PSN Review: Dragon’s Lair



In the bygone days of 1983, a little game called Dragon’s Lair would grace the sticky-floored, darkened halls of arcades to blow the minds and empty the wallets of teenagers everywhere. The brainchild of Rick Dyer and featuring an entire game’s worth of hand-drawn animation by Disney alumnus Don Bluth (director of An American Tail and The Land Before Time), Dragon’s Lair was a then-unprecedented experience: An arcade game which featured feature film quality graphics and the ability to take part in an interactive movie as you helped Dirk Daring vanquish evil to save the princess. Even at twice the cost-per-play of regular arcade cabinets, it was a huge success, sparking a short-lived wave of laserdisc games and largely inspiring the FMV interactive movie genre that would burden much of the 1990s with such non-classics as Night Trap and Corey Haim’s Double Switch. Its legacy has been an enduring one as it quickly appeared on almost every platform ever conceived. Add the PlayStation 3 to that list as Digital Leisure deliver an excellent PSN port of a game that’s probably best experienced through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

The mechanics of Dragon’s Lair are the ultimate in gameplay simplicity: As one in a series of animated action scenes unfold, you’ll get button prompts and an on-screen hint (like a glowing doorway) to indicate which button to push. With a choice of five buttons (Up, Down, Left, Right and Sword), it’s not remotely complicated, but the game is punishingly difficult, requiring lightning-fast reflexes and allowing no room for error. Hit the right button in the one-second window of opportunity and brave knight Dirk Daring will dodge boulders, grab ledges or slay enemies and the next scene will play. Failing to hit the correct directional button (which you will, a lot) causes poor Mr. Daring to inadvertently experience more gruesome death endings than you’d find in a warehouse full of Choose Your Own Adventure books.
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And…that’s it. The game is undoubtedly a landmark in video game history, but it’s also very much a product of its era and the enjoyment you’ll derive from it is largely dependant on nostalgia, especially outside its original arcade setting. The animation which defined Dragon’s Lair still looks amazing and holds up beautifully where the pixel polygons of other ’80s era games look dated, imbuing the game with a massive amount of character and a dash of humour. However, when it comes to the gameplay – or lack thereof – it’s tough to shake the fact that there’s simply not much to it. It’s a game comprised entirely of pre-animated Quick-Time Events, the likes of which feature prominently in Shenmue (which coined the ‘QTE’ name), God of War and Resident Evil 4, with no branching choices besides being fast or being dead. Each sequence lasts around thirty seconds or less, amounting to around twenty minutes of total gameplay. It’s an especially short lifespan when considering that many of the randomly-arranged animated action scenes are repeated a few times throughout, occasionally mirrored horizontally to throw you a curveball.

Though Dragon’s Lair might be the grandfather of the Quick Time Event, sadly there’s little trace of Shenmue or Heavy Rain in the game aside from the core button-mashing mechanic; considering how beautiful the animation for Dirk’s adventure is, it’d be lovely if there were an actual story to put Don Bluth’s artwork to better use and reward the player for making it through the unforgiving gameplay. Of course, Dragon’s Lair was born in the arcade, where the allure of state-of-the-art animation was enough to get you dumping cash into the slot and watching five minute cinematic cut-scenes was less of an option. But considering the numerous re-releases on modern household platforms and the fact that the game even has an alternate “Home Version” with an added scene, it’s surprising that Bluth and co. have never gone back to flesh out the game beyond the simplistic series of randomly-arranged action sequences and deliver on the promise of playing through an animated Disney-style movie, story and all.
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Hardcore fans of Dragon’s Lair, however, will be impervious to such problems and will be pleased to know that Digital Leisure’s efforts in transporting the game to the PlayStation Network have paid off in as perfect a package as you could hope for. As well as the game itself in beautiful high-definition, where Don Bluth’s animation looks especially lovely, both the ‘Arcade Mode’ and ‘Home Version’ (which features an added opening drawbridge sequence) are included, along with a variety of difficulty settings to fine-tune things to your liking. Feeling up for an especially masochistic challenge? Select the ‘Hard’ difficulty mode, switch off the Move Guide, which gives you visual cues to let you know which button to hit, and limit your lives to three. For the less brave players, an ‘Easy’ mode, an ‘Unlimited Lives’ selection, a ‘Save Game’ ability and even the option to watch a flawless playthrough like a movie are all available. The latter option is especially handy considering it’s sometimes tough to watch all the on-screen action if your eyes are fixed on the button prompt guide, ready to pounce when the next move pops up.

The ‘Attract’ video (a narrated trailer that would play during the arcade unit’s idle moments to explain the game and lure in passers by) is included, and notably features more plot than the game itself. The most impressive option is a simple, but fantastic one: The option to play the game in a faux-arcade visual mode. Similar to the mode put to fantastic use in Final Fight: Double impact, selecting the ‘Arcade Screen’ visual option will allow you to play the game on a virtual arcade screen, complete with an angled, convex monitor with scanline effect and a marquee border featuring artwork from the original arcade cabinet. It’s a great addition, and an incredibly fun option which should be a prerequisite for any future arcade port.
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As it stands, the biggest problems – especially for newcomers – will be the very simplistic trial-and-error nature of the gameplay, the very short lifespan (you can wrap the game up in about 20 minutes if you’ve got Jack Burton-like reflexes or have been killed enough to memorise the layouts) and the lack of even a basic story to make the experience truly rewarding. Those issues considered, it’s likely a game best suited to those long-time fans of the game who can view it through the complimentary lens of nostalgia and love it unreservedly. For those people, Digital Leisure have done a wonderful job transplanting the game to the PlayStation network with a stack of fantastic features and beautiful visuals. The fun you’ll find in Dragon’s Lair is hinged largely on nostalgia, but if you’re a fan and craving it for the PS3, it’s as great a port as you could want.

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Dragon’s Lair is available to buy on the PlayStation Network Store now priced £7.99/$9.99.