Dragon’s Lair (Arcade) is the Retro Game of the Week for 19 September, 2016

Released: 1983
Publisher:  Cinematronics
Developer: Advanced Microcomputer Systems
Platform: Arcade
Genre: Interactive movie
Played on: Daphne emulator, keyboard

Oh, where do I begin on this one?

Dragon’s Lair was a presence in the arcades of 1993, to say the least.  It commanded attention by the very fact that it wasn’t just another blocky game with simple graphics.  It was playing an animated cartoon and beckoned one and all to play: Lead on, adventurer; your quest awaits.  And it was quite an expensive game, often taking two or maybe even four quarters or tokens to play.  You’d approach the thing after everyone else got a turn, insert the necessary coinage to play, hit the start button.  The screen goes to a view of a dark castle, cutting to a scene of a daring knight entering the castle behind closing iron gates.  Suddenly, the game began before you were even aware of it, the daring adventurer reacting to a wall closing up in front of him.  You aren’t sure what to do, or even if you should do something.  And before you know it, you see the daring adventurer either caught in the wall or gassed to death on the side he came in on.  The game presents you with more scenarios, and unsure what to do, you randomly flick the joystick or hit the button.  You hear one assuring “beep” amid a cacophony of buzzer sounds, meaning at least something you did was right, but in the end, you die very quickly, and the game is over.  You walk away, puzzled but intrigued.

As you continue to play, you learn that Dragon’s Lair is essentially a memorization game, helped along by subtle visual cues in the video (flashing lights, movement, locations of items, etc).  And when you figure it all out and are able to execute the moves perfectly all the way to the eponymous dragon’s lair and rescue the fair princess, you become a star to all who watch, who marvel at your feat.  But in the end, what is it really worth?  Is doing nothing but tilting a stick or hitting a button to a visual cue for an entire game actually a game?

Soon enough, many other games followed in the shadow of Dragon’s Lair and presented their own video-backed gaming experiences, some with more actual gameplay than others.  There was even an actual sequel called Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp.  And as the arcade scene began to fill itself with these games, gamers began to see them as the boring, non-game fluff they really were.  Something that was at first exciting and new became a sideshow that wasn’t worth the price of admission.  The idea even spread to the home as CD-based game system began springing up, and games like Night Trap were rightfully criticized for being barely a game.  It had seemed like the idea of barely interactive, style over substance games had died a just death.

Unfortunately, we still get games that decide that “quick time events”, or QTEs, the new name for what Dragon’s Lair used as its primary “game” mechanic back in 1983, are a viable mechanic, and worse still, games have moved to a very story-focused experience which, while not having game mechanics as rigid as QTEs, have very focused live-or-die setpiece moments that almost feel as bad as what Dragon’s Lair had.  In this way, today’s games do owe a lot to Dragon’s Lair — which is not at all a good thing.  But when people lose the perspective of gaming history and view modern games as the standard by which all games should be judged, you elevate poor game design like this to an undeserved pinnacle.

When you rely on visual panache and gimmicks and overall style over actual gameplay and fun to sell a game, gaming loses.  And that’s where we are today.

Thanks, Dragon’s Lair.