The love that dare not speak its name

Cinematronics' 1983 laserdisc coin-op Dragon's Lair (on sale at the time of writing for an unspecified period in the App Store for 59p, down from £2.99) is the most successful videogame in the history of the world that nobody will admit to liking.

For over 20 years, Dragon's Lair games have been coining in cash hand over fist, while drawing nothing but sneering bile from press, critics and "hardcore" gamers. And they're all wrong.

This isn't some flash-in-the-pan phenomenon like Rise Of The Robots, where big initial success was followed by disaster as consumers with burnt fingers pointedly ignored the attempted sequels and the franchises died a death – Dragon's Lair has been doing exactly what it always did for over two decades now, and yet the name's still a moneyspinner. So how come nobody's got a good word to say for it?

Well, I have a confession to make. I like Dragon's Lair. There, I've said it. Oh, it's not the best game in the world or anything, not even in the top 100, but there's a simple, honest charm about DL that makes all the venom regularly heaped on it both terribly unfair and difficult to understand. 

It's aesthetically superior to games 20 years its junior, and has gameplay that's fundamentally very little different to that of hugely-acclaimed modern-day titles. It's popular enough with the gaming public to have generated not only dozens of games but also a merchandise line to rival anything short of Mario and Pac-Man.

It's been converted to just about every format imaginable (there's barely been a gaming system since the ZX81 that didn't get some sort of Dragon's Lair title), sometimes in several different forms – there are at least ten distinct DL games, never mind all the various ports. It's got atmosphere, brilliant characters and, in the gormless yet indefatigable Dirk The Daring, a loveable hero who oozes personality despite never saying a word.

And yet, it's become a byword for everything that's bad about the "interactive movie" style of gaming, when there are many worse offenders that are almost universally critically adored. Half-Life, say.

No, I'm not joking. Half-Life is almost as linear and pre-scripted as Dragon's Lair, and is just as happy to kill you instantly if you take a single step in the wrong direction. (The difference is, in Dragon's Lair at least you get a chance to make the right move first. Half-Life will quite happily kill you with zero warning just to move the story along, and if you inconveniently happen not to have quick-saved beforehand then that's just your tough luck. Enjoy trekking through everything from your last save point again.)

Then, of course, you've got the Final Fantasy series, a bunch of "interactive movies" that do away with most of the actual interacting (unless you count all the frantic pounding on the X button desperately trying to move the endless dialogue along, of course) – and which as a movie is overblown, pretentious sixth-form drivel compared to the punchy, funny, get-to-the-point Disney heritage of Dragon's Lair.

Do we even have to start on the blockbusting Metal Gear Solid line? Didn't think so. Compared to any of those, Dragon's Lair is Super Mario Galaxy, gameplay-wise. Yet they're all heralded as masterpieces, while Dragon's Lair – for this reporter's money, twice as much fun as any of them – is sneered at and vilified. Huh?

"But wait!", yells some ill-mannered oaf. "You can't compare games like those, where you have total control over your character all the time, with some rubbish where you just watch cartoons then press one button every few seconds."

Tsk. Pay attention, thicky. Half-Life is every bit as much about making a single correct decision at a crucial moment as Dragon's Lair is. The fact that you have to do all the mechanical trudging between the important bits by yourself doesn't actually add anything to the gameplay. But let's see if we can find some even clearer examples that even a total buffoon will be able to follow.

You won't find many games more uniformly adored than Konami's Dance Dance Revolution / Dancing Stage series, or Nintendo's magnificent GBA classic Wario Ware Inc. And rightly so, for both (especially the latter) are tremendous. But what do you actually DO in them?

In DDR, you get a visual cue for an action, which you then have to execute with precise timing – a microsecond off and you'll blow your whole score, and several such minor timing errors will end your game. In Wario Ware, you're presented with hundreds of mini-scenes in which you have only a second or two to figure out exactly what you're supposed to do AND execute it, using one or two presses of four joypad directions and a single fire button – in other words, exactly what happens in Dragon's Lair.

These games may all be presented in very different ways, but their core gameplay functions are identical. So why love them and hate this?

(Something else which Wario Ware shares with Dragon's Lair, incidentally, is that both games are especially well suited to handheld formats. WWI is the ultimate two-spare-minutes-while-waiting-in-the-chip-shop-queue game, while the Game Boy Color and iPod versions of DL – and also Space Ace – are superbly-implemented conversions which you can play right through in a 20-minute bus or tube journey.)

