Dragon’s Lair caught the attention of many arcade frequenters when it was released in 1983. Along with Sega’s Astron Belt, it was one of the first games to utilize a laserdisc, tapping into its vast storage potential.
Gone were the 8-bit sprites and simplistic, beeping sound effects, and in their stead was a fully animated presentation courtesy of an ex-Disney employee named Don Bluth. As the North American gaming industry was in the middle of a severe crash that effectively put an abrupt end to the second console generation, Dragon’s Lair represented hope as the innovative new idea they needed to turn things around. Several publications considered it the most influential title of 1983, though some voiced concerns over its simplistic gameplay, as enthusiasts would stop playing it after learning exactly what they needed to do to succeed. Nonetheless, the game was said to have grossed over $32 million for its publishing company, Cinematronics.
In 1985, the industry fully recovered from its slump when Nintendo’s landmark NES console was launched. Games released for this platform, marketed as an entertainment system to persuade a skeptical public, invariably sold thousands, or even millions of copies, ensuring a high profit for the creators. Many companies saw this as an opportunity to convert popular arcade games to the console, allowing players to experience them from the comfort of their home. As the NES was outfitted with hardware typically inferior to that found in a typical arcade cabinet at the time, the results from this practice were mixed. Some titles such as Contra successfully translated the core gameplay despite a downgrade in visuals. Meanwhile, others such as Ikari Warriors attempted and failed to maintain a unique aspect about the original, creating a subpar port as a result. Whatever the approach was, the takeaway is that many arcade classics were making their way onto the NES. One of the companies that decided to capitalize on this trend was Elite Systems. Through their associated development house MotiveTime, they sought to bring Dragon’s Lair to the NES. It becomes obvious even to the uninitiated that the NES couldn’t possibly replicate the full motion video capabilities showcased in the original, so not unlike Tecmo’s approach with Ninja Gaiden, they avoided the issue by creating an entirely different game. Since then, this particular interpretation of Advanced Microcomputer Systems’ original work has crafted a legacy of its own. How much does it live up to its grandiose reputation?
Analyzing the Experience
The NES version of Dragon’s Lair follows the same premise as the original. You assume the role of Dirk the Daring, and he must journey through an evil wizard’s castle in order to rescue Princess Daphne from the clutches of a dragon named Singe.
As there was no chance of reproducing an interactive film on the NES, MotiveTime opted to create a sidescrolling platforming game instead. You can make him duck by pressing down, and from here, he can crawl, allowing him to traverse areas he couldn’t standing up. To defend himself from the various enemies that plague the castle, Dirk has a large supply of daggers. By pressing the “A” button, he can throw them, though unlike other games, they are susceptible to gravity. The “B” button is used for jumping. Dirk cannot easily change directions while in midair; his movements or lack thereof when the button is pressed will determine how he jumps. Even without delving too deeply into the game, veteran enthusiasts will have already noticed a problem. In a vast majority of NES games, the “A” button is used for jumping, delegating the act of running or attacking to the “B” button. This setup would cause them to press the wrong buttons constantly, oftentimes resulting in a cheap death. Sadly, this is the least of the game’s problems.
Anyone familiar with my style might be confused as to why I would write such a statement this early in the review when I tend to maintain a neutral tone until I’ve fully explained how the game works. This is because I’m positive anyone who plays Dragon’s Lair for more than ten seconds can gauge exactly how good it is.
Just like the arcade game it’s based on, Dragon’s Lair begins at the castle’s drawbridge. The simple act of pressing right on the directional pad reveals two aspects about the game. The first is that for an NES title, Dirk’s sprite is surprisingly detailed, boasting markedly more animation frames compared to contemporary console-game protagonists. The second, and the one more people would likely appreciate, is that there is a noticeable split-second delay between pressing the appropriate button to move Dirk and having him actually mobilize. Undeterred by this information, many enthusiasts would go ahead and make him move forward. Sections of the drawbridge collapse, and a dragon peaks its head above the moat as the door closes. If you manage to jump over the dragon and try to open the gate, you are rewarded for your pragmatic thinking by being forced to watch Dirk turn into a crumbling skeleton as he touches it.
