Dragon’s Lair II came to the arcades in 1991, eight years after the first game. Don Bluth Studios, whose artists worked on the first game which came out in 1983, worked on the sequel off and on since then and had completed work on it in the late eighties. But the same adrenaline rush of excitement that propelled laserdisc games to a brief spurt of popularity at the top had long been extinguished.
The reasons were many, not the least of which were the added expenditures that laserdisc games often carried thanks to the laserdisc systems they used that were prone to breaking down often, not to mention the cost of the players and the cabinets themselves which were usually much higher because of the technology involved. But the biggest reason is probably the games themselves — as incredible as they looked, the gameplay didn’t match the visuals.
Players didn’t have the kind of freedom they normally would with pixel-based games. Moving a character left or right, having them kick or shoot when you wanted them to…these were all alien concepts to laserdisc titles like Dragon’s Lair which were often restricted to a specific set of actions like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where it told you to turn to page 251 or 14 depending on your choice. While others like Atari’s Firefox or Sega’s Astron Belt attempted to use laserdisc video footage as a complement to traditional arcade action, laserdisc arcade games were living on borrowed time.
Ultimately, they proved to be interesting novelties while they lasted but in the end, couldn’t compete with more traditional cabinets for everyone’s quarters. It was the classic argument of visuals versus gameplay, and gameplay won out.
That made Dragon’s Lair II something of an arcade oddity when it came out in 1991 at the cusp of the CD-ROM revolution. And apparently, it was relatively rare. I’ve seen Dragon’s Lair lurking in the odd arcade or two in the early 90s, but it would almost be a few more years later until I’d ever lay eyes on one Dragon’s Lair II machine.
The Leland Corporation, who released the game, was actually what was left of Cinematronics, the arcade production partner of Starcom which, together with AMS and Don Bluth Studios, worked to bring out Dragon’s Lair in 1983. According to Mobygames, it was then taken over by Tradewest in 1987 and then renamed The Leland Corporation after Leland Cook who was one of Tradewest’s founders.
Leland didn’t release a lot of games to the arcade but Dragon’s Lair II was one of the most notable exceptions. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to make as legendary a splash as its predecessor eight years earlier.
Dragon’s Lair II’s story takes place a few years after the first game with our hero, Dirk the Daring and Princess Daphne having raised a family. However, an evil wizard named Modroc shows up and kidnaps Daphne, determined to marry her in a dastardly ritual by placing the Death Ring on her finger. It’s up to Dirk to chase him down with the aid of a magical, talking time machine!
The story is pretty fun to watch and it turns out the time machine is Modroc’s brother, the good one, who helps Dirk through the adventure. Dirk visits different venues in time like an Egyptian themed area along with a few bizarre realities like Wonderland (from Alice in Wonderland) to a fantasy parody of the Garden of Eden. At the end, he fights to free Daphne from the ring that has turned her into a giant beast, vanquishes Modroc, but it seems as if he’s too late until she awakens from her cursed sleep. It’s a great follow-up to the first game.
Like the first game, the player tilts the joystick in the direction that is hinted onscreen to get Dirk out of danger (or into it) and an action button allows Dirk to swing his sword or do something onscreen at the right moment. Everything is scripted like in the first game meaning that if you can memorize the right actions in a scene, you can coast right on through it.
Unfortunately, the game also introduced a few elements that the first game didn’t have that didn’t seem to be taken in. The first are the hidden “treasures” that the player has to collect in each stage. They briefly flash onscreen and the player needs to get Dirk to grab them before they move on. All of the treasures are needed to access the final battle with Modroc. Missing a treasure means repeating that stage again until you get all of the ones you’ve missed.
The game was also linear. It didn’t feature the randomness that the first game could surprise players with which made it something of a predictable slog without many surprises.
But worse, the style of gameplay that Dragon’s Lair II was built around was simply outclassed by the competition. Once a player discovered the route through the game with the right actions, there was really no reason to play it again.
This was especially worse when players could simply stand by and watch the entire story from beginning to end if a player knew what they were doing. Although you could technically do the same thing with other games, Dragon’s Lair II didn’t have much else to offer outside of a scoring system and great animation. The dynamic action that pixel-based arcade games at the time from Capcom’s Final Fight to Konami’s The Simpson’s Arcade Game had at their core surpassed the static memorization Dragon’s Lair II’s action was limited to.
Like Dragon’s Lair, Dragon’s Lair II found life beyond the arcade with the CD-ROM revolution, eventually appearing in compilations for the PC, digital download services like Steam, and finally on Android and iOS devices the world over.
Dragon’s Lair II came late to the party as a reminder of a time in the arcades when cartoons could be games — and as home consoles got better, they soon would be. But back in the heady days of the early 90s, it was a neat if not expensive reminder of an arcade era when imagination wanted to push the boundaries. To some, Dragon’s Lair II was that out of place, the odd game out amongst so many others at the arcade. But to others, it was just great to see Dirk back for one more great adventure.