The Record Skips
But even as the game becomes a cultural phenomena 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 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 amount 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 nerdly 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.
During the creation of the animation, actual models are built of Dexter’s space ship 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 prospective and depth. For the audio, again the voices are done by staff members, including the processed voice of Don Bluth as the nasty Borf. Space Ace has 35 separate tracks for sound effects, compared to only 14 in Dragon’s Lair, and Chris Stone returns to compose a complete musical score for the game. Gameplay is much more frenetic, placing more moves closer together during a scene. However, there are also more flashing light clues to alert the player to the required move. 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.
After its demonstrations at the A.M.O.A. in 1982, Sega decides that the technology in its revolutionary Astron Belt still needs work, and the game heads back to the drawing board even as its conception inspires a craze in laser games in the arcades. It is released in Japan and Europe mid-way through 1983, and when the U.S. division of Sega is bought by Bally/Midway the new owners keep fine-tuning the system. It is finally released in U.S. arcades late in the year. It offers more playability by letting the player freely control a computer generated spaceship from a chase view, superimposed on top of a filmed playfield. It must do battle against charging spaceships while soaring through space, across an alien landscape and through the tight metal corridors of a mother ship. While the attacking ships are on film, their laser fire is computer generated. A timer can be set by the operator to allow players between 40-60 seconds of indestructibility, past which they will start losing lives. The video is culled from a combination of films, primarily from the Japanese science fiction movie Message From Space from prolific Toei Studios, probably most famous for their campy Godzilla flicks. Released in 1978, Message features American actor Vic Morrow and is a thinly veiled ripoff of Star Wars, which hit theatres only a year earlier. Both Message and another movie whom Astron Belt borrows footage from, the low-budget Roger Corman SF quickie Battle Beyond the Stars, details the exploits of eight intergalactic mercenaries trying to defend a planet. The plot for both borrow liberally from Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, as did Star Wars. A TV series based on Message is produced by Toei, seen in America under the name Swords of the Space Ark. Yet even more footage is taken from the startling “Genesis Effect” CGI sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. A nice bit of visual symmetry, as the Star Trek films are released by Paramount Pictures, sister company to Sega, all under the Gulf + Western banner. Additional images are also created specifically for the game. Absent are the nagging blackouts from other laser based games, but the refined technology comes at a cost: the game misses most of the Dragon’s Lair-fueled boom in the arcades. Using even more footage from Message From Space, along with some created for the game, Bally/Midway releases similar film-shooter Galaxy Ranger in 1984. It offers the innovation of allowing players to choose which path to fly at certain points in the action during the game. On the hardware front, the sit-down version of Astron Belt features the “vibraseat” force-feedback system.
Laser games rapidly split into two factions: limited decision animated stories, and video footage shooting games. Following the tradition of the later is M.A.C.H. 3 by Mylstar, formerly Gottlieb & Company, located in Northlake, illinois. Its play is similar to Astron Belt, but instead of cheesy movie visuals, MACH or Military Air Command Hunter features professionally shot aerial photography with the player’s computer generated jet aircraft superimposed. After inserting their 50 cents, gamers have the choice to face off against enemy planes and ground targets in Fighter Raid mode, or to fly at high altitude over aerial targets in Bombing Run. Using an elaborate flight stick, they can fire a machine gun at the targets as well as launch missiles as they infiltrate enemy areas. Targets to be destroyed are computer-generated icons surrounded by a yellow box, including ground positions that keep their place on the landscape as the player soars around it. The fighter sequences are generally low-flying affairs as the player must avoid the scenery while blowing up ground targets and shooting oncoming enemy planes and missiles. Taking the other choice, the bomber drops its payload on ground targets and destroys enemy fighters with its machine gun fire. Players are warned of approaching planes by a red warning signal at the top of the screen. Since the enemy country seems to have had some kind of nuclear mishap, the game later provides radioactive clouds for players to avoid. If they can survive till the end, the game takes 15 minutes to complete with a finale runway landing. All of the footage is filmed by a special aerobatic plane with cameras in its nose and belly. Available in a sit down cockpit and stand-up version, the game is a popular hit and is rated the #1 Player’s Choice in RePlay magazine.
“…to develop a laser game that would replicate the feel of a 1950′s martian movie.”
A year before M.A.C.H. 3 comes out in 1983, Gottlieb enjoyed a big hit with its “conventional” arcade game Q*bert, featuring a furry, big-nosed creature jumping through a M.C. Escher inspired playfield turning tiles different colours while being chased by a coiled snake. The lead designer of the game is Warren Davis, and he is tapped early on for a project to produce a MACH sequel that will be available as a conversion kit for the original. It is the idea of Dennis Nordman, who goes on to Williams/Bally/Midway to design pinball games (Blackwater 1000, Party Zone, Whitewater, Indy 500, Dr. Dude, Demolition Man, Elvira and Elvira: Scared Stiff), to develop a laser game that would replicate the feel of a 1950′s martian movie. He writes a script around the premise with Gottlieb art director Rich Tracy and with the project titled Us Vs. Them the team begins to put together the footage. The story deals, as one can surmise from the title, with aliens attacking Earth. From a central command, military leaders send out pilots to fight the invaders from multiple points around the world. Utilizing the unique process of showing multiple views during a battle, the skirmishes take place in such locations as over the skyline of Chicago (home of Gottleib), a desert, a forest, and a final showdown in the alien Mothership. The hook in this laser game is that players are subjected to four different views of the action, including a profile view as well as a chase camera behind their fighter.
A production company shoots all of the outdoor photography excluding the Chicago footage, using planes and helicopters. Nordman and Davis personally supervise the Chicago shoot, with a steadicam operator hanging out of a helicopter during a brisk, -26F degree Chicago day. They also are present during a shoot in a forest in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Inspired by the Endor forest scenes in Return of the Jedi, the footage is taken as the steadicam operator moves through the dense trees. Sets are built in Chicago for between-wave cinematics taking place inside the control room and in the fighter cockpits, with Davis acting as co-director. A music soundtrack is composed by Gottlieb’s in-house sound designer Dave Zabriskie, who conducts an orchestra for the score. Davis programs the game, as well as edits the footage together. Jeff Lee creates the computer overlay graphics of the player’s fighter and enemy ships, and Dave Thiel does the sound; both had worked with Davis on Q*bert. While the game does wonders with the laserdisc shooter genre, by the time Us. Vs. Them is released, the laser game market is beginning to tarnish. Orders for M.A.C.H. 3 dwindle, reducing the market for its sequel, and Gottlieb enters into a lawsuit against its distributors. Us Vs. Them is eventually released in 1984, but never has a chance to succeed. Due to these big-budget laserdisc failures, Mylstar closes its doors at the end of September, 1984.
Warren Davis goes on to create another unusual game, published by the company that had purchased the remains of Mylstar, Premiere Technology. Titled Exterminator, it is released in 1989. Concerning a bug exterminator trying to rid houses of pesky insects and the like, it is the first game that incorporates digitized images for all of the game graphics. The only part of the exterminator shown is his disembodied hand, as he tries to shake, slap, and pound the critters, along with shooting lethal purple bug juice from his finger. The game might feature an inscrutable control scheme, but it certainly does ooze originality and creativity. Unfortunately, it also bombs, with only 250 units produced for the arcades.