The early 80s were something of a turning point for arcades with huge hits like Nintendo’s Donkey Kong and Taito’s Pac-Man drumming up quarters from everyone’s pockets. They were also a challenging time for the scene as well thanks to the devastating effects of “Great Video Game Crash” that largely affected the West providing an object lesson for Nintendo whose star would rise later.
Arcades weren’t entirely immune to the crushing blow that the consumer market was dealt but that didn’t dim the enthusiasm a number of developers had for the medium such as those that were still searching for ways to take pixels to the next level of immersion. Namely, by getting rid of said pixels.
Dragon’s Lair set out to do just that.
This herculean effort was already in development for four years before its debut in 1983 as an idea by Rick Dyer, president of AMS (Advanced Microcomputer Systems), who was looking for a way to blend together then-revolutionary laserdisc tech into a game. At around the same time, another revolution was taking place in the talented hands of a number of former Disney animators working with Don Bluth of Don Bluth Productions.
Don Bluth was an animator who had worked at Disney for nearly ten years contributing his skills to films such as Sleeping Beauty. An article by Mary Claire Blakeman for an issue of Video Games in 1983 recounts that on his birthday, September 13th, 1979, he and a number of other animators left Disney to form their own studio dedicated to what they felt was the dying art of “classical” animation where every frame was hand-painted and a number of old school techniques were used to maintain the kind of look that films like Sleeping Beauty distinguished themselves with. That, and live action films were growing in focus at Disney at the time, threatening to push aside the animation work that studio was far better known for.
Don Bluth Productions did a number of smaller jobs after coming together, but their biggest project (and the biggest non-Disney animation project at the time) had been Don Bluth’s own personal dream — a dark, fantasy adventure based on Robert C. O’Brien’s children’s book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, that Disney balked at doing and which was another reason for him and his team to break free and pursue their own dream.
After a number of challenges, The Secret of NIMH came out in 1982 and although it did well critically, it didn’t do so well commercially due to a number of factors not the least of which was opening in fewer theaters than expected, little promotion by MGM (the distributor at the time), and ultimately going against other films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Rocky III. Yet it went on to win a number of awards and in the years to come, became recognized by many as an iconic masterpiece from Bluth and his team.
But Bluth also wanted to find out how “to unite animation with computer technology in a popular form”. In essence, doing something along the lines of what Rick Dyer was hoping to do. The work at the time was carried out in relative secrecy — a company was formed called Starcom that involved Dyer’s AMS and an “anonymous” studio that didn’t wish to be identified according to a writeup Video Games did on Dragon’s Lair in mid-1983 (although it was hinted, based on ‘industry sources’, that it was Bluth).
At Starcom, Dyer’s design existed only on “paper tape” but he had put together a team to find ways to make it come together. Victor Penman, who worked with Dyer on the project, “took over the game design” in 1981 and worked to create a film strip of the idea along with a soundtrack before contacting the “unknown” animation house later in 1982 and where they and Dyer’s team would form Starcom as the holding company integrating everyone under one roof.
Dyer’s original concept actually called for something “slower, more intellectual” but when the fateful meeting with Bluth came together, Dyer was impressed by their work with The Secret of NIMH and two weeks later, Bluth (as the ‘unknown’ studio) came onboard in late 1982 and would work to put together 22 minutes of animation for the price tag of $1.5 million USD over the next few months.
In addition to blending together tech and traditional animation into something new, part of the impetus for Bluth jumping aboard was because of NIMH performing poorly at the box office in 1982. Bluth saw Dyer’s idea as a means to an end to help fill in what the film couldn’t return, coming onboard with arcade game manufacturer (and the vector-based display king behind 82’s Space Wars in the arcade) Cinematronics forming the last 1/3 of Starcom. Cinematronics also had a vested interest in pursuing a partnership in what might become the next ‘big thing’ in gaming — they were embroiled in Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the time but had the manufacturing know-how that the young partnership needed.
In many ways, Dragon’s Lair was a project streamlined down to the bare metal. Voice acting wasn’t provided by professional actors to shave costs, for example. It was provided by people that worked at Starcom, such as Vera Lanpher (the head of assistant animators according to the Dragon’s Lair Project) who provided the sound bytes for Princess Daphne. Dragon’s Lair reportedly took $1.5 million to make based on the software alone according to Video Games in 1983 where the average development cost for a typical cab was along the lines of $250,000 making it a huge gamble for everyone involved.
Bluth’s animators alos had to adjust to the reality of doing something for a game as opposed to a huge feature like The Secret of NIMH. The animators would work on the scenes and then send them over to Dyer’s AMS where they would be recorded to laserdisc and matched with programmed instructions. Even the budgeting was different.
Back then, it cost $100,000 to animate one minute for a feature film. Bluth and his studio cut that down to $50,000 per minute for Dragon’s Lair and there was a total of 24 minutes created. They admit not taking many shortcuts, but they had to be “clever” about re-using assets. They also were under the gun to be faster about their work. The Secret of NIMH took two years, but they completed their work for Dragon’s Lair “in a little over four months”. But when it arrived in the arcades in June, 1983, it became a sensation that no one could get enough of.
The game reportedly made $32 million by February, 1984, and was widely credited in being one of the catalysts helping to revitalize a sagging arcade industry (although it wasn’t the first — 1982’s Electro Horse also used laserdisc tech). It beat Sega’s Astron Belt, which used a mix of pixels and borrowed movie footage, to the punch in North America’s lucrative market as the game to beat by several months (Astron Belt came out in November of 1983, but did beat Dragon’s Lair to release in Japan coming out a month earlier in May) and its success paved the way for another classic: 1984’s Space Ace.
