If you’re older than about 16, you’re probably familiar with Laserdisc Video Games. Depending on your age, your memories will vary from utter contempt (the Sega CD games of the mid-90’s) to awe-inspiring. The granddaddy of them all, Dragon’s Lair, likely fits into the latter category. It is the game that ushered in the Laserdisc boom when it was introduced to arcades in 1983; it is perhaps fitting that it once again pushes technological boundaries 24 years later by being the first full Blu-Ray Java when it is released next week. I’ve been playing with it for about a week, using the PS3 as a Blu-Ray player, and I am happy to share my thoughts with you here.
As it turns out, Dragon’s Lair on Blu-Ray is a tough title to review, as you have to look at it from several perspectives. To some, it may fail as a game, and may be considered entirely skippable. To others, it draws on significant memories that make it a must-have to older gamers and vintage gaming enthusiasts. There are some aspects of the title that make it worthy of acclaim regardless of your position on the game itself. I’ll do my best to cover all bases.
First of all, we have to look at the game itself. Dragon’s Lair was released right near the end of the second video game generation, in late 1983. At this time, the top home consoles were the likes of the Atari 2600 and the Mattel Intellivision. A typical video game at that time may have looked like this:
Now picture yourself walking by a bunch of games that look like that in the arcade, and then coming across this:
If you’re anything like most kids back then, your jaw would have hit the floor, and the quarters would have been plunked into the machine at lightning speed.
I can share my own Dragon’s Lair experience in the arcade, even though it wasn’t exactly the same as it would have been when the game was first introduced in 1983. I started gaming in arcades when I was about 8, when my Mom would give my brother and I a $10 bill each, which would easily keep us occupied for a few hours allowing her to shop. This would have been 1987, and by that time, video game graphics had already improved quite a bit. A few of my favourites of the time were Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja (a game I have fond memories of, being the first arcade game I had ever completed), Operation Wolf, Ghosts n’ Goblins, and Golden Axe.
Even though the games looked significantly better than they did when Dragon’s Lair first hit the scene, and better than anything you’d get on a home console at the time, that didn’t stop one game from constantly receiving my attention. That game was Dragon’s Lair. The attract mode was like crack to an 8 year old back then. Even though it had been out for over 5 years, it was still new to me, and amazing. How can this be? We get to play a cartoon? One that looks like some of my favourite animated movies of the time, Robin Hood, Pete`s Dragon, and Secret of Nimh? I was immediately hooked in, and in a trance, I popped in some quarters. (the following scenario applies to the Blu-Ray version of the game, since obviously I can’t exactly recall what part of the game I played at the arcade 20 years ago)
The game starts like an animated movie would; the first scene moves your perspective through some sinister looking bushes, to the front gate of a castle. By this point, you still don’t realize that you’re playing a game. You watch your character Dirk the Daring approach the gate. Suddenly, the drawbridge breaks! Dirk falls through! But wait, he’s hanging on the edge of the collapsed bridge! Dirk is suddenly attacked by some scary looking tentacles – how is he going to survive this?
Then Dirk dies. Shit. I was supposed to do something, wasn’t I? There was no indication that I was controlling him…
I get another try. This time, I get ready to hit the single action button to attack the creature in the moat. Dirk dies again… What am I doing wrong? I’m down to 3 lives already, and haven’t even gotten past the first monster!
I try it again – this time, I timed the attack right, and I am able to proceed to the next scene.
And that’s pretty much how the game went for me. There are about 40 random scenarios to get through (some of which are mirrored), so every time you play, the game will be different.
You see, even a 10 year old gamer realizes that Laserdisc games… well… suck. Maybe it’s because we grew up playing games, and were more into actual gameplay than the gimmick of ‘playing’ something that looked so amazing. The argument exists today, as the Wii has shown that graphics don’t make good games – good gameplay makes good games.
The design of Dragon’s Lair as an 80’s arcade game is an example of sheer brilliance. It was less of a game, and more like something found in the Penny Arcades of the 1930’s. The game itself didn’t really reward you for being a quick thinker or puzzle-solver – it rewarded you for continuing to pump quarters to get to the next scene, and see how Dirk will die next. The few times where you actually have a clue as to what is going on, and what should be done to survive (such as the checkerboard scene, the rolling balls scene, the underground river, and the horse-riding scene), Dragon’s Lair is fun and rewarding as a game. But during the rest of the game, it’s pretty much a matter of guessing the right move sequences, dying several times, and getting it right eventually.
There’s a reason Dragon’s Lair started a huge trend, and others copied the style of gameplay relentlessly. These games were expensive to produce, expensive for arcade owners to buy, and expensive to play. But they were quite simply addicting. Kids couldn’t empty their pockets fast enough to enjoy movie-theatre level animation. Who cares about gameplay!
