Dragon's Lair is an interactive film LaserDisc video game developed by Advanced Microcomputer Systems and published by Cinematronics in 1983, as the first game in the Dragon's Lair series. In the game, the protagonist Dirk the Daring is a knight attempting to rescue Princess Daphne from the evil dragon Singe who has locked the princess in the foul wizard Mordroc's castle. It featured animation by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth.
Most other games of the era represented the character as a sprite, which consisted of a series of pixels displayed in succession. Due to hardware limitations of the era, artists were greatly restricted in the detail they could achieve using that technique; the resolution, framerate and number of frames were severely constrained. Dragon's Lair overcame those limitations by tapping into the vast storage potential of the LaserDisc, but imposed other limitations on the actual gameplay.
The game is "on rails", meaning the narrative is predetermined and the player has very limited influence on its progression. The game consists almost entirely of animated cutscenes. The player does not control the character's actions directly, but controls his reflexes, with actions determined by selecting a direction or pressing a button in order to clear each quick time event, with different full motion video segments showing the outcomes. The game consists of a sequence of challenges played in a random order. Some scenes are played more than once before reaching the end, some of which are flipped or mirrored such that the opposite actions (e.g. left instead of right) are required.
The attract mode of the game displays various short vignettes of gameplay accompanied by the following narration: "Dragon's Lair: The fantasy adventure where you become a valiant knight, on a quest to rescue the fair princess from the clutches of an evil dragon. You control the actions of a daring adventurer, finding his way through the castle of a dark wizard, who has enchanted it with treacherous monsters and obstacles. In the mysterious caverns below the castle, your odyssey continues against the awesome forces that oppose your efforts to reach the Dragon's Lair. Lead on, adventurer. Your quest awaits!"Comedic aspects of the game include bizarre-looking creatures and humorous death scenes, and the portrayal of the player character as a clumsy, easily scared and reluctant hero.
Dragon's Lair began as a concept by Rick Dyer, president of Advanced Microcomputer Systems (which later became RDI Video Systems). A team of game designers created the characters and locations, then choreographed Dirk's movements as he encountered the monsters and obstacles in the castle. The art department at AMS created storyboards for each episode as a guide for the final animation. Dyer was inspired by the text game Adventure. This game gave rise to an invention he dubbed "The Fantasy Machine". This device went through many incarnations from a rudimentary computer using paper tape (with illustrations and text) to a system that manipulated a videodisc containing mostly still images and narration. The game it played was a graphic adventure, The Secrets of the Lost Woods. The game's concept as an interactive movie LaserDisc game was inspired by Sega's Astron Belt, which Dyer saw at the 1982 AMOA show.
Attempts to market The Fantasy Machine had repeatedly failed. Allegedly, an Ideal Toy Company representative walked out in the middle of one presentation. Dyer's inspiration allegedly came during his viewing of The Secret of NIMH, whereby he realized he needed quality animation and an action script to bring excitement to his game. He elected to take a reserved but unscripted location from The Secrets of the Lost Woods known as The Dragon's Lair.
The game was animated by veteran Disney animator and The Secret of NIMH director Don Bluth and his studio. The game had a development budget of US$3 million and took seven months to complete. Since the studio could not afford to hire any models, the animators used photos from Playboy magazines for inspiration for the character Princess Daphne. The animators also used their own voices for all the characters instead of hiring voice actors in order to keep costs down, although it does feature one professional voice actor, Michael Rye, as the narrator in the attract sequence (he is also the narrator for Space Ace and Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp). The voice of Princess Daphne was portrayed by Vera Lanpher, who was head of the clean-up department at the time. Dirk the Daring's voice belongs to film editor Dan Molina, who later went on to perform the bubbling sound effects for another animated character, Fish Out of Water, from 2005's Disney film Chicken Little, which he also edited. Dirk shrieks or makes other noises on numerous occasions but speaks words only twice. First, he mutters "Uh, oh" when the platform begins to recede during the fire-swinging sequence, then he exclaims "Wow!" when first entering the Dragon's Lair and laying eyes on the slumbering Princess Daphne. The music and many sound effects were scored and performed by Chris Stone at EFX Systems in Burbank. Bryan Rusenko and Glen Berkovitz were the recording engineers. The 43 second "Attract Loop" was recorded in a straight 18-hour session. Featured instruments, all keyboards, were the E-mu Emulator and Memorymoog.
