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 compared to $140 per week the previous year. Operators are starting to tighten their belts and order fewer cabinets, with sales of video coin-op machines dropping from $1 billion in 1981 to $700 million in 1982. Experts know that the coin-op video game business needs to innovate to survive.
The apparent saviour of the arcades grows up as a born gearhead. While just a kid in California, Rick Dyer invents a cuckoo clock that not only talks the time, it spouts a plethora of famous quotes. Later he rigs his car with a computer which asks his dates by name their preferences of radio stations. When he becomes the first non-degreed engineer at Hughes Electronics, a prototype he makes of an electronic horse racing game catches the eye of toy giant Mattel. The company hires him as soon as he graduates from California Polytechnic University in Pomona. While with the company, Dyer designs some of the popular hand-held games coming out of Mattel in the 1970’s, and he also works on the company’s home console unit Intellivision. On the side, he also develops the AES system, which would use LCD screens in the back of airplane seats to entertain flyers. He then moves to Coleco, developing their arcade line of handheld versions of titles such as Pac-Man, Defender and Donkey Kong. He is also involved in the project that eventually becomes the ColecoVision. Forming his own company, Advanced Microcomputer Systems, in 1978 he starts experimenting with interactive movie concepts, initially drawing images on a roll of cash-register receipt paper. He then transfers these to a system using computer controlled filmstrips and then moves to a cassette-based set-up. Dyer ultimately turns to laserdisc technology as his storage medium, and in 1980 starts work on a system that will allow users to play games stored on disc, and will feature a keyboard for control along with understanding voice commands via a headset. Labeled Halcyon, after the ubiquitous HAL computer controlling the Discovery spaceship in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the game unit will also be able to talk to gamers via voice synthesis. The game he intends the machine to play is Shadoan, a sword and sorcery epic inspired by the J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books and the original computer text game Adventure.
It’s one of those neat cosmic quirks that Don Bluth was born the same year as the release of Walt Disney’s groundbreaking animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When six-year-old Don sees the film, he knows he has found his calling. Born in 1937 in El Paso, Texas, Bluth grows up on a farm in Payson, Utah, south of Salt Lake City. He is seldom seen without a sketch pad and pencil in his hands, riding his horse into town and sitting in the movie theatre enthralled watching the latest Disney film. Never taking an art lesson, Bluth uses his pad to copy Disney characters from books and comics. The Bluth clan moves to Santa Monica, California, and when Don graduates from high school in 1955 he goes straight to Burbank and the Disney Studio with a portfolio under his arm. He starts at the company working under veteran Disney animator John Lounsberry on Sleeping Beauty as an “in-betweener”, someone who draws the frames between the key drawings made by the animator. He leaves to pursue a formal education at Brigham Young University as an English major but continues working summers at Disney. Upon graduation in 1967 he goes to work for cut-rate animation house Filmation Studios as a layout artist, rapidly moving to head of the department and staying there for four years. In 1971 he returns to Disney, moving with unprecedented speed up the ranks from animator to director in three years. His work there includes Robin Hood (1973), The Rescuers (1977) and Pete’s Dragon (1977). Bluth, however, begins to observe alarming similarities to Disney and the low-balling limited animation houses he has left behind. “Feature-length animated films became very formulaic, and tight scheduling made us take the kind of shortcuts you see on Saturday morning cartoons. We were just billboarding for characters and stuffed toys,” he tells the Chicago Tribune in 1984 about Disney Studios. “We were losing the subtle touches of Walt’s original vision – the contact shadows under the characters, backlighting and sparkles and reflections in water that made his early movies so magical.” As a reaction to this steady abandonment by Disney of their classic animation style, he and fellow animators John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman start work in Bluth’s garage in early 1975 on a short film, intended to revel in the classical style. Called Banjo, the Woodpile Cat, they work on it nights and weekends for four and a half years, and their crew steadily grows as other animators at Disney show interest in working in recapturing Disney’s lost glories. In 1979 Bluth uses the short to secure financing from a film investment company called Aurora Productions for a feature film idea, and on September 13 the trio leaves Disney to start their own production company called Don Bluth Animation. Following them the next day are 11 other animators, dubbed “The Disney Defectors” by the press. The departure of Bluth and his team sets back the production of Disney’s The Fox and the Hound by six months. The 27-minute long Banjo, the Woodpile Cat is first shown in two movie theaters upon its completion in 1979, and it eventually airs as a TV special in 1980 on HBO, and again on ABC in 1982.
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 adapting the Scandinavian fairytale 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 and been amazed by 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 way to tap into the $3.2 billion video game market, 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
Meanwhile, 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 demo at AMOA, Dyer and his team agree with Sega’s billing of Astron Belt as the “laser disc video game of the future (emphasis mine)”; 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 22 minutes of animation or 50,000 drawings. Played straight through without making a mistake, playing time is a total of eight minutes. Each second of screen time takes 24 hand-painted cells, a number higher than the industry standard, and the total cost of the animation makes up 1.3 million dollars of the $3 million total budget for Dragon’s Lair. 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, after the initial opening of the game with Dirk making his way across the drawbridge to enter the castle, 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.