The year is 1983. Arcades were filled with video games considered archaic by today's standards; Mario Bros. (the original), Spy Hunter, Track and Field, Cloak & Dagger and Food Fight - just to name a few. The home video game market was collapsing and the NES had just hit Japan, but wouldn't hit our shores for another two years. Theaters were playing movies like Risky Business, Scarface and The Dead Zone. Michael Jackson was still black and groups like Eurythmics, Duran Duran and Prince topped the music charts. Chicago elected the first black mayor, Sally Ride was the first woman in outer space and a suicide bomb attack in Beirut killed 241 Marines.
Are you firmly dialed back into the '80s now? Good - because video games like Dragon's Lair and its ilk are "period pieces" - and they require a proper mindset to be enjoyed fully.
This is the extended edition of the review - more suitable for die hard fans of the games. If you're a more casual player looking for the more traditional review, you can read that version here.
Dragon's Lair started off as the brainchild of one Rick Dyer, a software engineer and a very passionate guy. He had a vision of a computer controlled "choose your own adventure" game and he even prototyped it using a roll of computer paper and a simple roller controller device that would roll the paper to different scenes as you made choices. From here, Dyer took the idea to new levels by controlling these still scenes stored on the then new video laserdisc. He shopped the idea around, but couldn't get a bite. It wasn't until he saw master animator Don Bluth's first full length motion picture THE SECRET OF NIMH that Dyer realized what he needed to back his technology was a compelling, animated story. Dragon's Lair was born.
It appeared in the arcades in summer of 1983 to a technology hungry audience that simply went rabid for the cinema-quality animation and full audio soundtrack which immediately separated it from the rest of the games. Within a year, the game had made the developers over $30 million. They couldn't build the machines fast enough to keep up with demand. Arcade operators went crazy for this game - one, because at $.50 a play, they were raking in more cash and two, because the game was a huge draw. Some operators went so far as to put TV sets ABOVE the Dragon's Lair cabinets that showed the current game in progress - making sure everyone in attendance could be seduced by the rich animated graphics. The game spawned dozens of laserdisc based games (some similar to Dragon's Lair, some featuring computer graphics overlayed on real video) from companies like Stern and Sega. Some of them were mildly successful, but none of them reached the status that Dragon's Lair did.
One of only three games to be featured in the Smithsonian Institute (along with Pong and Pac-Man), the legacy of Dragon's Lair is story unto itself.
Space Ace was the follow up title to Dragon's Lair (also animated by the Don Bluth team) and came as a conversion kit so arcade operators could "upgrade" to the new game. Space Ace offered more settings for difficulty, branching or 'alternative' moves so it was less linear and featured a more traditional storyline. Unfortunately, laserdisc gaming was already on its way out and Space Ace was not the success Dragon's Lair was.
Dragon's Lair II was shelved all the way until 1991 when it was resurrected by Sullivan Bluth Studios - a joint venture by Don Bluth and Morris Sullivan (you might remember a little movie called AN AMERICAN TAIL?). Even with new hardware inside (the original hardware had some issues and was costly to maintain) and a brand new Dirk adventure - the game failed to resurrect the original excitement. This installment brought some interesting new things to the table (we'll talk about that later) and it's unfortunate more people didn't get to play it. Dragon's Lair II machines are still in operation some 20 years later - a testament to the quality of the hardware. One such machine can be played at Castles & Coasters located in Phoenix, AZ.
Dragon's Lair pioneered the concept of Quick Time Events (QTE) later brought back to gamers in titles such as Shenmue, God of War and Resident Evil. Instead of directly controlling your on screen persona, you flick the stick or press the button during a sequence of events to successfully carry the game forward. Failing to make the right sequence of moves results in tragedy - usually the death of the player and the process has to be restarted. If you've ever killed a minotaur or jerked the head off a Medusa in God of War, you know what QTE is.
In Dragon's Lair, you take on the role of Dirk the Daring - a bumbling but charismatic knight - navigating a monster-filled castle complete with a big scary dragon to fight at the end of the journey. Your reward? The rescue of arguably the hottest princess ever to grace a video game.