So as a game, Dragon’s Lair is simply not very good. But it holds significant historical value, and as you’ll see, the Blu-Ray version may be worth buying even if you can’t stand Laserdisc games.
The Blu-Ray Version
Dragon’s Lair has been released on countless platforms over the past quarter-century. Due to the fact that the game was essentially a movie being played on laserdisc, it was almost impossible to replicate the look and feel of the original. That was until 2002, when Digital Leisure released a 20th anniversary box set on DVD. They were able to program Dragon’s Lair to play in any standard DVD player, basically making it into a ‘menu’. Using the arrow keys and the enter button, you could play the game just as it was played at the arcade, with decent image quality.
However, DVD’s were never meant to be used like this; you might have noticed that there is some lag when you navigate through even standard motionless menus. Imagine trying to play a game with that kind of lag (of course, this lag varies depending on the quality of player)… On top of that, many players were simply incompatible with the game.
Blu-Ray probably would have been met with the same fate, except that the platform supports a function called Blu-Ray Disc Java. BD-J is exactly the solution intended to solve the problems introduced by having more complicated interactive functions in movies and special features. In addition to navigating through simple menus like a DVD player would, BD-J opens many opportunities for better interfaces for movies. So far, very few titles make use of BD-J, and the ones that do simply use it for little mini-games, like in Speed, Chicken Little, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Some of these games play similar to Laserdisc games – so we’re witnessing the influence of Dragon’s Lair to this very day.
Dragon’s Lair is the first title to make full use of BD-J, and it does so successfully. The game probably plays as smoothly as it ever did on the Laserdisc-powered arcade machines, but that’s not to say it’s absolutely perfect. No, this isn’t a dedicated video game with smooth level loads and transitions. Instead, there are a few minor black screens and sound pops here and there. Furthermore, play quality may vary depending on the player being used. The Playstation 3 is known as probably the best Blu-Ray player out there, but BD-J compatibility may be another issue all together. Perhaps some players from Pioneer or Panasonic play better, or perhaps they play worse. And even then, things can be improved with firmware updates. These variances are an issue inherent with the design of BD-J, and only after extensive testing will we know which players handle titles like Dragon’s Lair the best. In my experience, the PS3 plays it as well as could be expected for what is essentially a 25 year old game. It should be noted that I am using a pre-release version of the game, and the final version could play absolutely perfectly. Again, time will tell.
Since Dragon’s Lair was produced like any other animated film, the original material still exists in film format. Rather than resample the low-res video version off the laserdisc, Digital Leisure took the original film to the Canadian High-Definition authoring studio Infinite HD. The video was restored frame by frame, and remastered in full 1080p HD. Since there is only about 20 minutes of original footage, the entire MPEG-2 title fits on a single layer BD-25 disc (encoded at about 30 Mbps).
The audio also received some treatment; originally mastered in 1 channel sound (yup, mono), the audio track was remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. However, since the samples in the game are limited to short musical sequences indicating success or failure, or Dirk grunting and screaming as he dies in so many creative ways, it probably wasn’t even necessary to go through with a surround mode. Nonetheless, you have the satisfaction that the game sounds better than it ever has (or intended to be). I admit that I do LOVE the ‘flash’ sound effects, reminiscent of cartoons of the late 70’s to early 80’s that I love so much.
The screenshots I am showing here are resized captures from the original 1080p framecaps. You can download a zip file containing the original caps from Digital Leisure’s site. As you can see, the game looks beautiful for a 25 year old animation intended to be seen only on small screens. Lines are crisp, and there is absolutely no bleeding in the colours. There are no immediate signs of digital enhancement. To really know how good the game looks, you should compare it to the previous best version available for home-use, Digital Leisure’s DVD version:
As you can see, the colours were very washed out on the DVD, and the new version looks extremely vibrant in comparison.
However, the screenshots also show one issue that came up during the conversion to HDTV – because the game was only intended to be seen on a relatively square arcade monitor, it would not fit onto a widescreen HDTV panel properly. The developers had a choice here; either offer the game in its original 4:3 format, making use of about 1600×1080 of the 1920×1080 that was available to them, or chop off the top and bottom to fill a 16:9 screen. As you can see, they decided to do the latter, which has the unfortunate consequence of not showing 100% exactly what the creator (in this case, Don Bluth) intended. This is sort of like the reverse of the “full frame” argument that continues today; usually, a movie has its sides chopped off to fit into a standard definition 4:3 television set, even though it was intended to be viewed on a wide screen at the theatre. Instead, we’re watching material that was intended to be seen on a 4:3 screen, but with the top and bottom chopped off to fit onto a 16:9 wide screen TV. Thankfully, far less of the picture is lost in this scenario, but I wish Digital Leisure had offered both resolutions to make for the most authentic style of play possible. They certainly should have had the room to do it.
