It was just over a year ago when we reviewed the world’s first full Blu-Ray Java title, Dragon’s Lair. That game was originally released in 1983, but remained a standby in arcades for over a decade. You may have had similar experiences to mine when I first encountered games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace – check out that original review to find out.
Needless to say, Dragon’s Lair was a huge success when it hit the arcades. Designed from the ground up to be a very effective quarter-sucker (and it was the first to cost $0.50 per play), arcade owners couldn’t empty the machines fast enough. So it should come at no surprise that Don Bluth and company immediately began working on a similar game, before the first was even finished. This game would feature a more ‘video game-like’ design, better animation, and fix many of the nagging issues that Dragon’s Lair had.
In late 1983, less than a year after Dragon’s Lair made a huge impact, Space Ace hit the scene. It was available to arcade owners as a standalone unit, or a conversion kit for those who wanted to replace their ‘ageing’ Dragon’s Lair cabinets. The conversion kit included a new laserdisc, some new EEPROM chips to hold the new programming, a new controller panel (Space Ace had a new difficulty selection button), and all new cabinet artwork.
Arcade owners were initially weary; laserdisc games were huge investments, and kids were becoming savvy enough to see them for what they were. Sure, even the best platformers require some memorization, but in a typical Laserdisc game, that’s all you do. There is really no way someone could play through Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace on their first attempt, no matter how good they are at games. With games like, say, Double Dragon or Golden Axe, you feel like you are getting through based on skill and reflex. With Laserdisc games, you are basically ‘buying’ your way through the game, learning the sequences through pure repetition (and a ton of quarters).
Because of this, Space Ace isn’t generally as revered as Dragon’s Lair. Although it made many improvements, the base gameplay was about the same. It’s understandable why they wanted to get it out to the market as soon as possible, and pretty much stopped working on Dragon’s Lair II for several years.
So the idea was to fix the problems that were brought up with initial Dragon’s Lair testing that were too late to fit into the original game’s production. Some of these issues included obscure paths in the game – sometimes there was absolutely no way to tell what to do in the game. It might take 5 attempts to get a scene right – do you hit left? right? up? down? Oh, I’m supposed to hit the action button. Some scenes in Dragon’s Lair had visual cues, but in fact some of these were wrong, and would lead to another death scene.
Space Ace has visual cues (yellow flashes and a sound effect) for many scenes, but not all of them. And the scenes that do not have these usually don’t require them.
Space Ace also featured a more cohesive storyline – there was a clear start to the game (in Dragon’s Lair you are basically walking into a castle for no apparent reason), and throughout the game you are ‘teased’ with the object of the game – saving Kimberly (terribly voiced, by the way. All the voices with the exception of the narrator were done by the animation crew. And they all suck. Bad).
The ability to turn from the wimpy Dexter to Manly-Man Ace added some depth to the game – playing as Ace, you got to use your blaster more often. Not always though, so watch for those yellow flashes!
In my opinion, the game does make some important improvements to Dragon’s Lair. But are they enough? Not really. Again, it’s still a Laserdisc game. The name of the game is to repeatedly play each scene until you learn the sequence of directions and button presses. And by the end of the game, it gets incredibly frantic. I can almost guarantee that any new gamer who has never seen or played a game like this will be frustrated enough to never want to play it again in under 10 minutes. My girlfriend, who enjoys watching as I play games (she particularly loved Bioshock, and is a huge fan of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) was so frustrated with the constant dying and repetition that she couldn’t bear to witness any more. It’s too bad, because she otherwise enjoyed the animation and characters.
That brings me to the saving grace of this game – the animation is absolutely top notch. I hate to sound like a crotchety old man, but they just don’t animate cartoons like they used to. I understand that animation is much easier and quicker to do these days, but there’s something about the style of 1980′s animation in USA and Japan that hits the right spot for me. Blinded by nostalgia? Perhaps, but the animation just another reason to enjoy Space Ace (one of the few, if you’re a gamer).
The extras are identical to those seen in Dragon’s Lair, and in fact all the commentary and interviews were done on the same day. It is nice to get some more insight from the three creators of the laserdisc gaming phenomenon, but by the end of their Dragon’s Lair conversation, they have pretty much said most of the important things they wanted to say.
Other features making a return are the “Demo Reel” which shows you just how much the previous versions of this game sucked compared to the shiny new 1080p Blu-Ray version, and preview trailers for Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace. A nice addition is a demo level of the upcoming Dragon’s Lair II (no release date has been announced for this).
So, is Space Ace worth buying? As a game, I’d say no. Many games from this era are totally playable and enjoyable today – just look at XBOX Live Arcade, Playstation Network, and Wii’s Virtual Console. However, Laserdisc games were never really meant to be good games. They don’t play like good games, they play like money vacuums.
If you have fond memories of Space Ace, and I mean really fond memories – as in, you could beat it without dying back in your glory days – it may be worth picking up. The animation and colours have never looked better, and probably never will again.
Also, fans of animation may want to pick it up as well. It gives us a nice glimpse back into the heyday of American animation, and the creators talk about some of the interesting methods used to create some effects in the game (such as rotoscoping some of the vehicles and even backgrounds of some levels).
For about $25 or so, it may also make for an eclectic addition to your Blu-Ray library. Just don’t expect your kids to drop their Wii remotes for it.
For more perspective and a more in-depth review, please be sure to read my intial Dragon’s Lair review!