It’s hard to believe today, but there was a time when the continued existence of the entire medium of videogames seemed doubtful.
See, way back in the 1980s, there were a number of companies competing to capitalize what was a booming market—we’re talking way more than today’s “Big Three” of console gaming. There were so many consoles on the market, and with them so many copies of different games—many of them cheaply made and poorly-selling—that retailers were left with mountains of surplus stock. When they tried to return these unsold products, it turned out that publishers didn’t have the funds to buy them back.
Add to this rising competition from home computers, and in the course of just one year the videogames went from a 3.2 billion dollar industry to one valued at a mere one hundred million dollars. It wasn’t until the Nintendo released the NES in 1985 that videogames began to claw their way back into culture and bring us to where we are today.
But even in the midst of this uncertain period in the history of the medium, developers were pushing new and interesting ideas, mutations that would come to influence the craft over the coming decades. One of the most important of these titles was 1983’s Dragon’s Lair.
Let me set the scene: you step into an arcade in 1983. Brand new games like Crystal Castles, Mario Bros, and Spy Hunter sit alongside older standbys like Pac-Man, Galaga, and Frogger. But something new catches your eye—a cabinet displaying something more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon than the abstract pixel-based action of most games at the time. Even though it cost 50 cents—the first game to break the quarter standard of the time—you couldn’t help but want to try it out.
And how did it play? Well, it wasn’t like any game at the time. Dragon’s Lair used a Laserdisc to store its high-quality animations, but using what was essentially a video medium meant there were limitations on gameplay.
Instead of directing the frightful and ironically named Dirk the Daring in his quest to save Princess Daphne from the dragon, players had to pick a direction to move in or press the sword button to get medieval on foes. In today’s terms, it was a long string of quick-time events, with one successful outcome for each encounter and plenty of opportunities to fail—and thus pump more quarters into the cabinet.
Ruby-Spears was pumping out adaptations of all kinds of games throughout the 80s and 90s—we got a Pac-Man show, a Mega Man, and Saturday Supercade. Hell, these guys made a cartoon out of Rubik’s Cube, so making a show based on Dragon’s Lair was easy.
As far as animation of the era goes, Dragon’s Lair isn’t too exceptional. That said, it features some notable voice talents, such as the theatre star Clive Revill as the narrator and Peter Cullen as a horse. Yes, Optimus Prime voices a horse.
He doesn’t even talk. He just makes horse noises.
The producers also tried to adapt not just Dragon’s Lair‘s content, but its format too. At each commercial break, Dirk faces some kind of dilemma and the viewer is invited to decide which option they’d choose. Afterwards, the narrator describes the outcomes in a style similar to the game’s many failure scenes. Without the commercial breaks, these sections don’t work quite as well—so I’d recommend watching a few contemporary toy ads to replicate the authentic experience.
Unfortately, Dragon’s Lair‘s popularity was short-lived—despite high hopes, it couldn’t save the game industry. Its unusual use of the Laserdisc medium, which rapidly shifted between scenes rather than playing them in order as in a movie, meant that mechanisms failed and frequently had to be replaced. The limitations on gameplay meant that playing it soon became stale or frustrating. And finally, if you knew the correct inputs you could finish it in ten minutes. It was flashy, sure, but there wasn’t much substance beneath the slick presentation.
But Dragon’s Lair made an indelible mark on videogame history. It paved the way for an entire genre, was one of the first arcade games to use optical media, and introduced the concept of QTEs, which are a major part of today’s cinematic game experiences—I leave it to you whether to admire or curse it on that account.
Today, Dragon’s Lair is one of only three games kept by the Smithsonian Institute, alongside Pong and Pac-Man—esteemed company, to be sure. And the franchise is still kicking, with ports to modern devices and even a prequel film in the works, spearheaded by Don Bluth himself. If and when it is ever released, it will be his first movie in almost twenty years.
And hey, maybe we’ll even get to hear Peter Cullen do the horse noises again.