A Blu-Ray release wouldn’t be complete without some extra features, and Dragon’s Lair does not disappoint in this regard. In fact, I think it has more extras than most feature films released on the format! There are several special features available from the menu:
- Watch Mode – allows you to sit back and let the game play through itself completely. Each scene is played successfully, then each death sequence is shown for the scene. About 20 minutes long
- Video Commentary – Watch mode is played, with an overlay of the three creators of Dragon’s Lair (Don Bluth, Rick Dyer, and Gary Goldman) discussing the game. About 20 minutes long (with one or two 1-2 minute breaks throughout).
- Creator Interviews – a 20 minute dedicated interview with the 3 creators.
- High Definition Restoration – Clips from the game are shown in a split screen. On one side, the fully restored film is shown. On the other side, the film is shown before restoration (but after conversion to full HD). In this mode, you can see the major cleanup that had to be done.
- Time Capsule – The ending sequence of the game is shown, with the screen splitting and showing various incarnations the arcade game has gone through. Included are clips of the Amiga version (yes, there was an Amiga version), CDROM version, DVD, and original Laserdisc. Basically, you can see how various resolutions and compression ratios look compared to full HD.
- Previews – Previews of Space Ace and Dragons Lair II: Time Warp are shown, again in full HD. Here you will see how much they improved the voice acting and animation in later games.
Unlike most Blu-Ray releases, all of the special features are in full HD, since they are not simply scraped off previous DVD releases. Both the 20 minute interview and 20 minute commentary are very interesting to me, even though I was never a fan of Dragon’s Lair as a game. Some interesting comments are made, particularly when they essentially agree with my criticisms of the game, and that it was essentially a part of the design to keep the quarters flowing. This is particularly the case when they mention that the highlights of the animation are always in the death scenes, not in the award scenes. So to really enjoy the game, you have to keep dying! The true payoff is at the end of the game, and I agree with them that the final scene is gorgeous, and is considered a true payoff for someone who had probably spent hundreds of dollars worth of quarters memorizing all the moves in each scene.
As an artist, Don Bluth seems somewhat embarrassed over the quality of the animation, but with a tight budget and 7 month schedule, he can’t be too disappointed considering how successful the game was. Gary Goldman had some interesting things to say about the timing of the game, and how everything seemed to work out well with the game, and later, Don Bluth Productions’ successful movies. Rick Dyer is probably the guy most of us will relate to, and it was interesting hearing him describe only ever seeing the game through a Moviola and then on Laserdisc video until finally seeing it in full HD here.
In fact, the extras are probably what makes this Blu-Ray release something really worth looking at, as opposed to a small niche product for hardcore Dragon’s Lair fans (and they are out there, believe me). With a total 40 minutes of these guys talking, you will have a feeling of satisfaction, but I’m sure there’s room for plenty more to discuss.
Depending on who you are as a game fanatic or as a nostalgic gamer, Dragon’s Lair HD on Blu-Ray may range as a total pass, or a must-have. If you truly were a fan of the original, and were left unsatisfied with prior home releases, then you would be doing yourself a service to pick up this game and enjoy it in full HD. If you are like me, someone who has been gaming for the vast majority of your life but not necessarily a fan of Laserdisc games, it still might be worth checking out for the extra features. If you are looking for a new game to play on your shiny new Playstation 3 and are considering this – you may want to pass. The gameplay is archaic to say the least, and while it looks absolutely gorgeous, it’s more rewarding from a nostalgia point of view than something for today’s gamers to get hooked on. The sequels Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair II have made improvements in gameplay that may make it more accessible to the true gamer, so I will be looking forward to checking those out when they are released.
Finally, if you don’t have a Blu-Ray player and have gone with HD-DVD as your HD platform of choice (silly you), you will be happy to know that an HD-DVD version is scheduled to be released later this year. Apparently, HDi – HD-DVD’s counterpart to BD-J – is a bit trickier to work with, and has caused a delay in what was originally planned to be a simultaneous release.
Dragon’s Lair Blu-Ray will be available for about $30 when it is released on April 9. You can pick up Dragon’s Lair Blu-Ray at Amazon.com for $27.95 (that is not an affiliate link). You can pre-order it directly from Digital Leisure for $50.
The same HD transfer was used for Dragon’s Lair HD for Windows, albeit in its uncleaned, form. This is also available for $30. This one doesn’t have the commentary or interviews either.
Be sure to check out this video of Dragon’s Lair’s attract mode, in 1920×1080 WMV-HD!