Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Kid's Stuff, Part VIDEO GAMES! First Quarter: Dragon's Lair #1

 The only thing missing are the funny death scenes

That at the top should actually read “two quarters”. The Dragon’s Lair arcade game was the very first coin operated video game to charge $.50 per play. And back in 1983 there were many of us who happily plunked down those two bits so we could experience the greatness of the first all-animated laserdisc driven video game. It’s difficult to explain to kids growing up today what it was like in that brief span of time where arcades always had THE BEST games. Video games today are built to run on one or more home console platforms. In that slice of history known as the early eighties, console games and the personal computers hadn’t matured enough to handle very complex graphics and sound.

During this “Golden Age” of arcade games, if you wanted the very best or newest gaming experiences you headed down to the nearest Putt-Putt mini golf or Bally's Arcade with $3-$5. Some places would spot you a quarter by giving you five tokens for a dollar. Most wouldn’t, and each dollar would net you four games. And in the glut of coin op games created from 1980 to 1985, it paid to choose those four games wisely.

One or two quarters wouldn’t get you very far in most coin ops, it took both skill and dogged perseverance to become good enough to make that one credit last. So when you selected a game it was like dating it with the hope of becoming engaged and finally married. If you stuck it out, you might have a hope at defeating the final boss and leaving with a sense of accomplishment. Choose the wrong game though and you might never see the ending. 

Games that were too popular would have long lines with guys that had already mastered the techniques of how to make a quarter play last indefinitely. Unpopular games might not be raking in enough quarters to guarantee them floor space. Learning their tricks would be similar to dating a girl whose parents are moving to Guam at the end of the month. Fall in love with the wrong coin op and when it was hauled off, you’d miss it for the rest of your life. 

I remember these few months I spent with a Gorf machine…No, I can’t go there. *sniff* It’s still too painful.

"Ha! Ha! Ha! Got you, Space Cadet!"

Into this vastly different video game world Dragon’s Lair was thrust. Twice the price of any other game, yet so strange and alluring. The game play consisted of carefully timing button and joystick movements to cues on the screen. That sounds like every video game ever made, but in Dragon’s Lair you weren’t so much playing a game as you were playing at being an experimental lab animal. 

The game worked like this: a video would begin to play showing the knight, Dirk the Daring, running a certain direction on screen, then part of the screen would light up in a glowing blue color and you would move the joystick in the direction of the glow or hit the sword button. Get the move right and the reward was you got to continue on to the next glowing cue. Sort of like how they get chimpanzees to press a button for a banana. Get the move wrong and you died. I think for two quarters you got two to three lives per game. Doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, does it.

It was fun though. Immeasurably fun. The key here was the astounding quality of the animation used on the laser disk. Dragon’s Lair’s concept and programming may belong to Rick Dyer and his development team at Advanced Microcomputer Systems, but its success lies in the hands of Don Bluth and his animation studio. 

Bluth began as a Disney animator, assisting on such projects as Sleeping Beauty and The Sword in the Stone when starting out and taking a much larger role in the features Robin Hood, The Rescuers, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Pete’s Dragon. When he left Disney, Bluth took a small stable of animators with him and founded a rival studio. Their first modest success was 1982’s The Secret of NIMH, based on a popular children’s book. This animation powerhouse pulled out all the stops on Dragon’s Lair.
Dirk was rendered in such a way as to appear both heroic and brave while also appearing awkward and goofy. A perfect cipher for teens going through adolescence changes. His fights onscreen were magnificently fluid and his death sequences were hilarious to behold. So win or lose, you felt good playing the game. If you could overcome the hurdle of those two quarters, you would definitely say “I do” to Dragon’s Lair.

Sadly the hardware wasn’t as advanced as it should have been. Dragon’s Lair coin ops became hard to maintain over time. Laserdisc players at the time weren’t designed for the type of seeking required to access all the animations Dragon’s Lair required. And because the game was popular, those laserdisc players were doing a bunch of seeking. The original players were soon having problems, meaning if you saw a Dragon’s Lair game more often than not it was bearing the dreaded “out of order” sign.
To find out more about Dragon’s Lair excluding some of its darker history as a home console game go HERE. A gorgeous playing of the HD version of the intro can be found HERE. And if you can stand the terrible 80’s hair styles, the intro to the Blu-Ray is HERE.

Its popularity did garner a sequel (Time Warp) and the technological spin off Space Ace. As well, Ruby Spears did a very short-lived cartoon based on the character and game world but with nowhere near the wit or graphics of the game itself

With Dragon’s Lair 3D home game release came a small collection of action figures. And in 2003, a comic book mini series was released by Crossgen Publishing, the first issue of which I hold in my hot little hands. Most of these were reprinted by Arcana Studio in 2006 along with three issues of never-before-published material.
The book is helmed by Andy Mangels, who is unknown to me but does a great job of steering Dirk’s adventures. Art chores are handled masterfully by Fabio Laguna. Luguna would go on to do Highlander for Dynamite as well as a stint on the Hulk. Here he captures the quirkiness of the characters and produces top notch action sequences. They include several characters from the short lived TV series to round out the cast of Dirk, Daphne and Singe. 

