Review: Dragon’s Lair

Dragon’s Lair – either you love it, hate it – or have never heard of it.  Regardless, the Laserdisc driven quick time event (QTE) style game holds a firm spot in the history of video gaming.  But how does the Android version stand up?

History

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 alive (and 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

He looks unfriendly

The $4.99 (a free, trial version is available too) 25MB app comes to you from the Google Play store.  Digital Leisure did a great thing; they remastered the animation for various device screen sizes – meaning if you’re playing the game on a 4″ cell phone, it will not download the whopping 537MB assets that a Nexus 10 will download.  For a game that is 100% animated, having an optimized version for your device is crucial.

The game is Xperia Optimized; but you can really use any USB game pad to play (mapped to DPAD Up/Down/Left/Right and DPAD Center for sword).

The main menu consists of accessing the game’s trailer/attract mode video, Play Game, Instructions, High Scores and Options.

The HIGH SCORE table contains the highest ten scores achieved for both home and arcade mode 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 INSTRUCTIONS menu item will give you information on the basics of the game, how the controls work, what the differences are in the game modes, etc.

The OPTIONS area allows you to set the number of lives, a move guide that will show you which way to move and when while you play, the ability to turn off the move beeps,  a means to resize the onscreen touch controls as well as switch sides of the screen for them if you’re a lefty.  A compatibility mode has been hastily tacked on the bottom – which supposedly you are to turn on if you have issues with using the move guide.

Play Options

Dragon’s Lair has two MODES of play – ARCADE and HOME (well, and a mini-tutorial). 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.  The tutorial will take you through the basics of play.  A nice touch.

Playing the Game

For the purposes of this review, we’ll be playing this in ARCADE mode.  This is the version that MOST people are familiar with.

As mentioned above, you do not directly control Dirk The Daring – 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.

Death becomes you

Each room or scene has fairly stringent movement requirements – with some “alternative moves” allowed. 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.  The animation was created by Master Animator Don Bluth (Secret of Nimh, American Tale, Anastasia, Titan A.E.) formerly of Disney.

The Lizard King

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 video used on the Android version is very much the remastered copy.  Purists might even say the video is TOO GOOD having been remastered.  It is also worth noting that the remastered version is in widescreen – whereas the original game was 4:3.  This means the video is MATTED to fit the widescreen orientation.  For a lot of people, this means nothing and holds no weight.  For purists, again – this might be an issue.  Bottom line is; you want remastered video – it is GOING to be matted.
The video is crisp and bright regardless of device you play it on.   The audio is clear and never overmodulated.  This is the best Dragon’s Lair has ever looked or sounded.

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 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 among 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. You’ll also want to sample some of the great death scenes hidden away.

At $5, it doesn’t break the bank – and it is still a lot cheaper than the various retail physical mediums.  You could really look at this at $2.50 each – SD and HD versions.
Final Words:  This isn’t the best or the worst Dragon’s Lair I’ve seen at home or on the go.  Fans should sign up right away; others should watch some videos and see if this is for you.

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