Dragon’s Lair Review

In 1983, arcade game heroes were usually a triangle or a squat sprite. Former Disney animator Don Bluth conceived Dirk the Daring, a bumbling but well-meaning knight, for his own laserdisc-powered adventure. The final product, Dragon’s Lair, was visually stunning, and easily comparable to Disney’s best animated theater fare at the time. Bluth’s production stood out in the arcades like a knight’s steed in a field of shrews and bugs.

Alas, the year was 1983, and Dragon’s Lair’s graphics came at the expense of diverse gameplay. Playing Dragon’s Lair is quite literally akin to jumping around on a DVD menu: You watch a scene, press an arrow based on where you think Dirk should move, and are whisked to the next scene (or more often, Dirk’s death). Despite some added scenes and enhanced play options, Dragon’s Lair for the iPhone isn’t a particularly deep title, but it’s worth checking out if you’re feeling nostalgic, or interested in game history.

Look out, it’s Jim Morrison!

Dragon’s Lair’s protagonist, Dirk the Daring, must explore various rooms in a wizard’s treacherous castle in order to rescue the love of his life (well, some chick he met the other day on J-Date), Princess Daphne. ‘Treacherous’ is not a space-filling adjective, either. Every step Dirk takes is literally a fight against an exotic death by fire, drowning, or monsters. Dirk jumps over pits, outwits the Lizard King, and navigates electrified floors. Your job is to sit back and nudge him in the right direction at the proper moments.

Dragon Lair’s original laserdisc format more or less shuffled the player across different scenes of Dirk’s adventure. Failure to push the movement arrows or sword button fast enough meant Dirk was shifted to a delightfully detailed death scene. If the player pressed the button at the right moment, though, Dirk conquered the challenge before him and moved on to the next horror. Dragon’s Lair is more like an interactive movie than a game, which was a fantastic selling point in 1983, but not so much in 2009.

Nevertheless, Dragon’s Lair was a beauty to look at back then, and it still is now. Don Bluth’s characters are expressive and silly, but you’ll still feel uneasy when a googly-eyed pile of slime bites on Dirk’s head and ends your turn. It’s a bit of a shame that you have to keep such a close eye on visual cues that tell you when to move; you end up missing a lot of Dirk’s antics.

Dirk joins Skull and Bones.

But don’t be fooled by the game’s simplistic interface. Dragon’s Lair is a rough title to get through. Most arcade games were designed in a manner that was meant to goad you into feeding the machine for as long as your quarter roll held out, but Dragon’s Lair was particularly merciless. If Dirk died, he was resurrected elsewhere in the castle and would eventually have to stare down the room of his death once more– if he didn’t die on the journey back there, which he usually did.

Thankfully, Dragon’s Lair for the iPhone has an ‘Arcade Mode,’ which promises a true conversion from the arcade game, and a ‘Home Mode,’ which blunts the game’s difficulty jut a little. In Home Mode, if Dirk flubs a particular trap, he’s allowed to try it again without being teleported elsewhere in the castle. The game’s extensive Options menu also lets you turn on cues that light up whichever button you’re supposed to push to get Dirk out of a dangerous situation. It’s also possible to toggle infinite lives.

But even with these welcome tweaks, Dragon’s Lair is a hard game to get through. You’ll die often, and frustration sets in quickly. Even with the visual cues, your timing has to be just right on your button-pushing, or it’s a new death for Dirk.

Despite the game’s faults, Dragon’s Lair is an important milestone in gaming history. If you’re looking for something to pass the time while waiting for the bus, Don Bluth’s classic probably won’t suit you. If you’re any kind of retro gaming enthusiast, though, it’s probably worth a purchase.

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