Dragon’s Lair

Dragons Lair USA 188x266 Dragons Lair NES Nintendo Review ScreenshotDeveloper: MotiveTime
Publisher: Sony Imagesoft

Released: January 1990
US Cartridge ID: NES-L9-USA

Players: 2/Alternating
Genre: Action Platform
Supported Peripherals: Controller

ROM Size: 1 megabit
Mapper: UNROM (128k PRG)

Requires Flash10

When originally published in 1983, Dragon’s Lair was a true technological marvel. Released at a time when Spy Hunter, Mario Bros., and Ms. Pac-Man were wowing arcade goers with cutting edge graphics, the innovation introduced by Dragon’s Lair hardly seemed possible. Utilizing the storage space granted by brand-new optical storage media Dragons Lair USA 003 Dragons Lair NES Nintendo Review Screenshottechnologies, Cinematronics created a new vision for the look of videogames: with a LaserDisc player from which the hardware could stream data, it became possible to have photorealistic (clear, prerecorded video) replacing the low-color, chunky sprites that most games released up to this point utilized. Animated by Don Bluth (Disney’s Robin Hood, Pete’s Dragon, The Land Before Time), the game featured about fifteen minutes of film studio quality animation, and required the player to act as a “director” of sorts, guiding the course of the movie with timed inputs. While the limitations that this new technology imposed were immediately apparent, the game quickly became the progenitor of a whole new genre that would remain popular through the mid 1990’s with the eventual widespread adoption of the CD-ROM in PCs and game consoles.

Dragon’s Lair stars Dirk the Daring, a brave (but socially awkward) knight on a quest to save the fair Princess Daphne from Singe, the dragon residing in the deepest levels of Mordroc’s castle. The wizard Mordroc has protected his fortress with a variety of magical enchantments, monsters, and lethal traps that Dirk must avoid or conquer if he is to make it to “the dragon’s lair” and save the object of his affections. In the arcade version, this is allDragons Lair USA 008 Dragons Lair NES Nintendo Review Screenshot done through action “triggers.” After a video sequence played, the player was given a short window in which they could hit a command. If the right key was pressed at the appropriate time, the next video would load and the game would continue. If not, the game would then switch to an animation of Dirk dying in a grisly manner, and then it would reset the scene. Though the novelty of the aesthetics gave the game legs, most gamers did eventually tire of it, typically citing the lack of gameplay once all of the moves necessary to complete the game had been memorized.

With the limited capacity of NES rom chips, streamed video was obviously not an option. Instead of going the route that the developers of the PC and Amiga versions did (keeping most scenes intact, but replacing the video with sprite animations to allow it to fit on floppy disks), MotiveTime “adapted” the game for the lesser hardware. This adaptation, while keeping the story identical to the original’s, turns Dragon’s Lair into a platforming action game. Most major scenes from the game have been recreated as side-scrolling stages,
Dragons Lair USA 082 Dragons Lair NES Nintendo Review Screenshotreplete with bats, skulls, dragons, and numerous other environmental hazards.

Unlike most platforming action games, there are a limited number of moves that Dirk can make at any given time without being killed. The slow pace and careful consideration of the NES version makes for an experience more similar to a puzzle game than the standard action game that it initially presents itself as. It effectively creates the same feel as the arcade by forcing specific moves and patterns to be memorized and performed at key moments, but this comes at the expense of responsive controls and awkward timing.

The slow controls are closely tied to the graphics used in-game. Dragon’s Lair looks fantastic, with animation better than many later games on 16-bit platforms, huge character sprites, and nicely detailed background graphics. Dirk is loaded with frames of animation that allow him to smoothly and seamlessly turn around to face the opposite direction, drop into a crouch, jump, or throw a weapon. These animations, however, nullify any player input until they have completed. With many of the animations taking close to a full second to finish, Dirk is often left wide-open and unprotected. Smaller enemies, like bats, will drain Dirk’s life slightly, though most creatures instantly kill him on contact. Just like the arcade Dragons Lair USA 115 Dragons Lair NES Nintendo Review Screenshotgame, once the novelty of the sprite work wears off, the player can’t help but recognize that the gameplay was severely compromised for the sake of its presentation. The sound is decent, but never draws attention to itself.

The game designers did not seem to take the sluggish controls into account while designing each stage, as there are several spots (especially in the final level) where anything short of perfect timing and placement results in death. There are only five lives and no continues on offer, making it unlikely that even those well-practiced in playing the game through will be able to consistently finish it. There is also an elevator that transports Dirk to different levels, but if he gets off at the wrong floor, he will be required to play through a previously completed stage again. Dragon’s Lair is considered one of the most difficult NES games in existence, and this claim is easily justifiable; the difficulty level is on par with classic “Nintendo hard” games like Battletoads and Ninja Gaiden III. More frustrating is the realization, upon completing the game a couple of times, that Dragon’s Lair is incredibly short – if the player can complete Dragon’s Lair without dying, the game can be finished in under ten minutes.

With better controls, or with enemy and obstacle placement that emphasizes the lack of Dragons Lair USA 120 Dragons Lair NES Nintendo Review Screenshotplayer control, Dragon’s Lair could have been a reasonably good game. As it stands, the cheap level setups and the overzealous will to kill the player every two seconds makes Dragon’s Lair not much fun. While there is much satisfaction to be gained from conquering the game, it hardly seems worthwhile afterward. It admirably recaptures the feel of the laserdisc version, and that is precisely the problem. Dragon’s Lair has some true redeeming qualities, but it could have, and should have, been so much better.

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flag us Dragons Lair NES Nintendo Review ScreenshotDragon’s Lair
Sony Imagesoft, 12/1990
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Elite, 1/1992
ドラゴンズ・レア  (Doragonzu Rea)flag jpn Dragons Lair NES Nintendo Review Screenshot
Dragon’s Lair
Epic-Sony Records, 9/1991