Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Dragon's Lair: Digital Leisure, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.1, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, NA chapters, Exclusive Interviews with Don Bluth & Rick Dyer, rated NR, NA min., $34.95, street date 11/12/98.
Dragon's Lair II: Digital Leisure, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.1, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, NA chapters, Exclusive Interviews with Don Bluth & Rick Dyer, rated NR, NA min., $34.95, street date 9/14/99.
Space Ace: Digital Leisure, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.1, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, NA chapters, Exclusive Interviews with Don Bluth & Rick Dyer, rated NR, NA min., $34.95, street date 8/10/99.
Dragon's Lair: Dragon's Lair is for the bold adventurer who wants to risk life and limb in the land of daring knights, beautiful princesses and menacing monstrosities. Use your remote control to play this fully interactive game on your DVD movie player!
Dragon's Lair II: Princess Daphne has been spirited away to a wrinkle in time by the Evil Wizard Mordroc, who plans to force her into marriage. Only you, Dirk the Daring, can save her. Transported by a bumbling old time machine, you begin the rescue mission. But you must hurry, for once the Casket of Doom has opened, Mordroc will place the Death Ring upon Daphne's finger in marriage and she will be lost forever in the Time Warp! Completely remastered, Dragon's Lair 2:Time Warp features action-packed feature film quality animation by Don Bluth, creator of Anastasia and An American Tail.
Space Ace: The Evil Commander Borf has kidnapped Ace's girlfriend, the beautiful Kimberly, and is plotting to enslave the Earth using his dreaded "Infanto Ray," a weapon that changes everyone it blasts into a helpless baby. Armed with only a laser gun, Ace must find and destroy the Infant Ray, rescue Kimberly and save the Earth. All in a day's work for a superhero, right? Completely remastered, Space Ace features action-packed feature film quality animation by Don Bluth
Warning: some models of DVD players from Toshiba, Samsung and Aiwa apparently have lots of trouble playing some or all of the three games detailed in this review; the specifics for each title will appear at the end of the review. As such, unless you simply find my prose irresistible - and who doesn't? - owners of those machines may want to skip this article.
Geeks in my age group - that is, early thirties - will well remember the video game "revolution" inspired by the 1983 arcade release of Dragon's Lair. Prior to it, the graphics for coin-op games were quite crude; I mean, this is a time during which "Pole Position" was state of the art. DL came at us with a fully-animated cartoon that we could control - what could be better than that?
Pretty much anything else, as it happens. DL was perhaps the first example of a game that provided stunning visuals but offered weak gameplay - exceedingly weak, as I'd rediscover when I examined these DVDs.
In DL, you "control" a knight named "Dirk the Daring" who attempts to rescue a princess (a pretty sexy one, too). Dirk must romp through a castle, kill all sorts of beasties, evade a variety of traps and eventually he can get some (we assume).
In the arcades, DL was able to provide its lovely graphics through use of a laserdisc. Essentially, whatever button the player selected controlled what path the LD would take; a right move allowed the story to proceed, while a mistake resulted in a branch that showed Dirk's demise.
This made for extremely limited control over Dirk. One could swing his sword, go left, right, forward or backward; some of those directions occasionally translated into "up" or "down" or "push" or "pull", but the controls remained the same.
That's the way it was in the arcades back during 1983, and that's the way it works on this DVD; nothing appears to have been altered for the home release. I can't offer much of an opinion on how much or how little fun DL was in the arcades because I never played it. Sure, it looked great, but it simply didn't seem to be any fun. Plus, if I recall correctly, arcade owners wanted a premium for this monstrosity; it cost 50 cents per play, whereas regular games were just a quarter. As such, I stuck with titles such as "Pole Position" and "Asteroids"; they may have seemed more primitive, but they were cheaper.
And, as it turns out, tons more fun. At least that's my judgment if I can assume that the pleasures of DL on DVD are equivalent to those experienced by arcade players back in 1983. This game could not possibly be less enjoyable or more of a frustrating drag. Here's the way the "interaction" works: as Dirk winds his way through the castle, we generally see a few seconds of animation that leads to a breaking point for which you must choose Dirk's next action. This is indicated by a diamond cursor in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. When it appears, you have about a second to press the appropriate button; Dirk's response follows and you discover if you made the right move.
In the best of circumstances, this would be an unpleasant experience. The stimuli often come at Dirk overly quickly for this kind of game and the responses aren't always logical; it can take a while to discern what the game wants you to do.
But maybe that's just my withering reflexes talking; perhaps more involved and twitchy gamers don't think the game tosses things at them too quickly. In those instances, however, the game's weak interface will negatively affect them. We rely on those diamond icons to prompt us when to act, and it can often be very difficult to see them, especially since we need to concentrate on the picture as a whole, not just one small corner of it. Often I didn't see the icon until it was too late.
