The TV series Stranger Things has a special place in our geeky hearts. It’s popular for all the right reasons without attracting the toxic edge of online fanbases like some TV series we could name. Stranger Things is a trip through ‘80s nostalgia via Stephen Spielberg, as a Hoosier town tries to grapple with an unsolved mystery. It’s seen through the eyes of Generation X kids of that era, sort of like if The Goonies went to Twin Peaks.
Every now and then, modern audiences are confronted with a bit of ‘80s pop culture that seems to be too surreal to be true. For instance, was there really a video game called Dragons Lair with this amazing animation in the 1980s?
Dustin rages at Dragons Lair while stressing about his high score status at the local arcade. And yes, scenes somewhat like that did occur in arcades across America all the time. We’ve rambled about this mystical era before, but Dragon’s Lair has its own story to tell…
The Laserdisc Era
As the 1.44MB floppy was the precursor to the USB thumb drive, so was the laserdisc to our modern DVD/HD format. For the first time, laserdiscs provided instant-access video capability, instead of having to rewind or fast-forward a VCR tape. Video game manufacturers were quick to pounce on the technology, as an answer to those blocky pixelated graphics typical of ‘70s video games. The first arcade laserdisc game was Astron Belt by Sega in 1983…
Their first idea was a fairly standard space shoot-em-up with movie-quality visuals. As you can see, laserdisc technology allowed for some amazing cinematics, but integration with gameplay mechanics was iffy. Notice in that demo, hitbox detection is too shaky. There was no way to allow the player to control individual aspects of the video frame, so they just drew a pixelated sprite over the top of video footage. The game didn’t do well.
Back to the drawing board, video game designers realized they had to deal with the limits of laserdisc video clips. The sensible solution was to have video frames act like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story; brief shots of footage punctuated by quick, simple decisions the player could make which would determine the next clip. Not that they gave up on the space shooter idea though – ever heard of Firefox? No, silly, not the web browser, the arcade laserdisc game…
You can see the graphics improved there, but it still looks like pixel sprites drawn over film stock. So back to clip scenes it was. They realized they needed a complete animated universe to tell an adventure story while keeping the art and sound consistent so you felt immersed. They needed a rockstar animator who could appeal to the young video game audience:
Meet Don Bluth
Don Bluth is well-introduced via the best review of the Dragon’s Lair video game on YouTube, by the one and only Nostalgia Critic:
Don Bluth’s first big break was animation director on Disney’s 1977 film Pete’s Dragon (yes, the present author notes the namesake, and now we move along), but Bluth quickly broke away from the Disney stables to direct his smash hit, 1982‘s The Secret of NIMH. This put Bluth on the map as a legendary animation director, and he’d barely wrapped production when Cinematronics approached him with a pitch for a story of Dirk the Daring and his adventures in a medieval fantasy world.
As you can see from the Critic’s hilarious meltdown, Dragon’s Lair turned out stupidly hard. The controls were simple, and the designers “helpfully” included flashing cues (which sometimes lied), but the game was still so frustratingly unintuitive that the only way to get through it was by rote memorization. Which is exactly what people did. The game cost fifty cents, in an era where all other games cost a quarter. So you had to just play and lose a lot until you memorized it, which is what led to the game’s reputation for being expensive. However, once you’d mastered it, you could go through the whole thing on two quarters in your sleep, since it was 100% twitching muscle memory.
Laserdisc games continued to churn out from various developers in the 1980s. Notable were the anime-themed Time Gal, and the Wild-West-themed Badlands. Instead of bothering with a playthrough, here’s a flat laserdisc dump showing every possible scene:
Yeah, Konami thought it could answer Don Bluth with Filmation-level generic animation. If you thought Dragons Lair was hard, Badlands added the sadistic twist of randomly switching the correct action in some situations. For instance, you walk into a saloon; the bartender pours you a drink and then coyly shoots you, even having the nerve to give you the ol’ red eye afterward. Walk into the same saloon next game, face the same bartender, shoot him – and this time he was unarmed, falling to the floor in stunned disbelief. You’re hung for murder. Good luck getting to the end in this one!
Where Are We Now?
There were a couple more games in the Bluth / Cinematronics collaboration, including Space Ace and Dragons Lair II: Time Warp. Space Ace especially brought manic game pacing and the weird ability to “energize” in order to shape-shift between a full-grown man and a stringy kid:
But by that time, it was the 1990s and home computers were starting to catch up to the arcade at last. The Myst franchise was right around the corner, and its awesome 3D graphics renders were far better integrated with gameplay mechanics to produce a unique experience all its own. As for Don Bluth, he had the curse of a string of tepid box office duds – no fault of his own, he just got stuck with some lousy stories.
Oh, one more thing. As they mention in Nostalgia Critic’s review, they’re trying to crowdfund Don Bluth into making a Dragons Lair movie. We have no idea if that’s even still happening, and it’s kind of questionable if we really want that. Of course, it’s worth it to pay Don Bluth to draw anything that pops into the bag of deranged weasels that serves as his mind, but what story is there to Dragons Lair that hasn’t been done a million times before?
Why waste an opportunity like this? We got here through ‘80s nostalgia, after all. If we’re going to get Don Bluth to animate a movie, there are tons of blockbuster literary works – as was Secret of NIMH – begging for a big screen treatment. We’re already good on Lord of the Rings adaptations. Where’s an elaborate, popular fiction universe that has never received its film due? Hey, wait, here’s an idea:
How’s that grab you? Is that an option? Because it has to happen someday.