A screenshot from Dragon's Lair

Screenshot from Dragon's Lair

Dragon’s Lair and the Laser Game Craze - Daring Discs

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Starcom/Cinematronics 1983

A Fiery Reception

A prototype version is shown at the spring 1983 AOE show in Chicago, creating a large buzz around the game from operators. Gamers finally get their hands on it when Dragon’s Lair is released to arcades on July 1. Cinematronics manufactures and markets the game, and by doing so phase out the vector game division on which they built their fortune. Since the units cost on average an unprecedented 4,300 dollars each, twice the cost of a conventional cabinet, it becomes the first game set to cost 50 cents a play by arcade operators. It is NOT, however, the first game to be set to cost 50 cents per single play by the manufacturer. In 1980, Atari had set Missile Command to cost two quarters by default when shipped from the factory. Explaining the reasoning behind this price increase, at the time Director of Marketing Frank Ballouz said, “50 cent play has been needed by the industry for some time to help offset the rising cost of manufacturing and to help increase location revenues…” Operators, however, quickly realized they weren’t going to get away with charging that much at the time and reverted the machines back to 25 cent play. On Dragon Lair’s release, I remember being incensed by the increase to 50 cents a play; in a decade or so, among games costing $1.00 or more, I’ll be thinking back to how good I had it at 50 cents.

The game is the first arcade system with filmed, animated action, but it is barely interactive. While the compelling attract mode lures passersby with the promise of the ability to “control the actions of a daring adventurer”, a player can merely decide when and where Dirk should move or use his sword. But despite the price hike and the lack of deep interaction, Dragon’s Lair causes a sensation in the arcades. No one can certainly complain about its rich, beautifully drawn images, harkening back to the classical animation days of yore. At its peak, Dragon’s Lair brings in on average around $1400 a week, compared to an average of about $100 or so per week for a conventional game at the time. After being installed in Bally’s Aladdin’s Castle arcade locations, in the first month, the game increases general revenues by 33%. In the first eight months of its release to arcades generally, the game grosses 32 million dollars worth of sales. Cinematronics gets 2,000 units out the door initially and then struggles to meet demand as orders head north of 8,000. They sell ten thousand cabinets within the first three months of release. In the arcades, huge crowds gather around the machines, causing operators to install additional monitors on top of them to appease the thronging masses of players vying for a look. Overall, the game is said to have increased arcade revenue across the board by 40 percent. Starcom eventually sells 43 million dollars worth of systems.

Dragon’s Lair also makes the biggest inroads into popular culture since the Pac-Man bonanza. Lunch boxes, board games, books, trading cards, and a moat-load of other merchandise hits the streets. Perhaps best cementing its status as an early 80′s icon, ABC’s cheese-fest human interest show That’s Incredible! features Dragon’s Lair in an on-air contest between champion players. It makes another TV appearance as a permanent prop on NBC’s popular sitcom Silver Spoons, debuting in September 1983. Featuring Ricky Schroder as a young kid who moves in with his rich father, seeing his Dragon’s Lair (along with Asteroids, Tempest and Gorf) sitting in the background unused drives me crazy with jealousy. The game goes on to receive the San Diego-based comic convention ComicCon’s Inkpot Award for the First Interactive Laser Disc Arcade Game, as well as an Arkie Award from Electronic Games magazine for Best Arcade Audio/Visuals. It’s also profiled in an all-Dragon’s Lair episode of the videogame TV show Starcade. The game also sparks a debate along the lines of “Why is the Mona Lisa smiling?”, as people wonder what Daphne whispers in Dirk’s ear to elicit such a reaction at the end of the game.

Dragon's Lair, Starcom/Cinematronics 1983

Is that a sword in your sheath or you just happy to see me?