We begin with Dirk and Daphne out for a picnic while breaking away from the duties of running the castle for her absent father, the King. We find the dialogue aimed at a much older audience than the cartoon or video game crowd and it’s probably a smart move. Dragon’s Lair’s main audience was bound to skew a bit high 20 years after the game was released. 

You can tell from just a few brief panels that Bluth’s studio must have had input into at least the creative control of the graphics if not the scripting. Either that or these guys are running super faithful to the original. The style of the book runs almost parallel to the style Bluth put forth in his features and in the original Dragon’s Lair game. Getting back to the story, the picnic is broken up by the arrival of unexpected animal guests. No, not Yogi and Boo-Boo.

Daphne proves that she can hold her own, which is good, because after issue one she’s going to be relegated to DID duty. (DID = Damsel In Distress)

It’s about this time that Dirk makes an enormous mistake. After fending off the flame breath of the Mother of All Dragons (could be Father. Hard to tell from this angle.), he sends Daphne away on horseback. I love the fact that Dirk is portrayed as both clumsy and brave. Again a natural extension of his personality in the video game.

Singe takes off after Daphne. Dirk is floored (literally) by the dragon’s change in tactics. Once he get’s back to his feet, Dirk’s not in a mood to take crap from anyone, including Singe’s baby drakes.

Just like in the game, clean hits that travel right through the enemy, no blood and the body is never seen again. Got to love it when they honor the source material. Daphne meanwhile is attempting to bargain with Singe for her freedom. Aggressively, I might add.

When negotiations fail, Daphne attempts a more direct means of escape.

She really shouldn’t put that in her mouth, there’s no telling where it’s been. For her trouble-making, Daphne gets a rap on the noggin which taps her out. Singe cackles about having “better plans” for Daphne than as an appetizer. Dirk shows up and dispatches more of the baby drakes with ease before confronting Singe. Dirk’s all ass-kicking business here. It’s amazing how like Ash he seems in some of these panels. Goofy most of the time yet he can be ballsy when the situation calls for it.

Singe isn’t impressed and drops a hint that this might not be just a random monster attack.

Oh, I see. Singe is a boy dragon. (Why do I suddenly feel like Donkey from Shrek?) Very hard to tell without *ahem* a closer inspection. 

Without the benefit of fighting Singe in an enclosed area, Dirk is overmatched in this particular battle. He latches on to the dragon’s tail only to be flicked off at a great height. Luckily some tree branches break his fall. 

As Singe flies off with the princess still struggling valiantly he mentions something about missing her “plucky attitude most of all.” Dirk’s horse Bertram awakens him and they head back to the castle to mount a rescue party. Unfortunately when he arrives, he’s told by the captain of the castle guard that the King is still away with all his knights. This the captain of the guards, Leraene.

Do I detect a hint of smoldering passion from Leraene here? It’s like she’s sending out a veiled lesbian vibe with all that “sweet Daphne” and “beautiful princess” talk. Not to mention the fact that not only is she macho enough to be a solider in the King’s army, but she’s out machoed enough guys to be made captain of the guard of the whole castle. I'm smelling something odd about all this...
While I’m sniffing for lesbians, Dirk is consulting with the youngest wizard of the castle, a guy by the name of Halvern. Halvern cracks a wry line about Dirk being so lucky that it’s like he’s got “extra lives”. Halvern tunes his crystal ball up to “Singe” and we get a look at all the familiar faces from the game including the castle exterior, lizard king, furry headed demons and the magma men. Leraene recognizes the location as being across the Sands of Fire, a location I’m pretty sure wasn’t in the game.

Halvern has a more bad news. He asks if Dirk has any reason to believe that Singe wasn’t looking to eat Daphney, which causes Dirk to recall that Singe was talking more about revenge than anything else. Halvern shows where Daphney is and issues a dire warning.

I know I never made it to the ending Dragon battle of the game. I wonder if this part was ever explained as to why Daphne is dressed all slutty and hanging around in a giant soap bubble. If not, it dovetails very nicely. Anyway, Dirk is also told that only the sword Dragonfang has the power to kill Singe, which Halvern believes is hidden somewhere in Singe’s castle. Leraene offers to quest with him, but Dirk reminds her that she must stay to protect the castle. With that he suits up in the old “bullet-head” skull cap and is off to rescue Daphne.

This book is such a blast. Everything from the bright colors, the witty little asides and very faithful art and story is done so well that I’m actually considering seeking more issues. I know how the story ends of course, but getting to the lair looks like it would be an awful lot of fun.

The Dragon’s Lair game, its sequel, and Space Ace have changed with the times. Versions of the original laserdisc game can be found ported to most current gaming platforms and there’s even a version that will play on a standard DVD player. They’ve even released a new version for Blu-Ray.

Don Bluth’s studio went on to do the popular and profitable An American Tail and Land Before Time series, Anastasia and a personal fave Titan A. E. I salute them for giving me joy, wasting my time and eating my quarters while I was waiting for high school to end.

While I'm doing all that saluting, you should be heading over to this site to check out what Don Bluth studios has in store for Dirk next. Appears they are planning a feature film, provided they can scrounge up the support.  Head over and help 'em out. You know I've got my two tokens ready for a replay.

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