A prototype made its debut at Chicago's Amusement Operators Expo (AOE) in March 1983. The complete laserdisc and ROM sets of this preview demo version have not survived to this day. The European arcade version of Dragon's Lair was licensed to Atari Ireland (as was Space Ace later). The cabinet design was therefore different from the Cinematronics version. The main differences were that the LED digital scoring panel was replaced with an on screen scoring display appearing after each level. The Atari branding was present in various places on the machine (marquee, coin slots, control panel and speaker grill area), and the machines featured the cone LED player start button used extensively on Atari machines. Although licensing for this region was exclusive to Atari, a number of Cinematronics machines were also available from suppliers mostly via a gray import. The original Fantasy Machine was later released as a prototype video game console known as Halcyon. Dirk the Daring also appeared in the 1993 Game Boy puzzle game, Franky, Joe & Dirk: On the Tiles, along with Franky from Dr. Franken and Joe from Joe & Mac.
Dragon's Lair initially represented high hopes for the then-sagging arcade industry, fronting the new wave of immersive LaserDisc video games. A quote from Newsweek captures the level of excitement displayed over the game: "Dragon's Lair is this summer's hottest new toy: the first arcade game in the United States with a movie-quality image to go along with the action ... The game has been devouring kids' coins at top speed since it appeared early in July. Said Robert Romano, 10, who waited all day in the crush at Castle Park without getting to play, 'It's the most awesome game I've ever seen in my life'". Arcade operators at its release reported long lines, even though the game was the first video arcade game to cost 50 cents. Operators were also concerned, however, that players would figure out its unique predefined game play, leading them to "get the hang of it and stop playing it". By July 1983, 1,000 machines had been distributed, and there were already a backlog of about 7,500. By the end of 1983, Electronic Games and Electronic Fun were rating Dragon's Lair as the number one video arcade game in USA, while the arcade industry gave it recognition for helping turn around its 1983 financial slump. Dragon's Lair received recognition as the most influential game of 1983, to the point that regular computer graphics looked "rather elementary compared to top-quality animation".
The game topped the monthly US RePlay charts for upright arcade cabinets from September 1983 through November 1983, and topped the US Play Meter arcade charts for arcade locations (such as ShowBiz Pizza Place) from September 1983 through January 1984 and again in March 1984. It was listed by Cash Box magazine as America's third highest-grossing arcade game of 1983, below Ms. Pac-Man and Pole Position. By February 1984, Dragon's Lair was reported to have earned over $32 million ($87 million adjusted for inflation) for Cinematronics. In Japan, Game Machine listed Dragon's Lair on their October 1, 1984 issue as being the eleventh most-successful upright/cockpit arcade unit of the month.
One element of the game that was negatively received was the blackout time in between loading of scenes, which Dyer promised would be eliminated by the forthcoming Space Ace and planned Dragon's Lair sequel. By the middle of 1984, however, after Space Ace and other similar games were released to little success, sentiment on Dragon's Lair's position in the industry had shifted and it was being cited as a failure due to its expensive cost for a game that would "lose popularity". Arcade owners were also displeased with the mechanical unreliability of the LaserDisc drive.
In 1995, Flux magazine rated the arcade version 47th on its Top 100 Video Games writing: "A somewhat frustrating movement-timing factor, but still fun to play and watch." In 2001, GameSpy ranked Dragon's Lair as number 7 on the list of "Top 50 Arcade Games of All-Time". It was one of only three video games (along with Pong and Pac-Man) put in storage at the Smithsonian Institution.
The home conversions received mixed reviews. The Commodore 64/128 version of the game was reviewed in 1988 in Dragon #133 by Hartley, Patricia, and Kirk Lesser in "The Role of Computers" column. The reviewers gave the game 3 out of 5 stars. 2b1af7f3a8