One of the most engaging things about games from the ‘80s and ‘90s is how the limits of technology forced video games to use entirely different techniques for suspending disbelief. A game had to employ a wide variety of tricks and limitations to keep players engaged that you don’t see today. What’s additionally interesting is that games still use these tricks, like an FPS yanking away control for a scripted event, but they change given the technology. For that reason, the Dragon’s Lair Trilogy is far more interesting from a historical perspective rather than the usual consideration of fun that game criticism might otherwise be interested in evaluating. It’s a game in which the dichotomy between game design and content is paper thin, but seeing that interplay firsthand helps one to better appreciate the dynamic across the medium.
Gameplay in the trilogy works a bit like an elaborate QTE. A portion of the screen or your sword will light up, indicating that you need to press a corresponding button. Fail to do so, and you die instantly. As you progress through the game, the reflex time required will get to be so fast that you need to know the move before it even happens. You could argue that you could predict what button to press from the context of a scene, but because your perspective of Dirk (the avatar) is changing so much that it’s not really possible to develop a firm sense of location. You just memorize the sequence and progress to the next room.
The Dragon’s Lair Trilogy consists of three games organized around this design, but each one varies in quality. The first original Dragon’s Lair is the best just because everything is coherently organized around rooms in the castle. Each one is a couple of minutes long, and the moves are easy to master after a few trial sessions. Subsequent games mostly suffer from becoming too insanely complicated, particularly Dragon’s Lair II which has a million things going on in every scene. They were built this way because they follow the classic arcade game design formula: opening level gets the first quarter while keeping it accessible, kill them in the second but keep the middle portion playable, then start raiding their pockets from the third on with unfair game design. The Dragon’s Lair games had to deal with the fact that people could memorize the sequences and potentially beat the entire game in one credit, which is not the ideal state for an arcade game. They used all kinds of tricks to get around this, including inverting the scenes and repeating rooms. In an arcade game, you want fast turnover or fast quarters, whichever comes first.
The set up for the Wii version of this game gives you a nice set of choices about how you want to recreate the arcade experience. You can set the number of lives you have, pick which cut of the game that you’d like to play (the arcade version was shorter), and ramp up the difficulty. There’s even an option to sit back and watch the entire game play out, which is a bit tedious since the thrill is all gone when there’s no possibility of death looming for Dirk.
Artistically, the game is a gorgeous Don Bluth production, which exemplifies his strange merger of Disney cartoons with darker sensibilities. The Secret of NIMH is still his masterpiece, but this game does have a lot of memorable moments and characters. While the original game is more fun because it’s organized around depicting various rooms instead of long action sequences, the other games have their moments. Dragon’s Lair: Time Warp is filled with everything from the Garden of Eden, Beethoven composing, and even a trip to Alice in Wonderland. Space Ace is a bit more generic with its large industrial spaces and robots. Because of the nature of the game, most of the scenes involve your character hopping around various obstacles and dodging things, which lets Bluth show off how fluid he can get the animation to appear. On a more negative note, the voice acting is horrible and is not a problem only because there is so little of it.
So much of how a video game works is in creating an illusion of interaction and narrative. The more that you play them and start to pay attention to the system, the harder it becomes to take the illusion that it projects seriously. It all turns into a bizarre version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave except, instead of shadow puppets, it’s content. If the gamer just turns their head then they’d realize all the mechanics and labor that go into creating the experience are finite and limited things. Doing so makes you lose any appreciation for what’s actually going on in the game because it turns the experience into a purely mechanical exercise. For older games, you had to use a different set of tricks to keep people from looking than you do today.
Dragon’s Lair mostly fails at this task once you transfer it out of the arcade and into the home console. You have too much time to sit and think about what’s going on for the illusion to really last. Giving yourself infinite lives or simply being able to replay infinitely removes all the risk from the game and, thus, most of the challenge. In its prime, it was a gorgeous game that looked far more advanced than anything else in the arcade. Today there’s still no video game quite like it, but that probably has more to do with the death of the arcade rather than with the nature of the game itself. Thanks to the ways that you can tweak the game, it’s possible to experience the Dragon’s Lair Trilogy from every angle. Purely as content, purely as game design, and tweak the interplay between the two as much as one likes. It may not be one of the greatest games out there, but it’s one everybody should play at least once.