Review: Dragon’s Lair
July 1983 was a vintage month; Rod Stewart and Paul Young had UK number one tracks with their hits “Baby Jane” and “Wherever I Lay My Hat” respectively, Staying Alive and Jaws 3-D were pulling in the cinema crowds and Spy Hunter and Star Wars were nabbing everyone’s spare change at the arcade. I was three years old, far too young to appreciate any of this (admittedly, I was probably bouncing around to Paul Young), and far too young to be affected by the arcade release of Dragon’s Lair, the Don Bluth-animated title published by Cinematronics Incorporated – but it made a massive impact, being the first game of its kind to feature movie-quality animation, provided by one of the artists involved in some of Disney’s biggest cartoons.
The premise was simple, guide the knight Dirk the Daring around the dragon Singe’s castle (the Dragon’s Lair of the title) to rescue Princess Daphne – but what made the game stand out was the fact that you controlled Dirk’s reflexes as opposed to his every move, moving the joystick in one single direction or tapping the sword button at the right time in order to move on. It was a game of trial and error and memory, with some scenes simply unforgiving in their need for you to complete the correct move.
Since its release Dragon’s Lair has since gone on to become one of gaming’s most iconic titles and has been ported onto nearly every home computer and console imaginable, and has seen at least one new release or remake every couple of years – which is really quite impressive. I got into the game around ’87, when Software Projects released it as a sort-of sequel called Escape From Singe’s Castle on the ZX Spectrum, and it was notoriously hard – the lack of on-screen prompts and a flaky input system led to many an annoying afternoon in front of the small black and white screen in our front room (yes, some TV’s were still black and white back in those days, kids).
Publishers Digital Leisure jumped on the title in 1997, planning to remaster and re-release classic arcade titles, and they’ve done a pretty good job so far, bringing not only Dragon’s Lair to the original Xbox and Xbox 360, but also Apple’s iPad and iPhone, and Google’s Android handsets – and now to Xbox Live Arcade.
The game itself remains largely untouched, you still control Dirk the Daring’s action using a well-timed flick of the left stick or a tap of the A button to get his sword a-swinging, but the game has been dumbed down slightly in that it shows on-screen prompts for what you need to do next. This creates a real test of your reactions, as you attempt to watch what Dirk’s up to but also to keep an eye out for the prompts – at times it’s hard to switch off from the animation and some prompts do get missed, which leads to one of Dirk’s extremely amusing death scenes. You can turn the prompts off, but this leads to some very frustrating gameplay situations – but fans of the original arcade machine will no doubt go bonkers for this option, and the fact that you can select to have the original arcade cabinet display around the edges of your screen – compete with a D-Pad image on the right-hand side that flashes to let you know which button to push (or not, if you have this turned off). To further add to the authenticity, the original input ‘beep’ when you complete a correct action also features, which again can be switched off if you so desire.
There are two game modes included; Arcade and Home, with the Arcade mode emulating the original cabinet’s scene order but moving you onto the next scene if you die. Home mode is the original laserdisc version of the game and requires you to complete a scene before you move on – quite confusing, as both versions are essentially one and the same thing, although Arcade mode feels a little pointless as it requires next to no effort to move forward. The game does offer a generous continue system once your five lives have been used up, but if you want to bag the ‘Flawless’ achievement it’s worth saving as often as possible to complete the game with all your lives intact.
There’s also a rather disappointing Kinect mode included that allows you to play through the original adventure by jumping left, right, forwards or backwards to move Dirk, as well as swing his sword and climb ropes – but the execution is awful and the movement detection is practically non-existent. You can play Co-op using Kinect, with the second player controlling the Princess Daphne in a new set of scenes, but it’s a messy affair that leads to a fair bit of confusion. It’s a real shame as I was really intrigued to see how Kinect integration would work, but Digital Leisure would have been far better off adding Escape From Singe’s Castle to the package instead – definitely a missed trick there, so slapped wrists all round.
At 800MSP Dragon’s Lair is a bit of a hit and miss affair, although there a couple of different modes on offer and tweakable options for the purists the gameplay is so simple (with the prompts switched on) and repetitive that it won’t serve as much more than a trip down memory lane for those that are old enough to remember it first time around (like me). The animation is beautiful in my opinion – but then I am a sucker for a good hand-drawn image – but compared to the more modern titles around it does look extremely dated, and the fact that the scenes often don’t tend to segue nicely into each other once you’ve completed a move is sometimes jarring. Sure, it adds to the authenticity but even I had to turn my nose up on more than one occasion.
Review: Dragon’s Lair Results
What we liked:
Faithful recreation of an Arcade classic
Don Bluth's excellent animation
Excellent trip down memory lane for the old timers out there
What we disliked:
Far too repetitive and - at times - unforgiving
Utterly disappointing waste of Kinect