Those unfamiliar with 'Dragon's Lair' may be wondering why an arcade game is being released on HD DVD disc, and/or why we're reviewing it here at High-Def Digest. The short answer to both questions is that 'Dragon's Lair' has always been a most unusual brand of video game.
Originally conceived and produced in the early '80s as an upright arcade game utilizing then-cutting edge Laserdisc technology, for a brief moment in time 'Dragon's Lair' bridged the gap between animated film and video games, enabling players to progressively "unlock" scenes in an otherwise traditionally-produced, linear narrative.
Yet while several other games were produced and released in a similar fashion, ultimately Laserdisc was not to be the format of choice for advanced gaming, leaving 'Dragons Lair' a technological oddity -- not really a video game as traditionally defined, but not really a movie, either. Without falling squarely in one or the other camp, one might assume that the game would just fade away, but instead it has enjoyed a curiously strong afterlife in recent years, both as a traditional PC-based game and (more successfully) as a light-on-the-interactivity standard-def DVD game.
It's this "light-on-the-interactivity" part that Digital Leisure (the game's distributor) promised to improve as the game made its transition to Blu-ray earlier this year, and now to HD DVD. So, did they manage to pull it off? Read on...
As a child of the '80s, video games were a huge part of my life. The weekly trip to the local arcade was like my birthday, the Fourth of July and Christmas all rolled into one. A mere five bucks in quarters would provide hours of enjoyment, even if those insatiable machines gleefully ate my coins faster than a Hungry Hungry Hippo eats marbles. Of course, no event at the arcade was more momentous than the arrival of a Brand New Game -- that magical moment a shiny new box was wheeled onto the arcade floor, luring me into yet another tantalizing world of pixels and puzzles.
I still vividly remember the day in the summer of 1983 when my local arcade got 'Dragon's Lair.' Sure, at that stage in my development a new sequel to 'Pac-Man' or 'Defender' would have been enough to rock my world, but this was something utterly one-of-a-kind -- a game so unique that I had to stand behind a crowd of other awestruck teenagers just to get a glimpse into the cabinet. Combining hand-drawn 2-D animation with then-cutting edge Laserdisc technology, 'Dragon's Lair' was more than just another game -- it was the birth of a radical new future for the form. Using familiar joystick and button commands, players could guide the intrepid Dirk the Daring through a series of fantastical animated worlds, battling all sorts of bizarre creatures and saving a beautiful damsel in distress. Archaic by today's standards, and rather clumsy in execution (not to mention outrageously expensive -- costing a then-whopping 50¢ a play) it was still the first mainstream merging of narrative film and video games.
First explained to us in the animated "teaser" that always preceded the the start of the arcade version of the game (it can be watched here as well -- just let the main menu sit for a bit, and the mini-movie starts automatically), the set-up for 'Dragon's Lair' is incredibly generic, but cute nonetheless. Dirk is a squared knight in the Arthurian mold, whose lady love Princess Daphne has just been kidnapped by the Dragon of the title. In order to save his princess, Dirk must enter the Dragon's castle, and through a series of about two dozen mini-episodes, overcome strange booby traps, battle weird creatures and unlock various treasures on his quest into the 'Dragon's Lair.' Once there, it will be a Herculean battle, as Dirk must outwit the fiery beast, grab Daphne and escape with a nice big booty of treasure. There's only about 19 minutes of actual content, but it will take far longer for most to unlock it all, as you must memorize the combination of joystick commands needed to "move" Dirk in the appropriate directions, as well as activate his sword with a single button, all in real-time as the animation plays. The challenge comes in interpreting what's happening onscreen -- should Dirk jump over that chasm as it starts to crumble at his feet, should he leap up and grab a rope, or should he simply wait and draw his sword in anticipation of a pending monster attack? Sometimes the game cheats, providing a visual clue that turns out to be a ruse, such as a flashing "Drink Me!" sign that will actually end in disaster. Other times, guessing the timing of a right move requires simple blind luck.
While it seemed cutting edge at the time, today Dragon's Lair ranks more as a footnote in videogame history rather than a signpost of a true revolution. Though it spawned a sequel, 'Dragon's Lair 2,' as well as a sci-fi spin-off, 'Space Ace,' the expected wave of imitators never really followed. Traditional pixel and vector graphics games simply got more advanced, as did home-based systems, and of course the personal computer completely redefined the medium by the late '80s. A Laserdisc player in a giant box was just not going to be the wave of the future, no matter how prophetic 'Dragon's Lair' may have seemed for that brief, shiny moment in 1983.
Still, for many of us, 'Dragon's Lair' engenders a great nostalgia. I'm glad Digital Leisure has kept Dirk alive now for over two decades now, releasing the game on just about every home optical disc configuration imaginable. Yes, it's still clunky; yes, it's still weird pushing a joystick (or an HD DVD player remote) up, down, left and right while you "pilot" Dirk to follow pre-determined animation vignettes; and yes, 'Dragon's Lair' will seem laughable to any young gamer today who's been weaned on the PlayStation and the Xbox, and games where pimps beat up hookers and blow up police cars. But for me, the charm of 'Dragon's Lair' remains its fantastical animation, and the sheer kid-like glee with which the game was designed and executed. Maybe it doesn't really hold up, but it still earns my respect for its originality, and its continued sheer oddness.
