next room. To assist you on the way, quick flashes of light will show you the combination of timing and action you need to perform in order to keep the movie going. Fail to act – or act incorrectly – and you’re treated to a short clip of Dirk biting the dust in various ways. Run out of lives and your quest is over.
The game mechanics are quite simple by today’s standards and are always the subject of criticism (as are most Full Motion Video games of the past). It is more a game of memorization than action and dexterity. What I tell people going into Dragon’s Lair for the first time is – treat it like an INTERACTIVE MOVIE where you’re just like a glorified editor – keeping the movie flowing from start to finish. When people have that expectation, they seem to enjoy the game more than if they go in expecting to take live control over Dirk and his sword.
A common expression for these games: Come for the animation, stay for the game.
Digging Into The Game
The cartridge version of the game comes on a single, 16MB (!) Nintendo DS Cartridge for about $20. The DSiWare version comes as a 127 block download (16MB) and costs 800 points ($8). Neither version feature any DSi enhancements.
The game’s attract mode plays while awaiting the user to make a selection from the pleasant-yet-unremarkable menu. Aside from the requisite PLAY GAME and OPTIONS there is also a HIGH SCORE selection as well as a button for accessing the EXTRAS (retail version) and HELP (DSiWare version).
The HIGH SCORE table contains the highest five scores achieved as well a means of clearing the scoreboard (I never understood the value of a score table you can so easily clear). The game really isn’t about “score” so I’m not even sure this was needed.
The EXTRAS menu (retail version) allows for a WATCH mode (locked until you’ve completed the game) as well as accessing the CREDITS for the game.
The OPTIONS area allows you to set the number of lives (don’t let the term INFINITE fool you – that’s not infinite LIVES – it’s infinite CONTINUES – where you lose your score each time), a MOVE GUIDE (retail version) that will show you which way to move and when, video/effects volume controls, which screen you want to play on as well as how often you want audio to play during the attract mode.
Other than the MOVE GUIDES option and the WATCH mode, the retail version is IDENTICAL to the DSiWare version. The DIFFICULTY settings of EASY or HARD are not in the OPTIONS screen in the cartridge edition – but you’re asked after you hit PLAY GAME which difficulty level (easy or hard) you would like to play. Both versions also ask you which version of the game to play – HOME or ARCADE (more later).
Both versions of Dragon’s Lair have two MODES of play – ARCADE and HOME. In arcade mode, you’re playing the “authentic” arcade version (the F2 ROM set – for those in the know). The HOME mode is similar to other home versions they’ve released in the past – featuring scenes never accessed on the original arcade game. These include the intro drawbridge scene, the “Ye Boulders” video clip, etc.
There is also a difficulty setting for EASY and HARD – which requires more precise movements and shorter “action windows” to work in. More on that in a bit.
The MOVES GUIDE (retail version) will show the moves required to successfully navigate the game while you play. Unfortunately, they are not displayed overlayed on the video – they are on the other screen – which means you don’t really get to “watch” while you play. I will give Code Mystics props – the way the moves do display is pretty decent. The arrows (or sword) start to fade in as the move is coming up – then “flash” when you actually need to execute it. It beats the heck out of a basic arrow showing up at the last second. It just would have been better if it had been over the video.
The retail version’s WATCH MODE is exactly that – you can watch the game play itself without your intervention. This is a reward for completing the game and is not given away like on other home versions of this game.
The HELP file (DSiWare version) includes the standard “DSiWare” help file that outlines the basics.
Both versions allow you to control the volume of both the video playback and the venerable (and remarkably distinctive) success/fail beeps that sound during play. This is important, actually – as we’ll talk more about later.
Playing the Game
For the purposes of this review, we’ll be playing this on EASY, in ARCADE mode.
Just how accurate is the games compared to its original arcade counterpart? For die hard purists, this is the most important aspect of the game.
Instead of emulation of the original, home versions use simulation; near accurate representations (of various quality) based on how much time and money the developers want to invest in the recreation.
I get a common question from the current generation of gamers: Can I play and enjoy this game if I’ve never played it before?
If you enjoy QTE sequences in modern gaming, there is no reason why you can’t get into this game. If you’re a fan of traditional animation, these are extreme period pieces that are valuable to anyone’s collection. Fans of “trial and error” gaming (and you know who you are), this game practically invented the concept.
Now – if you watched my Quick Look videos and can’t figure out the draw, this game may not be for you. There IS a lot of nostalgia required to enjoy the game to its fullest – and no one is going to blame you if you just “don’t get it”.
While we will continue to chase the “perfect” versions of these types of games, this game has never quite played this accurately. Despite what appears to be a laundry list of accuracy issues – no one but the most die hard amongst us are going to even notice.
Many reviews like to bring up the fact that you can play the game from front to back in about ten minutes. The simple fact is, you’re not going to. Even with onscreen move indicators – you’re going to spend some hours with this. Once you have mastered the games on easy, there are plenty of options to make it harder and/or longer. You’ll also want to sample some of the great death scenes hidden away.