Those unfamiliar with 'Dragon's Lair' 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. The short answer to both questions is that 'Dragon's Lair' has always been a most unusual brand of video game.
Originally conceived and produced in the early '80s as an arcade game utilizing then-cutting edge Laserdisc technology, for a brief moment in time 'Dragon's Lair' bridged the gap between animated film and video games, 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 'Dragons Lair' a technological oddity -- not really a video game as traditionally defined, and not really a movie, either. Without falling falling squarely in one or the other camp, one might assume that the game would just fade 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...
Sections of this review labeled as pertaining to the "movie" actually refer to both the content and gameplay included on this disc.
Sections of this review labeled as pertaining to the "movie" actually refer to both the content and gameplay included on this disc.
As a child of the '80s, videogames were a huge part of my life. The weekly trip to the local arcade was like my birthday, the Fourth of July and Christmas all rolled into one. A mere five bucks in quarters would provide hours of enjoyment, even if those insatiable machines gleefully ate my coins faster than a Hungry Hungry Hippo eats marbles. Of course, no event at the arcade was more momentous than the arrival of a Brand New Game -- that magical moment a shiny new box was wheeled onto the arcade floor, luring me into yet another tantalizing world of pixels and puzzles.
I still vividly remember the day in the summer of 1983 when my local arcade got 'Dragon's Lair.' Sure, at that stage in my development a new sequel to 'Pac-Man' or 'Defender' would have been enough to rock my world, but this was something utterly one-of-a-kind -- a game so unique that I had to stand behind a crowd of other awestruck teenagers just to get a glimpse into the cabinet. Combining hand-drawn 2-D animation with then-cutting edge Laserdisc technology, 'Dragon's Lair' was more than just another game, it was the birth of a radical new future for the form. Using familiar joystick and button commands, players could guide the intrepid Dirk the Daring through a series of fantastical animated worlds, battling all sorts of bizarre creatures and saving a beautiful damsel in distress. Archaic by today's standards, and rather clumsy in execution (not to mention outrageously expensive -- costing a then-whopping 50¢ a play) it was still the first mainstream merging of narrative film and video games.
First explained to us in the animated "teaser" that always preceded the the start of the arcade version of the game (it can be watched here as well -- just let the main menu sit for a bit, and the mini-movie starts automatically), the set-up for 'Dragon's Lair' is incredibly generic, but cute nonetheless. Dirk is a squared knight in the Arthurian mold, whose lady love Princess Daphne has just been kidnapped by the Dragon of the title. In order to save his princess, Dirk must enter the Dragon's castle, and through a series of about two dozen mini-episodes, overcome strange booby traps, battle weird creatures and unlock various treasures on his quest into the 'Dragon's Lair.' Once there, it will be a Herculean battle, as Dirk must outwit the fiery beast, grab Daphne and escape with a nice big booty of treasure. There's only about 19 minutes of actual content, but it will take far longer for most to unlock it all, as you must memorize the combination of joystick commands needed to "move" Dirk in the appropriate directions, as well as activate his sword with a single button, all in real-time as the animation plays. The challenge comes in interpreting what's happening onscreen -- should Dirk jump over that chasm as it starts to crumble at his feet, should he leap up and grab a rope, or should he simply wait and draw his sword in anticipation of a pending monster attack? Sometimes the game cheats, providing a visual clue that turns out to be a ruse, such as a flashing "Drink Me!" sign that will actually end in disaster. Other times, guessing the timing of a right move requires simple blind luck.
While it seemed cutting edge at the time, today Dragon's Lair ranks more as a footnote in videogame history rather than a signpost of a true revolution. Though it spawned a sequel, 'Dragon's Lair 2,' as well as a sci-fi spin-off, 'Space Ace,' the expected wave of imitators never really followed. Traditional pixel and vector graphics games simply got more advanced, as did home-based systems, and of course the personal computer completely redefined the medium by the late '80s. A Laserdisc player in a giant box was just not going to be the wave of the future, no matter how prophetic 'Dragon's Lair' may have seemed for that brief, shiny moment in 1983.
