Dragon’s Lair, originally released in 1983, is considered by many to be a classic of the era of video game arcades. Standing out from the simple graphics of its time, the game used hand-drawn animated scenes straight out of a feature film, with production headed by animation veteran Don Bluth, the director of such films as The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time, and Anastasia. In reality, it was not so much a traditional game as it was a slightly interactive movie, with players providing controller inputs when periodically signaled to survive the game’s traps and continue its story. Now, Almost thirty years later, Dragon’s Lair has come to the Xbox 360, this time with exclusive support for Microsoft‘s Kinect sensor. Unfortunately, the new feature does not disguise the fact that the game has not aged well.
Players assume the role of valiant knight Dirk the Daring, who has infiltrated a castle (the titular dragon’s lair) to save the fair Princess Daphne from her imprisonment by the fearsome dragon, Singe. The only exposition is given in the game’s attract mode (the video that would play at arcade units when no one was playing the game), which is inserted into the game as an extra. Once Dirk enters the castle, though, the game stops relying on spoken dialogue and story. At that point, it becomes a series of different enemies and perils that Dirk must overcome as he ventures deeper into the castle, with only a few more lines uttered by Daphne at the end.
Gameplay is very basic, and limited to the four directions on the controller for movement and the A button to use your sword. A change to the display has been made for this version. In previous releases, an element on the screen would flash every few seconds. Players would then press toward it to advance the action. Here, instead of the flash, specific icons for the four directions and arrow pop up instead, making the game a lot more manageable and less frustrating as a result.
Unfortunately, there’s still plenty to get frustrated over. The most notable problem is that the commands and abilities in the game are very basic due to its full motion video-heavy nature. Bluth’s animation quality looks good even in today’s CG-enhanced industry, but I have a hunch that most modern players who were raised on more traditional gameplay will find what is basically a game of quick-time events to be a slog. You simply don’t have much of a feeling of control or real interactivity. Sure, if you screw up an input, you’ll be treated to a unique scene of Dirk meeting his end through whatever the current danger is, but that’s really all there is to it.
The timing on certain parts also feels a bit finicky. One sequence with a knight in armor throwing bolts of electricity at you requires pinpoint timing to the point where you practically have to memorize the sequence of buttons, a bit with a bridge over gushing lava seemed broken to the point that I only beat it through pure luck, and a repeating part involving a descending platform led to a lot of deaths.
It doesn’t help that Dragon’s Lair can be beaten in about twenty minutes. At 800 Microsoft points, I can’t help but feel that the game should have been priced a bit cheaper, as it hardly feels like you’re getting adequate bang for your buck. To make matters worse, the game will sometimes replay sections that you’ve already finished, only with the screen flipped horizontally, in an attempt to mix things up a bit. This makes the already meager running time feel padded out and artificial.
Dragon’s Lair has been ported to numerous platforms over the years, from the SEGA CD all the way to the iPhone. One of the main selling points for this version is the addition of Kinect support. When playing with the sensor, the movement icons are partially replaced with new ones indicating what kind of body motion you need to perform. The most common ones are swinging your arm to simulate using your sword, jumping or walking left, right, up, and down to correspond with the arrow icons.
Ultimately, this addition feels pointless and uninspired. It might have been a bit better if there were more unique, context-sensitive actions you could perform, but these are few and far between, and are mostly saved for the final fight against Singe. The controls for moving in the four directions seemed responsive enough, but the sword swinging takes some practice. Overall, the Kinect support is a novelty at best that adds very little to the overall package, and probably could have been better.
Dragon’s Lair is still beloved by those who hold memories of playing it at an arcade in their youth, but it’s the type of game that simply doesn’t work as well in today’s industry, where impressive graphics are now the norm. The fact that the game includes an option to simply watch all the scenes from beginning to end without needing to do any inputs is telling. Animation buffs might appreciate the eye candy the art provides, but everyone else will find that the game has very little to offer.
This article is based on a copy of the game that we received for review purposes.