Insert Disk collects Dragon’s Lair for the Sega CD.
Today’s retro game review is Dragon’s Lair for the Sega CD. This retro gaming classic was a breakthrough moment in gaming in 1983. Animated by Don Bluth, Dragon’s Lair became an instant arcade hit and then later a classic on numerous home gaming systems such as the Sega CD. The Sega CD version may be flawed in terms of graphical capability but is still worth a look for the curious retro gamer.
Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. So, Dragon’s Lair. Its classic, its iconic and its an absolute nightmare to play. Join me as I take a look back as this ground-breaking 1983 interactive quick-time event fantasy movie.
In this episode I’m specifically looking at the Sega CD edition of the game. However, the game did appear in various guises on just about everything of the day that had a processor. Versions even appeared on the original Nintendo home system, the Sinclair spectrum and in later years it has been either ported or remastered to just about every format you can name. I’ve chosen the Sega CD edition as along with the 3DO edition they are seen as the original arcade to home console ports using CD technology rather than the original laserdisc. Revisiting Dragon’s Lair is a bit of a minefield. The game has a large cult following and quite naturally many gamers are very protective of one of their most beloved games. There is much to love about Dragon’s Lair but there are also clearly elements of the games execution that divides gamer’s opinion to this day. If you’ve been watching the channel for a while you’ll know that I don’t mind quick-time event based games such as Dragon’s Lair but I do feel that I need to give an honest representation of the game here.
As the introduction movie explains you play as a hero known as Dirk the daring. You quest is to rescue princess Daphne from the evil wizard and the dragon that is holding her prisoner. So basically we’re looking at a plot as deep as “rescue the princess”. It’s worth reminding ourselves at this point that the original arcade version of Dragon’s Lair was in 1983 whilst this Sega CD edition was a decade later in 1993. Back in 1983 if you walked in to an arcade you may have seen Ms-Pac Man and Dragon’s Lair lined up next to each other. It’s clear that due to the stark contrast in graphical capabilities the original laserdisc arcade edition broke new ground and set a new standard. It also became notorious as a coin guzzling monster success.
The game is controlled by either an up, down, left, right or action button. The player watches the onscreen action and presses their response to avoid the oncoming danger. Naturally its arcade origins make this game one that needs to suck in the coins of gamers. It’s in its very DNA. As a result this game is notoriously difficult. Later games using the quick-time formula were often more forgiving in reaction time and on screen direction. If you’re in to this genre of gaming you’ll be aware that Dragon’s Lair doesn’t always explicitly show when you should press your response.
This mechanic in combination with the rather ambiguous solutions makes the game stand out as a clear challenge. For my money I’d have to say that this is perhaps the first game that really took the concept of cheap deaths to the masses. In fact I’d go as far as saying that this game may even have been one of the founding fathers of the rage quit. For every cheap death though there is a certain type of player. By nature humans rise to challenges and it wasn’t long before players started getting good at the game. By memorising all of the screens and actions you could look rather impressive in the arcade if you could master this one. Practice does make perfect and the nature of the game meant that repetition could see you complete the game. And it is worth seeing. The animation was created by ex-Disney employee Don Bluth. Perhaps best known for his work on The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail and The Land Before Time. His distinctive drawing style is what really defined Dragon’s Lair. You can look at any scene in the game to see the talent that Don brought to the project.
What we have in Dragon’s Lair is a game that looks great (at least in the arcade) but has a very limited and challenging game play system. Specifically speaking about the Sega CD editions the game is perhaps the ultimate in style over substance. In a 1983 arcade all of this could be forgiven, it was new, it was daring and innovative and deserved to get the attention it received. It truly was a classic moment of gaming that brought something different to masses. Interestingly it also became a game that helped define the Sega CD. This home edition did show off the capabilities and the promise of the new technology. However, it also got the industry talking about the elephant in the room and that’s that the game just didn’t look that great. With its heavy compression, limited colour pallet and short arcade style of play the early home edition received somewhat of a mixed response. Whilst it’s clear that there was excitement and an audience for the game it just didn’t hold up to the thrill of the arcade. In turn the video based technology so prevalent with Sega CD games added to its downfall. One generation away and the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn would be the coming of age for CD based technology. Sadly consoles such the Sega CD, 3DO, Philips CDI and Atari Jaguar CD we’re caught in a no man’s land of demand for innovation but just not quite enough raw hardware power to deliver.
