|This is a tricky review to
write. Back in 1983 or so, I was under 10. Also that year Don Bluth followed up his
successful Secret of NIHM with two groundbreaking video games: Dragons Lair and
Space Ace. Needless to say, Don Bluth had a major impact on me as a child. Secret of NIHM
blew my mind, and still ranks up there with The Dark Crystal and The Neverending Story in
my list of childhood faves. Dragons Lair and Space Ace didnt hit so close to
home, but still fascinated me. I was a little kid. My mom knew that arcades are dens of
ill-repute, and to a second grader they did feel a lot like the cantina on Mos Eisley.
Dragons Lair and Space Ace were exclusive machines an arcade was really
good if it had them, and I didnt get to many of those. So I lived vicariously
through the Dragons Lair Saturday morning cartoon, weighing the odds and playing
along at home between commercial breaks (for those of you who dont know, each break
began with a scene reminiscent of the video game and you had to wait until after the
adverts to see which move would have been right). Whats the point of all this? Well,
Ive got a soft spot. Its better you know that now, right up front.
Back in 1983, laser discs were often described as "shiny records," as opposed to now, when were more likely to describe them as "big CDs." While ANSi graphics and spaceships were all the rage, with their brilliant sixteen color palettes, Bluth and company decided to follow the path less taken. They recognized the new possibilities opened by developments in laser disc technology that allowed them to cross-index scenes to create an interactive cartoon. The initial results of their experiments were Dragons Lair (which spawned a sequel) and Space Ace. In these games players were given a simple set of commands four directions and an attack button and allowed to determine the fate of the leading character. The games were instant hits, and vintage stand-up machines are still highly soughtafter on the collectors market. Of course, most of us arent capable of refurbishing used and abused machines, and many companies have tried to simulate the experience of these two landmark titles for the personal computer.
Digital Leisure, however, succeeds where others have failed. The allure of Dragons Lair and Space Ace was the incredible animation. It was theater quality work with a sense of humor that helped players suspend their disbelief and become involved in the game like never before. At 50 cents a pop, these games gobbled quarters as fast as you could drop them in. Whats surprising is that they are quite short. Dragons Lair, played straight through, comes in at around six minutes, and Space Ace doubles that time. These titles predate the era of games that take weeks and weeks to complete, although it still may take you weeks to figure out precisely which move to execute when.
Dragons Lair is a series of 38 different rooms. The rooms are grouped, and you move through them as groups. You hit one room where something is happening, say youre swinging across ropes. If you dont make all of the moves, you die and are respawned in another room in the group, maybe one where you must kill a bad guy and get up a flight of stairs. You will continue bouncing around the same group of rooms until youve completed all of them, at which point you move on to a different group. The moves you must execute are simple: one of four directions or attack. Many rooms require three or four moves to complete them, and sometimes these moves are cued by a flashing floor tile or object.
Dragons Lair is constructed like a non-linear hypertext. The overall plot is this: You play Dirk the Daring, and you want to save the voluptuous Princess Daphne who has been captured by an evil dragon. You must make it into the Dragons Lair and defeat him. Other than that, different parts of the journey are randomly linked together, meaning that even a perfect game will not be the same each time. There is not a lot of dialogue in Dragons Lair, and most of the enjoyment comes from watching the genuinely funny animation.
Space Ace plays almost exactly like Dragons Lair, but is a more linear story. You play Dexter ("Call me Space Ace") who is working to defeat Commander Borf. Borf has invented an Infanto Ray that turns its victims into babies, and he plans on using it to take over Earth. To top it off, he steals your curvy girlfriend, Kimberly, who you must also save. The story proceeds, scene to scene, and although there are some jumps, overall the narrative structure is maintained. Another major difference between Space Ace and Dragons Lair is that in Space Ace there is much more dialogue. The dialogue is delivered as you play, and is not subtitled as weve become accustomed to in the early 21st Century. This is one aspect of these games that still outdoes contemporary titles. No other game Ive seen creates such a seamless integration of story and play.
Both of these games have undergone remastering and are presented in this version as arcade perfect ports. These are, reportedly, the first arcade perfect ports available, and are almost as collectible for animation enthusiasts as for gamers. Digital Leisure has customized them for DVD-ROMs, which has its ups and downs. On the positive side, it allows the games to play exactly like the old laser disc machines, with no loss of resolution or sound quality to fit the data onto a standard CD. On the negative side, DVD-ROMs in PCs are finicky, and the wide array of possible configurations makes it difficult to create a standard format. Digital Leisure has done a good job providing technical support and updates available through their website to insure that youll be able to run the games. I had difficulty at first, but resolved the trouble by reading the technical support documents included with the game. With developments in DVD technology progressing at hyperspeed, it also helps to keep your DVD drivers current.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of what Digital Leisure has done is the fact that these games are also available to play on home DVD players. You dont even need the NUON chip, which has been included in some home players to make them formidable gaming machines. You can play these games using your remote control as a game controller on a standard DVD setup. I remember that shortly after Dragons Lair and Space Ace were the talk of the arcades some friends of mine got a laser disc player. They had an interactive movie / game that featured a cowboy, his girlfriend, a villain, and a guy in a gorilla suit. I always wished we could play a game like Dragons Lair on that system.
As I said at the beginning of this review, I have a soft spot. If you also have a soft spot for Dragons Lair or Space Ace, these are definitely the versions to get. Its hard to recommend these games for kids, as many reviewers are quick to do, because most kids who have grown up with their PlayStations will walk through them in a few afternoons, although the quality of animation might sustain the game for longer. I would definitely say that if you have children and you have a DVD player but no other gaming system for them, these are a good bet. But ultimately it all comes down to the fact that it is hard to appreciate just how important these games are to the development of gaming, and how dang fun they are to play, without an understanding of the history. Digital Leisure has done a good deed in reviving Dragons Lair and Space Ace for a new lease on life. They still show us just how successful a unique approach can be.