Still, for many of us, 'Dragon's Lair' engenders a great nostalgia. I'm glad Digital Leisure has kept Dirk alive now for over two decades now, releasing the game on just about every home optical disc configuration imaginable. Yes, it's still clunky; yes, it's still weird pushing a joystick (or Blu-ray player remote) up, down, left and right while you "pilot" Dirk to follow pre-determined animation vignettes; and yes, 'Dragon's Lair' will seem laughable to any young gamers today who've been weaned on the PlayStation and the Xbox, and games where pimps beat up hookers and blow up police cars. But for me, the charm of 'Dragon's Lair' remains its fantastical animation, and the sheer kid-like glee with which the game was designed and executed. Maybe it doesn't really hold up, but it still gets my respect for its originality, and its continued sheer oddness.
Now, as Digital Leisure brings 'Dragon's Lair' to Blu-ray, I can honestly say we finally have a home video format that can more-or-less faithfully replicate the arcade experience. I've played most of the older disc releases of the game, and frankly, they kind of sucked. 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. 'Dragon's Lair,' HD-style, is much more fluid, with the only real lag times coming between the end of one gameplay sequence and the beginning of another -- but the half second or so you'll have to wait is nothing compared to the slow load times of the average Xbox or PlayStation release. During the actual scenes of the game, keeping the animation running smoothly is easy -- just make the right moves, and Dirk keeps going, almost always without any hiccups.
Also improved here is the responsiveness of the remote (if you own a PlayStation 3, you can also use a game controller for even more of an arcade feel). I pulled out my old standard-def DVD version to compare for this review, and was shocked by how often I'd make a move and the remote and/or DVD player would simply ignore it. Not so with this Blu-ray version -- aside from my own bone-headed blunders, I never experienced a single missed command. (I did experience one operational problem a few times when I hit the "Top Menu" button my my PS3 remote to return the main menu screen -- on a few occasions, the console locked up, and I had to eject the disc and boot up all over again.)
Now on to the various gameplay options Digital Leisure has built into the disc. In total, there are five basic settings you can customize, although only three made immediate sense to me: 1) you can 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) you can choose to engage optional Control Prompts, which will alert you with a small green prompt for a correct move, or a red prompt for a wrong one. (Note that unlike on the standard-def DVD, the Control Prompts don't appear on their own -- which enabled players to "cheat" by being told the correct move in advance -- instead, the prompts only appear after you've identified your intended direction, allowing a player to confirm their actions before making them, which should be especially helpful for beginners.)
As mentioned above, the other two gameplay options are somewhat frustrating, if only because the documentation that comes with the disc makes no mention of what they do. The first is labeled Game Mode, which can be set to either "Home" or "Arcade." After playing the game for a while, I was only able to notice two differences. The first is that in Arcade mode, you don't hear the audio cues when you make a move. The second difference was that the running order of Dirk's challenges shuffles in Home mode, while in Arcade mode it's the same every time. Finally, the last undocumented option is Difficulty Level, which can be set to "Easy" or "Hard." Again, I can only surmise based on playing the game for a while, but in Easy move, it seems you can make all the wrong moves you want and nothing bad will happen, so long as you make the correct move at the right time. In Hard mode, on the other hand, if you move the joystick or hit the button at the wrong time -- even if no move is expected to keep the game going -- it could end in disaster. For example, if you're in Hard mode, and Dirk is standing at the edge of a cliff, and you then hit the joystick towards the cliff, you'll send him right over the edge. In Easy mode, you can do however you want, and Dirk will stay safe until the next "official" move is required. Again, Easy mode should certainly be helpful for beginners who want to test out the controls or moves without dying constantly.
