One of the most interesting aspects of art is how it can serve as commentary “after the fact.” That is, it can speak for itself at the time and then gain additional meaning as the context of its place in history becomes fixed. Casablanca is a great film not just because it had a great script, but because it is a film about Nazis produced and released before the climax of World War II. It’s easy for us to look back and see how Rick and Ilsa will probably survive the conflict, but imagine the true anxiety that audiences must have felt on their behalf with VE Day still over two years away. The film, like so many others in so many other contexts, survives because it has resisted any possible attempt to pigeonhole it. Its meaning changes every year and for everyone who watches it.
The same can be said for Dragon’s Lair. Though Dirk the Daring’s quest to rescue Daphne from the clutches of the dragon, Singe, seems rather quaint compared to the hundred-hour epics of today, it is impossible to overstate its importance to the growth of its medium. One could write a book on all of its pros and cons, but I’ll stick with just three for now…
As a Piece of Animation
Thanks to the wonders of YouTube and its hilariously erratic approach to copyright infringement, we can now watch Dragon’s Lair in its entirety without forking over any money. Thank God, because the quality of its animation is stunning. Don Bluth created a masterpiece of the art form in between his other great works (Secret of NIMH coming before, An American Tail afterwards). The utilization of color is tremendous, the timing impeccable, the attention to detail astonishing… all done on a shoestring budget and a compressed time frame.
The Grandmaster was just beginning to find his sea legs in the feature-length form, but Dragon’s Lair shows him—and the format—at its finest. Later games (including Cinematronic’s own Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair II, not to mention Chrono Trigger’s re-release and the cut scenes of Ninja Gaiden) owe a great deal to the way that the animation helped pace the gameplay. Films and television could no longer hide behind the “limits” of technology, either. If a video game (insert sneer) could look this good, why not a movie? Or a show? Dragon’s Lair didn’t exactly jumpstart the animation renaissance, but it certainly foretold of the coming revolution.
As a Forerunner of Future Games
Dragon’s Lair didn’t just look pretty. It introduced entirely new concepts to the gaming public. Players had to hit the right button at the right time to help Dirk rescue his beloved and escape the various perils surrounding him. They couldn’t just memorize the events, however; creators knew that to keep gamers coming back (and feeding coins), they had to make each encounter unique. That meant that the dungeon’s path was mixed and duplicated with every playthrough. And, of course, there was the narrative. It wasn’t the most original story in the world, but it did have dialogue, complications, plot twists, and a beginning, middle, and end, things that even some modern games don’t contain. All this could only be captured due to advanced laserdisc technology embedded within the cabinet. In one fell swoop, Cinematronics had unveiled quick-time events, randomized difficulty, and CD-gaming (though Sega’s Astron Belt admittedly went into production first). Not bad for a single title.
As a Pinnacle Achievement of Arcade Gaming
Only a year after this game’s debut, arcade gaming would begin its long, slow decline. The advent of powerful home consoles with interchangeable titles rendered arcades somewhat obsolete. Why pump quarter after quarter into a machine next to smelly bullies itchy to relieve you of your spot (and allowance) when you could play in the comfort of your own home? Why go to the arcade at all, when competition from cable and VCRs is becoming more and more commonplace?
Yet, at the time, Dragon’s Lair was a triumph. It looked different. It played different. It wasn’t another Pac-Man or Defender clone. It gave something fresh and unique to gaming audiences desperate for something more: a narrative, better graphics, whatever. It made over $30 million for its creators in the arcades alone, and continues to rake in the cash on various formats nearly three decades after its release. It is one of only three games that is on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian. How’s that for affecting pop culture?
All this came from a game produced during the Reagan era. The economy was in the toilet but finally turning around from stagflation. Baseball still seemed untouchable at its peak in the American mindset. The USSR had entered into its final years. It was a different time, where hair rock bands roamed the Earth, and a flock of seagulls was not just an avian formation. The pessimism of the 70’s had given way to the optimism of the 80’s. The perception gap ruled, people didn’t want to be bothered by downers, and kids were told to “just say no.”
Enter a game that embodies the sentiments of the era. It is pretty. It’s simple. It’s about good and evil. It stars a tough guy fighting for a hot (blonde) chick. It is tough to play, but easy to control. It costs a lot, sure, but anybody can ride the roller coaster. It rakes in the cash because it is emblematic of a culture that embraces beauty and simplicity over darkness and complexity. It’s the hit of hits in a sea of success with no signs of slowing down.
And yet the good times didn’t last. People couldn’t keep on listening to Freddie Mercury forever. They could longer ignore a new disease ravaging the gay community, because it turned out it wasn’t just Gay-Related but Acquired. America’s pastime got numerous black eyes, first from cocaine and then from collusion and finally from one of the best baseball players succumbing to the appeal of gambling. The economy finally did turn south with the Savings & Loan scandal. The Wall fell, but America’s communist enemies were soon replaced with dictatorial and/or theocratic ones that didn’t play by the old rules. It could be said that innocence was lost, except that there wasn’t any innocence to begin with: just denial.
Dragon’s Lair is a symbol of the hope of the decade, of the greed, the innovation, the media, the stories, and the culture of willful ignorance combined with naive fun. It would go on to produce sequels and imitators, the frequent homage and the more frequent rip-off. Like all good art, it is colored by its surroundings, both present and future. Its true effect cannot yet be completely understood, but it remains as a compelling piece of video gaming history. More importantly, it simply remains. Compared to some of the “classics” of that time period that are now nothing but forgotten memories moldering in abandoned warehouses in the swamps of New Jersey, that is enough.