Dragon’s Lair Blu-ray Review

I was in awe of Dragon’s Lair and its hero, Dirk the Daring, when first catching glimpse of the monstrous arcade cabinet and cartoon visuals in 1983. Few of my hard earned quarters would find their way into its cavernous belly, though much time was spent peering over the shoulder of the evil wizard’s latest victim. Those good times were nearly a quarter century ago, and over those years Dragon’s Lair has managed to stay in the limelight with countless spin-offs and re-issues on various arcade and home gaming machines. The latest attempt to wring out additional dollars from the franchise’s original outing is the first playable on a next-generation gaming or movie device. Dragon’s Lair has arrived on Blu-ray Disc and with it the most robust use of BD-J authoring seen on any Blu-ray title to date.

A brief detour to the Options menu is recommended before diving headfirst into saving Princess Daphne from becoming a barbecued dragon appetizer. A number of two-choice customizations help fine tune the experience to a player’s personal tastes. First, players can select either the Home or Arcade versions though no explanation is given as to what the differences are. I could only pick out a couple after extensive play sessions. Other options include easy or hard difficulty, five or unlimited lives, Visual Move Guide on or off, and game stats on or off. The stats are especially interesting as they show a cumulative score after each death, and since they are defaulted to off, players will need to access the menu and toggle them on or otherwise never know they’re available at all.

Stepping into Dirk the Daring’s boots is akin to being born as Kenny in the South Park television show. You will not only die, but you will die in grisly fashion over and over again. I bit the bullet on the game’s first challenge not remembering what or when it was, then subsequently died too many times to count after that and was thankful the default options settings for deaths is unlimited. Before long the game’s one-to-two second death graphic and music cue grows tiresome, and then, without invite, implants itself in the player’s head for the remainder of the day. Never having enough coins to play through more than a couple deaths in the arcade made this experience a frustrating new discovery.

I can’t blame the game for my redundant deaths; actually, the controls are responsive and quite easy to pick up and play. Each D-Pad or Analog Stick direction (up, down, left, right) and X button on the Playstation 3 controller (or arrows and Enter on a standalone Blu-ray Disc player) is mapped to the corresponding directions and attack move in the game. For example, when the octopus-like creature comes after Dirk in the opening scene, a quick tap of the X button is required to draw Dirk’s sword and escape certain peril. The directional moves are used to maneuver Dirk through a room with obstacles, such as a dark knight zapping the floor the electricity and Dirk only having one direction at a time he can safely shuffle towards. To help alleviate a smidgeon of redundancy and cut down on memorizing patterns, Digital Leisure has incorporated several “mirror” scenes where the direction will randomly flip sides when Dirk approaches a “move left or right” scenario.

Dragon’s Lair requires a lot of loading in small increments of time, a taxing endeavor for the hardware playing it. Sony’s Playstation 3 handled the challenge of constantly loading new scenes easily with only split-second pauses and no freezing to be found. The constant loading and cutting to new scenes does wear thin, forgivable for the game’s nostalgic design and nothing else. The only “glitch” I detected is a persistent additional flicker to black before one scene where Dirk has to duck through a pair of spinning arms. Ironically, this scene gives me a lot of trouble so I saw the “glitch” more than my fair share of times.

Another oddity is the disparity between how the manual describes the Visual Move Guide (VMG) and how it appears on-screen. The manual states the guide appears as a diamond in the lower right and then lights up either yellow or red with the correct move required to pass right before the move should be made. The manual also states the VMG may not work on all hardware players. On Playstation 3, the VMG partially appears though offers little guidance to Dirk. There is no diamond in the lower right hand portion of the screen. Instead, either a yellow or red circle appears when a move is attempted. So while it’s not possible to be shown the next move, it is possible to rapidly trial-and-error all directions until the green circle materializes.