Now we come to the one aspect of 'Dragon's Lair' on Blu-ray that's a bit of a deal-breaker for me. Unless there is some hidden option I can't find (no mention is made anywhere on the disc's menus or documentation otherwise), the game will automatically push you ahead to the end of a sequence, even if you screw up a move. Let's say you're attempting to navigate the river rapids, for example, and you make a wrong move. Dirk will die as expected, but instead of going back to the beginning of the sequence to get it right, you simply go onto the next adventure -- you don't ever need to complete it to advance. Combine this with the Unlimited mode, and the game of course has no challenge. Mess up all you want, and voila!, you can still complete the whole game like a pro, in mere minutes. Even selecting Five Lives combined with the Hard mode, the game is too easy - you can die at a tricky part, and still move ahead without ever having to correct your mistake. Even more irritating, if you do want to figure out a whole sequence on your own, you can't without going back to the beginning of the game, and re-doing everything until you reach the sequence again. This doesn't make sense to me, and ruins a big part of the payoff of the game -- the thrill of solving the moves of each sequence on your own. Never before have I seen a game actually reward you for sucking!
To sum up, in general 'Dragon's Lair' plays well on Blu-ray -- it's certainly more seamless than the game has ever been before on a home video format. Unfortunately, I suspect that some of the game's more confusing and undocumented options may lead newcomers to simply throw up their hands in frustration. Meanwhile, purists like me are likely to be turned off by the disc's seemingly inescapable "auto-advance to the next level" feature. These two issues are a real pity, as on all other levels, this truly is the most perfect realization of 'Dragon's Lair' since the arcade.
Digital Leisure has created a new 1080p restoration of 'Dragon's Lair' for high-def release, re-formatted at 1.78:1 widescreen and encoded in MPEG-2. It really does look great, and is an obvious upgrade over all previous versions.
Comparing the picture quality on this disc to its standard-def predecessor (which was marred by noticeable dirt and dropouts), this Blu-ray edition is definitely cleaner, with all of the major blemishes gone. Contrast is also superior -- there is more of a difference between the deepest blacks and whitest whites, which gives more depth to the image. But best of all are colors -- never have they looked this rich and striking. The reds are now vivid -- not the flat, muted oranges of the DVD. Purples, greens and blues also excel, and just about every sequence is impressive. The only really distracting quality to the transfer is grain. Yes, it's appropriate given the age of the material, but the sharpness of high-definition exacerbates it somewhat. But it's hardly fatal. At last, Don Bluth has been done proud -- the animation his team created in 'Dragon's Lair' has a great retro quality, but also feels strangely timeless. This Blu-ray gets it right.
Also new to this Blu-ray edition is a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, encoded at 640kbps. It really is quite alive and active. 'Dragon's Lair' is, of course, a completely artificial creation, giving the sound effects a very bright, punchy sound that works quite well in surround.
There is no real score in 'Dragon's Lair,' let alone any dialogue (aside from creature noises and the occasional yelp from Daphne -- Dirk himself ain't much of a talker). The effects sound fresh, though, with better dynamics than I expected. There is noticeable rear action -- usually atmosphere sounds like swirling wind, crumbling rocks or the fiery roar of the Dragon. Bass is also quite sprightly, with a fair amount of punch. No, 'Dragon's Lair' is hardly a sustained, immersive experience, but given the circumstances, it's hard to imagine it sounding much better than this.
Since 'Dragon's Lair' is making its next-gen debut on Blu-ray, and the team at Digital Leisure has created a brand new package of supplements for the release, all of the extras here are (for the time being, anyway) exclusive to the format. So read on down to the next section...
If you're like me, playing 'Dragon's Lair' will bring back a flood of happy memories of a simpler time when a joystick, a laserdisc player and classic 2-D animation could bring hours of enjoyment. This Blu-ray version of the game is the best I've played yet on a home format -- the video and audio restoration is first-rate, the supplements are enjoyable, and the play controls are about as seamless as possible, given the circumstances. My only major complaint is with the way gameplay on this disc has been engineered, which seems to reward players as much for making wrong moves as it does right ones. Depending on your outlook, this could be the Blu-ray edition's fatal flaw, so you may want to rent this one instead of buying sight unseen.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.