The journey through the castle is set up through a series of rooms or scenes. Each room requires precision QTE solving to move on to the next room. To assist you on the way, quick flashes of light will show you the combination of timing and action you need to perform in order to keep the movie going. Fail to act - or act incorrectly - and you're treated to a short clip of Dirk biting the dust in various ways. Run out of lives and your quest is over.
The game mechanics are quite simple by today's standards and are always the subject of criticism (as are most Full Motion Video games of the past). It is more a game of memorization than action and dexterity. What I tell people going into Dragon's Lair for the first time is - treat it like an INTERACTIVE MOVIE where you're just like a glorified editor - keeping the movie flowing from start to finish. When people have that expectation, they seem to enjoy the game more than if they go in expecting to take live control over Dirk and his sword.
A common expression for these games: Come for the animation, stay for the game.
Space Ace and Dragon's Lair II play very similar to Dragon's Lair with some changes - we'll go over those later.
Digging Into The Trilogy on the Wii
The Wii version comes on a single DVD5 disc and features 480p HD video during game play. The video itself comes from the new widescreen HD transfer done a couple of years ago when Digital Leisure spent over six months painstakingly cleaning up the original film. The widescreen presentation was supervised by one of the original animators, Gary Goldman. All three games - Dragon's Lair, Dragon's Lair II and Space Ace are included on this disc.
The games are accessed by a very slick menu - featuring 3D rendered reproductions of the games' original arcade cabinets - complete with working attract modes. Each game has settings and options (which carry over from game to game - like number of lives) and each game has its own high score table (these are local - not online leaderboards). Each game also has the WATCH NOW option that allows you to simply sit back and watch the game played (without any deaths or alternative paths) by itself - all the way through. Believe me, you'll need this for Dragon's Lair II.
The presentation value is very good - more than they had to do for a budget game like this. You wouldn't be embarrassed showing it to your friends.
Each game has a set of options you can choose from. Number of Lives follows you from game to game - and yes, there is an INFINITE option for those of you that just want to keep trying. If you set 5 lives for Dragon's Lair, when you go play Space Ace, that's the number of lives you'll have there, too.
Dragon's Lair has two MODES of play - ARCADE and HOME. In arcade mode, you're playing the "authentic" arcade version. The HOME mode is similar to other home versions they've released in the past - featuring scenes never accessed on the original arcade game. There is also a difficulty setting for EASY and HARD - which requires more precise movements and shorter "action windows" to work in. More on that in a bit.
Dragon's Lair II also has two modes - ARCADE and DIRECTOR'S CUT. We'll talk more about that in a minute.
Space Ace allows for three modes of play - Cadet, Captain and Ace. Each one increments the number of scenes you'll have to play to win as well as increases the precision requirements and "action windows" too. We'll cover this in more detail.
All games offer three types of "visual hint" indicators: Side, Bottom and None. The last option should be obvious, but the other two are huge benefits to those new to these types of games. SIDE shows motion indicators along the outer sides of the game play area. Along with the in-game flashes, these arrows and indicators will tell you WHAT to do - and WHEN to do it. The BOTTOM indicator shows a visual d-pad and sword/action button that light up in time and in direction to help you keep the action going.
You will also see an on-screen indicator of your score as the game goes on (normally handled by an LED panel on the arcade machines).
Finally, you can control audio levels of the sound and the venerable (and remarkably distinctive) success/fail beeps.
Playing the Games
Each game features similar QTE gameplay, but each game also features unique characteristics I want to look at in detail.
This is the best game for the newbies to start on. The required movements are slower paced and easier to identify as you play than the other two games. It is also the most popular of the three games and more people will have some personal history with it. Having said that, it is also the least "dynamic" of the three games and much more feels like "the sum of its parts" instead of a "controllable movie". Still, it's great to get your feet wet in the "interactive movie" game play.
For the purposes of this review, we'll be playing this on EASY, in ARCADE mode.
Each room or scene has fairly stringent movement requirements - with some "alternative moves" allowed (this is on EASY mode). That means that in certain rooms there may be more than just one right move to continue. These alternate moves are often "issues" with other home releases of the game (more on accuracy in a minute).
