Friday, August 11, 2006


What Dragon's Lair Did Right

It doesn't sound like a terribly interesting idea for a video game. You watch a fifteen-minute cartoon in which the main character is constantly finding himself in danger -- exploring a castle with room after room of deathtraps and monsters -- and the only input you get to offer is a direction on the joystick or a button to use the sword. If you enter the correct inputs in time, the cartoon proceeds to its happy ending. If you enter wrong or take too long, the cartoon is interrupted by a silly death animation.

Welcome to the world of laserdisc games, a shortlived arcade fad from the early 80's that was started by a game called Dragon's Lair. Instead of having direct control over a bunch of pixels on the screen, you "guided" your cartoon hero using an interface that could best be described as a twitch-action Choose Your Own Adventure book. There was a boom of laserdisc titles when Dragon's Lair debutted, but popularity quickly dropped off when the medium's shortcomings became apparent -- because of the nature of pre-rendered animation, the games tended to be more an exercise in memorization than any sort of other skill.

Now, to be fair, when a laserdisc game was done right, it felt a lot like you had more control of the action than you actually did. Most action games that we play today require the same sort of memorization and timing skills that the laserdisc games did back in the day; the only real difference is that we have to press a lot more buttons to get a character to do something than we did in Dragon's Lair. And laserdisc games have the benefit of being a lot more cinematic. So much effort is put into trying to make our 3-D games look like movies that are written, directed, and produced on the fly, but watching someone else play Halo or Zelda or Final Fantasy isn't really much like watching a movie. Watching someone play Dragon's Lair really is like watching a movie.

When Dragon's Lair was first introduced, I was much too young to really appreciate video games beyond the obvious appeal of watching something on a TV screen react to the way I was pressing buttons. I got to watch someone play Dragon's Lair II in an arcade during the great arcade rennaissance of the early 90's. But my first real experience with Dragon's Lair was -- are you ready for this? -- on the Game Boy Color in 2000. I think it's important to mention this for two reasons. First is because this shows that my opinions of the game are not based on nostalgia, fuzzy memories, or the hype surrounding the game at the time. Second, this shows that my opinions of the game are unswayed by the technical marvels of full-motion video. Frankly, the animation had to be butchered to get it to fit on a Game Boy Color cartridge and to make it play on the older hardware. Otherwise, for most intents and purposes, the Game Boy Color version of Dragon's Lair is an accurate representation of the original arcade game.

And it was love at first sight.

Dragon's Lair is really a remarkable game. Not only was it the first game of its kind, but it was the best game of its kind. No one else who did laserdisc games seemed to really understand what made Dragon's Lair magical -- not even its own sequel did the concept as well as the original. It was a real lightning-in-a-jar moment for the video game industry, and even though the laserdisc concept has been put to a well-deserved rest, we would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge what Dragon's Lair did right.

It was brief.

I can hear heads exploding as I praise a video game for being short. Yes, there is a benefit to video games that you can complete in a single session.

Earthbound is one of my very favorite video games of all time, and yet I just played it for the first time in years. Why don't I play it more regularly if I enjoy it so much? I mean, sure, the story would get dull if I went through it several times in succession, but you'd think maybe once or twice a year at least? Problem is, it took me a week of my free time to play the game from start to finish. And that's when I already know the game inside and out -- even with the official strategy guide, it took me forever to master the game the first time out. I'm afraid of starting it because I know what a commitment it'll take to get to the end of it. And then I start to get that feeling like there are more productive ways to be spending my time than wasting a week playing a game that I've already finished a good three or four times in the past.

Dragon's Lair? I pop it in whenever I get the itch to play it. Half an hour later, I've had my fix and I'll put it down again. It's very accessible.

And when you're first mastering it, you'll be glad the game is so short, because...

Sometimes you lose.

Think about what it means to lose in a modern video game. Go back to your last save point and try it again? Restart at the beginning of the current dungeon with everything that you found before you died? Nothing at all?

In the arcade, you get three lives. (The Game Boy Color version gave you a more generous five lives.) There's no chance to get more lives. When you're out of Dirks, that's it. You can't even drop another quarter in to continue -- the story's over, and it has a grim ending indeed.

You just can't do that in games anymore. Players don't want to fail and start over from the beginning because video games have become bloated, 50-hour epics. (Or, games have become bloated, 50-hour epics because players don't want to fail and start over from the beginning. A topic for another time, my friends!) It's downright refreshing to have a game where failure carries a heavy penalty -- it makes it that much sweeter when you succeed. The most satisfying moments in my video gaming career have all come when I felt like I really earned something, like making it to the end of the NES Super Mario games. My first glimpse of Singe's lair was one of those moments.

But even if the game is difficult, that's okay, because...

Your score shows you how good you're getting.

Score, when it's kept at all, has become meaningless in most modern games. Even back on the NES, you never played Super Mario Brothers for score -- you played it to get to the end. If the score in Super Mario Brothers meant anything, speed runs wouldn't be as popular as they are; instead, we'd have videos where someone does the 99 lives trick and uses it to replay the same stretch of the game and then dying over and over and over again just to rack up the points until the scoreboard became all 9s. And what would it mean? That they had the free time to keep slogging away until they rolled the score?

But the score in Dragon's Lair means something.

When you first play the game, you don't know what the hell you're doing. Sure, you can solve some of the simpler rooms, but when you start to get to some of the really puzzling sequences (the yellow brick road, the green slime room, the socker boppers) you'll get your ass handed to you and the game ends. The more you play, the more familiar you become with the rooms, and the more rooms you actually manage to solve. The game isn't entirely a win/lose proposition; every time, your score gets a little higher as a testament to your increasing proficiency as a Dirk-guider. And that feels pretty darned good.

