Twenty years ago when Dragons Lair was created, it collected over 100 million dollars in quarters and single-handedly saved the coin-op video game market. Is that right? Don’t ask me, I didn’t research it or anything – that’s a quote from one of the movies on the history of Dragon’s Lair that is included on the Dragon’s Lair 3D CDs. These movies, about 400MB all told, tell a pretty interesting story, at least to someone like myself who is sort of into the whole videogame/animation history. There are interviews with Don Bluth, as well as the guy who originally conceptualized Dragon’s Lair (they mentioned his name maybe 40 times in the movies, and alas it still didn’t stick with me), as well as with the animators and voice actors and composers that it took to create Dragon’s Lair back then, and Dragon’s Lair 3D now. Regrettably, the movies are perhaps the most entertaining thing contained on the CD, as the game itself, while not exactly disappointing, does so much to recreate the original feeling and style of Dragon’s Lair, that it’s like I walked into an arcade in 1982 and plunked down a quarter (or I think it was 50 cents for Dragon’s Lair). Would anyone be impressed if someone released a snazzier version of Space Invaders? Didn’t think so.
For those of you who spent the early 80’s under a rock, or more likely as a gleam in their parents’ eyes, the concept of DL (I have to start abbreviating somewhere) was relatively simple, even for the day. You controlled a knight named Dirk, a legend in his own mind, on an impossible mission to rescue a princess. The running joke throughout the whole game, and this incarnation as well, is that Dirk is so moronic that he doesn’t know it’s impossible, and so he succeeds. I’m not sure what the message is there. Using a joystick and single button you would move Dirk past obstacles of fire, water, and the like, and battle with monsters. But we’re not talking Tomb Raider here – Dirk’s motion was far from fluid, as hard a concept as that may be to the majority of game players today who don’t even recall the Atari 2600. The game consisted of animated segments stored on a laser disc (if you don’t know what a laser disc is, do a Google search; I’m certainly not going to go into that). The game would play a little animated snippet, and then leave you with a puzzle that all depended on timing – you would have to jump at the right moment or swing your sword at the right time. You would try, and the game would then load and play the animated snippet of your success or failure (complete with a short delay for load time). Doesn’t that sound like fun! Well, it was kind of fun, 20 years ago, but you have to remember that back then we were like totally engrossed with Pong for christsakes for years.
So what does DL3D do? As I’m sure you can guess, it takes the original DL and sort of “Tomb Raiderizes” it. Dirk’s motion is now fluid. You can jump from a ledge to grab a swinging rope and see if you made it without waiting the fraction of a second for the animated segment to load. And combat, no longer consisting of a linked list of animated segments, now actually involves a little dodging and weaving. But at the root we’re still playing DL, a game now, as the movies boast over and over again, twenty years old. And many, many (many, many, MANY) of the rooms that Dirk goes through have even been lifted directly from DL, which makes the game feel even more dated.
Speaking of rooms, DL apparently possessed forty (again, the movies told me that). The new game boasts 240 rooms, but I’m not sure I believe that. Maybe they’re counting simple hallways with a door at each end as a room. There are lots of those, and you spend maybe a second or two in each one. There are furthermore dozens of rooms in which you flip a switch, or a kill a monster, or jump over a chasm, or something simple like that – you spend maybe ten seconds in each of those rooms. If you boil it down, there are probably again forty rooms that you spend any real time in, that represent any significant puzzle or a boss monster to kill. The net result is perhaps the shortest gaming experience that I’ve had this year (though running a kind of close second to Fellowship of the Ring), lasting less than 5 hours from install to uninstall. If more games were as short as these, I could review three or four games a week.
There’s frankly not much to say about the gameplay. The puzzles are so simple that not one took more than two minutes to figure out. The majority of the gameplay is bogged down in making timed jumps from swinging rope to swinging rope, or moving platform to moving platform, or past a cannon that shoots on timed intervals – the slightest misstep in which leads to your instant (well-animated) death. In short, it’s exactly the sort of stuff that drives you absolutely bonkers when other games do it, and it’s about all this game does!
The camera works very well at times, swiveling around smoothly to stay behind you as you control your pointing with the mouse and your movement with the standard a, s, d, w keys (you can change that if you like). At other times, and this was clearly a design decision, the camera stays at a single location, sort of in the middle distance or high above you as you try and solve some puzzle. It gives you the advantage of a gods-eye view and lets you kind of see the whole puzzle at once, rather than what is just in front of Dirk at any given time, but it can throw your controls into complete chaos. The downfall seems to be that in this fixed camera mode the “up” key becomes, not forward to Dirk as it is all the rest of the time, but upwards on your computer screen, and the mouse suddenly does nothing at all. So you’re running along a narrow ledge from the bottom of your screen to the top, holding down the w key, with the camera hovering high over your head, then the ledge takes a 45-degree jink and heads to the upper left of your screen. It would be swell to move the mouse so you are facing in the same direction as the ledge, and then run forward again using the w key, but in this camera mode at this point in the game that doesn’t work. You have to run a sort of diagonal using the ‘a’ and ‘w’ keys, and as the ledge takes still more turns, you become quite the prestidigitator with the movement keys trying to stay on. Tougher still is that at certain fixed times in this gods-eye view the camera suddenly rotates, so up isn’t up anymore, but some other direction. So to go back to my previous scenario you’re running on a ledge from the bottom of the screen to the top holding down the w key with the camera above you, when suddenly, and it’s nothing you’ve done, the camera rotates 90 degrees clockwise. The ledge hasn’t actually made a turn, but now it’s running left to right on your screen, and the w key will run you right off the edge – you have to switch to the d key to keep running along the ledge. As I read all this over, I’ve made an absolute disaster of trying to explain this camera problem to you, but, believe me, it’s no worse that the disaster the camera problem makes of your controls.
I admire tremendously what Bluth and the rest of the team are attempting here. Technically, both games really do represent an impressive undertaking; they have all the headaches of a major animated film, with the added complexity of a videogame. They did a wonderful job on the score and, while the quality of the voicework can be questioned, they did try to duplicate the voices from the original game as much as possible, and in that they succeeded. The animation looks as good as any hand-animated film, such as Beauty and the Beast, say. So, much like the original DL, they have created a nifty animated movie, which has sort of limited interactive game potential.
As nostalgia it brings me back to my youth; makes me think about afternoons in the arcade with quarters lined up in the corner of the screen to reserve the next play of the game, and Karen Urban nearby wearing her tight indigo Jordache jeans. The nostalgia lasts about as long as DL3D does; just a few hours – about as long as Karen and I dated, for that matter. And in the end, I’m left with another game box gathering dust on my shelf, and my bank account $30 lighter, and a hole in my life that only vodka can fill. Good-bye Dragon’s Lair 3D, hello AA.