Dragon's Lair II
I would never consider myself an expert at Dragon's Lair II. I've put hundreds of dollars into the arcade game, but it wasn't available "properly" emulated on the PC until fairly recently and I was never "good" at it.
If you're new to the laserdisc QTE type game, this is the LAST place you want to start. Even for die hard veterans, this game is HARD ... not just a LITTLE hard. Moves are rapid fire .. in some cases within milliseconds of each other. Without a lot of memorization, you'll spend your whole experience watching the move indicators and not enjoying the game at all.
From my limited experiences with Dragon's Lair II, this game appears quite accurate in recreation, but I wouldn't stake my reputation on it.
Space Ace attempted to fix a lot of the complaints people had about Dragon's Lair. It features multiple difficulty levels, branching paths and a more "storyline" driven play. While it's still technically the sum of it's parts - it feels like you're more playing a game from front to back.
The game play speed and execution is much like Dragon's Lair (thankfully) and not Dragon's Lair II. There are a few scenes that are more rapid fire than others - but most of those can actually be avoided through branching or by playing the game on CADET level.
The difficulty settings have more to do with how many scenes you play versus how hard the game is. The "action window" timing is a little more precise, but for the most part - if you're comfortable with the previous difficulty levels - you should be ok playing the same scenes on the harder levels.
There are three levels of difficulty: Cadet, Captain and Ace.
I'm not a gamer that's "all about graphics" - but since this game is pretty much an interactive movie, we have to look at the media as a core element of the game.
Don Bluth is often noted as saying that despite all the motion pictures they have animated, they will go down in history known mostly for 22 minutes of animation known as Dragon's Lair. Hot off the heels working for Disney, Bluth provides us with quality animation (you know, BEFORE CGI took over) for all three games. Fans of traditional animation will appreciate this game more than those brought up on the latest 3D fare.
All three games started off as standard definition 4:3 aspect ratio (1.33:1) film. Recently, Digital Leisure performed a six-month restoration of the video and it looks simply incredible on the Wii - in full 480p high definition. I dare say the video looks better now than it ever did (which might be a point of contention for some of the die hard fans who typically want it exactly the way it was).
Being so knowledgeable about these games, I'm frequently asked how a widescreen version of this game is possible when the original game was 4:3. Much like every other original source that is moved from standard definition to high definition, the video has to be altered to "fit" the 1.78:1 high definition standard.
Videophiles are very particular about having their video "converted" from one format to another. Seeing widescreen/letterbox movies butchered into square "pan & scan" or "formatted to fit your screen" movies is considered an atrocity. There is a reverse process called "matting" - where square 4:3 movies are altered to fit the wider formats - is similarly frowned on since it alters the original view the director intended you to see.
After the clean up and restoration of the video for these games, the original animation team supervised the matting of the video to the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. While this does indeed remove part of the picture as it's matted, at least the process was approved by the original directors - a luxury not always afforded in the video world.
To better see just "how much" you're missing, check out the comparison shots below from each game. The widescreen picture is brighter than the 4:3 counterparts. Note: to make life easier, I pulled the frames from the PC HD release of Dragon's Lair and the original DVD release of the same game.
As you can see, while there is some picture loss - it shouldn't affect most people's enjoyment of the game. Purists out there will argue that we're still not playing the original as long as it is widescreen - and they are absolutely correct. The trade of here is - if you want the best looking picture possible, you have to trade some of the picture to do it. For those interested in getting ahold of the remastered 4:3 video, the blu-ray ports of Space Ace and Dragon's Lair II have this video included. Dragon's Lair's video is not available in the remastered original aspect ratio.
The video is not quite on par with the blu-ray releases for obvious reasons: 480p vice 1080p - but believe me, unless you've seen the blus - you've never seen Dragon's Lair look this good. It could easily be considered the best looking game on the Wii.
Full sized, high quality versions of the source frames used above are below.
To see how the Wii version looks specifically, watch my Quick Look video.
Here is the part you've all been waiting for. Just how accurate are the games compared to their original arcade counterparts?
For those wondering why this is even a question - the answer is simple. Over the years, we've had dozens of "home" versions released from various sources across about every platform known to man. Several times, we've been promised a perfect arcade experience - and we've never gotten it.