In fairness, some awful versions of Dragon's Lair have sullied its name somewhat. The DVD player/PS2 version was terrible, removing the crucial audio clues which made the game a lot easier to play; the NES version, which turned the game into a side-scrolling semi-puzzler, was absurdly hard without the stunning graphics to make up for it; the 2D platform version on the SNES looked good but left a lot to be desired in the gameplay department; and the 2003 multi-format 3D remake was simply an atrocity.

But that doesn't apply to the superb iPod version, which looks amazing, has two gameplay modes and configurable controls and difficulty. And in any case it isn't these bad ports and licences people are generally referring to when they're slagging off Dragon's Lair, it's the original coin-op. Which, when you think about it, is pretty bizarre. And why, exactly?

Because the thing Dragon's Lair most often gets stick for is for changing the face of arcades. In 1983, arcades were at the peak of their powers – jammed full of both punters and a stream of inventive, original, exciting games. DL represented a quantum leap in technology, but at the expense of having incredibly shallow gameplay compared to the other hits of the time, and was much more expensive to play.

Despite this it was a huge success, and critics often identify this victory of narrative over substance as the beginning of the end for the arcade's golden age, and the first step towards the more corporate era of big-business gaming we now inhabit. And yet, what are the games that even the hardest of hardcore race out in their millions to buy nowadays? Mega-budget, corporate, aesthetically-extravagant, narrative-driven franchises like the aforementioned Final Fantasy, Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid.

Perhaps what they don't like is the mirror Dragon's Lair holds up to their own shallow souls – the reminder of the day they all sold out for eye candy and a veneer of sophistication beyond DL's "childish" cartoon fun. Or maybe they're just sore that having sold out for surface glamour 20 years ago, they're still waiting for something this pretty to come along again.

But then, that's probably being terribly unfair to the mainstream gamer. As we noted right back at the start of this piece, mainstream gamers lap up Dragon's Lair games like ice cream sundaes with extra strawberry sauce. If you go to the Amazon entry for the GB Color version, you'll find the customer review rating sitting at an impressive four-stars average, and that's for the version with the crudest visuals and the worst sound of all the arcade-DL ports.

It's only the hardcore, the critics and the reviewers who tend to have it in for Lair and its ilk, and that may be because a game like Dragon's Lair renders both criticism and years of carefully-accumulated gaming expertise worthless. Everything it has to offer is right up front on the surface, anyone can see for themselves in a matter of seconds what this game is about, decide for themselves if they're interested in it or not, and start playing it instantly.

It doesn't need years of practice, it doesn't need explaining, it doesn't need judging. And speaking as a critic, there's nothing we hate more than having our very reason to exist taken away from us.


22 Responses to “The love that dare not speak its name”

  1. Sickboy Says:

    Lovely. I'm very glad you said that, sir. Funny how no-one really remembers much about Space Ace or, er, the other Laser Disc games. It's all about character – and DL has bags of it (both in the actual characters and the slightly dark, beyond Cert 15 Scooby Doo feel)… Just need an iPad version now…

  2. Are you familiar enough with the Sega CD port to say whether it is up to snuff (despite the limited color palette?) I acquired it along with a Sega CDX at a secondhand shop a few months ago, and played just a bit of it before getting more frustrated than at Ninja Gaiden on the NES. I don't know whether this was due to the normal infamous difficulty or a possible porting issue such as the one you alluded to above.
    I think more than anything the hatred probably comes from a) the difficulty curve starting significantly above 0, and b) parroting other loud gamer voices and believing them without question. It's really become sort of a running thing at this point- "Dragon's Lair? Oh yes, that cartoon where you push a button sometimes and usually you die." Truth be told, I'm probably a bit guilty of that assumption without really giving the game a fair shake, although since I've heard of the game I've always thought of it as a remarkable accomplishment for 1983.

    Of course, it should be noted that there are perfectly valid reasons of personal taste for not enjoying Dragon's Lair, but one need not slag it off completely because of this. Which brings me to Metal Gear Solid. Having just played the first three games (and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake) for the first time I must say they certainly deserve their reputation as longwinded B movies, but they don't deserve to be known solely for that. There ARE actual games buried in there, too, and as games go they're of fairly short to moderate length and lend themselves to speedruns or other efficiency challenges if one feels like it. I wrote them off for a long time based solely on the "they're movies lol" critique (well, and on the fact that I didn't have a Playstation, and they were probably sour anyway) but enjoyed them a lot, both for the gameplay and the batshit and lengthy codec/movie parts.