Even if we remove all of the interface obstacles and adjust the pacing, this is still a crummy game. It offers exceedingly little fun for all its frustration. DL remains a historically important game because of the advances it made, but since its most recent descendants are the universally-despised full-motion video games - which also had to be completely preplotted and stuck you on one of a few different paths - that legacy isn't good.
To get through this game without going insane, you'll need to use the included walkthrough. However, I found that even with this assistance, I just couldn't take it. The game was so unenjoyable that I bailed on it pretty quickly. I'm not sure if the fact that even with explicit directions I still ran into lots of trouble playing DL is more of a reflection on me than it is on the quality of the game, but I really think it's the latter. DL never was a good game; it relied on its graphical appeal to get by.
As such, I have no idea how companies have been able to market it over and over again on home platforms. DL has been released in pretty much every home gaming form imaginable, and why people continue to buy it is a mystery to me. Nostalgia? Could be - in fact, has to be, because there's no fun to be had here.
Since I couldn't stand to actually play Dragon's Lair through to its completion, I was happy to know the "watch" option on the menu; this allowed me to view the proceedings as if the program was just another cartoon. This is did, and I took in the entire thing, which only runs for about 12 minutes.
Does DL offer any pleasure when seen just as a cartoon? Nope - it's a failure in that regard as well. There's really no story; it's simply a sequence of events that depict Dirk as he jumps, slashes and runs. Yeah, it all serves an overall plot in which he tries to rescue the princess - we're reminded of her occasionally as we briefly see her in the clutches of the oppressor and she wails "Save me!" - but there's not even a remote attempt at a coherent storyline; stuff just happens and we have to respond. Lots of it was repetitive as well; to complete the game, you'll have to witness many of the same situations twice.
Some may think that I'm being too hard on the extremely poor gameplay of Dragon's Lair since it's such an old game. Would I attack "Pac-Man" or "Asteroids" because they don't compare with modern games?
Yes and no. For the "yes", what I mean is that if a company put a version of "Pac-Man" on the shelves in 2000 that offered just the original game with no updates or alterations, slapped a $35 price tag on it and expected us to buy it, I'd attack the game because you'd have to be nuts to pay that for such a primitive offering. Games that exactly duplicate their 17-year-old originals have no place in today's marketplace.
One difference, however, occasions that "no". That comes from the fact that although "Pac-Man", "Asteroids" and a slew of other games of that generation may be primitive in regard to their simple graphics and gameplay, they are still fun; no, they can't compare with the more intricate and elaborate pleasures of today's offerings, but I could fire them up and have a good time.
The same is not the case for Dragon's Lair. The game's a complete drag from start to finish; only a serious masochist would be able to make it all the way to the end of this unpleasant endurance test. DL was an interesting novelty in its time, but I can't fathom the vaguest reason why someone would want to play it now; I love video games but I hate this annoying monstrosity.
And it doesn't even look or sound very good! Since DVD games are unexplored territory for the most part, I judged this one's quality as if it were a movie from 1983, and it comes up lacking. I'm not sure from what source the material came, but the animation in Dragon's Lair seems very bland and flat; it appears as if they just grabbed one of the old arcade LDs and transferred it straight to the DVD.
Sharpness appears decent but somewhat flat and vague throughout the cartoon; a bit of artificial edginess appears at times, but I didn't detect any serious jagged edges or moiré effects. Of course, since the action moves so quickly, that makes it much more difficult to see those kinds of flaws; even if they were there, they'd go past so fast that I could easily miss them. The picture shows occasional speckling and what appear to be some digital artifacts as well; these aren't severe, but interfere with the quality of the image.
Colors are uniformly bland and slightly faded. They seemed a bit oversaturated and runny at times, but weren't terrible. Black levels appeared acceptable but unspectacular, as did shadow detail. Overall, DL suffers from a significantly drab image that lacks the crispness and brightness we associate with DVD.
The DVD's case touts that DL offers "crisp, powerful AC3 sound". Don't believe the hype. For one, although it's technically a Dolby Digital track, wen the vast majority of people see audio described as "AC3" - the term originally used for DD - they think it will offer 5.1 channels. That's definitely not the case for DL. My receiver indicated it was a 2.0 Surround mix, but to be frank, I'd be hard-pressed to cite any examples of the program that appeared anything other than monaural. Perhaps some light sound came from the sides and the rears, but their realistic impact was less than minimal; for all intents and purposes, only your center channel gets utilized.
As for the quality, I'd agree that it's reasonably "crisp" but it's far from "powerful". There's no dialogue, really; other than the princess' occasional cries of "Save me!" and a brief speech she offers at the end, all we hear are Dirk's various yelps. These seem reasonably clear, I suppose. The music and effects also appeared acceptably clean and listenable, though the whole track comes across as a bit muted and bland. It's a decent functionally-mono mix that neither adds to nor detracts from the experience.