This oddity is not an isolated incident. Much of the humor present in the original stemmed not only from Dirk’s over-the-top death animations, but also his reactions to the strange circumstances he often found himself in. Contrary to many action-game protagonists at the time, Dirk was depicted as reluctant hero. He was rather clumsy and prone to shrieking in horror upon being confronted with the various monsters that inhabited the castle. After having played the NES version, I can say with absolute certainty MotiveTime managed to perfectly encapsulate that aspect of Dirk’s personality in an 8-bit game. The bad news is that they accomplished this task by giving an overwhelming majority of the enemies the ability to fell Dirk in a single strike.
On the surface, this may seem like a reasonable, if demanding, facet. After all, in Contra, Shinobi, and many other classic arcade games, your character couldn’t take a hit without dying. However, while most of those games are rightly considered challenging, they had a sense of fair play because of their responsive controls. Dragon’s Lair doesn’t have that going for it; not only is Dirk’s sprite much larger than you would expect from the protagonist of an 8-bit NES game, all of the controls – not just movement – are unreasonably delayed. In a competently designed game, one could easily dodge a projectile at the last second, but Dirk is already dead if he ever finds himself in such a situation. This is a problem that’s far worse in the North American version. In the European and Japanese releases, the animation data was stored in the ROM, thus greatly improving the framerate and the responsiveness by extension. The only downside was that in doing so, the cartridge cost more to produce. However, this doesn’t alleviate the pressing issue that the enemies have an unfair advantage over the player.
If you manage to get past the moat dragon, the true game begins in the castle. In this dank edifice, there are several items you can find to theoretically make the experience more tolerable. Rather than sensibly drawing graphics in the shape of these items so the player may immediately identify what they are, the developers decided to depict them as cards with the letters “A,” “C,” “D,” “E,” “F,” “G,” “L,” and “P”. “G” stands for gold while “P” means points. Both exist for the same purpose; giving the player bonus points upon collection. “A” represents “axes” while “F” stands for “fireballs”. Collecting either of these cards will replace the daggers with the appropriate weapon. Both are stronger than the daggers, so upon collecting the one you prefer, you would do well not to pick up a “D” card, as it will return your starting weapon.
Naturally, the developers felt they needed to place these particular cards in the most obnoxious places – often on an area of land one couldn’t avoid traversing, necessitating players to make precise jumps. It’s a demanding feat when one remembers the persistent issue regarding the delayed controls.
Two meters adorn the interface at the top of the screen. One has the letter “C” next to it while an “E” is situated by its opposite. Respectively, they stand for “candle” and “energy”. If you stand in certain places on a level and press the “START” button, the candle meter will decrease slightly, and an item will appear. Furthermore, you will need an ample supply to get through dark areas of the castle. In another annoying reversal, the “SELECT” button, in turn, stops the action. This will cause many players to waste their candle supply simply attempting to pause the game.
By this point, I’m sure a lot of people reading this are questioning the point of having an energy bar when it has been established that most enemies and hazards cause instant death upon contact. While some enemies don’t kill Dirk outright, it’s a mistake to assume that they’re minor annoyances. They instead present a more indirect threat to Dirk’s survival. This is because throwing weapons gradually drains the energy bar. This means if you press the attack button when Dirk’s energy is low enough, he will spontaneously drop dead. Dragon’s Lair was merciless before taking this into account, but placing a limit on how many attacks Dirk can execute reinforced under penalty of death is taking things too far even by this game’s standards.
In a true testament to this game’s lack of quality, even moving on to the next level is rendered needlessly cryptic. After completing the first true stage, Dirk is taken to an elevator. The platform makes four different stops, and which one Dirk takes determines the level you will play through next. However, this is a cruel beginner’s trap, as the stops lead him to the entrance of the previous stage, the next stage, back to the drawbridge, and a room called the treasury respectively. The prospect of having cleared these daunting stages only for you to repeat them just because you guessed wrong is inexcusable, and while the treasury sounds inviting, it too is a waste of time.
