Those unfamiliar with 'Space Ace' may be wondering why an arcade game is being released on Blu-ray disc, and/or why we're reviewing it here at High-Def Digest. A follow-up to the arcade hit 'Dragon's Lair,' like its predecessor 'Space Ace' utilized then-cutting edge Laserdisc technology, bridging the gap between animated film and video games and enabling players to progressively "unlock" scenes in an otherwise traditionally-produced animated film.
Yet while several other games were produced and released in a similar fashion, ultimately, Laserdisc was not to be the format of choice for advanced gaming, leaving 'Space Ace' (like 'Dragons Lair' before it) a technological oddity -- not really a video game as traditionally defined, and not really a movie, either. Without falling squarely in one or the other camp, one might assume that the game would have just faded away, but instead it has enjoyed a curiously strong afterlife in recent years, both as a traditional PC-based game and (more successfully) as a light-on-the-interactivity standard-def DVD game.
It's this "light-on-the-interactivity" part that Digital Leisure (the game's distributor) has been promising to improve with this Blu-ray release, making use of the format's BD-Java technology. So, did they manage to pull it off? Read on...
Following the success of 'Dragon's Lair' in 1982, Don Bluth Studios quickly went to work creating a follow-up that would again rock the arcade world. What emerged two years later was 'Space Ace,' not so much a sequel to 'Lair' but its cosmic cousin. It transposed the same basic story and gameplay to a futuristic setting, with players once again navigating an intrepid hero, Space Ace, through various scenarios while trying to rescue the beautiful damsel-in-distress Kimberly from the clutches of the dastardly Commander Borf. 'Space Ace' also utilized the identical technology of 'Lair,' with its unique hybrid of traditional hand-drawn animation, simple player joystick commands and a LaserDisc engine driving the the whole shebang, turning 'Space Ace' a truly one-of-a-kind creation.
If the gimmick of an animated/LaserDisc-backed game was no longer as fresh as it was when 'Dragon's Lair' first hit, 'Space Ace' still stood out at the '80s arcade, and in the eyes of many fans (mine included) stands as the better game. 'Space Ace' is quicker, faster, more engaging, boasting improved animation, and an all-around better design. Best of all, ex-Disney animator Bluth and his co-creators, Gary Goldman and Rick Dyer, fine-tuned the gameplay mechanics, so players could now anticipate Ace's next required move in a more logical (if even no less challenging) manner, which made ultimate victory sweeter. Back when 'Space Ace' cost a whopping 50¢ to play, it was, more than 'Dragon's Lair,' well worth the price of admission.
Despite it's improved gameplay, better graphics, and (then) cutting-edge technology, 'Space Ace,' like 'Dragon's Lair,' rests as a footnote in videogame history, one that hinted at but did not inspire a revolution in the industry. Though a third entry in the Laserdisc-based game cycle would emerge in 'Dragon's Lair 2: Time Warp' a year or two after 'Ace,' the mechanics of the approach were just too clunky (and expensive) to overtake traditional pixel and vector graphics games, which were getting more advanced by the minute. Meanwhile, home-based game consoles and personal computers all but obliterated the traditional Saturday night at the arcade. A Laserdisc player in a giant box was just not going to be the wave of the future, no matter how prophetic 'Space Ace' and 'Dragon's Lair' may have seemed at the time.
Still, 'Space Ace' remains a much-beloved game, and I was more excited for it to hit Blu-ray than 'Dragon's Lair,' which Digital Leisure released on next-gen last year. Just like 'Lair,' the previous versions of 'Space Ace' I've played on other formats were pretty lame. The standard-def DVD version in particular just didn't work, with the format's slow access times and limited branching abilities making for a jerky, frustrating experience. 'Space Ace' is definitely made for HD, with much more fluid movement possible, with the only real lag times coming between the end of one gameplay sequence and the beginning of another (though even here, the half-second or so you'll have to wait is nothing compared to the slow load times of the average PlayStation release). 'Space Ace' on Blu-ray works where it counts -- during the actual scenes of the game, keeping the animation running smoothly is easy -- just make the right moves, and Ace keeps chugging without any hiccups.
Also improved here is the responsiveness of the remote over the previous DVD (if you own a PlayStation 3, you can also use a game controller for even more of an arcade feel). My old DVD copy of 'Ace' was frustrating to play, because the controls often drop commands, or the player simply ignores your input and, oops, you're dead. As with 'Lair,' my experience with this Blu-ray version of 'Ace' is that it never missed a single command. (Note, however, that there are three skill level options, which reduces the window you have to register a command -- so if you pick the "Ace" setting, you better be speedy!)