Dragon’s Lair jumps to Blu-ray Disc in 1080p widescreen 1.85:1 (note: there is no 1.33:1 original aspect ration option available) after having being released on the PC in 1080i HD last summer and numerous lower resolutions before that, though for all intensive purposes the two HD games should look nearly identical. Playing on a big widescreen display for the first time is a treat thanks to vibrant colors exploding from the whimsical Don Bluth animation. All the scenes look spectacular and much younger than their age courtesy of Digital Leisure’s extensive restoration work. Since their work began with the original film, a fair amount of grain has carried over to the new transfer that helps further separate the game from the spotless CGI animated Blu-ray Discs of late. Aside from redrawing the entire game in CGI, I can’t think of how Dragon’s Lair could possibly look any better.

This Blu-ray Disc version is also the first to feature Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound which, like the video, helps artificially modernize the game for today’s audiences. While Digital Leisure has successfully separated the original two-channel mix to make the surround fields active during all the scenes, don’t expect to be floored by thunderous audio ala today’s next-gen games whose sound has been designed for 6 channels of audio.

Due to Dragon’s Lair’s high cost to play at the arcade and abundant ways to die, few young players with light pockets could ever come close to entering the dragon’s lair and saving Princess Daphne. The first extra feature, Watch, goes out to this large demographic that I’m proudly a part of. Viewers can access all 29 scenes individually and view them played correctly and incorrectly in any order. Naturally I went right for the dragon’s lair final scene and was surprised to find it both long compared to other scenes and populated by a rather titular princess. Apparently the sphere she’s held captive in is quite chilly.

The perfect dessert after playing the game is watching the entire uninterrupted story with creators Rick Dyer, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman providing an overlay video commentary. Housed in a small widescreen window in the upper-right portion of the screen thanks to BD-J, the trio reminisces about specific scenes and the game’s nostalgia. After the story is over, an additional 23 interview minutes from the same sit-down session is available under Creator Interviews. The added time allows the creators to dive into the game’s origin; the creative development; the HD restoration, which they’ve seen for the first time the same day of the interview; unfinished projects, like Sea Beast and Barnacle Bill, deleted scenes, the Chicago Game Show, where the game was first unveiled to the world and subsequently grossed $10 million in sales from a three-scene demo; each creator’s favorite scene; the fate of the Bluth Group Archives; and comments on a Dragon’s Lair prequel feature-length animated film which has been sitting in completed script form for three years.

The game’s restoration is highlighted in the next two short features. High Definition Restoration offers side-by-side shots of the raw versus cleaned transfer of two scenes shown in three loops each. There isn’t much difference between raw and cleaned so I question what the purpose of this feature ultimately is. The next feature, Dragon’s Lair Time Capsule, succeeds where the previous did not. This progression reel of the final scene in the dragon’s lair is presented with vertical stripes of various pixel resolutions starting from very pixilated to the final HD version. It only runs 1:45 but is astounding to see the drastic differences between then and now. Speaking of restorations, trailers for Digital Leisure’s next two trips down nostalgia lane on Blu-ray Disc, Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair II: Timewarp, are also included.

Dragon’s Lair is part a trip down nostalgia lane, part a showcase for BD-J technology and part another reason to milk the franchise’s money cow. As a video game, the “choose your path” play is antiquated and, at times, frustratingly abrupt. Gone is the “awe” factor so vivid from my youth, but like so many modern re-imaginings of pop culture from the 80s, Dragon’s Lair fits right in line with allowing our generation to relive the past with today’s technology. The successful use of BD-J by a small studio should send a message to the big Blu-ray publishers that yes, interactivity is achievable and yes, we’re ready for it. Even though this version defines the term “definitive” edition, current owners of the DVD or PC versions released in the past four years should consider upgrading only if you have to see the new 1080p extra features and are enamored by the aural possibilities 5.1 surround sound creates. All other Blu-ray Disc player owners should let their nostalgia curiosity guide them towards one last battle as Dirk the Daring.

– Dan Bradley

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