Monday, December 21, 2009

Forgotten Worlds - Bygones of the Arcade Age

There are many video games from the early 80s that stood the test of time.  With their simple, but addictive gameplay, games such as Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man are still considered classics by today's standards.  During those days, the graphics weren't as advanced as they are today and the only thing a gamer focused on was getting the high score.  In 1983, a new kind of arcade game changed not only how people made games, but also how they saw and played them.  One of the most eye-opening arcade games of the era (and one of my personal favorites) was Dragon's Lair.
I remember seeing the game for the first time.  Mom dragged me to the mall when I saw it at the very front of the arcade there.  The colorful animated scenes wowed me.  I begged my mom to let me hang out there while she went shopping.  Of course, she said that leaving a four-year-old in an arcade was a bad idea.  I asked if we could stop in there for a while, but she didn't want to.  She preferred letting me rot in the Purgatory that was the clearance section of JC Penney, but I digress.

It all began with a man named Rick Dyer, who wanted to do something different with electronic entertainment.  The man had lofty ambitions, some would say too lofty, as he continuously tried to create the next great gaming experience.  It was a vision he fought hard for and, though it may not have been completely realized, it did produce some of the most interesting arcade games.

Mr. Dyer decided to focus on a reletively new technology for the basis of his vision, the laserdisc.  Capable of doing things that no other media could at the time, he used it to create a different kind of video game.  He used the talents of former Disney animator Don Bluth, who had just made a name for himself with his movie, The Secret of NIMH, to create a video game that used traditional cel animation instead of pixel based sprites.  The final product, Dragon's Lair, was released and it blew people's minds.  No one before had seen a game like it.  Not only did it use hand drawn animation in place of graphics, it also had a continuing story, which means it was one of the first arcade games to have a real ending.

The premise was simple.  You played as Dirk the Daring as you navigate through a dark castle and face numerous challenges in order to rescue the beautiful Princess Daphne from the clutches of the dragon Singe in his lair.  At certain points, the player used the controller to direct Dirk away from danger (avoidance is pretty much the name of the game) as well as attack enemies.  Make the wrong move and Dirk bites it in any number of hilarious ways.  Of course, this meant that you could not have Dirk go wherever you wanted.  You pretty much had to figure out when you needed to use the joystick and which way you needed to go, so there is a lot of trial and error that made playthroughs lengthier.  One you've figured out the patterns for each scene, you can beat the game easily.
While the gameplay wasn't the most challenging, the real fun with Dragon's Lair was in the total experience.  Don Bluth is a fantastic animator and this game is solid proof of that.  Dirk is pretty much one part heroic and one part spaz.  Like I said, some of his death animations are pretty funny.  Despite him being the main character, you don't get much dialogue out of him.  Mostly, he grunts when he's exerting himself and makes those "oh shit" yells when there's trouble.  I think the only words he actually says are, "wow," and "uh oh."
Then there's Princess Daphne, the hottest video game girl of the 80s, which isn't hard, considering most of the other women were sprites with little detail (Yes, having a thing for Ms. Pac-Man is fucking creepy!).  In an interview, Don Bluth said that he spent a lot of time looking at Playboy magazine for his inspiration of Daphne.  First off, I can totally see that.  Second, Don Bluth must be one awesome motherfucker to use Playboy as a reference for his work (If only he did that for some of his other work.  I think Titan AE was the only movie he did where the female character had a sexy moment.).  When you find her, she's trapped in a magic bubble and she has this speech on how to free her while she's posing seductively.  Of course, you really don't need pay too much attention to what she says, as it's all exposition, so if you're too busy ogling her, it's okay.

Play Dragon's Lair now, My Lord!

Due to it's cutting edge technology and fantastic animation, Dragon's Lair became a runaway hit.  People dropped shitloads of quarters into the machines for a long time.  The game became the Holy Grail of arcades during its time and Rick Dyer had seen his vision come true.  For an encore, Dyer and Bluth used the same formula in the rising science fiction craze with the equally popular Space AceSpace Ace did make some improvements over Dragon's Lair.  It was harder than its predecesor.  Plus, it also featured branching choices,which allowed you to decide, at certain times, on which path you want to take to beat the game.  This hiked up the replay value as you couldn't see all there was to see in one playthrough.  Dyer would return to the idea with the highly ambitious, but not as successful Thayer's Quest (without Don Bluth, this time).

The problem with Thayer's Quest was that it was not as fast paced as Dragon's Lair or Space Ace.  The player had to journey through different fantasy realms, collecting items and facing all sorts of puzzles and challenges.  As such, the game was a more thought provoking excursion that didn't translate well to the rapid quarter-plunking of arcade machines.  It also suffered because the game used up all the space on one side of a laserdisc before the quest was over.  Having someone turn over the disc to continue playing was definitely a bad idea in a place such as an arcade.

