In 1983 arcades were filled with games that were pretty simplistic, by today’s standards anyway, chocked with games like Pac-Man and Mario Bros. At the time, they were constantly breaking barriers and changing the way games would be played forever, with each new release desperately trying to engage their audience in a new way and develop a new style of gameplay. This is where Dragon’s Lair came in. Rather than looking like every other 8-bit game at the time, Dragon’s Lair was created and animated by Don Bluth, a Disney animator who worked on films such as Robin Hood, The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon. He would later go on to direct The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven and many more, so you can see the calibre of person we’re dealing with here.
Don Bluth wanted to make a game where you felt like you were watching a Disney movie, but you were in control; a kid’s dream at the time and one which Don made a reality. Through quick time events the player must choose what the hero does and which direction he must go to rescue the Princess and save the day. This series became a huge hit and had been ported to PlayStation, NES, SNES, Sega CD, GameCube, GBC, the list goes on. And now, the series is finally on Xbox One in the form of the Dragon’s Lair Trilogy.
Let’s start by saying Dragon’s Lair is very dated now, there’s no escaping that. The clunky change from scene to scene, the low sound quality and the repetition of animations is numerous, but it’s a historic game and it changed the way arcade games could be played, which in turn gave birth to some of the best decision making games of the last few generations. This isn’t a groundbreaking game now but it was when it released 36 years ago and this is a celebration of how far we’ve come and how this all started.
The Dragon’s Lair Trilogy consists of Dragon’s Lair, Dragon’s Lair II: Timewarp and Space Ace. In each game you take control or Dirk The Daring (Dragon’s Lair I/II) or Dexter (Space Ace) and your quest is to save the beautiful Princess Daphne (Dragon’s Lair I/II) or Kimberly and defeat the evil Singe (Dragon’s Lair I/II) or Borf (Space Ace). You’ll be travelling through caves and dungeons, different planets and even through time itself, fighting a crazy variety of enemies along the way.
The template is the same throughout the trilogy: each game consists of dozens and dozens of small scenes in which you must move the thumbstick in the right direction or press the fire button at the right time. The timing determines whether you live or die, in a feature-length quick time game which is incredibly unforgiving.
You will die over and over again, as there is only ever one correct way/answer. Your memory will be put to the test as you must replay the same sequence until you get it right, and you must have lightening fast reactions, otherwise you will, once again, die. The idea of Dragon’s Lair, with it being an arcade game and all, was that it was meant to be difficult. You had to have incredible reaction speeds otherwise you would lose your lives and have to pour more money into the arcade machine to play again. It was in the game’s best interest to be hard.
This sounded like my idea of hell, but because the game’s hand-drawn animation is so breathtakingly gorgeous I was happy to watch the death animation for Dirk and Dexter so many times that I lost count, just because I wanted to see what the game had in store for me next. The colours are all so vivid and the settings change in every scene and even though there’s no real lengthy dialogue progressing the story (more just grunts, screams and “Save me!”), you believe in Dirk and Dexter; you’re genuinely invested in them as you’ve been there struggling with them. You know how hard their journey has been, and you want them to get the Princess and live happily ever after.
As the trilogy is over 30 years old, it needed a bit of a touch up. Luckily, this release has been updated and remastered, presenting itself in wide-screen and each game has customizable options before you play to tailor things to your ideal play style. This can be in changing the difficulty, the amount of lives you have or even viewing the game in a arcade style cabinet. One aspect that I wasn’t really prepared for, though, is the extremely short length. Each game is around 30-40 minutes, barely even that, and that’s including the crazy amount of deaths. Just as I found myself getting sucked into each of the games, they were over! Further to that, each game comes at breakneck speed, which just makes them seem even shorter. You barely have time to breath, especially in Space Ace, which is 100mph the entire time. I know they were arcade games so I completely get that, I just wish each game could go on for just that little bit longer.
The only other downside to the Dragon’s Lair Trilogy on Xbox One is where the button placement is on the screen. At the bottom middle of the screen is a fire button surrounded by a left, right, up and down arrow. When you’re told what to do, one of these arrows will light up and you must press the correct button, otherwise you die. Because you’re looking at these buttons almost the entire time, so not to die, you miss out on the animation on screen above the buttons. I felt like I was missing so much action because all my attention was in the small arrows below. Now on screen, part of the scenery does flash to signify which direction you need to go in, for example, a horse saddle on the right will flash, meaning you’ll be needing to press the right button next or your sword will flash, signifying you need to attack next. This sounds like you’d be looking at the screen to see these, but the flashes are so quick and seem to blend into the rest of the animation that I rarely spotted them as clearly as the arrows at the bottom, therefore ignoring the screen flashes. I wish the on-screen directional signifiers were clearer, that way I wouldn’t feel like I’m missing out on these beautiful games.
The Dragon’s Lair Trilogy is incredibly fun. It’s a gorgeous, entertaining and painfully hard set of games but the gratification of getting to the next stage makes everything worthwhile. It’s a little shorter than I’d want it to be but it’s a port of three old arcade games so I really don’t have a case to argue against that. However, the button placement on the screen may mean you miss out on some of the gorgeous animation. That being said, there’s enough variety in the three games to keep you entertained, and enough replayability to keep you coming back to beat that last high score you made.
These are classics for a reason!