Dragon’s Lair is based on the arcade smash hit of the same name, which was released almost 20 years ago to the arcade. The original game was incredible for its time. I remember staring at it slack-jawed and quarter-less many times. The most impressive thing about the game was its use of the record-sized laserdiscs from which digital information could be read in the same style as CDs today. The developers used this then-unprecedented storage space to stuff a fully animated cartoon illustrated by Don Bluth onto the disc. By pushing the control stick in a different direction, you could make the disc switch to a different track, giving you the illusion that you were actually controlling a cartoon. Sure, it was simply a matter of memorization, and no two experiences were different, but in 1983 you’d be lucky to play a game with vector-less graphics. Now, in 2003, laser disc technology is about as impressive as betamax movie players. That is why the developers opted to go with a fully rendered 3D universe for their remake of the original game. Unfortunately, to the dismay of nostalgic and aging gamers, the 21st century is not Dirk the Daring’s finest hour.
But it is his second finest hour, maybe third if you include Dragon’s Lair 2: Time Warp – anyway, when you consider the horrible (S)NES games, Dragon’s Lair on the Xbox is something of a godsend. No, wait, maybe this is his fourth or fifth finest hour, I forgot about the multiple Dragon’s Lair ports on the Sega CD, CD-I, 3DO, etc, -- ok, ok, Dragon’s Lair 3D isn’t that great – fine, this game sucks. I really wanted to like it, I’ve been looking forward to it for almost a year. Not for nothing, but I just assumed a controllable Dragon’s Lair would equate to an entertaining experience. Boy, was I wrong.
Like the arcade game, you’ll be in control of the bumbling, sword-wielding Dirk the Daring, who has taken it upon himself to save the chub-inducing damsel-in-distress Daphne. Unlike the arcade though, you are in full control of the “Dirk” as he swings his sword, jumps over obstacles, and rolls under hazards. Unfortunately, the actual gameplay is slow and unresponsive. The various platforming acrobatics translate into an often-frustrating experience that is hindered by the equally-feral camera system. Disposing of baddies is simply a matter of repetitively mashing on the attack button while in close proximity to the enemy. Better gameplay would have made all the difference in this one. As it stands, the gameplay is just not good enough to justify the precise requirements of the platforming tasks.
Fans of the arcade game will no doubt recognize a lot of the game’s levels, as they are based off of them, but the frog DNA that is interspersed to pull them all together are undoubtedly lacking. The scenarios you’ll find yourself in are laid out in a manner that is vaguely reminiscent of the arcade game, but since you are in direct control of the action, the developers had to come up with new ways to do the same thing, and the result isn’t nearly cool enough to make it a worthwhile experience. Starting at around the middle of the game, you’ll find yourself running around in circles trying to find the switch to activate or the item to pick up that will lead you to the next part of the level – if I wanted to run around, I’d get off my ass.
The aesthetics are undoubtedly “Dragon’s Lair”, and the developers did a great job in staying true to the original with the cel-shading style that they used. The opening animated sequence is particularly cool. It features art by the original game’s artist Don Bluth and depicts Daphne being captured by an enormous dragon that nonchalantly flicks Dirk away like so much dust. The environments as well as the enemies and various characters are all cel-shaded in such a way that they look like moving cartoons – if only the gameplay was tight enough to compliment the visuals. The animation is adequate in terms of fluid movement and consistent frames, but Dirk himself is portrayed as a constantly stoic bore whose facial impressions remain the same whether he is in the heat of battle or witnessing Daphne being man-handled by an evil, floating demon hand. But, the inclusion of progressive scan support does sweeten the deal a bit.
In terms of aural presentation, Dragon’s Lair is pretty forgettable. The music is Dragon’s Lair-y with somewhat slow sweeping orchestrations that change from level to level, but the sound effects are generic and they don’t stand out in any particular way that would be worth mentioning here. The voice-acting, which comes mainly in the form of the squeaky-mouthed Daphne, to whom I am primarily referring, feels like it was strained through the holes in a microphone. Which is to say, it is unbearably annoying. Sure it sounds reminiscent of the arcade game, but there is a certain extent where replication is no longer a form of compliment, and this is definitely one of ’em. To make matters worse, Dirk sounds like a rabid monkey when he gets hurt -- it’s just wrong.
Dragon’s Lair has always held a special place in my memory as it pertains to videogames, but Dragon’s Lair 3D irrevocably dampers my nostalgia for the 20-year-old title. As far as platforming 3D games go, DL3D is mediocre at best, but looking at the game from the perspective of how it compares to the original, it does a little better. In other words, if you are looking to relive the good times of Lair’s past then this may be a game worth checking out, but if you could care less about Dirk and the horribly helpless Daphne then you might as well steer clear.