Dragon’s Lair – Jaguar CD
Platform: Atari Jaguar CD
Release Date: 1995
Developer: Epicenter Interaction
Genre: Interactive Movie, FMV Game
Nerd Rating: 3.5 out of 10
What the fuck have I spent the last 2 and a half hours doing? You’ll be asking yourself the same question if you take the time to wade through this monstrosity. Like thick, odious sludge, progress through this “classic” is slow, arduous, and unrewarding. Dragon’s Lair (clever how it could also be construed as “dragon slayer” when said aloud) was originally released in arcades as a “Laserdisc game” back in 1983. Apparently it spent some time ranking as the greatest shit ever and several imitations followed. It’s been ported to a staggering number of consoles, handhelds, and computer platforms over the years; hell, in addition to this copy I also own versions of the game for the Philips CD-i and Game Boy Color. Quite obviously I would’ve never seen the advantage of owning 3 copies of this game had I bothered to sit down with it for more than 5 minutes. I’m lying, I collect shit I don’t even like.
For those of you out there pushing 150 years of age, you might have some vague notion of what a “Laserdisc video game” is. If you’re on the right side of 30, you may not even know what a Laserdisc is. In a nutshell, Laserdiscs were like a cross between a DVD and a 12″ vinyl record. It was all the rage for rich nerds a thousand years ago, and if you dig hard enough you might still be able to find an actual Laserdisc with 4 X-Files episodes on it. Just like early optical media video games were printed on regular CDs and newer ones used DVDs and eventually Blu-rays, developers were able to do the same with Laserdiscs and stick it in an arcade cabinet. The idea is that a movie began playing, and different scenes were accessed based on what button was pressed at certain junctures. Think of it as a slightly more interactive version of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book only this time it isn’t quite as easy to shuffle back to the previous page when you make the fatal error of trying to take the jungle shortcut and succumb to wounds inflicted by the primitive weaponry of natives.
So what was the point of that obscure history lesson? I’m going to go with my gut here and assume that most people haven’t ever played a game like this and it’s important to understand the concept and function to fully grasp my critique.
In Dragon’s Lair, the player assumes the role of a knight named Dirk the Daring. While the game’s intro makes mention of a “great wizard,” this fellow never shows up in the game. The main opponents appear to be the Lizard King and the dragon itself. Go figure. The dragon is holding a Princess Daphne prisoner in a bubble, and it’s Dirk’s job to traverse several very, very peculiar rooms to find his way down to, well, the dragon’s lair and become a dragon slayer.
The game begins like a cartoon movie, with Dirk strolling across a drawbridge leading to the castle. About midway, the boards buckle and snap, and Dirk is now dangling over the moat from a hole in the bridge. Several large tentacles equipped with eyeballs pop out of the water, and if the player presses nothing, they encircle, crush, and presumably drown our dear hero. The idea here is that when these tentacles surface, the player will push the one and only action button (A, B, or C in the case of the Jaguar CD) which will cause Dirk to draw his sword and momentarily fend off his assailants. Though the act delays the attack it doesn’t prevent it and one could easily spend an ungodly number of attempts figuring out the correct course of action. Turns out that while Dirk is swinging his sword the player needs to be pressing Up to climb out of the hole!
Dragon’s Lair continues this way through all sorts of perils including a room full of rolling balls, a knight who controls an electric floor, dancing around the ignition of furniture triggered by lightning strikes, riding a robot horse, and an extended, almost slapstick chase with the Lizard King. In each and every situation it’s the player’s job to figure out what button to press, and more confusingly when to press it. There’s only 5 choices, so theoretically each opportunity should only take 5 attempts at the most. Up, Down, Right, Left, and “Sword” (triggered by A, B, or C) will get Dirk out of any situation when pressed in the correct order. All of this I knew before I got started. No, it’s not exactly the most fun sounding gameplay ever, but it sounded interesting enough to provide some enjoyment. Perhaps you’re already coming up with a list of conceptual problems related to this approach…
One of the most striking difficulties encountered with this method of control is knowing when a button should be pressed. Since the game plays out as a “movie” there aren’t any cues that say “choose a button now.” The disc grinds and the cuts can be choppy and other technological imperfections are there to sometimes let the player know after a choice has been made, but more often than not it takes several trials (read: deaths) to figure out where the game is expecting input. Were it as easy as pushing 1 of the 5 buttons at a certain point it’d be much easier. Challenges from room to room sometimes require simple directional movements to avoid hazards and other times semi-complex sequences of button presses are necessary with careful timing. Just when you think you’ve got a grasp on what kind of input the game is expecting, the next room is filled with yet another bizarre application of the limited controls. In a roundabout way, one of the main focuses of Dragon’s Lair becomes sheer memory of what to press and when to press it. Discovering exactly what to do to pass through a room can be terribly frustrating, but the good news is that the results are easy to duplicate.
Dirk is given 5 lives at the beginning of each game, and it doesn’t take long to run through them all. More good news is that after a death, the player starts back in the room where death occurred, sparing one from having to play through the other rooms again. An unlimited number of continues are available. The game seems to be divided into about 5 or 6 areas though there’s no way to know when Dirk has moved on to the “next level” or not; the only way to find out is to die 5 times and continue. At least some permanent progress can be made, making the endless repetitious nature of Dragon’s Lair slightly less pointless.
Since it is an “interactive movie,” the graphics are worth more than a passing mention. The animation is well done and while dated does have distinct nostalgic appeal. The visuals aren’t as clear as they should be on this Jaguar CD version, but for the most part it’s evident that animation quality was a major selling point since the level of interactivity is at a minimum. The animation is colorful but also retains a good deal of realism; proportionate characters, detailed backgrounds, and other touches keep Dragon’s Lair from looking like the simplistic cartoons made from sticking basic shapes together.
I can’t yet speak for the multitude of other versions and ports available, and certainly not for the original, but the Atari Jaguar CD release of Dragon’s Lair takes some severe hits in the graphics department. The game may have an overall faded look, but here we have pixelation, choppy and abrupt cuts between scenes, and a lot of loud “pops” during button-pressing transitions. Sound has always been a low point on the Jaguar in general and the trend continues here. Other oddities of the Jaguar CD port include a non-working “Pause” feature (it looks like it pauses, but quickly restarts the sequence as though a life had been lost even though the player hasn’t died and the life total remains the same) and the need to sometimes hold down the “Sword” button despite these buttons functioning as normal within menus. I have no clue why or how these glitches made it into the game, but I’m confident that it is an issue exclusive to the Jaguar add-on after playing Dragon’s Lair on the Game Boy Color.
It’s not too hard to understand why a game like Dragon’s Lair could’ve garnered so much attention in its day, but it’s so far removed from what we know as “video games” that it’s difficult to really appreciate now. Obviously the creators wanted to make a game based on intuition and logic, though there’s a lot of static where concept and execution collide. Even after the horror I endured to finish the game, I still think the idea is neat. Were timing issues more forgiving or standardized cues to take action implemented, this game would’ve fared much better with me. Laserdisc games were notoriously expensive due to animation and in Dragon’s Lair at least it shows. The Atari Jaguar CD version of Dragon’s Lair is bound to contribute dysfunction to an already unfamiliar style of gameplay but from what I’ve seen on the CD-i and GBC it is perhaps possible for cleaner execution to yield a more satisfying experience. Believe it or not, there’s yet another “interactive movie” for the Jaguar’s CD peripheral…
Reviewed by The Cubist
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