There has never been a 100% accurate version of Dragon's Lair released for home use. Believe me - I know - I've tried them all.
The only accurate way to play Dragon's Lair and it's ilk is to use an emulator - a piece of software that accurately recreates the hardware and software the original arcade machine - and use video dumps of the original laserdisc. Despite how it seems, there are tens of thousands of people that have done just that to play these games in their original glory.
Instead of emulation, home versions use simulation; near accurate representations (of various quality) based on how much time and money the developers want to invest in the recreation.
Over the years, I've put my hands on almost every version known to man - from the Commodore 64 version to the PC "reel video" edition to the Sega CD version to the Nintendo DSi edition (and even a couple that have never seen the light of day). I've chased that Amy for decades - and I've yet to be fully satisfied with any official home version of the game. But I keep trying them all - hoping for the perfect version. I've sat on advisory boards for these products, I've even worked as an Associate Producer on one of them - killing dozens of hours of unpaid time trying to ensure that the next version would be as accurate as humanly possible.
Before we get to what missed the boat on the Wii versions of these games, let me start off by saying that these "nitpicks" are not for the casual players interested in this game. These are for us die hard cronies that demand the perfect version and these people look to me to provide this information.
Because my expertise only extends to Dragon's Lair and Space Ace - we will not be evaluating Dragon's Lair II at this time.
The most common inaccuracies in Dragon's Lair consist of missing rooms, incorrect ordering and sequencing of rooms, failure to allow "alternative moves" for certain rooms as well as a couple of other little inconsistencies.
To prepare for this review, I played through Dragon's Lair (emulated on Daphne) about 10 times all the way through - testing various moves, timing and junction points against my own memory. I then played the Wii version through several times comparing and contrasting. Finally, I verified my notes by playing the emulated version again.
This version of Dragon's Lair is based on the very commonly played F2 ROMs (the code that determines all the stuff we mentioned above). The game was compared on the Wii in Arcade/Easy mode against the same settings on the emulator.
For those looking for 100% perfection - it isn't here. I am very happy to report this version is the closest I've ever seen on the market. But, I've always promised to be as complete as possible in reviewing Dragon's Lair, so ... here we go.
The first thing you'll notice about the Wii version is that it starts you off on the fire ropes scene MOST of the time. 9 times out of 10 by my testing. On the actual game, the building brick wall showed up 5 times out of 10. After the first scene, the randomness of the rooms appeared to be pretty close on both versions.
The famous DRINK ME room is the next issue. On the emulated version (and my recollection as well), you could move RIGHT immediately upon entering the room. The Wii version requires you wait until the door flashes. Minor, but definitely different.
In the room with the ghostly figure with the blue staff and the two spinning balls you have to navigate through, there is a minor issue with the "mirrored" version of the video. In the Wii version, the mirror version puts you RIGHT up to the balls where you have to move almost immediately. In the emulated version, you are given the more time as Dirk approaches the spinning balls.
The chomping door and electrified room takes you across a bridge where lava blows through it just as you make it across. Dirk pauses for a moment waiting for the right time to go. On the emulated version, you can start tapping LEFT repeatedly as you get close to the bridge, and it will take your move when it's time. On the Wii version, you're forced to wait for a certain period of time and move only when it's time. This will really throw a crimp into your mojo if you're used to doing the move the original way.
Finally, there is a room with a crystal ball in the center that electrifies the room and the camera goes to an above shot - and the floor starts to change, forcing you to move RIGHT, FORWARD then RIGHT to a throne that spins around to take you to safety. The timing has always been quick, but the FORWARD move is required considerably earlier on the Wii version than on the emulated version. This will surely require some adjustment on the part of the seasoned player.
Space Ace has always been my favorite game between the two. However, I have played Dragon's Lair more because of my involvement with the home versions. As such, I did not do as close of a comparison between the original and the Wii version. Be assured I did play both versions all the way through - several times on all modes.
Before this review, I did a "Quick Look" video review of the game and many people asked me where the "Dexter / Kimmy" banter was at the beginning of Dexter's space flight. I assure you the game is accurate in this matter - I was playing on ACE mode during the video and in ACE mode, there is no conversation held. If you switch to CADET, you will see the video.
