The years was 1983, and Sir Pizza was the first arcade in my hometown area to feature Dragonís Lair, former Disney animator Don Bluthís now-classic interactive tale of the valiant (albeit absent-minded) knight Dirk the Daring and his quest to rescue the voluptuous Princess Daphne from the clutches of the evil Dragon, Singe. I can still picture the pristine cabinet, centered like a shrine on the arcadeís south wall, always surrounded by a crowd. The quarters would be double-stacked along the chair rail molding as anxious gamers awaited their chance to step up to the majestic cabinet for their brief (and expensive) attempt at arcade fame.
Dragon's Lairís twitch-based gameplay proved to be incredibly difficult for gamers of every level of experience; few gamers making it more than a minute or two into the timing-based gameplay before a fatal series of missed cues forced them to relinquish their positions at the helm. Thankfully, with Dragonís Lair, watching others (especially more experienced gamers) play the game was every bit as exciting (if not more) as than playing it for yourself, so we would all huddle around hoping that one of us would reach just one more corridor or avoid one more ghostly attack.
There is no argument, Dragonís Lair was ahead its time. It was the first title to employ the then-new optical laser disc technology, which gave its developers the ability to deliver cartoon-quality visuals and animations in an interactive video game which followed a continuous storyline. This was not merely groundbreaking in those early days, it was like a portal giving gamers a glimpse into the future with visual quality that would not be seen for nearly 20 years.
Ironically, while we all assumed at the time that Dragonís Lair was delivering the most advanced gameplay; the truth was that the optical discs actually limited the game to incredibly basic gameplay mechanics, even for 1983. Now that CDs and DVDs are commonplace, we realize that Dragonís Lair was nothing more than a series of recorded video tracks that required the gamer to manually advance in order to lace them together.
The game simply played a short DVD-quality video track, which ended with a momentary pause giving the gamer split second to hit the correct joystick direction or sword button in reaction to some onscreen event. If the gamer nailed the direction and timing, the game would advance to the next short video track, if not it would jump to an appropriate (and often hilarious) death animation. It may have looked amazing, but it really quite basic Ė and frustrating.
Frustrating because the gamer only ever had a 1 in 5 (or 20%) chance of picking the right direction on the first try, and even when they did the timing requirement was often so strict that it required gamers to react before the event even showed onscreen. This meant a single screen event could easily consume 2 of the gamerís 3 allotted lives in a matter of seconds Ė lose one more and it was game over.
And that basic and frustrating gameplay is precisely the problem with Dragonís Lair as we revisit the original title yet another time. Sure, no longer are precious quarters needed to fuel the countless ďcontinuesĒ that will be undoubtedly be required for gamers to slog their way through the graphical adventure Ė but there is little solace in the controller-cracking resentment that most gamers will feel after only a few minutes with Dragonís Lair.
Yes, even in this newest installment on Xbox Live Arcade, it is an impossible game. And the overt difficulty is obviously not due to creative design Ė it is due to the still-glitchy gameplay. You would think these glitches would be well worked out by now, but I spent more than 10 minutes on a single level in which I still donít know what I was doing wrong, nor what I eventually did right, after the countless retries.
Dragon's Lair boasts Kinect support, which basically boils down to an even more frustrating control scheme than simply using the standard controller Ė which is exactly what most gamers will (and should) ultimately default to after a few minutes of blindly flailing limbs. With Dragon's Lairís overtly touchy timing-based input, there is no way to maintain the required precision with the human body Ė equating roughly to about a fourth of the actual control that can be achieved by the controller (which is bad enough as it is).
Thankfully, Dragonís Lair features an easy mode for gamers; flashing onscreen clues, and widening the window on reaction time. Still, even on easy I had more than my fair share of restarts and continues and after a half hour I had seen so many of Dirkís humorous death sequences that they no longer held any entertainment value.
To be honest, if it hadnít been for the purpose of this review I would have simply thrown in the towel early on and went back something better Ė like the Dragonís Lair 3D that was released in 2002 for the original Xbox. Why are they not re-releasing that game, or including it as an extra with this one? Not only was it a fantastically playable 3D update to the original title, but was also the first console game to feature HD for all available standards at the time (480i, 480P, 720p, and 1080i), serving as a comparative tool for early HD discussions. Dragonís Lair 3D, like the original, is a piece of history Ė but unlike the original, it is fun.