It was enough to make your toes curl and clutch your quarters tightly in your pocket. In a sea of arcade games featuring bitmap characters and crude backgrounds, Dragon’s Lair looked like a full-fledged animated movie. Released in 1983, its innovative gameplay would earn it a rightful place in arcade game history, fondly remembered by anyone who ever shelled out 50 cents to see how the enchanting story of knight versus dragon played out.
Created by Cinematronics, Dragon’s Lair relied on the latest Laserdisc techonology to deliver its animated adventure. To that end, they turned to director and former Disney animator, Don Bluth, whose previous works included An American Tail and The Land Before Time. He created a beautifully-rendered enviroment for players to navigate. Unlike other arcade games, players didn’t control their character’s movement. Rather, they controlled his choices, which would determine the next animated scene. Choose wisely and the action would progress in front of your bedazzled eyes. Choose poorly and (like most arcade games) a grizzly death awaited.
The hero of the game was Dirk the Daring who set off to rescue the buxom Princess Daphne from Singe the Dragon. The adventure started in Singe’s lair where a variety of dangers awaited Dirk. Even though there was a finite number of scenes contained in the game, different player choices and the random sequence of events made everyone’s experience unique. Cleverly, some of the rooms in the lair were often reversed to allow for even more game permutations.
Dirk tested his bravery against spiders, vampire bats, giant spinning batons, electrified fences, magic potions, the enchanted Smithee, the Lizard King, Mud Men, the Black Knight and Singe the Dragon. The valiant knight often misplaced his valor and reacted by shrieking and jumping away from dangers, which only added to the comedic aspect of the game.
Dragon’s Lair was an absolute sensation when first introduced. Kids lined up for hours to get to play it and didn’t even mind shelling out 50 cents (double the price of other games) for one turn on the new pony. They played Dragon’s Lair to death – literally. Many cabinets and Laserdisc mechanisms had to be replaced more than once because they couldn’t withstand the continuous and ardent use.
Laserdisc technology became the darling of the arcade world but it was short-lived. Players wanted progressively harder levels to beat and once Laserdisc games were over, they were over. The fad subsided very quickly but Dragon’s Lair lived on as a legend. Today, it is one of three arcade games (alongside Pong and Pac-Man) to have have earned permanent residence in the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian Institution.
Do you have fond memories of helping Dirk battle the dragon? How far did you get in the quest? We’d love to hear all of your Dragon’s Lair memories in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this 80s arcade classic.