Good evening, folks! I’m your conductor at it again with a fresh new retrospective study. And to keep in ties with my previous review, which covered 80s films, let’s walk right next door from the multiplex to the Arcade. Let’s see, Space Invaders, Popeye, Galaga… ah, Dragon’s Lair! Now this game was the creation of the guy who had the guts to give the Disney executives the finger, Don Bluth. He would leave the studio and go on to direct such animated cornerstones as Land Before Time and An American Tale. And I’m here to discuss the game, it’s sequel, how it isn’t flawless, and what the future holds for the franchise. Let’s get this show on the road!
Dragon’s Lair (1983)
The one that started it all (and a surplus of wannabes), Dragon’s Lair, was the first installment in the franchise, released to arcades across the United States to booming success. Thanks to this game, it revived the slowly dying arcade industry at the time, earning the businesses deepest respects. But what’s the game all about? Well, it’s rather straightforward; you control the actions of a bumbling knight named Dirk the Daring, and must travel throughout the belly of a mammoth tower on a quest to rescue the ditzy princess Daphne from the dragon’s keep. The gameplay has the protagonist, Dirk, come across various rooms in the castle and is faced with a dilemma, like a monster or obstacle, and you must decide what you believe is the correct choice. You can move Dirk up, down, left or right with a single joystick or fight with your sword by pushing the namesake button.
What do I think of the game? Okay so, the mechanics are decent and the graphics are gorgeous for sure, but the gameplay is kinda a mixed bag. It’s just constant trial and error where you die over and over and just have to attempt again when you come across the same room later. Your abilities are never tested, you just try again. Additionally, and I know this was unintentional, but your probably too distracted admiring the graphics that you die. Trust me, you die a lot thanks to this game being rather fast paced as well as other inconveniences.
The game is sort of frustrating because its defining quality, the animated graphics, are playing a hand in the gameplay’s stumble. Due to such, I’d instead give a go with the original Castlevania game on the Nintendo rather than Dragon’s Lair. Better luck next time, Don.
RATING: 7/10 “Stunning and Suitable, but Lacking in Gameplay”
Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp (1991)
The first true sequel to the original game was Time Warp, released to arcades and laserdisc in the early 90s. The controls and gameplay are almost exactly the same as Dragon’s Lair, with two major differences. The first is that this time the structure is in a linear pattern where you travel through various time frames and alternate dimensions to reach Daphne. When you would be killed here, you respawn at a certain checkpoint at the beginning of the stage, unlike previously where you just respawn in a randomized room of the castle.
The second change is the addition of “treasures”, which are trinkets that you have to retrieve throughout the stages. An issue that they bring is that when you reach the final stage, if you don’t have every single treasure then you have to start all over again at the very start of the game. How cruel of them, wouldn’t you say? To make matters worse, some of these treasures are incredibly difficult to find, again with the fast pacing screwing with the player. Example: A giant cat creature breathes fire just as a glowing orange treasure is ready to be plucked. You can’t even see it because it’s camouflaged! The team wanted to pose a new challenge to players and I do appreciate the introduction of something new to maybe switch things up, but it’s yet again a trial and error ingredient to something already entirely composed of that.
To be honest, Time Warp is very creative with its stages. It ranges from the Garden of Eden to Wonderland, yes like Alice in Wonderland, to even Betthoven’s home where you’re fighting his cat while he, cross-dressed as Elton John, plays a flying piano. It’s absolutely bonkers but I appreciate it for that. While the two share the same successes and flaws, I prefer Time Warp for its creativity and more consistent gameplay compared to Dragon’s Lair.
We’ll talk about Dragon’s Lair’s spiritual successor and it’s movie adaption when we return…
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Space Ace (1984)
Four months after the release of the groundbreaking Dragon’s Lair, Don Bluth’s new arcade game project was unveiled. It was titled Space Ace, and had a Flash Gordon-esque sci-fi theme. It was later released in the Spring of 1984. The premise is similar to Dragon’s Lair; you play Dexter, or “Ace”, a smug space pilot who has made it his mission to defeat the despicable Commander Borf. The latter has just unleashed the “Infanto Ray”, an invention of his that he is using on humans to render them as children, thus helpless. Borf has also abducted Ace’s female companion Kimberly and effected Ace with the ray, altering him to his adolescent self. The younger Dexter must now dodge Borf’s attacks, save Kimberly and rescue the Earth from the Commander’s threat.
Of course, Space Ace wasn’t nearly as popular as its own inspiration, likely because of their close release frame. But was the gameplay better by any chance? Just like Time Warp, similarities are noticeable, but it manages to stir in its own signature features and elements to keep things somewhat fresh. Space Ace decides to include skill levels; before you begin the game, you choose one of three skills, “Cadet”, “Captain” or “Space Ace” . These are for easy, medium and hard difficulty respectively. When you select the hardest setting, you play through every scenario, while the easy variable only does about half of those. Another addition is a “multiple choice” style of play, where multiple locations have more than one path to choose from, giving the game a good replayability aspect. Most of the game you play as the young Dexter, but you can occasionally choose to momentarily revert back to Ace for a more offensive round.
In conclusion of the spin-off, Space Ace changed just enough to engage the eye of animation buffs and Dragon’s Lair fans, but suffers from not being too memorable or creating an identity for itself.
RATING: 6/10 “Forgettable”
What’s Next for the Franchise?
Since the mid-80s, Don Bluth has been trying to create a bona fide Dragon’s Lair movie, although the project was prevented because of the high production values and lack of studio interest. The film adaptation seemed to be shelved for good after Bluth retired from animation in 2000 following Titan A.E.’s financial failure, and word was silent until fifteen years later when Bluth started an Indiegogo. What do you know, it was a crowd funding campaign for the feature! The campaign did relatively well by raising over 700 thousand dollars total, though it was said that this would only fund a five-minute pitch reel to show to investors and not the real deal.
The pitch was alright, but I’m sure it would’ve looked much better with the final product. Apparently, studios were uninterested as 3d animated films were the modern aesthetic until the film eventually settled with Netflix. But not how it was intended; yeah, it was now planned to be a live-action adaptation with Bluth and Ryan “Eggplant King” Reynolds as producers. This is confusing.. a game iconic for its theatrical quality cartoon visuals is being trashed in favor of the norm. Netflix has done a spiritual continuation to Heavy Metal, action shows for adults and kids (Castlevania, Glitch Techs), a 2d-3d hybrid Christmas movie and made Green Eggs and Ham surprisingly heartfelt and spectacular. They’ve done so much great passion works for the cartoon medium and this feels like a step backwards.
More intrigue comes from speculation if Reynolds is in the role of Dirk or not, but the pitch does interpret the character in a more snarky light, so perhaps? Don stated that, in a package with the film, a short film based off Space Ace would proceed it. So are they still doing that or not? My thoughts correspond with another essay suggesting that the movie could have an audience interaction layer with multiple choice, similar to the Black Mirror special Bandersnatch. However with a lack of info there’s no knowing for sure what’s going to happen with this film. Until we hear more, thank you for reading today and I wish you the safest of times. Later!
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