Now, as Digital Leisure brings 'Dragon's Lair' to HD DVD -- several months after it debuted a Blu-ray version -- I can honestly say we finally have two home video formats that can faithfully replicate the arcade experience. I've played most of the older disc releases of the game, and frankly, they kind of sucked. The standard-def DVD version in particular just didn't work, with the format's slow access times and limited branching abilities making for a jerky, frustrating experience. 'Dragon's Lair,' HD-style, is much more fluid, with the only real lag times coming between the end of one gameplay sequence and the beginning of another -- but the half second or so you'll have to wait is nothing compared to the slow load times of the average Xbox or PlayStation release. During the actual scenes of the game, keeping the animation running smoothly is easy -- just make the right moves, and Dirk keeps going, almost always without any hiccups.
Also improved here is the responsiveness of the remote (note that if you are using the HD DVD add-on for the Xbox 360, you can also use that console's game controller for even more of an arcade feel). I pulled out my old standard-def DVD version once again to compare for this review, and was shocked by how often I'd make a move and the remote and/or DVD player would simply ignore it. Not so with this HD DVD version -- aside from my own bone-headed blunders, I never experienced a single missed command.
Unfortunately, there is one major difference between the HD DVD and Blu-ray versions of 'Dragon's Lair' that, for me, is a deal-breaker in favor of the Blu-ray. Included on that release were five basic gameplay options that Digital Leisure added to the disc using BD-Java. You could customize such parameters as the number of lives, toggle off the text overlays that prompt your moves (a la the original arcade game), as well as select between "Home" and "Arcade" modes. Alas, not a single one of these options are included on the HD DVD. (Just to make sure I wasn't simply missing it on the disc's menu, I read through the entire documentation included with the disc, and unlike the Blu-ray, all mention of these options have been removed from the text as well.)
Instead, on HD DVD there is only one way to play 'Dragon's Lair' -- you get a set five lives (although you can opt to continue the game after you die), and the on-screen icons prompting your moves are also fixed. This is a total bummer, because with the on-screen prompts, much of the fun of the game is lost -- sasically, it's like a cheat mode that you can't turn off. At least the Blu-ray gave you the ability to "hide" this feature, but that's lost here.
To be fair, in terms of seamlessness, the HD DVD is equal to the Blu-ray, and 'Dragon's Lair' certainly still packs a good dose of nostalgia, regardless of format. So if you just want to give it a rent for a couple of hours of fun, no sweat. But without any of the user-controllable game settings that are included on its Blu-ray counterpart, it's pretty hard to recommend this HD DVD version for purchase.
Gameplay issues aside, Digital Leisure certainly hasn't skimped on the video for this HD DVD version of 'Dragon's Lair.' As we first noted with the Blu-ray edition, the company has created a new 1080p restoration for these high-def releases, re-formatted at 1.78:1 widescreen and encoded in MPEG-2. It really does look great, and is an obvious upgrade over all previous versions.
Comparing the picture quality on this disc to its standard-def predecessor (which was marred by noticeable dirt and dropouts), this HD DVD edition is definitely cleaner, with all of the major blemishes gone. Contrast is also superior -- there is more of a difference between the deepest blacks and whitest whites, which gives more depth to the image. But best of all are colors -- never have they looked this rich and striking. The reds are now vivid -- not the flat, muted oranges of the DVD. Purples, greens and blues also excel, and just about every sequence looks impressive. The only really distracting quality to the transfer is grain. Yes, it's appropriate given the age of the material, but the sharpness of high-definition exacerbates the problem. Still, it's hardly fatal. At last, Don Bluth has been done proud -- the animation his team created in 'Dragon's Lair' has a great retro quality, but also feels strangely timeless. When it comes to video, this HD DVD gets its right, and is easily on par with its Blu-ray counterpart.
Like the Blu-ray edition, this HD DVD version of 'Dragon's Lair' includes a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, encoded for at 640kbps. For an '80s videogame, the sound design is really quite alive and active. 'Dragon's Lair' is, of course, a completely artificial creation, giving the sound effects a very bright, punchy sound that works quite well in surround.
There is no real score in 'Dragon's Lair,' let alone any dialogue (aside from creature noises and the occasional yelp from Daphne -- Dirk himself ain't much of a talker). The effects sound fresh, though, with better dynamics than I expected. There is noticeable rear action -- usually atmosphere sounds like swirling wind, crumbling rocks or the fiery roar of the Dragon. Bass is also quite sprightly, with a fair amount of punch. No, 'Dragon's Lair' is hardly a sustained, immersive experience, but given the circumstances, it's hard to imagine it sounding much better than this.
Digital Leisure created a brand new package of supplements for the game's next-gen debut, making all of the extras included on both the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions are exclusive to high-def (as of this writing). So read on down to the next section...
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.