The Tick-Tock Man
U.S. arcade operators face a slump heading into 1983. After a decade of wild expansion, there are about 1,375,000 video game machines installed in over 10,000 locations, earning 87 percent of the coin-op industry’s total revenue of $8.9 billion. This seems good on the surface, but the influx of game makers is splitting up the pie, and average weekly takes by video games has plummeted 22 percent, down to $109 per machine. Operators are starting to tighten their belts and order fewer cabinets. Experts know that the coin-op video game business needs to innovate to survive.
For the subject of their newly financed film, they enlist Robert O’Brien’s seminal children’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which had been rejected as a possible movie project by Disney. Under the new title of The Secret of NIMH and with a 7 million dollar budget, the film details the trials and tribulations of the brave widowed mouse Mrs. Brisby. Her character’s name is changed from the book to avoid possible litigation with the company Wham-O, sellers of the Frisbee. In order to save her family from the treacherous farm tractor, she throws in with a gang of rats who have been genetically altered to gain human-like intelligence. The movie is released in 1982, and while it is a study in wondrous animation and classic storytelling, it is crushed by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial juggernaut of that year, only earning a disappointing $10,140,325 over the summer season. Aurora backs out of the financing deal for Bluth’s next planned feature East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and he is left wondering if it is perhaps time to close the doors on his studio.
Rick Dyer, meanwhile, has realized that his Halcyon home laserdisc system is tech a bit before its time, so he spins off the technology into the arcade game format. Dyer, having seen Bluth’s NIMH, approaches the former Disney animator about doing the artwork in a new game for his laserdisc system. Bluth and company see a new opportunity to spread the gospel of their lavish animation style, as well as a client for their company, and agree to supply the visuals. While the project can’t really afford the animator’s high costs, Bluth accepts a deal where his company will gain 1/3 interest in a new company set up for the venture called Starcom, with Dyer owning another third. Cinematronics, pioneer of vector graphics technology in video games with their 1977 Space Wars, is looking to laser technology for a reprieve from their Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in November of 1982. They sign a deal to manufacture and market the new game while making up the final third of the partnership. Since each partner must come up with the money for their part, Bluth and company seek out capital and find an investor willing to put up $300,000.
Exploring the Dragon’s Lair
In 1982, Gremlin/Sega preview their video game featuring laserdisc technology, titled Astron Belt, first surfacing at the November A.M.O.A. show in Chicago. It features live-action film footage rendered by a laserdisc, which the player interacts with by controlling a computer generated spaceship superimposed on the images. Seeing the game being test marketed at The Yellow Brick Road Arcade in San Diego, Dyer and his team know that the arcade is the best platform for their new laser system. They also agree with Sega’s billing of Astron Belt as the “laser disc video game of the future”; currently only at the early prototype stage. Sega itself admits that despite the game’s current success in Japan and Europe, gameplay isn’t quite up to snuff in comparison to current NA game releases. Problems such as the need for smoother transitions between scenes, and an upgrade to the player’s ship graphics are cited as needing work before the game hits NA arcades. If Astron Belt gets a release in the West, according to Sega, it won’t be until “sometime in the next two years”. Neither Dragon’s Lair NOR Astron Belt would technically be the first video game based on laserdisc technology: that honour goes to horserace betting game Quarter Horse, made by Electro-Sport in 1981.
Dyer and his team rush back to the lab with renewed vigor, now knowing that they have entered into a race with Sega to bring their own laserdisc video game technology to market. Meanwhile, the Bluth Group is busy completing the animation for what is now known as Dragon’s Lair. Spinning off a tale from its Shadoan roots, head writer, and designer Victor Penman, along with Darlene Waddington and Marty Folger, pen a story to chronicle the struggles of the valiant, but rather clumsy, knight Dirk the Daring. His quest is to infiltrate a castle magically enchanted by evil wizard Mordread and rescue the fair Princess Daphne, guarded by fire-breathing dragon Singe. Reading the title, one wonders if perhaps the creators were also inspired by the 1981 fantasy film Dragonslayer, starring Peter MacNicol and Ralph Richardson.
At any of the over 1000 decision points in the Dragon’s Lair storyline, the player must use either the joystick or the sword button to direct the on-screen Dirk to make a move. If it’s the correct one, the laserdisc continues with the scene. If it’s the wrong one, the laserdisc jumps to a new track, a death scene is displayed and the player loses a life. The gang at Bluth Group, with a staff of 70, logs hundreds of unpaid hours of overtime to complete the animation, a process that takes six months. Nearly filling the 54,000 frame, 30 min capacity of a single-sided laserdisc, Dragon’s Lair consists of a total of 27 minutes of animation or 50,000 drawings. Played straight through without making a mistake, playing time is a total of six minutes. Each second of screen time takes 24 hand-painted cells, a number higher than the industry standard, and the total animation budget comes out to 1.3 million dollars. Although there are 38 different rooms in Singe’s castle, the player only has to survive 18 of them to win. To keep the game from becoming too repetitive, the system cycles randomly through the pool of rooms. Keeping costs down rules out professional voice acting; talent is culled from the staff. Dirk himself is practically mute, save for his occasional grunts of effort, Homer Simpsonish yelps, or screams of anguish during the numerous and frequently gruesome death scenes. His exultations are provided by assistant editor Dan Molina, and clean-up animator Vera Lanpher is the breathy voice of Daphne. Her speech bears more than a passing resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, and her body shape and ‘assets’ are taken from the pages of Playboy. Chris Stone is responsible for the brief musical stings and bridges in the game.