By 1985, Rick Dyer decided to take laserdisc video games one step further.  He developed Halcyon, the first video game console to use laserdisc based media.  Halcyon was actually an advanced computer that utilized laserdiscs to recreate the feel of full motion video gaming at home.  Dyer also designed the Halcyon to be an intelligent computer, utilizing such things as voice commands, in order to make it more like its inspiration, HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  A home version of Thayer's Quest was released for the system and other games were set up for future release, which might have been great, had they seen the light of day.

The Halcyon's downfall was imminent, though, as the system's price point was insane.  Take a wild guess how much the Halcyon cost at retail?  Would you believe it cost $2,500?  After calculating for inflation, that's a little over $5,000 by today's standards.  Could you imagine paying that much for a video game system?  Well, people in 1985 felt the same way.  The Halcyon never made it off the ground.  Only a number of prototype units were ever made.   Most of them were bought by a bunch of rich fucks who had that kind of disposable income.  At that point, it seemed that Dyer's dream was over.
Regardless, the advent of laserdisc arcade games had other gaming companies trying to make money in the shadow of Dragon's Lair.  Numerous copycats were made to cash in on the craze.  Some were good, some sucked.  Some even integrated sprites with full motion video to give the player full control of a sprite based object over a video background.  Due to the high price and unreliability of the hardware, laserdisc games fell into obscurity.

That is until Dyer came back in 1991 with a new laserdisc game, Time Traveller, which is the only arcade game that utilizes a primitive holographic technology.  Released by Sega, it became another quarter muncher for Dyer, though it wouldn't hold interest for long, with games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat coming to arcades.  The technology was pretty much considered a flash in the pan gimmick.  Sega would later work with the laserdisc technology that Dyer pioneered to start their foray into CD rom console systems.  Later, in 1998, Dyer would complete the saga that was started with Thayer's Quest with Shadoan on the PC, which finished the main character's quest by having the player go to the final two realms that were left out of Thayer's Quest due to laserdisc's limitations.

While Dyer released Time Traveller, Don Bluth had finally brought almost a decade of labor to fruition with Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp.  The project was started after Space Ace was introduced.  As Dyer went on to work on other projects, Bluth decided to go back to where it all started.  Unfortunately, the project had numerous obstacles, mostly due to the already waning interest in laserdisc games.  Bluth's company continued to work on the project while they made their money on a steady stream of movies.  When the 90s saw a resurgence of laserdisc games, due to Dyer's Time Traveller as well as the crop of games from American Laser Games (Crime Patrol, Mad Dog Mcree, etc.), Bluth saw the opportunity and brought the Dragon's Lair sequel to life.  Though the game was just as good as the original, most people had enough of laserdisc games and it wasn't as well received as it should have been.
  Personally, I have fond memories of Dragon's Lair II, as it was the only one of the games I actually got to play in arcades.  My jaw dropped when I first saw it at my local bowling alley.  The first Dragon's Lair was such an elusive myth to me that playing the sequel was like a dream come true.  Every time I got my allowance, I immediately went to spend it all on the game (okay, maybe I saved up some money for comic books and video game rentals).  It was only there for a summer before they took it out.

Which brings me to my personal quest to play these games again.  I've owned a couple versions of them.  My first copy of Dragon's Lair was on the Sega CD (yes, I owned one).  Looking back, it was a terrible version, but it was the only way I could play it.  Then, I got a Dragon's Lair Collection on PC that had all three games on one disc (or was it two?).  The problem with that version was that the game popped up on a window the size of a playing card.  Increasing the window size slowed it down.  Then I got the 20th Anniversary Collection, which brings the two Dragon's Lair games and Space Ace onto DVD.  While this has so many extras and goodies, it also has problems with certain DVD players which have a significant pause when doing an action on the DVD remote.  Trying it on the PS2 doesn't help either.  Actually, the game works best on the XBOX 360.  In addition to the Dragon's Lair Collection, I also own Thayer's Quest and Shadoan on DVD (I actually found Shadoan at a dollar store, as it was discontinued not long after it was released).

From what I've read, they've actually released the full version of Dragon's Lair for download on the Nintendo DSi today, which is surprising.  It's amazing that you can have a full motion video game on a handheld system that still uses cartridge based technology.  Maybe this will give Dragon's Lair an outlet to reach new gamers.  We all know those kids need some schooling about the old days.

I could probably keep going about Dragon's Lair.  There's been action figures, a short lived cartoon show, even Dragon's Lair 3D, a mediocre action platforming game for the previous generation of consoles (They hyped it as that you can control Dirk's every move.  Honestly, so what?).  I've been going on long enough, though.  Needless to say, Dragon's Lair will always hold a special, nostalgic place in my heart.

And even though the technology and novelty of laserdisc games has been surpassed, Rick Dyer's vision has still been instrumental in the creation of the past few generations of home console systems.  It was his pioneering that helped give rise to the Playstations and the XBOXs.  Though he was light years ahead of the times, his dream was not impossible.  Thank you, Mr. Dyer.

Kaiser out

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