All right, folks. This is a good one. Dragon’s Lair, a 1983 cinematic arcade RPG, was (and still is) considered iconic for several reasons. One of its most (at the time) impressive aspects was that it was a fully cinematic experience, more than just shooting blips on a screen. The player takes the role of Dirk, a “brave” knight, who must rescue Princess Daphne from the evil dragon Singe, who has locked her up in a wizard’s castle. The movie-like experience of gameplay was achieved by using a LaserDisc (big technology in ’83, though it has since been rendered mostly obsolete) to store all the data and graphics. This allowed the game to achieve a depth and sense of involvement not unlike a feature film; adding to the appeal was the work throughout by famous Disney cartoon master Don Bluth. The game features not only cinema-style animation, but classic voice-acting as well. The game was produced much like a film would be, and had a fairly modest budget of US $1,000,000.
Gameplay is mostly choices, not unlike a text-adventure or other early electronic RPG; some timing is involved in certain scenes, but for the most part, the player must guide Dirk on the correct path to win the game. You’re never directly controlling Dirk’s actions, but you sometimes have to press a button or make a choice at the right time to avoid swift death. The death scenes are varied and hilarious, and I recommend you view them for that reason if nothing else.
While the game is considered a classic and was in fact fairly successful, using a LaserDisc player as the basis for the game had its drawbacks. Typically, LaserDiscs were used to play movies, reading the data off the disc in a linear fashion. The non-linear nature of accessing data for a video game placed new and untested strains on the device, and many failed or broke (and subsequently needed replacement). This was solved over time by improving the overall quality of the components: the gas lasers used to read the disc and the rotor used to spin it.
FUN FACTS ABOUT THIS GAME:
- Don Bluth’s production studio couldn’t afford models on their budget, so they used photos from adult magazines like Playboy as inspiration for Princess Daphne’s character design.
- The base model of the LaserDisc player shipped with the game was a Pioneer LD-V1000 or PR-7820.
- The game’s developer, Rick Dyer, cites Secret of NIMH and the text game Adventure as the main inspirations for Dragon’s Lair.
- Dragon’s Lair is cited by most sources to be the first arcade game to have cost 50 cents instead of 25.
- Neither Dirk’s nor Daphne’s voice was done by a professional voice actor; instead they were done by editor Dan Molina and animation clean-up member Vera Lanpher, respectively. Only the narrator’s voice was done by a professional (Michael Rye).
- The game, in some form or fashion, has been ported to home systems over 60 times. It is even available for the iPhone.
While it may not seem like a big deal today, Dragon’s Lair was groundbreaking and nearly unbelievable in 1983. It combined elements of video game and movie, something that would be touched upon again and again throughout the next 20-30 years with little real success until the dawn of “modern” gaming. It is an item of interest for true VG enthusiasts, fantasy nerds, and lovers of cartoon art.