Dragon’s Lair Trilogy – Gaming History Comes to Modern Consoles

Posted February 15, 2019 by Jacqueline Juretus in Video Games

Developer: Digital Leisure, Inc.

Publisher: Digital Leisure, Inc.

Trademark: Bluth Group, Ltd.

Platforms: PC, PS4, Switch (reviewed)

Release Date: January 17th, 2019 (Switch), 1983 (Original)

Don Bluth is an animation legend that created many beloved films, such as An American Tail, Secret of NIMH, All Dog’s Go to Heaven, The Land Before Time, etc. The Savannah College of Art and Design has many of the hand drawn, hand made artwork behind his masterpieces in the Don Bluth Collection, which is where I first learned of the 2-D animated videogames Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace. I am not old enough to have seen these in arcades in the eighties (I was born in 1990), so learning that a game like that was made at that time blew my mind. So, when I saw it came out for the Switch, I had to play it and experience what all that art came together to make.

Dragon’s Lair:

Using the LaserDisc system, Dragon’s Lair was first released in 1983. Its lavish, detailed animation allowed it to stand out at a time when most games used pixel sprites for characters. Players “control” Dirk the Daring, who makes his way through crazy rooms and traps in the castle to the Dragon’s Lair to save princess Daphne from the dragon.

Controls are deceivingly simple. You press the direction buttons or the action button to use your sword. The game will prompt you of which button to hit and you have a limited time to react. Hitting the wrong button at the wrong time leads to death. The experience is very on rails, but areas will change up order from time to time. Despite the simplicity, you will most likely die A LOT. Skeleton Dirk is a very common sight that you just get used to as part of the game. There are difficulty and game settings, but you still die over and over.

This game has the most extras of the three. There is the “Watch Game” option for those that have trouble getting through, or just want to take in the gorgeous animations. An Attraction Video acts as an advertisement. There’s a fairly meaty interview with the creators that give a lot of the history around the games. Finally, there are credits and a tutorial.

If you somehow manage to play without dying at all, Dragon’s Lair can be as short as ten minutes, but you’re more likely to take a half hour to an hour for the game alone. Replayability is high since it’s so short but changes up levels each time and records your high score, which you can always try to beat. If you take a break after getting a game over screen, the game will save your progress if you wish to continue from where you left off instead of starting over.

With this one, I mostly enjoyed the hilarious deaths and voice acting.

Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp:

This one was the hardest to play but very fascinating to watch. Dragon’s Lair II came out in 1991, but was not near as widespread as its predecessor. It features less levels, but they are much longer and more complex. That lead to farther apart checkpoints which is what made this one more difficult.

Daphne is kidnapped again, this time by the evil wizard Mordroc. Dirk uses a time machine which goes through all kinds of trippy levels to chase Mordroc down and rescue Daphne from being forced into marriage. Controls are the same as the first, but levels are not randomized.

The extras for Time Warp include an animatic, an attraction video, and the “Watch Game” option. I did more watching than playing with this one since I couldn’t get past the first level, so my favorite thing with this was watching the near psychedelic Beethoven sequence.

Space Ace:

While I enjoyed all three games, this one was my favorite as it gave slightly more time to react and had nice length levels and checkpoint spacing. I also preferred Kimberly and Dexter over Daphne and Dirk. The evil Borf plans on taking over Earth by turning everyone into infants with the Infanto ray. He also kidnaps Kimberly and uses the ray on Dexter (Ace) who changes between a child and man throughout while trying to rescue Kimmy and humanity.

Controls are the same as the other games, but with the action button controlling your ray gun instead of a sword. Space Ace came out in 1984 and allowed players to take different routes to the end. It’s beautiful, colorful, and funny like the other games. Once again, the constant dying is not a bother since death animations are so ridiculous and fun. As with the other games, passing a level is highly rewarding.

This has the least extras with an attraction video, the “Watch Game” option, and credits.

As simple as the gameplay is, these games were revolutionary when they came out and helped pave the way for other hand drawn games in the future (Cuphead, Hollow Knight). The games still look great in both handheld mode and on the TV. To be expected, if you’re first playing now, you’ll notice some mechanics and tropes are outdated, but that just adds to the charm in this case. If you don’t care about the animation, extras, or history, and are only interested in complex gameplay, this is not for you. However, if you’re a fan of Don Bluth, animation, gaming history, etc., don’t sleep on this one. Even though each game is short, the high replayability and extras make this worth the price.

About the Author

Jacqueline Juretus