Dragon’s Lair wowed gamers when it appeared in arcades back in 1983. Retro Gamer revisits the classic arcade game and discovers how Don Bluth and his team created arcade magic.
For those unfamiliar with Dragon’s Lair, the game starred, Dirk the Daring, a bumbling oaf who has to enter a booby-trapped castle to rescue his girlfriend from a ferocious dragon. Unlike other arcade games of its time, or indeed our time, Dragon’s Lair was more like an interactive movie, where the player would direct the main character in a series of sequences, than a platformer where you’d assume complete control. The outcome of each cartoon scene is determined by entering the right move at each decision point; make the wrong decision and you’ll face immediate death.
The original concept came from Rick Dyer of Advanced Microcomputer Systems (AMS). The company had been working on a fantasy game for two years but wanted to make a more visual masterpiece. After methods of animation including slideshows and a tape deck, cash till roll and giant rolodex failed to re-create a hand drawn style, Rick Dyer began to look elsewhere. He discovered laser disc: a brand new optical storage medium that had the ability to replicate movie quality animation. Disc access was random and chapter-based so it allowed almost instant access to any area of the disc. One visit to the cinema later, and the idea for a partnership formed. Gary Goldman, a member of the production team for Don Bluth, recalls how this came about. “He [Dyer] had seen The Secret of NIMH in the theatre with his wife, Jan, and decided then that we should be the team to do the animation. He had already put a team of writers and artists together to write a game script and to storyboard the game in sequences. His plan was for a three-way partnership, with his team doing pre-production and the computer programming, Bluth Group was to do the actual production and Cinematronics to do the distribution.”
Dirk The Daring was the hero of Dragon’s Lair.
However there were a few problems – namely a question of financing. “Each partner-company was to finance its own part of the deal,” explains Goldman. “The problem for us was that we didn’t have any capital. Our studio operations had just been interrupted by the Screen Cartoonists union strike, and our backers pulled out, leaving us with no cash flow. So we had to borrow cash to get involved, from friends, relatives, whoever we could convince that this was a solid idea. At one point we even borrowed from Rick Dyer’s and Jim Pearce’s companies.”
Once financial issues had been resolved, it was time to make a start on development. Although Rick Dyer’s team had designed their own characters and storyboards, many of these had to be discarded, as they didn’t meet the required standards. In the end, character design and animation was left entirely to Don Bluth’s production team while Dyer and his loyal designers kept working on ideas and programming the links between each scene. “We changed the continuity of gameplay, which upset the writers and storyboard artists over at Rick’s shop,” recalls Goldman “We basically re-storyboarded the game with new designs and sometimes completely different ideas. At the time Rick was very good about keeping his crew’s objections from us, letting us plod on.”
Daphne and Dirk also saw an overhaul. Dirk was remodelled as “a clumsy oaf, big feet and hands and not too smart” while Don Bluth spent considerable time drawing Daphne in various seductive poses, inspired by Gary Goldman’s old collection of Playboy magazines. It’s a fact Goldman recalls vividly. “It was odd walking by Don’s office with him in there at the drawing board surrounded by several, open, Playboy magazines. In the end, Don put Daphne in a very revealing one-piece “thong” swimsuit with a sheer veil that partially covered her.” Don Bluth was also responsible for designing the 50 different humorous ways in which Dirk could die including being eaten, squashed and disintegrated.
Dirk, before he become immortalised as a videogame hero.
The script was another area that was largely affected by Don Bluth’s team. As Dirk was the main character and dialogue might prove to cause difficulties with foreign language translation, it was scrapped in favour of grunts, groans and screams. Due to lack of funds, all voice acting was dealt with in-house with editor Dan Molina providing Dirk’s expressions. Daphne however has to speak as she dispenses crucial information at the big finale featuring the fight with Singe the dragon. Stepping up to the role of air-head Daphne was Key Clean-up Supervisor, Vera Lanpher.
With AMS aiming to have the first laser-disc title in arcades, work on Dragon’s Lair had to be swift. After initial development in October 1982, animation was started in January 1983, while Rick’s team managed to compile three colour sequences by March for the Chicago Game Show. Around 130 artists and technicians were involved in development and the final product was finished in June, ready to ship to arcades in July. In Europe, Dragon’s Lair was licensed to Atari for production and manufacturing and the cabinet design differed to the American edition.
Riding this horse is extremely tricky. QTEs ahoy!
AMS field-tested the game at the Malibu Grand Prix El Monte, California and were staggered by the impact. Over 200 people were watching in amazement at the game’s animation and the same thing was occurring at Cinematronics’ own test in San Diego.
Its success in arcades was un-precedented, helped further by the cheaper price set by Cinematronics of 50 cents. As laser disc was an expensive technology in those days (the player alone was $1,000) the lower price gave the incentive for arcade owners to stock the machine. The immense popularity of the game meant many recouped the cost within a week. “When you went to an arcade, there was always a crowd around the Dragon’s Lair machine and a line of people waiting to play the game. Many of the arcades placed extra monitors on top of the game cabinet so the crowd could see the animation.”
Almost overnight, Dragon’s Lair became a phenomenon leading to merchandise such as lunch boxes, underwear, stickers and board games, with even a cartoon series launching in 1984. Inevitably, the game was ported to over 18 computer formats although none of those had any input from either company barring artwork. It remains, immensely popular three decades on.
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