For the purposes of this review, I played CADET through several times on both the Wii version and the emulated version. The Wii version is based on the A2 ROMs most commonly found in arcade Space Ace cabinets.
Most of the inaccuracies of Space Ace in the past versions have dealt with missing alternative routes - being able to not energizing when told, fighting Borf first as Dexter BEFORE energizing into Ace, etc. There have also been issues of "alternate moves" not being allowed as well.
It's very obvious that the painstaking work done on Dragon's Lair accuracy wasn't extended to Space Ace. The game is filled with minor issues just on CADET difficulty - I'm sure we'll see more in the other two.
Here is my list of issues ...
When you first turn into Ace, the platform you are standing on crumbles and you have to jump to the RIGHT. The timing is off.
Dexter is required to navigate some dirt pounders to get to his ship. The Wii version requires an extra LEFT to get to the ship.
Dexter does battle with a laser laser robot. Before he does, a video showing his ship landing is played in the Wii version. This doesn't appear in the emulated game. During this laser battle, Dexter is required to jump from floating platform to floating platform. The timing here is slightly off.
Right after Dexter energizes to Ace against the "space cats", a giant scary monster attacks and you must use a laser shot to get him to let you go. The timing on the second laser shot is wrong. Fortunately if you keep tapping, it works, but it's definitely off.
One of the oddest things about Space Ace that bothers me the most is the odd BLUE tint on the video when Dexter energizes. It looks REALLY bizarre and I can't figure out why they would have remastered it like that. Compare for yourself below.
Of the laundry list of issues I found in Space Ace, this might bother me the most.
Is This For me?
I get a common question from the current generation of gamers: Can I play and enjoy this game if I've never played it before?
If you enjoy QTE sequences in modern gaming, there is no reason why you can't get into this game. If you're a fan of traditional animation, these are extreme period pieces that are valuable to anyone's collection. Fans of "trial and error" gaming (and you know who you are), this game practically invented the concept.
Now - if you watched my Quick Look video and can't figure out the draw, this game may not be for you. There IS a lot of nostalgia required to enjoy the game to its fullest - and no one is going to blame you if you just "don't get it".
Just remember - animated doesn't mean it's a kid's game. These aren't easy (even with the onscreen hints) and Dragon's Lair II is damn hard even for a veteran player. You'll need patience and perseverance to get through these games - and it just isn't for everyone.
While we will continue to chase the "perfect" versions of these games, these games have never looked this good and (at least with Dragon's Lair) have never played this accurately. Despite what appears to be a laundry list of accuracy issues - no one but the most die hard amongst us are going to even notice. The color issues in Space Ace bother me more than the timing issues and you won't have time to see any issues as you blow through Dragon's Lair II.
Many reviews like to bring up the fact that you can play each of the three games in this collection from front to back in about ten minutes each. The simple fact is, you're not going to. Even with onscreen move indicators - you're going to spend some hours with this collection. Once you have mastered the games on easy, there are plenty of options to make it harder and/or longer. You'll also want to sample some of the great death scenes hidden away - like my favorite "breaking the fourth wall" one:
At $30 - or $10 a game - you could do a lot worse with your cash, considering how expensive these games were in their single-game HD formats. Getting ahold of this title might require a little effort on your part - since I haven't seen it available in a store and supplies online appear quite limited. If you are a Wii collector, you will definitely want to pick this one up for "collector value".
The menus and presentation are top notch - and I personally thank Destineer and Digital Leisure for giving the extra time and love to a property that really deserves it.
To my followers wondering if I "sanction" this edition as a die hard fan of the games, I say "yes". Most people are coming for Dragon's Lair and staying for the other two - and while Dragon's Lair isn't perfect, it's pretty close - and boy does it look incredible. If you own the Blu-Ray or other HD versions, you'll want this for the greater accuracy. If all you own are the DVD editions, this is a no brainer.
However, if you have a nice working Daphne emulator set up and it's accessible enough - you might want to pass on this because you already have the best edition possible. Otherwise, this edition is worthy of your shelf space.