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Something out of science-fiction: A short history of Dragon’s Lair

The game that wouldn’t die

Depending on when you were born, you might not remember Dragon’s Lair at all.

One of the very first hand-drawn video games has a stellar pedigree, and a startlingly long life, despite the fact that most people agree it’s not actually fun to play.

Dragon’s Lair is a brutally hard and beautifully drawn game that predates our darling Cuphead by 34 years. It came out at a time when video games were predominantly computer-animated and pixelicious. Compare the art of Dragon’s Lair to Galaga, or even Donkey Kong, and you’ll see why it got people so excited.

Now, Dragon’s Lair may be set to make a comeback, as it’s featured pretty prominently in Stranger Things 2. This is the story of Dragon’s Lair.

A different kind of game

Even if you’ve never heard of Dragon’s Lair, there’s a good chance you looked at the art and thought, “hey, that looks familiar!”

If you’re me, it looks like your childhood.

Dragon’s Lair was animated by Don Bluth. Bluth is a Disney veteran, who founded his own company — Don Bluth Productions — in 1979. He worked on a lot of iconic films: The Land Before Time is a notable favorite. Steven Spielberg later approached Bluth to work on An American Tail. Don Bluth Productions was known for hand-drawn animated films, which were generally darker than Disney’s.

The Secret of Nimh was the first film that Bluth directed, and it caught the attention of Rick Dyer.

Thumbelina Don Bluth Productions

Dyer is a man that network news would later call “a modern-day David” — as in David and Goliath — for taking on big publishers like Atari, who dominated the arcade scene.

He was an inventor, game designer, and the president of a company called RDI Video Systems. He made laserdisc games, and was looking to break into the home console market. Above all, Dyer wanted to do something different — something special.

“People were sick of computer graphic games,” he said in an interview at the time of Dragon’s Lair’s release. “It didn’t have appeal — they were tired of it. They wanted something a little more real.”

With the technology of the time, “more real” didn’t mean photorealistic. It meant something as detailed, intricate, and fluid as a film could be. It meant animation.

Dyer approached Don Bluth Productions, and they began to work on a game based on a prototype Dyer had already developed.

The budget was only one million dollars. The studio couldn’t afford to hire actors, so what little voice-over the game has was done in-house. Legend has it they used Playboy centerfolds as the body models for leotard-clad Princess Daphne, the game’s damsel.

And 13 people did 50,000 drawings to make up the character animations. These were painted on cels and scanned onto hand-painted backgrounds. There were 24 drawings for each second of screen-time.

Bad but beautiful

The animation in Dragon’s Lair might be top-notch, but the gameplay leaves something to be desired: It’s essentially all quick-time events.

Bluth found animating it an intriguing challenge. He needed to clearly communicate danger to the player, who would then press a button or move the joystick to indicate the direction the character needed to go to avoid that danger.

“I thought that’s very interesting,” Bluth said. “How can I design a game which will present enough of those moments, in short little periods of time, to where the game becomes exciting?”

Dragon's Lair

But the key here is that the player wasn’t the one controlling the character. Every scene in Dragon’s Lair is like a choose-your-own-adventure cutscene. Pressing a button at the right — or wrong — time results in a scene where Dirk the Daring is either saved or killed. It’s a binary with zero flexibility.

The original Dragon’s Lair in arcades was a laserdisc game. It was constantly scrubbing, searching the disc for the correct scene to play. As a result, the game broke frequently.

Interactivity was so limited that beating the game was an exercise in rote memorization.

But the gaming public — and network news — ate it up.

An arcade phenomenon

Dragon’s Lair Don Bluth Productions

When Dragon’s Lair came out in 1983, it took arcades by storm. It was expensive, at 50 cents a play, but it generated $48 million in revenue and was the top arcade game of 1983. It was a hit, at a time when arcades were just entering a years-long slump — a bright spot, when everything else looked dire.