    Of course, I also had just finished Persona 4 before playing MGS, so in comparison the series seemed like fucking Robotron.

    In conclusion, you've made me want to fire up the Sega and have a proper go at DL.

  3. Oh, incidentally that CDX also came with Tomcat Alley, which I also fired up for a few minutes and enjoyed. It's not as cruel as DL and manages to provide a fairly broad feel of player agency within the limits of FMV. Plus, jets and missiles!

  4. I haven't played the Sega CD version, I don't think, but let us know how you get on!

  5. Irish Al Says:

    Okay, I'll be Alan Davies on QI:
    Regarding Half-Life, yes it's largely a progression through a bunch of set-pieces. But when you arrive at a set piece there's also plenty of scope for subtlety and variation due to the AI of the enemy soldiers and the female ninjas and so on. You're looking at Half-Life at a meta level, where you can reduce it to 'make the right decision', say 'get past the ninjas', without taking into account all the ways you might approach that problem  – sneak, use tripmines, snipe, go nuts with the rocket launcher. With Dragon's Lair there's only right and wrong. Not saying it's bad game or anythning, like.

  6. Update: Repeating sections after dying is a bit tedious, probably because I'm using the caveman method of banging on the direction well in advance of the correct timing rather than learning finesse, but did get a distance in and reached the famous checkerboard floor sequence before getting stuck and giving up for the moment. Once you've taken a few lumps and memorized the sequences it actually feels rather nice to dance through the levels.

    Does the game have much in the way of music? The port at least seems to be relatively silent save for the sound effects (which do sometimes fill the space nicely.)

  7. I tried it on the C=64. I think it lost something in the translation.

  8. I had, at one point, a PC port of Dragon's Lair.  I got so good at it that I had memorized the sequence of each puzzle, and would entertain my young cousin by "playing a movie" for him.  Dragon's Lair will always have a place in my heart and my gaming catalogue.  It was (still is) visually glorious, easy to play, and full of cartoony humour.

  9. Recently playing "Batman: Arkham Asylum" on the PC, I realized it didn't just play like a console game, but an arcade game.  Then it occurred to me that for the most part it played exactly like "Dragon's Lair."  Despite having all sorts of play options, most of the encounters were designed to eliminate all but one or two approaches, with many encounters set up such that there was only one action, timed in a particular way, that wouldn't result in the death cut-scene and return to the last check-point.
    I'm with Irish Al on "Half-Life."  Certain boss fights aside, it was flexible in the ways he mentions.  Also the game was good at giving the illusion of choice, even when there wasn't any, which I think is important.  "Half-Life" did a good job of feeling like a series of puzzles where the player solution just happened to be the same as the designer solution (even though that was, in fact, the only solution).  "Batman," like "Dragon's Lair," makes its constraints obvious: move the controller and press the buttons in this pre-determined way or you fail.

  10. Man, I'm so tempted to agree with you. I've always had a big special place in my heart for the Dragons' Lairs and Space Ace. I love the art style, i love the reward of seeing the story progress, and i love the death sequences to death. They just had tons of personality to fall in love with.
    But i fucking hate the gameplay man.. There's this uncertainty about which input results in what action, particularly in the case of Space Ace. I simply don't think they played very good. Compared to the modern Quick Time Event, they were incredibly rough. Just frustrating to no end.
    Compare Dragons Lair to a game like Ninja Blade (which is wall to wall QTEs that always blow your mind), and you'll see this particular genre has evolved just fine, honestly leaving DL in the dust.
    I would love to see a modern day DL given the hyperkinetic treatment of Ninja Blade. I do not mind QTEs at all if the reward is constant and awesome. But the original titles do not stand up in any way IMHO, and i say that as someone who gets warm and fuzzy thinking about them.

  11. Obdicut Says:

    I loved Dragon Lair– on the PC, since I was far too poor to get anywhere at all with it in the arcade.  I do remember loathing it in the arcade for that reason; arriving there with a jingling pocket, being suckered into playing DL, and then realizing I only had two dollars left out of my carefully hoarded stash and I had gotten nowhere.  I could have hung around and watched people play to learn the actions, but that didn't satisfy.  The PC version, however, was massively entertaining, and I played it over and over, even when my muscle-memory could solve the whole thing.
    I didn't even realize people heaped ire on DL.  It didn't really stand out as very significantly different than other games, except that it had a very nifty art style.  As you point out correctly, there are a zillion games where you have to do one and only one thing in order to pass through sections.  I'm more annoyed by fake linearity than I am with a smoothly scripted, fast-paced experience like DL.  
    Your analysis of Batman leaves me puzzled.  I can't think of any place other than a few boss fights where you had to use a certain method of attack– there were always at least a couple, especially after getting a couple of upgrades.  I became a big fan of using the spray-on explosive during fights with the big mutants, for example, as an alternative to the batarangs.