The Record Skips

But even as the game becomes a cultural phenomenon it is apparent there are problems, both technical and conceptual. The first Dragon’s Lair games contain the Pioneer PR-7820, one of the first lines of laserdisc players, released in 1979. They are notoriously unreliable and unsuited for the rough-and-tumble environment of the video arcade. Pioneer produced 25,000 of the units, with a majority of them ending up in every GM auto dealership in the U.S., used for training mechanics and demonstrating their 1980 model lineup. 5,000 are purchased by Cinematronics, and another 5,000 used for parts since the 7820 has been discontinued by the company. The units had been gathering dust in their warehouses until Dragon’s Lair takes off, creating a huge demand for them. They are eventually replaced by LD-V1000 players from Pioneer, first introduced to the market in 1983, which are more reliable but still skittish. The nature of Dragon’s Lair is inherently frustrating to players learning the ropes (literally and figuratively), relying on split-second timing and sometimes obscure on-screen clues on what to do. Therefore, when a player protests a seemingly correct move ending in one of many death scenes, a swift kick or jostle of the game easily knocks the disc player out of alignment, rendering the game inoperable until it is repaired. Thus, many Dragon’s Lair cabinets spend more time with “Out of Order” signs taped to their faces than actually working. When the game IS operating, it does suck up many a player’s quarters, but critics point out that its gameplay sucks as well. While it tends to happen between scenes and not in the middle of crucial moves, there is an annoying 2-second blackout while the scanning heads of the player find the next track, breaking the flow of the story. As well, the game is highly repetitive, extending the length of play by simply reversing the image of many rooms. Gameplay relies on rote memorization of the patterns and sheer reflexive movements of the joystick and button, keeping the player on a “rail” from which they cannot deviate. This also leads to the game’s problem with “coin drop”. Once someone knows all of the moves necessary to play, they can tie up the machine for all the time it takes to play through to the end. Thus is anyone else prevented from dropping in their two bits, limiting the number of players and infuriating arcade owners.

 

Ace In the Hole

The animation for the follow-up is started even before Dragon’s Lair is released to the arcades. With an animation budget increased to 1.8 million, the new game is named Space Ace. Its story, written by Shannon Donnelly, details the exploits of the dashing, heroic title character who’s girlfriend Kimberly is kidnapped by the evil Commander Borf. Wielding the diabolical Infanto-ray, Borf zaps Ace into the nerdy Dexter and is threatening to turn everyone on Earth into squealing ankle-biters. Dexter must race to save the girl and the planet before Borf infantizes the universe. As well as a new story, the game also incorporates some new design concepts. There are three different skill levels available to players: Space Cadet, Space Captain or Space Ace. Playing Cadet level, gamers miss about half of the animation in the game, while playing Ace covers the whole story. In addition, while Dexter is the main hero, at certain points in the story the energizer button on the game’s control panel will flash, allowing the player to transform Dex into the muscle-bound Space Ace and complete the scene as him, turning back into Dexter at the end of the sequence. This branching option not only increases the total amount of animation to fourteen minutes, it also helps to give the player a sense that they have more control over what is happening in the game.

Dexter, a character from the arcade video game Dragon's Lair, by Don Bluth

Reference sketch for Dexter, nerdy hero of ‘Space Ace’

 

During the creation of the animation, actual models are built of Dexter’s spaceship StarPac and Ace’s Space Cycle, which are then filmed using a periscope camera and then traced into the hand-drawn cells to be recoloured. This process, known as rotoscoping, is done to aid animators with aspects of perspective and depth. Some of the voices are again done by staff members, including the processed voice of Don Bluth as the nasty Borf. There are, however, some other great strides in the area of audio: Space Ace has 35 separate tracks for sound effects, compared to only 14 in Dragon’s Lair. Chris Stone returns to compose a complete musical score for the game, featuring three separate tracks for music.

When it comes to gameplay, things are much more frenetic, with more moves placed closer together during a scene. However, there are also more flashing light cues to alert the player to the required moves. With Dyer’s company now known as RDI Video Systems, they refine the technology, allowing Space Ace to access information on the laserdisc 50% faster than its predecessor. But as in Dragon’s Lair, the action still offers only limited interaction for the player, as well as numerous scenes repeated in reverse mode. Hoping to defer the hefty cost of the Dragon’s Lair units, arcade owners had been assured that any sequels to the game would be available as upgrade kits, allowing them to avoid the cost of purchasing a whole new game. This turns out not to be the case, however, and Space Ace must be purchased as a new unit. By the time the game is released late in 1983 by a newly renamed Magicom following the final bankruptcy of Cinematronics, the laser game fad is already losing steam. Space Ace blasts off quickly with 1500 units sold in its first week of release, but the cabinet ultimately sells only $13 million worth across its short lifetime.

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