Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.
I feel kind of bad for going after Dragon’s Lair because it has a definite place in gaming history. In the ’80s, this game wasn’t even considered bad, meaning recreational drug use must have been even higher than reported. Back when it was first released in arcades and most other games were trying to figure out what color to make your one pixel character, Dragon’s Lair looked like a fully animated cartoon you could play. This was enough to draw some poor saps in, but those drawn in by its siren’s call soon found that their fifty cents would have been better spent purchasing fire ants to fill their shoes with. Dragon’s Lair is one of the three games on permanent display at the Smithsonian, presumably somewhere alongside the Trojan horse in a wing displaying some of history’s greatest traps. There is just so very little to like about this game when it comes to the actual game parts of it that I can’t imagine how this was ever popular. This is a game to run away screaming from if you ever encounter it, as your day would be better spent flipping a coin and hitting your fingers with a hammer whenever it turns up heads.
You play as Dirk the Daring (not to be confused with Calvin the Cowardly, who rightly decides that breaking into a castle with a dragon in the basement is a terrible idea and spends the entirety of the game holed up in a pub writing King Arthur fanfiction), a mute knight that apparently has a death wish that just can’t be satiated. You must fight your way through a castle filled with wizards, monsters, and dragons in order to save Princess Daphne. Years of playing video games has made me very familiar with the “save the princess” motif, which makes me extremely suspicious about Daphne’s princess credentials. There is a far greater chance that she is just a stripper with the stage name Princess than an actual princess, because if actual princesses dressed like she did the royal weddings wouldn’t be so boring to watch. She is in what appears to be lingerie and a thong, and I suddenly realize why this game was so popular. It made all its money off of adolescent boys walking through the arcade with the intention of playing Centipede before stopping in the middle of their path to shout out, “Hey wait a minute, is that butts?” In her one talking seen, she does her best to throw out her butt at weird times and weird angles, which I think was supposed to be sexy but just made me concerned she might be having a seizure.
The weird thing is if this was just a cartoon rather than a game, I might actually enjoy it more. The gameplay here is less enjoyable than most toasters (and with worse variety), but just watching some of the scenes themselves are fairly entertaining. In addition to Princess Daphne and her rump, Dirk has an abundance of funny little death scenes in which you get to watch him suffer for your repeated failure. Dirk dying is actually pretty much the highlight of the game, which is a good thing considering how frequently you’ll be doing it. They actually manage to give the game a semblance of charm before the gameplay comes along, loudly belches, and scares away any residual charm that might have been hiding in the cracks. However, even if they did separate out the scenes to make a short cartoon, you’d basically be watching a confusing five minute snuff film with some butt at the end. Even compiled the animations aren’t enjoyable enough to redeem this mess, unless you really, really have a weird thing for deaths and cartoon butts. My guess is if you did you wouldn’t be reading this though, as solitary confinement tends to have pretty shoddy Internet connection.
Dragon’s Lair is essentially a game with nothing but quick time events (QTEs) but without any button prompts telling you which way to QTE in. Playing through a QTE game without the button prompts is like trying to figure out what in your refrigerator has expired by taking bites out of everything until you get sick. The entire game relies primarily on random guessing, which wouldn’t even be fun if the penalty for guessing wrong wasn’t dying and having to start the scene over. I don’t even know what to dub this style of gameplay, because it really isn’t a true quick time event since you aren’t prompted with what to do. It is more of a quick-time-“woops, I just died again. Guess I’ll start over and try a different button” style game, but that doesn’t have an easy acronym to remember, so instead I’ll just call it blurp, which is both the noise a dying cat makes and the sound of playing a trumpet from the wrong end, either of which are close approximations for how much fun you’ll be having. The game gives Dirk less direction on how to proceed than a broken compass mounted on a Lazy Susan, which makes it even less fun to play through than it sounds because you’re just guessing at what button to press when and hoping you don’t die. The most embarrassing way to die is by prompting Dirk to drink from a bottle of poison labeled “drink me”. I had assumed that it would be some sort of Alice in Wonderland type gag where Dirk would now be the right size to get through a certain door, but no, they were just testing who was stupid enough to drink from a container in your enemy’s castle. I think is the first video game character I’ve ever killed by ignoring what I learned in kindergarten about taking food from strangers.
For some reason I’ll never understand, Dragon’s Lair gets ported to like ever console ever made. People really like butts, I guess? This thing has been on everything from the NES to the Xbox 360 to the 3DO. Do you have any idea how many 3DO games there even were? There were like eight, and one of them was just a blank screen that said, “Sorry you bought a 3DO.” Depending on which console you end up playing this game on, they sometimes try to fix things by adding the necessary button prompts. The problem then is the game becomes incredibly boring and it is essentially a ten minute long quicktime event that you can just repeat until you beat. Arrows will flash on the bottom screen showing you which direction to push and when, which removes the awful random guess element to the game and at the very least keeping your eyes open now actually improves your chances of winning.
I don’t have anything against QTEs themselves, and when they are integrated well into gameplay I at least restrain my grumblings to quiet grunts. But the fact is that in Dragon’s Lair QTEs aren’t integrated into the gameplay; they are the gameplay. There is nothing else, so the game is essentially a slightly longer version of the board game Simon. Then there is the fact that the game ends up reusing some of the same concepts over and over, because most of the design team was too busy drawing butts to fill the entire ten minute game with original rooms. It feels like there are four or five different scenes where you push left or right to avoid a series of oncoming obstacles, be it a walls, whirlpools, or rapids, and really all that changes is what piece of scenery you are trying to not run into. They didn’t even have enough content to fill ten minutes without repeating themselves; I’ve seen infomercials that lasted longer than this without repeating this much. This game has even less content than it initially appears, which would be like saying a homeless man has fewer houses than you thought initially.
The end result is Dragon’s Lair is more fun to watch than it is to actually play, which is a bit of a warning sign. Well, actually, when it comes to games, awful gameplay isn’t so much of a bit of a warning sign as it is a giant, fluorescent warning sign with big flashing neon letters. There is some nice animation, and a little bit of charm manages to work its way from underneath the heft of failure to twinkle in the presentation, but there is little else to like here. The game is just awful to play, and doesn’t offer any semblance of fun for the whole ten minutes you’ll spend with it. It’s boring, bereft of any good ideas, and even the paucity of ideas here repeat themselves. Even by the low standards of the ’80s, this just isn’t something I could ever imagine anyone wanting to play. This isn’t so much a game as it is a choose your own adventure cartoon, where 90% of your choices lead to immediate death. There are some older gamers out there that may want to try and find this simply for the nostalgia factor, but not even warm, fuzzy childhood memories could make this any less terrible. I’d recommend just avoiding the game entirely and eating a tube of Play-Doh if you’re looking to relive something from your childhood that will also make you sick.