Dragon’s Lair is a terrible videogame. Terrible but, until you actually play it, popular. Fortunately, it’s more fun to watch than play. So, with that out of the way, why have we included it in ACMI’s Story of the Moving Image?
In the early 1980s, Laserdiscs were seen as a new technological advancement that would revolutionise home video, taking it out of the magnetic tape era of VHS and Betamax.
The first wave of arcade games had brought a lot of money and investment into the field. There were two pathways that arcades would explore: better graphics and new types of interactivity, with simultaneous multiplayer and new controller designs.
In 1982 two different companies started to experiment with Laserdiscs in arcade games. In the pursuit of ‘movie-like’ graphics, Advanced Microcomputer Systems employed Disney animator Don Bluth to draw cell animation for Dragon’s Lair. The result was a beautiful looking but deeply flawed ‘interactive cartoon’.
The Laserdisc player inside the cabinet contained individual short videos of each separate animated sequence of the game. The playback of sequences from the Laserdisc in particular order is controlled by a circuit board that houses the logic of the game on a ROM chips. With the Laserdisc physically spinning inside the cabinet, and the read head mechanically being moved across the disc, the game was prone to a lot of physical failure.
Right down to the user interface for selecting the difficultly mode – Knight, Squire, or Page – the game is mean. Watching ACMI visitors try to play the game, almost everyone selects the ‘first option’, which also happens to be the hardest difficulty. The difficulty setting does only one thing – it changes the tolerance for the timing cues that lead you through the game. Even at the easiest setting, ‘Page’, you have a split second to respond correctly to a subtle onscreen flash and move up/down/left/right or swing your sword. There are no alternative routes. Everything has only one correct movement to avoid the ubiquitous death skeleton animation. What’s worse is that death doesn’t lead to a replay of the same sequence but jumps you to another random scene, meaning that the game takes a long time to ‘learn’.
Back in the 1980s arcade games were expensive for operators and a new release premium game like Dragon’s Lair would be installed at the front of arcade as an attractor and priced at as much as $2 per play. Kids, myself included, would watch in awe as older players would feed coin after coin into the machine – and mechanically make a series of memorised moves to get through each randomly sequenced stage. Every so often we would get to witness an elite player who could go through on a single life, and we would get to see all of the disjointed story.
This privileging of graphics over interactivity held sway over popular understandings of videogames from the mid 1980s onwards, all the way through the 3D graphics the 1990s and early 2000s, and only really began to reverse with the mass success and popularity of Minecraft’s oversized pixels in the 2010s.
Periodically Dragon’s Lair reappears in popular culture, most recently in the third series of Stranger Things. It is emblematic of that moment just before the mid 1980s arcade crash and the rise of home computers and consoles. Home computing changed the how money was made from videogames and in so doing changed game design. Those who grew up after arcades will never understand why videogames were designed to be so difficult that very few players would ever 'complete' them. In the late 1990s Dragons Lair and several other Laserdisc titles were reissued as interactive DVD games controlled by your DVD player remote, and later as emulated games. These reissues and remakes for the home have unlimited lives and, most fittingly, let you replay the same sequences until you perfect them.
The spirit of Dragons Lair lives on, too, in the design of poker machines and other gambling games, where money poured into the machine simply buys more time and “just one more turn” has been the guiding philosophy in their design. The house always wins.
– Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer