Dragon's Lair 20th Anniversary Special Edition Review - The Next Level

Game Profile

Release date:
November 14, 2003
Digital Leisure
Bluth Group

Dragon's Lair 20th Anniversary Special Edition

Review by Nick Vlamakis (Email)
February 16th 2004

"Shelf-life for a regular video game usually is about three to five years, and that's it. But Dragon's Lair, for some reason, still commands shelf life. If you go into a game store, they will have Dragon's Lair somewhere in the store. And for over 18 years this has been going on." - Don Bluth, animator and co-creator of Dragon's Lair, August 2002

Not many video games have enjoyed a longer stay on the market than Dragon's Lair. Sure, older arcade classics like the original Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Donkey Kong are still out there, but they're usually packaged as part of a compilation disc with dozens of other retro games. On the other hand, Dragon's Lair all by itself has seen over twenty different home versions since its 1983 arcade debut, and a new fully polygonal cel-shaded remake, Dragon's Lair 3D, was released just last year on the game's 20th anniversary.

To further celebrate the occasion, Digital Leisure issued a Dragon's Lair 20th Anniversary Special Edition set on DVD, and has recently ported it to the PC in a deluxe four-CD version. Included is the original game, the arcade sequel Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp, the futuristic spin-off Space Ace, and a disc full of bonus materials. Has the definitive be-all, end-all edition of Dragon's Lair finally arrived? Maybe . . . but don't count on it being the last home version of the game by a long shot.

Let's examine what's inside the Anniversary Special Edition, disc by disc:

Dragon's Lair: The best transfer and presentation values were put into this first disc of the set, probably because the original game has been the most celebrated over the years. As in previous CD releases, control is handled via the keyboard, with the arrow keys moving Dirk the Daring (when the situation allows it), and the space bar functioning as the sword. This works just fine, and the game responds to the keystrokes quickly enough that most deaths will be the fault of the gamer alone, not because of a delay in processing commands (as was often the case with the DVD versions). The time window given for reacting to the flashing indicators onscreen even seems a tad more forgiving than in the arcade versions.

This CD is also the only one of the group to feature a DVD style front-end menu, along with an enhanced "watch mode" that sports five different methods of viewing the game's animation: Full game with deaths, Full game without deaths, Full game with new scenes, New scenes only, and Selected individual scenes based on production names. The six minutes of new deleted scenes included are a great addition and contain never-before-seen creatures and rooms in the dragon’s castle that were cut from the original release, as well as extended versions of existing sequences. All of the deleted scenes are 100% finished color animation that fits right in with the look of the rest of the game. Perhaps they were cut for length considerations or because they didn't flow as well from a gameplay perspective (although they're just fine from a viewing standpoint).

Space Ace is a futuristic twist on Dragon's Lair that trades Dirk and his damsel in distress, Daphne, for a space pilot named Dexter and his girlfriend, Kimberly. This time it's the evil Commander Borf who's kidnapped Kimmie, and Dexter's intergalactic quest to rescue her is complicated by Borf's "Infanta-ray," which has the power to shrink him down to a pint-sized kid. Space Ace hit arcades shortly after Dragon's Lair in the fall of 1983.

The presentation of the Space Ace and Dragon's Lair II discs feels a little barebones compared to the range of options available on CD 1. A title menu would have been a nice addition for the other two games as well. Instead, they automatically start playing their trailers upon booting up, and only have limited play options available from a pull-down file menu. There's a Watch mode, but no ability to skip, fast-forward, or rewind (though there is a pause). And unfortunately, there aren't any deleted scenes like those on the first disc.

The lack of an option to view the many scene-specific death animations is particularly disappointing, because the deaths are half the fun of the game (when you’re not the one putting in the quarters). Instead, to see all of the hilarious and gruesome demises that the animators came up with, one would have to manually play through with infinite lives and then make sure to die at every step of the way before continuing on - a time-consuming and tedious task.

Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp is the least celebrated game of the series. This sequel had a very limited arcade release in 1991, and by that point a lot of the animated laser disc game's novelty value had worn off. Time Warp enjoyed only a fraction of the popularity of the first two games, which is unfortunate because it contains the most dazzlingly imaginative animation of the three.

Here's a more in-depth look at the black sheep of the series:

The game opens right in the thick of the action. Dirk is running around his household of ten children dodging a rolling-pin-swinging mother-in-law who's incensed that he's allowed her daughter Daphne to be kidnapped by the evil wizard Mordrok. Dirk escapes on horseback, constantly dodging obstacles and unwittingly landing in the seat of a time machine, which will eventually bring him into the dimension where he can rescue Daphne from the wizard's clutches. From there on out, gamers (or viewers using the Watch mode) will be plunged into a tour-de-force of Don Bluth/John Pomeroy/Gary Goldman animation.

Though the original Dragon's Lair took place inside a castle, this time the sky's the limit as the time-travel motif sets the animators free to take on whatever their imaginations conjure up. Dirk is transported into a variety of far-out perilous situations such as an Alice in Wonderland interlude, where a psychedelic sneezing dragon chases him as he hurtles through the woods and over a river, riding on top of a flying Cheshire Cat head. Then there's a Paradise Lost scenario that collides the Biblical story of Adam and Eve with the figures of Greek mythology in Olympus, with Dirk acting as the unsuspecting pawn of the serpent in the apple tree. Best of all is a brilliant sequence reminiscent of Disney's Fantasia, in which Dirk witnesses Beethoven composing his Fifth Symphony at the piano all the while narrowly escaping the jaws of his ferocious pet cat. Things really take off when the piano rockets into space and Dirk must hop across swirling music notes and floating violins to save his life.

Even for a Dragon's Lair game, this is some abstract stuff.

Indeed, Time Warp is so out there with its intensely creative but bizarre imagery, one might venture a guess that it was designed to be best enjoyed on drugs - if the split-second reaction times required by the game didn’t make such a feat all but physically impossible. Better stick to the Watch mode. This entry's cult status among the three laser disc games probably isn't solely due to its 1991 release, eight years after the others hit arcades and long after such a game seemed cutting-edge. It's wonderful animation, but also decidedly less accessible to the mainstream due to its surreal nature.

For fans already familiar with the games, the most interest may lie in the Extras disc. It includes a wealth of liner material and bonus features like text biographies and video interviews with the game's creators, a 1984 episode of the TV game show Starcade featuring contestants competing at Dragon's Lair, vintage press clippings (headline: "Dragon's Lair makes Pac-Man seem like something Grandpa should have played by candlelight"), scans of merchandising products and action figures, a making-of featurette, and a box art gallery of more than twenty home console ports. This is a lot of rare content all gathered in one place for collectors it and makes a terrific companion piece to the games. The viewing experience is hurt somewhat by the lack of any ability to fast-forward or rewind through the interviews, the Starcade episode, or the featurette, and by the slightly pixelated nature of the image - all drawbacks that were not present in Digital Leisure's earlier DVD release of the Anniversary Edition.

Overall, the transfer quality on all three game discs unfortunately also leaves a little to be desired. Though the picture is clear enough to be more than playable, there are sometimes noticeable compression artifacts, and the image never seems to be as sharp as it could be. The DVD versions of the games have far superior picture quality, and with good reason: they have the luxury of more storage space on DVD media.

In the end, this is still a tremendous package that scores points for cramming just about everything available about Dragon's Lair into one set. And one advantage that the CDs do have over the DVD versions is the control of the actual gameplay. There is a frustrating delayed reaction when using a remote to play through the games on DVD (often resulting in an accidental death), but the keyboard for the PC version gives a near-instant response. Too bad there's no DVD-ROM version of this set that would give gamers the best of both worlds in play control and image detail. Until one comes along, those who just want to watch the games should probably stick with the DVD's. This CD-ROM set is really best suited for the hardcore crowd who still want to play them.

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