It’s the early ’80s and video game technology is in its infancy. How do you improve the graphics past blocky abstractions into film-quality animation? You essentially make an animated short and shoehorn in the illusion of interactivity. This was made possible by the advent of laserdisc technology which allowed full motion video to be played via a random-access medium.
And that led to the original Dragon’s Lair in 1983, the most well-known of the laserdisc arcade games of the ’80s. While it was rather shallow as a game, its novelty as a technological showcase featuring animation from Don Bluth raked in the quarters.
By the time Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp, the first true sequel, showed up in arcades in 1991, the technology seemed, ironically, a bit old fashioned.
Once again, you play as Dirk the Daring on a quest to save his beloved Princess Daphne, but instead of raiding the titular dragon’s lair, you’re on an adventure through history (sort of) with a clunky time machine. The gameplay is about as linear as it gets for an FMV game. While the original game used randomized sequences to keep players on their toes, the sequel is entirely sequential. The only “branching paths” come in the form of picking up optional treasures, and only by collecting all of them can you reach the ending of the game.
As with the original game, everything is a quick-time event (although this was long before the term QTE was ever coined), and you simply need to tilt the joystick or press the “Sword” button at just the right time to keep the movie playing. Things are more obvious here than in the original, however, as there’s a bright flash indicating exactly what you need to do and when to do it. There were hints of this in the original (and Don Bluth’s other FMV game, Space Ace), but it’s fully evolved here. Still, there are times when it’s a little confusing exactly which direction is supposed to be pressed.
Despite there not being much of an actual game here, I have to admit, it’s got a certain charm and rhythm. A lot of it is trial and error, but once you memorize things to the point where you can play without interruption, it’s strangely satisfying. There’s also a lot of creativity in the stages, and some of them are just downright off-beat. You travel through Wonderland, witness Beethoven composing the fifth symphony while floating through the clouds, and Dragon’s Lair II probably has the funniest depiction of the Garden of Eden I’ve ever seen in a game. While the game does wear out it’s welcome after a while, it doesn’t really last that long anyway.
Dragon’s Lair II is available on several systems and devices, including interactive DVD and Blu-ray editions (the latter of which is even a full HD remaster). One of the best packages is the Dragon’s Lair Trilogy on the Wii, which also includes the original game and Space Ace.
I never played the original Dragon’s Lair in the arcade. I had too much trouble trying to wrap my young brain around the idea of “playing a cartoon.” But by the time Dragon’s Lair II showed up in arcades, I popped the occasional quarter into it, and I actually kind of enjoyed it. Yeah, it’s not much of a game, but it’s a fairly entertaining experience.