The cinematic cutscenes of Final Fantasy and the Arkham series – that feature progressive narrative – owe its stunning existence to one arcade fantasy that triggered a new generation of gaming. Cinematronics Dragon’s Lair held a lot of firsts for its infant industry at the time. 1983 was the year that Rick Dyer of RDI Video Systems and Disney animator Don Bluth unleashed their animated, arcade behemoth on gamers that presented itself as more of a movie that required significantly less button-bashing than Space Invaders.
Cue the goofy but persistent knight, Dirk the Daring who dares to save King Aethelred’s daughter, Princess Daphne from the claws of Singe, the dragon who holds her captive in Mordroc, the evil wizard’s castle. It’s your plight, as Dirk, to navigate left, right, up, down and sword-slash villains – the Giddy Goons, the Lizard King, the Crypt Keeper and the Smithee – as you face this assault course that puts Indiana Jones’ Grail Temple to shame.
The latter blurb reads like the perfect fantasy to immerse retro gamers for hours. However, hours is an understatement. Masters of Dragon’s Lair can speed run its entirety in about 10-15 minutes, but this requires precision, multiple previous fails and maximum effort. It’s only a question of jumping left, right and slicing, how hard can it be? For beginners it’s actually pretty hard, enduring many of the painfully long and now infamous cutscene every time you die, where Dirk’s flesh slowly fades to bone after dying from a Pick-A-Mix of deaths including, burning, electrocution, spider suffocation, mudmen and plasma spikes.
Along with inventing a game that ate through your pocket money faster than Pac-Man, Rick Dyer also gifted arcades with their first laserdisc based game that held twice as much data as a DVD and was therefore able to hold Blyth’s amount of animated footage whilst remaining interactive. The down side? As gameplay progressed, Dragon’s Lair would search and provide the player with randomly selected cutscenes and levels which would inevitably burn out the disk and cause the machines to crash very frequently, triggering the unfleeting despair of challengers.
As RDI Video’s was attempting to rival Atari for the arcade high score, machine’s going on the fritz was something the latter would laugh at. In short, Dragon’s Lair couldn’t match the resilience of Atari and interest began to fade past its novelty period. Players who had created mental models to beat the game, found little pleasure in revisiting. There were no hidden items nor uncharted territory to explore as Dirk’s heroic crusade was as linear and confined as a game could get.
Nevertheless, ingenuity crowned Dyer and Bluth’s game – disguised as an interactive Disney short – as one of the classics, high ranked with Pong, Pac-Man and Space Invaders. It’s craze drove Dragon’s Lair to home systems during the mid-80’s, featuring on the Coleco Adam and Commodore 64 in 8bit fashion that emulated the level styles and a few quirks but ultimately looked nothing like the initial arcade triumph. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Atari ST had fans rejoicing when their release fully resembled the imagery and gameplay of the original, paving the way for an NES, SNES and Sega CD release in the early 90’s.
Dragon’s Lair has existed through the ages, with their most recent edition on the Nintendo Switch as a trilogy; including the original game, Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp (a sequel that see’s Daphne happily married to her hero, Dirk, before being inevitably captured again) and Space Ace; Bluth’s follow up game that never reached the galactic heights of its predecessor.
With its own animation series, a cameo in Stranger Things and timeless box art for collectors to drool over, Dirk’s adventure may have provided headaches with its merciless gameplay, but it was worth it to hear the trumpet fanfare after each level completion. Dirk may whimper like Scooby-Doo and flee to the next level like a meme, but his creation was pivotal to the gaming industry in hindsight and the first step in unlocking the plethora of story-based games we have today.