  12. Jason M Says:

    I have bitter memories of DL in the arcade. A kid could get a full day of entertainment for a couple dollars playing the other games, but DL was designed purely to take your money with as little playtime as possible. I loved watching people play the game, but I always felt ripped off when I actually played it myself.

  13. Some good points, but you're totally overlooking the tactile "game feel" aspect of e.g Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid — there's something about moving around and interacting with a simulated space that's much more engaging that simply hitting the correct buttons in response to prompts; the latter is also much simper than e.g an enemy encounter in either of the two games I mentioned, where you have your choice of weapon, angle, tactic, etc. Yes obviously it boils down to "kill bad guy", but the point is that you have to actually PERFORM the killing by composing atomic actions, you don't just press a button and watch your character do everything required.

  14. ..also, I'm not sure that DDR actually qualifies as a game, in that the player doesn't ever make any decisions/choices, and there aren't really any rules aside from "press the correct button". It's more of an activity than a game, it's an activity you engage in rather than something you play with.

    • Well, bear in mind that cool kids play DDR without the dancemat. But either way is most assuredly IS a game. It’s a test of reaction and co-ordination with high scores, no different to, say, Galaga.

  15. Most games boil down to "press the correct button", one way or another.
    Half-Life was on rails, just as DL is. Wrapping it in the illusion of choice doesn't change this. I think the comparison to HL actually works very well considering this on-the-rails nature and how you tend to just mash the button to move forward until you hit the next set piece, rinse and repeat.

  16. Well, you can also reductio ad absurdum writing a Pulitzer-prize-winning book as "pressing the correct series of buttons on a keyboard", but that doesn't make it truly equivalent.

    A game without choices is by definition no longer a game! What makes Galaga a game is that there are MANY winning combinations of inputs, and NONE of them are explicitly dictated to the player — the player must discover and make choices themselves.

    Calling FPSs "on rails" in the same way as DDR is hyperbole — that's like equating driving down a road in a car with taking a train which runs parallel to the road. Yes, the start and end locations might be the same, the direction and speed of travel might be the same, but the car is nowhere near as "on rails" because the driver must be continuously making decisions and control corrections during travel. This is the "feel" part that is stripped away when you're not in control of an entity in a simulated world.
    I guess no one here read Swink's "Game Feel" 😦

  17. Sorry, when did you get to decide what a "game" is? Is Snap a game? Because I don't see a lot of choices in that. What about Snakes & Ladders? Where are the choices there? Yet I suspect you’d be laughed out of the room if you tried to argue that it wasn’t a “game”.

  18. I suppose I was referring to Sid Meier's "a game is a series of interesting choices"; I thought the common definition of what constituted a game involved something along the lines of: a system/set of rules, win/lose conditions, players making choices…

  19. ..and see also:
    (sorry for the multi-posts, I can't seem to find a way to edit comments..)

  20. Javlin toss is a game, part of the OLYMPIC GAMES themselves, along with other similarly simple games. 
    Pretentious gamers need to stop worrying about trying to convince the world it is "art" and not just a game or looking like a big kid for playing them. Enjoy your hobby or get a new one. No need for them all to disappear up their collective arseholes. Concentrate on making a good game, not on trying to make bad art.

  21. Every game is Dragon's Lair now. I think Shenmue coined the term "quick-time-event" but they're everywhere. From recent memory:
    Uncharted 1 & 2
    God of War 1, 2, & 3
    Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
    Prince of Persia (the 2008 remake)
    Batman: Arkham Asylum, as previously mentioned
    Graphics are a bit better today, and you could argue that things are a tab more "interactive," but it's still pushing buttons and dorking out in front of a screen. At least on the iPhone version, they aren't extracting coins from your pocket at such an alarming rate. Could you imagine a pay-once, play-forever version of Dragon's Lair in 1983?
    The phone version is probably BETTER since the loading times are faster!
    Has anyone tried the DSiware version of Dragon's Lair yet? I can't see it being as good, but I'd love a look.

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