I don’t know why the Summer of Love has taken me deep into 1980s video games, but over time I’ve learned to embrace, rather than fight, nostalgia. A few days ago, right after my last post, I started thinking about the 1983 arcade classic Dragon’s Lair. Dragon’s Lair doesn’t necessarily appeal to me for its amazing game play, in fact it was impossible to play in the arcade because it was both too expensive (double the price of all other arcade games of the time at 50 cents) and too difficult—the game play was both jerky and unintuitive given everything was predetermined with no alternatives and no room for error. What remains magical about Dragon’s Lair, however, is the attempt to turn a beautiful animated film into a game using a modified laserdisc player. The whole laserdisc game phenomenon highlights a unique genre of the arcade craze of the early 80s, not unlike the vector games, but far more seductive. Just look at the Dragon’s Lair game trailer above (in HD), and it’s immediately apparent how Don Bluth’s animation is a throwback of the best kind. It brings to mind the best of the animated Disney movies of the 50s, 60s, and 70s as well as the slapstick humor of Bugs Bunny. What’s more, a quick watch of the original arcade movie sequence of the game (in beautiful HD) quickly illustrates just how “…abstract and trippy the castle’s interiors are, ” as one commentor notes on YouTube.
The whole laserdisc game phenomenon fascinates me to no end, I’ve owned a laserdisc since the early 90s, and I have a decent collection of discs—mainly Carpenter and Cronenberg films. So the whole idea of a modified Pioneer laserdisc player as an arcade game seems so beautifully retro, and then when you actually see the first player used for Dragon’s Lair, the Pioneer PR-7820 (pictured to the right), it becomes clear why people have a fetish for the aesthetic of outdated technology. There’s a good essay titled “Lazer Daze” over at The Dot Eaters that has a concise history and overview of laserdisc games in the early 80s and the pop culture phenomenon that was Dragon’s Lair.
And as is always the case, the internet lets you relive your past with little or no resistance. Emulating laserdisc games has been around with Matt Ownby’s DAPHNE emulator for over 10 years. You still have to own (or find) the Video MPEG files for the laserdisc games: which can be ripped from the original laserdiscs (very rare) or the numerous DVD releases and various system ports over the years—keep in mind the 2002 20th Anniversary edition DVD (not PC CD-ROM) is the best version for the DAPHNE emulator, not to mention it is a 3-in-1 with Dragon’s Lair, Dragon’s Lair II, and Space Ace. All that said, there are other ways of getting Dragon’s Lair working on your computer. Finally, I also broke down and downloaded the Dragon’s Lair app for the iPhone (or in my case the iPod Touch) and I have to say at first it was pretty impressive, but the default unlimited lives and lack of an opening cut scene—not to mention the controllers on the screen—constantly remind you you’re not playing the OG game. It is a faithful port, but not all the original moves are there, and playing Dragon’s Lair on a 5″ screen just doesn’t appeal to me. That said, the fact the Dragon’s Lair has been ported to just about every system and gaming platform since its inception (with the Bluray just three years ago) and the iPhone just last year—the draw of this game has been consistent for almost 30 years. And this for a game that played terribly and was too expensive, but at the same time did something no other game had to that point—it made a beautifully animated film interactive, and attempted to let you play that film—in some ways we are still working towards this vision, however morphed and redefined—but in 1983 this game provided a stunning first look at what might be possible (even for a twelve year old) and that’s what I’ve always loved about it. In fact, it’s also what keeps me coming back to it.