It’s hard to overstate what a phenomenon it was — and it’s equally hard to express how people felt about it at the time.

First of all, Dragon’s Lair looked amazing. I asked Colin Campbell, resident legal adult here at Polygon, about his memories of Dragon’s Lair. He said it felt like “something out of science-fiction.”

Dragon’s Lair is as different from normal video games as Space Invaders was to pinball,” one news program said.

Don Bluth hit the nail on the head when he spoke about the game’s popularity in a recent IndieGoGo video.

“I think what blew everybody away is that it was pictures,” he said. “Pictures startled everyone, and so it was very successful for that reason.”

Forget the yes-or-no gameplay. This was the future of video games. The success of Dragon’s Lair pointed to the barrier between films and games breaking down. And RDI Video Systems had nowhere to go but up.

It helped that Atari’s grip on the arcade market was slipping.

“Business has dropped in half over the last year,” a news network noted. “Companies like Atari claim losses of more than $350 million. The slick, swift-paced space games are taking a nosedive, and analysts are predicting a crunch in the industry by Christmas. The craze has definitely peaked.”

All this allowed Rick Dyer to be pitted against the bigger companies by network news, as the David to Atari’s Goliath. This was true of Dragon’s Lair and of Dyer’s next release, Space Ace.

Space Ace has one sequence that could be symbolic in Dyer going head-to-head with Atari,” said John Culea for KFMB. “A giant is shown destroying himself in pursuit of the smarter and quicker hero.”

Space Ace Digital Leisure

Watching all these videos, I got the feeling that the media wanted Dragon’s Lair to be big, because it was something that finally made sense to people who didn’t play video games.

For people who had grown up on films, it was harder to understand why a game like Joust might be great — but easy to look at the beautiful animation of Dragon’s Lair and believe the gameplay must be just as refined as the visuals.

Where it ended

Joust Williams Electronics

After a year, the furor over Dragon’s Lair was starting to fade. Arcades didn’t like fragile laserdisc machines that broke with overuse. Nor did they appreciate that Dragon’s Lair didn’t really have replay value. Players memorized the moves, beat it, and didn’t come back.

Or they didn’t beat it, and got tired of spending money.

But for some, the lure of Dragon’s Lair persisted. I asked Polygon editor-in-chief Chris Grant, another certified adult, when he realized that Dragon’s Lair wasn’t fun. He said it didn’t happen until it was released on DVD, and that the game he had loved in arcades was less of a game and more of a movie that you skipped around at will.

“While I knew the game was laserdisc it didn't fully occur to me how crappy it was as a game it was until it was for sale in a bargain DVD bin,” he said.

All this makes the fanfare over Dragon’s Lair feel a little awkward with 34 years of hindsight.

Dragon’s Lair Digital Leisure

Rick Dyer, the “man whose mind was light-years in the future,” followed up Dragon’s Lair with the successful Space Ace. He went on to invent a console called Halcyon which played laserdisc games and was intended to be voice activated. But his company went bankrupt, and the console never took off.

The talented Don Bluth is still working with fellow animator Gary Goldman to produce a Dragon’s Lair movie. He also posts art videos on his YouTube channel.

And Dragon’s Lair hasn’t gone away. Not only is Bluth trying to resurrect it as a film, but the game has been re-released over and over again — most recently on Steam. It’s barely interactive, it’s awkward to play, but it survived.

Now the ultimate cult video game is going to be in Stranger Things: a TV show that is an homage to cult classics, and is paradoxically one of the most popular shows Netflix has distributed.

Since the debut of Dragon’s Lair in 1983, video games did become more cinematic. And hand-drawn games like Cuphead or Braid proved that new media and old can co-exist quite happily.

The promise of Dragon’s Lair was that in an ideal world, video games would be interactive movies. That promise was decidedly not fulfilled, and conventional wisdom now tells us that a game doesn’t need to mimic a film to be effective — and it certainly doesn’t have to mimic film to be fun.

Still, there’s something about that art.

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