Dragon’s Lair (Nintendo DS)



This review covers both the DSiWare and retail cartridge versions of the game.  Due to their similarities, only the differences between the two will be denoted throughout the review.

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.

Overview

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).

Options

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.

This is the best configuration for the newbies to start with. The required movements are slower paced and easier to perform.  This is the version that MOST people probably played at the arcade.
As mentioned above, you do not directly control Dirk – you simply keep the movie going by entering moves that are echoed by the knight on the screen.  Failure to keep the movie going results in death.
Each room or scene has fairly stringent movement requirements – with some “alternative moves” allowed (this is on EASY mode). That means that in certain rooms there may be more than just one right move to continue. These alternate moves are often “issues” with other home releases of the game (more on accuracy in a minute).
During the game play, flashes of light appear on various objects – in various directions – to help you know which way to go.  These flashes are right on the video – not added by the code.  Correct moves give you a pleasant beep – while incorrect moves give you a buzz (or just kill you outright).  Unlike with the MOVES GUIDE turned on, there is very little warning with these flashes – meaning they are more of a “hindsight tool” than a means to help guide you through the room.  The game was intended to be “learned as you go” (doesn’t help that a lot of quarters are needed to play a game like this).
As you complete the moves for the current scene (or room), you’re taken to the next room.  If you fail a room, it’s put at the end of the “queue” of rooms you have to complete before you reach the dragon’s lair.  Therefore, any room you fail, you WILL play again.  Once you complete all the rooms, you will take a stab at the dragon’s lair.
Many of the rooms play both standard and “mirror” – meaning the video is mirrored (as are the moves).  Some rooms only play standard mode (including the dragon’s lair).  This was a clever way to make the game last longer at the arcade without more video being required.  Think of it as the “doubling back” levels in modern shooters.  Some rooms do not always appear in every game – and are often considered “bonus” rooms.
Unlike games that followed Dragon’s Lair – like Space Ace or Dragon’s Lair II – Dragon’s Lair really feels like the “sum of the rooms” vice the playing of an “interactive movie”.
The Presentation
I’m not a gamer that’s “all about graphics” – but since this game is pretty much an interactive movie, we have to look at the media as a core element of the game.
Recently, Digital Leisure performed a six-month restoration of the video on Dragon’s Lair in order to prepare it for HD release on Blu Ray.  The low resolution of the DS does not offer much in the way of super high quality video so it is unclear if the new transfer was used for this video.  Because the colors are a bit brighter than the arcade, I would suspect the new transfer was used.  However, there is an issue with the DS transfer …
In order to get 22 minutes of video to fit in 16MB of space, you can imagine that some sacrifices had to be made.  The sacrifice comes mostly in the way of dropped frames – which isn’t usually a big deal for most people – but the dropped frames have a nasty side effect; sometimes the “move queue” flashes mentioned earlier  have been shortened or removed altogether – making the game even MORE difficult to figure out.  Purist especially will notice these omissions – but the novice player is immediately thrown a rather nasty curve ball that impacts the way the game was intended to be “figured out”.  Most reviews of the DSiWare version (remember, no MOVES GUIDE in that version) are quick to point out this huge flaw in the video presentation.
I had high hopes that the retail cartridge version (with sizes up to 256MB) would provide us with extra silky video playback with all the frames in tact – removing this issue from the table.  This would have easily justified the cost difference of $12.
Unfortunately, the video on the downloadable version and the retail version are identical – dropped frames and all.  This really starts to beg the question – is the extra $12 worth it?
The final issue worth noting is that the video audio is pretty quiet on my DSi.  You will need to wear headphones for a proper experience.  Because the game tells you when you’ve done something right with an audible queue, you must be able to hear the queues while you play.  With both volumes set to the highest settng, you still cannot accurately get the move queue audio 100% of the time – meaning you’re going to die even when you think you’ve made the right move.  So, you have to crank DOWN the already-too-quiet video volume to hear the queues – which makes headphones even MORE of a must.

Accuracy

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.

The most common inaccuracies in Dragon’s Lair consist of missing rooms, incorrect ordering and sequencing of rooms, failure to allow “alternative moves” for certain rooms as well as a couple of other little inconsistencies.This version has some timing issues in a few spots, and I’ve noted a few issues with a couple of rooms – namely the Falling Platforms.  As home versions go, this is definitely one of the best ones so far when it comes to move accuracy.  Purists will scream a few times – this is not arcade perfect – and until Digital Leisure and their coders start using actual emulation of the laserdisc video game hardware, we’re simply not going to get it.
Is This For me?

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”.

Just remember – animated doesn’t mean it’s a kid’s game. This game isn’t easy (even with the MOVES GUIDE hints). You’ll need patience and perseverance to get through this game – and it just isn’t for everyone.

Conclusion

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.

If have more than just a passing familiarity with Dragon’s Lair – you can easily forget the WATCH MODE and the MOVES GUIDE.  This would have put you in the market for the DSiWare downloadable version for $8.  Honestly, the game should go for 500 points – but we all want cheaper games, right?  The problem with advocating the download version isn’t so much the 300 more points than I want to pay – but rather that without a moves guide AND dropped frames, this is going to be much less approachable for most people than the retail cart.  You also have the fact that is sucks down 127 blocks AND if you move to another DSi/XL/3DS – you won’t be able to take it with you.
For $20, the retail version seems like a better buy – the moves guide alone is worth a few bucks for those that want to master the game without the “hit and miss” nature of regular play.  However, without ANY other improvement to the game other than that (sorry, not counting the WATCH MODE), and the grossly compressed video which wasn’t necessary in a cartridge version, I have a lot of reservations in the $20 price tag.  At $14.99 or cheaper, I could have issued my “No Brainer” rating – but aside from the obvious collectible nature of the cartridge and the longer lasting durability of the cart, you’re not seeing much for that extra $12.
The obvious nature of the retail version is that regular DS/DS Lite owners can now partake in the fun of playing Dragon’s Lair on their favorite handheld – and I had a lot of friends chomping at the bit for a non-DSiWare version to come down the pike.  For those of you with the “classic DS” hardware, this IS your only choice.
Final Words:  This isn’t the best or the worst Dragon’s Lair I’ve seen at home.  The real question is the price and the format you want.  I’m a collector – the cart wins every time for me – even with the same video ported over.  However, knowing that fact up front would have made me wait for the inevitable bargain bin price drop to $14.99 (or even $12.99 used at Gamestop).  The DSiWare version isn’t going to get any cheaper – and the difference of $3-5 between the download and the cart makes FAR more sense – if you are willing to wait.  If you have a Wii, I would immediately send you to The Dragon’s Lair Trilogy, also by Destineer – which is easily the best version you can currently play at home – which includes Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair II as well for only $10 more than the current DS retail price.

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+

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