It’s not a bonus room in the traditional sense; instead, you must contend with a powerful enemy as you make your way to a gold block near the top of the screen. The guardian of the treasury is invincible; you can only stun it and make a few steps forward as it reels backwards. Only by collecting the gold block, which periodically disappears and reappears, can you leave the way you came. When you exit, you’re taken back to the elevator for a second chance of finding the next level. Because the developers were determined to make the most user-unfriendly experience possible, they switched the path to the next level with each elevator. If you miss the stop, your only choices are to repeat an earlier stage or fall down the shaft, losing a life in the process. Should you take the wrong exit, you’re committed to the level, so purposely getting killed won’t help you.
It could be argued that Dragon’s Lair is emulating the trail-and-error nature of its arcade counterpart. However, this design ethos only realistically works in adventure games, which usually don’t rely on fast reflexes or snap decision making. As nearly every enemy can kill the protagonist in one hit, this turns the affair into a grueling ordeal where you will make some progress, die to an enemy, make it slightly further, die to another enemy, and so forth until you give up, run out of lives, or persevere to the end. This is the kind of game that begs to have infinite continues, but the employees of MotiveTime didn’t agree, as you’re not afforded a single one. This flaw combined with its absolutely punishing nature transforms an ordinary bad game into one of the absolute least enjoyable experiences one could have with the NES. Astoundingly, it only gets worse from here.
Not content just to bombard the player with enemies capable dealing instant death, the developers saw fit to add boss encounters as well. In a game with such appalling design choices prevalent, they’re implemented about as well as one would expect. They require several hits to kill and often have unpredictable patterns where there’s typically only one place Dirk can stand to avoid their one-hit-kill attacks. As such, bosses in this game are annoyingly drawn out as you wrestle with the delayed controls and waste several lives trying to find out exactly what you need to do to win.
Singe himself is a particular source of irritation, as he not only takes up a significant chunk of the screen, thus making his fireballs difficult to dodge, he can summon smaller dragons that are also capable of killing Dirk in one hit with their own attacks. What’s worse is that to hit him, you need to jump and press the attack button in midair. Only an attack that hits him in the face will count, and smaller dragons can possibly spawn and intercept the projectile. Even knowing the ideal strategy, this is a monumentally difficult task, which is exacerbated by a sadistically placed dagger card just before the fight. Unless you make an exact, calculated jump, you will fight him with the inferior weapon. If this happens, the battle will be prolonged, increasing the chance that Singe and his cohorts will launch an unavoidable attack.
There’s no reward that will make your suffering worth it either; as was commonplace for its era, you’re only gifted with a single bland screen of congratulatory text. It’s a bland screen of congratulatory text few people have seen, but considering what they had to do to lay their eyes on it, I wouldn’t be jealous of them at all.
Drawing a Conclusion
The NES version of Dragon’s Lair has a reputation of being one of the worst games to ever grace the console, and it is entirely deserved. When I was trying this game out for myself, I had an extremely difficult time believing the development staff examined what they created only to declare it a finished product and that no improvements could be made. I’ve remarked in the past that I do not miss the days in which developers could acquire famous licenses, churn out a subpar product, and make all of their money back on the brand alone. This game demonstrates how in those days, one couldn’t even blindly trust famous brands within the same medium without potentially getting swindled. Though the original Dragon’s Lair has not stood the test of time due to its lack of meaningful gameplay, MotiveTime’s interpretation aged worse within milliseconds of its release.
Needless to say, I cannot recommend playing this game for any reason whatsoever. Doing so not only runs the risk of experiencing unfathomable amounts of frustration, it could even cause those who play it to think worse of the console on which it was released. It would be a shame to forget that several games with the most enduring, cross-generational appeal in the medium’s history debuted on this platform. At the end of the day, and partially helped by the fact that a globalized information network wasn’t in wide use during its heyday, the NES is defined in the history books by its classics, rather than abominations such as its version of Dragon’s Lair. While it’s erroneous to assume the medium was perfect in this era, it’s definitely for the best that its failures were not archived extensively, but rather left to fade away, thus saving many people from experiencing them firsthand.
Final Score: 1/10