By all accounts, I shouldn’t be talking about Dragon’s Lair in 2018. A product of a bygone era, the animated full motion video game was a staple in the arcade scene, probably because of its notorious high cost of entry. That’s why the opening sequence of Stranger Things’ second season resonated with me on a fundamental level. I, too, scrounged the couch for quarters and busted open piggy banks so that I may amass the small fortune needed to play through an interactive Don Bluth animated film. Demanding the very best reflexes and short term memory, Dirk the Daring’s quest to save Princess Daphne from the clutches of Singe ends up being an activity that is far more fun to watch than actually play. And while the game and it’s sequel Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp might have faded into the annals of arcade history, it has remained in one form or another and ported to anything that could play a video disc (the Sega CD included!).
It’s hard to view the Dragon’s Lair Trilogy as anything less than a curiosity piece, a relic of era when arcade games searched for new, innovative ways to grab your quarters. Even in this post-Cuphead world, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to play the games in this collection seriously. It’s worth noting that this is actually a port of a 2010 release on the Nintendo Wii (which used the HD remaster created exclusively for a special Blu-Ray release). Also, the “trilogy” only contains Dragon’s Lair and Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp. There was no “proper” Dragon’s Lair III except a version made for the Amiga that reused footage. Rounding out the set is Space Ace, a sci-fi adventure released one year after Dragon’s Lair that featured Ace, a Buck Rogers-esque hero antagonized by an evil alien named Borf. Because these games largely make up a port of a port, I have to ask: who is this all for? We’ve now reached a point in human existence where people playing video games today probably haven’t heard of these games or Don Bluth (I pray to be proven wrong). What person in 2018 is clamoring to replay the adventures of Dirk the Daring? Is it to capitalize on its appearance in a Netflix television show? Other than ardent fans and animation buffs, I have difficulty seeing a market for this product.
And yet, Dragon’s Lair isn’t without some merit. Its legacy can be felt from Shenmue to Deadly Premonition as it was the first video game (that I know of, at least) to introduce the Quick Time Event mechanic. To play Dragon’s Lair is to sit through a fully animated short film in which Dirk the Daring must rescue a damsel in distress from a dangerous castle filled with all kinds of nefarious obstacles. All three games were designed to test the player’s reflexes and reaction time as on-screen visual cues opened the smallest windows of opportunity to guide Dirk across hazards before the animation catches him in one of many hilarious death sequences. Quickly, then, Dragon’s Lair revealed itself largely to be an exercise in trial and error. These mechanics would spread to both Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair II making both games pretty consistent despite the difference in setting and theme. The virtue of having these games on the console is the chance to continue without having to spend money.
It’s easy to see the allure of Dragon’s Lair. In a time where video games consisted of pixels on CRT monitors, seeing what was essentially a playable Hanna Barbera cartoon was something else. Even though we live in a world where Cuphead exists, Dragon’s Lair still feels quaint. The best thing I can say about this collection are the featured extras. Each game has their attract modes (an animated sequence designed to draw people’s attention) and an option to watch the entire game as an uninterrupted movie. This is the best possible way to experience Dragon’s Lair, its sequel, and their sci-fi cousin. Only then, I feel, can you really appreciate how good the HD remaster is. Dragon’s Lair, especially, looks amazing as do Space Ace and Time Warp only because you can see that Bluth and company learned a lot of lessons after the first game. Time Warp is stunning, both in its creativity and the amount of action going on screen. It’s also the hardest game in the set because it features numerous fast paced sequences filled with “blink and you’ll miss it” visual cues. Even more valuable than the watch modes are informative interviews with animators Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and game designer Rick Dyer. Hearing these three men talk about the process of bringing the idea of the game, the first of its kind, to life is endlessly fascinating. There’s even a video featuring Don Bluth doing a sketch of Dirk and Singe as he talks about how he designed these characters for the game.
By now, there are so many ports of Dragon’s Lair that it’s become the Gideon Bible of the video game industry. All things considered, The Dragon’s Lair Trilogy is a fine tribute to an oddly compelling experience that was an innovative step forward in the full motion video genre of video games.
The HD quality of each game’s film is fantastic, free from the dirt, scratches, and aliasing of ports past (it’s a shame, then, that the menu UI is ugly as sin). Fans of Don Bluth and the morbidly curious are likely to get the most out of what the Dragon’s Lair Trilogy has to offer. Assuming they don’t already own it accidentally.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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