Dragon’s Lair captured the imagination with Bluth Studios’ signature style, fluid animation, and expressive characters. It featured fiery special effects, magical colors that flashed and glittered onscreen inviting players into its dark castle corridors filled with silly monsters and deadly traps, and a classic tale of a knight rescuing a beautiful princess from a wicked dragon.
The technology and presentation quality of the game were what made it stand out to audiences. The gameplay, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as freeform as it might’ve suggested. Flashing cues would sometimes hint at where to go, or what action to take (such as when to use the “action” button to have our hero Dirk the Daring do something like slash at nasties nearby) and while it could randomize the sequence of which areas you might find yourself in, the challenges within those areas largely followed the same script. With enough trial and error, and memorization, players could wow crowds by getting through the game on only the two quarters that it took to kick things off. In some ways, Dragon’s Lair could be considered large-scale QTE simulator or a very sophisticated Choose Your Own Adventure type of experience reminiscent of the books of the same name where a choice decided which page to turn to for resolution.
But crowds didn’t care. The illusion of having control over a cartoon was worth paying the then-risky price of fifty cents (nearly all arcade games at the time only cost a quarter making Dragon’s Lair an expensive diversion in comparison). It inspired a Saturday morning cartoon series, merchandise ranging from a board game to puffy stickers and napkins, and a legacy that would reach on through the decades with ports, revivals, and even a crowdfunded, animation project by Don Bluth himself 34 years later hoping to create a teaser to wow investors with in the hopes of vaulting Dragon’s Lair into a full, motion film with a budget of $70 million USD.
Back then, the technology for Dragon’s Lair was bleeding edge at the time — so bleeding edge that despite the success that the game brought, it also had its share of headaches not the least of which were the finicky Pioneer LD-V1000 or PR-7820 players that could fail. The players were high-end and solid pieces of tech but more used to playing something through like a movie. They weren’t used to being continually worked as they were, constantly accessing data from the laserdisc, seeking on scene changes, and generally stressed beyond typical use. Combined with the high popularity that the game was experiencing at the time, a lot of these ended up having to be repaired or replaced adding to the costs.
Unfortunately, the laserdisc revolution turned out to be a relatively short-lived one. Pixels still had power (and were relatively cheaper to produce) and as the technology improved and new games from the likes of Taito, Capcom, Konami, and others appeared featuring fast moving action, more freedom of action, and blistering effects animated by amazingly skilled pixel artists, the rote memorization and relatively expensive entry price among other factors eventually ended the age of Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace, and many others that appeared in their wake. But it didn’t kill the ideas behind them.
Lasesrdisc games like Dragon’s Lair used branching story-paths that, while limited in scope, were something relatively new in the arcade scene which were often linear experiences. It introduced a rare concept for arcades that other media, such as PC games, more easily lent themselves to thanks to pioneering titles like Roberta Williams’ Mystery House or Infocom’s Zork.
With it, players could see how choices could dramatically affect where Dirk might go next or change the outcome of a scene given life by Bluth’s animation work which could be all that anyone needed to enjoy the game despite its shortcomings. Years later, others like Capcom would integrate a bit of that branching path magic for the arcades with a few of their games such as their adaptation of D&D with Tower of Doom in 1993 and its follow-up, Shadow Over Mystara, in 1996.
As technology improved, so did the opportunity to finally bring Dragon’s Lair home. The Amiga version in 1988, although it converted Dirk and other animated bits into extremely good looking pixels, managed to bring a bit of that magic back. However it also highlighted the difficulties that would face other releases in lacking many of the scenes in the arcade and were forced to reduce the fidelity of Bluth’s animation work in converting what they could creating stilted and choppy representations of varying quality depending on the platform.
The game underwent a number of creative approaches from rebuilding the game for the Coleco Adam which used computer graphics to emulate the spirit of the scenes from the arcade (scenes that didn’t make it in became part of Escape from Singe’s Castle in 1987) to becoming a side scrolling action adventure for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
The good news is that technology did improve and when the CD-ROM revolution began in the late 80s and early 90s, laserdisc games like Dragon’s Lair were given a second life on PCs and consoles like the Sega CD. Today, Dragon’s Lair can be digitally downloaded from services like Steam and can even be played your Android or iOS mobile device.
A complete sequel for Dragon’s Lair did come out in 1991 called Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp which takes place after the first game with Dirk and Daphne happily married until the wizard, Modroc, appears to whisk Daphne away with Dirk giving chase. It took Dragon’s Lair II eight years to get to the arcade. Work started in 1983 but halted in 1984 with Bluth and company working on it off an on until completed in “the late eighties” according to the Dragon’s Lair Project.
Dragon Lair’s simplistic gameplay might seem pretty bland by today’s standards but a number of ideas behind it echo age old ones that game developers have long struggled with. The illlusion of taking control of a dashing hero in a Saturday morning cartoon filled with whimsical dangers and clever action was enough to sometimes forget the scripted moves needed to get to the end. Years later, live FMV games would step in to do the same thing, some offering limited options and others, like Access Software’s Under a Killing Moon, building themselves into massive adventures. And like laserdisc games in the arcade, the FMV craze also died down almost as soon as it had entered the scene.
Decades later, both the technology and new techniques would allow games such as Namco’s Tales series of JRPGs break down that barrier and take on the appearance of an anime production fulfilling an idea that brought Bluth and Dyer together so many years earlier.
Dragon’s Lair still has a unique charm that many still fondly remember and others look at as an unusual, but creative, milestone for gaming. Today, fans and sites such as the Dragon’s Lair Project continue working to preserve this lost era of the arcade. It might not have the kind of thrilling CG that modern games have, or feature multiplayer or ties to social media worked inside of its code, but as a playground where anyone can pretend to be a hero and slay a dragon starring in a cartoon episode of their own, that’s probably the best kind of treasure that even Singe can’t keep anyone from.