However, game collecting is sometime kind to those games that didn’t quite fulfil their potential. On one of my visits to New York I picked up this excellent mint condition Sega CD edition for $20. If you’re looking to collect it’s best to look for the sponge padding and ensure that the case has no cracks. The game of course comes with a full length manual which is in itself a talking piece. It’s clear that the publishers knew that this game was challenging so the manual is actually more of a hints and help guide covering some of the more obscure events in the game. It’s a nice touch. In the back you’ll also get the registration card and an advert for Space Ace. Perhaps one for another time. You also get an interesting “Items Beyond Warranty” message. If the CD(s) fail beyond the warranty period, CD’s will be replaced for $20 U.S. (including shipping). When sending goods back to ReadySoft for repair from outside of Canada, please mark the outside of the package “Defective Canadian goods being returned for repair”. It’s an interesting message for a product “Manufactured in USA”. $20 is still about right for the US edition of the game. For the rarer UK Sega Mega CD edition £70 is more in line with the going rate.
However, for the die-hard Dragon’s Lair fans really only the laserdisc editions will suffice that need for the quality of the original arcade edition. Dragon’s Lair is a game that very much finds itself in a unique position. Rather than being a game that is genuinely fun to play it relies heavily on gamer’s curiosity to watch. As a collector of retro games I sought Dragon’s Lair out for exactly this reason. I’ve played the original hardware as well as the sequel Time Warp so I’m familiar with the learning curve and restricted game mechanics. However, you see a game like Dragon’s Lair and you can’t help but want it in your collection. It’s a game with a both a history of innovation and a legacy that has inspired numerous other games of this style. I feel that I really should enjoy Dragon’s Lair a lot more than I actually do. It ticks a lot of boxes but no matter how many times I play the game I always seem to come back around to the same conclusion and that’s that the game is simply too difficult.
Even though I’m playing the Sega CD edition I’m quite happy to forego the original sound and graphics, it’s not too much or a barrier to pass for the average gamer. The difficulty on the other hand could be a major detractor to gamers though. Although acceptable in the 80’s arcade I can’t help feeling that the newer generations of gamer will only look upon Dragon’s Lair as curiosity rather than a game to be enjoyed. I’m certainly not saying that the Sega CD edition of Dragon’s Lair is a bad game. You have to ask yourself though, how many gamers do you know that have completed this one and of those how many genuinely found it fun to play, rather than just a challenge. One other element that may also put off a more modern crowd is the helpless blonde bimbo princess Daphne. I’m not sure that I ever questioned it growing up but playing this one through to the end you realise how much has changed in terms of gender representation. Dirk is a passable lead protagonist as a humorous character constantly at the mercy of the castles traps and dungeons. Sadly, Daphne on the other hand comes off as really stereotyped damsel in distress and not in a good way. She only has a few lines of speech but gives the impression of the typical dumb blonde. Sort of like a Marilyn Monroe character but without any of the redeeming qualities. Daphne is perhaps quite a good metaphor for the game in general. It’s well presented, simple in concept and definitely a product of its time.
You could take one look at this game as a newcomer and write the whole thing off as a gimmick. The important thing to remember though is that 1983 was a very different time and place so you can’t judge the game by today’s standards. Social stereotypes were very different, the gaming industry was still deciding what it wanted to be and in turn gamers were living it and experiencing it first-hand. As much as a mixed experience and divisive game as it is I’d certainly recommend giving Dragon’s Lair a try if you haven’t played it before. It may not be universally loved by gamers but I think we can all agree that it has an important place in gaming history.