Now on to the various gameplay options Digital Leisure has built into the disc. You can: 1) select between five lives (the arcade standard) or unlimited; 2) you can toggle Arcade Info on/off (i.e., show a text overlay of your current score as well as number of lives); and 3) as mentioned, you can select Cadet, Captain, and Ace levels (i.e., easy, medium and hard), which don't change the gameplay, only how fast you have to be to enter a movie. (Note that unlike the standard-def DVD, there are no automatic Control Prompts that appear on their own -- which enabled players to "cheat" by being told the correct move in advance. While fine for wimps. it was intrusive and completely wrecked the challenge of the game. Digital Leisure has been wise to drop the feature from the high-def versions.)
One improvement I found in 'Space Ace' versus the Blu-ray of 'Dragon's Lair' is that I had no problems this time with the sequence of the game. On 'Lair,' if you screwed up a move, the game would automatically push you ahead to the end of a sequence. In other words, instead of going back to the beginning of the sequence to get it right, you would simply go on to the next adventure -- essentially a free pass. Combine this with the Unlimited mode, and the game of course wound up having no challenge. Even selecting five lives and Expert mode on 'Lair,' the game is too easy. 'Space Ace' always put me back at the beginning of the sequence if I messed up, so the challenge level is upped considerably. Add to that the fact that 'Ace' is a much quicker game with a ton more moves, and you could spend quite a few hours solving this one.
In the end, 'Space Ace' has converted very well to Blu-ray. It's far and away the most seamless version yet on home video, and the animation looks superb. I'm sure there will be many who just can't get into the idea of a game like this, which really only requires you to watch a slight narrative and execute a series of simple remote moves. However, if like me you remember 'Space Ace' fondly from the bygone era of the '80s arcade -- or are simply curious as to what it's all about -- this Blu-ray is well worth giving a spin. It's certainly the most perfect realization of 'Space Ace' yet released, and that includes the original arcade version.
Digital Leisure has minted a new remaster for 'Space Ace' for high-def release, offering both re-formatted 1.78:1 widescreen and original 4:3 full screen viewing options. This 1080p/MPEG-2 looks very spiffy for a videogame from 1984, with a vivid and colorful look that does justice to Don Bluth's evocative animation.
As with the next-gen versions of 'Dragon's Lair,' 'Space Ace' has been nicely cleaned up, with all of the major blemishes gone and only marginal dirt and grain for a source of its age. Blacks are very strong (the space milieu certainly benefits) and I liked how contrast really pops but isn't overdone. I also prefer the general look of "Space Ace' to 'Dragon's Lair,' particularly the rich use of deep blues, purples and reds, which have a cool retro-Jetsons feel. Hues are wonderfully saturated and clean, with only some of the grain breaking into noise at times. The encode is also smooth with no major artifacts, and given the game's short runtime, bitrates are high. A very fine job by Digital Leisure.
Also fresh for this Blu-ray edition of 'Space Ace' is a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, encoded at 640kbps. It's lively and fun, with a healthy surround presence.
As with 'Dragon's Lair,' there is no real score here, just lots of effects and spurts of dialogue. For a 1984 upgrade, dynamics aren't bad, with a processed if effective expanded range. The subwoofer doesn't get a workout but low bass supports the action well and there is no noticeable hiss or distortion. Surround use is nicely done, with at least a couple of prominent discrete effects in each game segment. Pans are not seamless and the mix does have a gimmicky sound, but it works very well as this is essentially a videogame anyway. 'Space Ace' is not a sustained, immersive experience, but does exactly what it should.
Twenty-four years past its original arcade debut, Digital Leisure has assembled 'Space Ace' creators Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Rick Dyer to contribute to a few new supplements for the disc. (All the video extras are in full 1080p/MPEG-2, with optional English, French, Spanish, Italian and German subtitles.)
'Space Ace' is a great slice of arcade history. I prefer it to 'Dragon's Lair,' both in terms of creativity of the situations and general gameplay pacing. This Blu-ray is a successful port, with nicely-remastered video and audio, a few fun supplements, and easy gameplay. I still find the controls sometimes clunky and not as responsive as they could be, but it was the same way with the original arcade version (and part of the charm, I guess). If you're a fan of 'Space Ace,' this is worth checking out.