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Dragon's Lair: Reflections on a Classic Laserdisc Arcade Game

By Edited Aug 4, 2016 2 1

Every once in a while, a video game comes along that changes the entire industry. When Dragon's Lair, a laserdisc-based, coin-operated arcade game created by Rick Dyer, burst into arcades in the summer of 1983, gamers were stunned. Instantly banished from memory were all thoughts of yellow circles fleeing from ghosts, or animated monkeys tossing barrels at hapless plumbers. Here, for the first time, was a gaming experience that featured not generic sprites and pixels, but gorgeous, full-screen animation on par with a typical Disney blockbuster. Indeed, the game's animation was the product of Don Bluth, a former Disney cartoonist who would later helm such films as An American Tail and All Dogs Go to Heaven.

The story and gameplay were straightforward enough. The player controlled a hapless knight named Dirk the Daring in his quest to rescue the beautiful Princess Daphne from the titular location. With the help of a four-way joystick and a sword button, the player navigated our bumbling hero through more than two dozen rooms before finally earning a chance to battle the dragon and free the ladyfair. Along the way, Dirk would tussle with such colorful foes as the Lizard King, the Giddy Goons, and the Mud Men.

But although the graphics were spellbinding, players quickly tired of the astronomical price tag (a staggering 50 cents to play -- a veritable fortune for a young boy in 1983!) and often found themselves perplexed by the confusing gameplay. Because Dragon's Lair's animation was generated not by a computer processor but instead resided on the laserdisc, the game relied on rote memorization. Pressing the joystick in the proper direction at the proper time would allow Dirk to continue on his quest; otherwise, the laserdisc would skip to a different track, depicting an often gruesome death scene. Learning the pattern took numerous attempts, but after the timing was mastered, the game became predictable and unchallenging.

Despite its limited replay value, Dragon's Lair has retained a loyal cult following, a group which includes your humble correspondent. Nostalgia and collector demand has ensured that working Dragon's Lair arcade games fetch a pretty penny at auction and on eBay. Unfortunately, the heavy wear placed on the laserdisc player back in the early '80s meant that the game was notorious for breaking down. As a result, it's very rare to find a Dragon's Lair machine today that has its original laserdisc player.

Despite its age, Dragon's Lair has the distinction of being one of the most ported games in video game history. To date, it has appeared not only on vintage computers like the Coleco Adam and the Commodore 64, and retro gaming consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Game Boy, but also on modern systems like the iPod Touch and the PS2. Whatever platform you prefer, you can probably find a version of Dragon's Lair that will run on it. And you should! After all, Princess Daphne is counting on you.

Original Dragon's Lair Arcade Cabinet (North America, 1983)

An original Dragon's Lair arcade cabinet
Credit: IGN.com

Dragon's Lair: Original Arcade Demo Mode (1983)

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Comments

Mar 29, 2011 10:46am
TrevorLewthor
I played the game once or twice and died almost immediately. The graphics were cool but I could never figure out the game play. Knowing that it was rote would have been nice at the time! Thanks for the article!!
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