The game is non-linear.

Say huh? Didn't I just explain that the game was played by watching a predetermined animation and pretending that you have a hand in how it plays out? How can that be non-linear?

Well, it's like this. There's 39 scenes (or "rooms") in the game. Since there's very little plot continuity from one room to the next (except, of course, the final scene in the dragon's lair), they've been put together in a semi-random order to help give the game a little more variety. It's difficult to describe exactly what that does for the overall experience, but it's a beautiful, beautiful thing when it all comes together.

First of all, there's enough order to the scenes that you can tell how much progress you've made if you know what to look for. For the novice, it's rewarding when you recognize that you've made a complete "lap" through the scene sequence on a single playthrough.

Second of all, the random scene selection keeps the game from getting too tedious when you're stuck on how to solve a particular room. The green slime room dogged me for days in the Game Boy Color version, but I became proficient at the later levels during those games when the green slime room didn't come up on my first or second run through the sequence.

The world would have to wait until Wario Ware Inc before we got another video game that pulled this much of a level ordering switchup on the player. Wouldn't it be interesting if you played the next Legend of Zelda game, and the order of events changed every time you played it?

The player never gets stuck.

Well, obviously the player can run into a seemingly unsolvable room. But the penalties for failing to find a room's solution the first time through are relatively small -- you lose a life and you move on to the next scene.

Compare this to modern adventure games, where you can spend hours of playtime stuck in a "guess the action" puzzle, and the plot grinds to an immovable halt until you figure it out or give up and get a walkthrough. When I played The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, I got stuck at the sequence where Link has to help the Deku Tree, which has been infested with slime creatures. Since I'd just picked up the Hook Shot, I thought the solution would be to use the hook shot to pull the slimes off. I spent half an hour trying to pursue this solution because, even though my attempts to pull the slimes off were fruitless, the game gave me no indication that this was because I used the wrong tactic rather than, as I believed, I didn't have the skill to hit the slimes correctly. Finally, out of boredom and frustration, I started roll-attacking randomly around the area, and completely on accident, I smacked into the spot that caused all of the slimes to come dislodged. Rather than being ecstatic over my victory, I was pissed off at the game designers for blocking my progress with a puzzle that had such an arbitrary and unfair solution. (Because, really, when have they ever used Link's roll as a puzzle-solving tactic before, I ask you?)

But in Dragon's Lair, if you don't solve a room, you simply lose a life and move on to the next one. You don't get a chance to replay that room until you reach the dragon's lair. This means two things. One, you never have to deal with the hassle of being stuck. Two, you don't have the luxury of patiently replaying the same room over and over until you master it. The first thing keeps the game moving, and the second thing keeps the game challenging.

The game keeps things simple.

I actually played Dragon's Lair 3D when it first came out for the Gamecube. For the first few levels, I was rather pleased with the game -- it was just the sort of action platformer that I expected a fully-controlled Dragon's Lair might be.

But then... I started collecting more of the powerups.

When I got to the point where my challenge wasn't so much "navigate an obstacle course of death traps" as it was "pay attention to the blue meter that's protecting me from environmental fire while trying to fire a crossbow with iffy controls at tiny dragons that can kill me in one hit", I realized that this just wasn't Dragon's Lair.

The original has no inventories to keep track of, no special powers to collect -- nothing that distracts you from the simple task of navigating the wizard's castle. Sometimes, it's nice to strip away all of the extraneous crap and just focus on the core of the gameplay.

Consider also -- Dragon's Lair 3D needed every button on the Gamecube controller, and they still didn't quite manage to give Dirk every move that he has in the arcade original -- a game that you controlled with exactly one four-direction joystick and one attack button. We got a lot more with a lot less. Don't tell me developers can make their games look photorealistic but they can't make a "smart protagonist" that controls like Dirk.

The tone of the game was perfect.

When Don Bluth's animation is good, it's damned good. Like no one else, he can show us an ugly, rough-around-the-edges world and still make it look like an idyllic fantasy. Dragon's Lair is presented as a sort of "dark toony" world. Dirk's environment is malignent, merciless, and deadly in many, many ways. This castle is a living thing, and it wants you dead. This isn't a happy, bouncy Mushroom Kingdom, where Mario lies on his back and goes "Mama Mia!" when he dies -- Dirk gets roasted, strangled, electrocuted, drowned, chopped, sliced, diced, pureed, and eaten.

But it's not so dark that it's depressing. There's no gore and no feeling of hopelessness. Dirk's goodness and courage in the face of peril shines through the adversity, even if he's a total klutz most of the time. It's still soft enough that kids can like it, even if half the stuff will scare the hell out of the little ones. (When I was very young, I got a glimpse of Dirk's resurrection from his skeletal remains. It was scary.)

Now, of course, we seem to have games polarizing. Give or take a Rayman or a Sonic the Hedgehog, it seems like most games are going to extremes of cuddly-wuddly cuteness or gritty, hellish darkness. It'd be nice if there was a little more middle ground.

Laserdisc games may be dead, but they still have lessons to teach us. Whispers of Dragon's Lair still live on in games like Space Channel 5, Feel the Magic, and Wario Ware Inc. Sometimes I think I'd like to see another Dragon's Lair, but usually I'm content to look at it for what it is -- a modest, magical classic that will never truly be duplicated.


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