Surprisingly, the most fun on the DL DVD comes from its supplements. We find ads for a few other games from Digital Leisure - Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp, Space Ace, and A Fork in the Tale - which add little to the package, but another section provides about 18 minutes of video features about the game and its creators. These seem to be local news segments that talk about DL and offer interview clips with creators Rick Dyer and Don Bluth; all of the pieces come from the mid-Eighties. Although these tend to be pretty light fare and are rather basic, they're still an interesting look back at the era. I only wish we'd gotten some more recent interviews with these folks to hear their current takes on the videogame medium.
As mentioned earlier, the DVD's booklet contains instructions on how to play the game and it also includes a walkthrough to help you complete the game if you get stuck.
Somewhat more entertaining was the sequel, Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp. Don't interpret that as an endorsement, because this game still features the original's annoying, frustrating and joyless gameplay, but at least some aspects of the production are superior.
Mainly these improvements come in the form of a much more creative and inventive plot. Once again Dirk must rescue Princess Daphne, but this time it's not just a romp through a castle. "Evil Wizard Mordroc" is transporting her through all sorts of eras, so Dirk has to hop into a time machine and chase them down. We see him go through an "Alice In Wonderland" realm, a fantastic Beethoven house, and others before he (inevitably) finds his true love and saves her. (Oh, and the presence of little Dirklings at the start of the game shows that Dirk indeed does score after he rescues Daphne. Good for him - at least someone had some fun as a result of that experience!)
In addition to this actual storyline, the program features a lot more speech and the various episodes display some cleverness. Because the gameplay remains so poor, I again just watched DL II. I tried to play it, but if anything, the pace is even more relentless and fast; there's an option to slightly slow down things, but it didn't help and after a pretty brief period, I quit and hit the "watch" button on the main menu.
The cartoon runs for about 10 minutes and won't displace any Looney Tunes favorites from my list but it was clearly much more entertaining than the original. The dialogue adds some wit, and many of the situations are frenetically wild and fun. As a short, it's not a classic, but it's at least fairly entertaining.
That still doesn't make the DVD worth owning, because who in their right mind would spend $35 for a 10-minute cartoon? The play's the thing, and since this remains an exasperating and unenjoyable game, it's not worth the bother.
At least the quality improves. Dragon's Lair II marks a minor upgrade from the first game in both sound and picture. Sharpness again is generally crisp and decent, though a fair number of sequences appear fairly soft and hazy; the cartoon can be quite inconsistent from shot to shot. The edginess of the first release is diminished, at least, and I still noticed no moiré effects or jagged edges. Some speckling continues, but it seems less problematic, as do the occasional artifacts.
Colors appear slightly brighter and bolder than the original game. In fact, during the first minute or two of DL II, hues look surprisingly vibrant and solid. Unfortunately, they settle into an inconsistent pattern after that and become fairly mediocre for much of the remainder of the cartoon. Black levels were deeper and darker than the first game, however, and seemed pretty good. For a cartoon from the early Nineties, DL II looks average, in my opinion.
The sequel's audio seems very similar to that of the original, though it also marks a slight improvement. Once again the soundfield appears very limited and works as nothing more than glorified mono. I had to stick my head quite close to the side and rear speakers to hear anything, and while this experiment established that sound does emanate from those channels, the ultimate effect remains essentially monaural.
DL II provides a more ambitious mix than heard in the first game since it includes much more speech, and the quality remains decently clear but pretty bland. The dialogue seemed intelligible and somewhat natural, but effects and music are fairly muted; I'm still waiting for that "powerful" audio to kick in and deliver some sonic goods. As with the first game, the soundtrack of DL II appears competent and clean but lacks any strength and does nothing to add to the gaming experience.
Again we find some supplemental features. As with the first DVD, we get advertisements for other Digital Leisure products (DL, Space Ace and A Fork in the Tale). More interestingly, we find an approximately 16-and-a-half minute reel of a "work in progress" version of DL II. This combines pencil sketch versions of some scenes, alternate music cues, and some unused animation into a piece that still follows the final product's storyline. I'd like it more if I actually cared about the game, but it's still a neat addition. This DVD's booklet also features directions on how to play and provides a walkthrough of the game.
Finally, we find the third game created by Don Bluth animation: Space Ace, an adventure that loses Dirk and Daphne but replaces them with Ace and Kimberly. Your mission? Here's a shocker: Kimberly's been kidnapped and you must rescue her. Yawn!
Yes, the story of SA is nothing more than a science fiction variation on the first two. Despite the repetition, SA falls between DL and its sequel in this regard; it was clearly more inventive and exciting than the first story but it wasn't as much fun as the second. SA lacks the bland and generic quality of the original, but it resembles it in that it essentially remains a mindless romp through an outer space equivalent of a castle; none of the inventiveness and creativity of DL II makes the cut. (This "interim" quality makes sense because SA is the second of the three games to appear on the market; it followed closely behind DL in 1983, whereas DL II wouldn't reach arcades until 1991. Apparently work on DL II began in 1984 but the project was shelved for quite some time before finally being completed and released in 1991.)
The gameplay of SA exactly duplicates that of the others. It's the same old routine, and I didn't enjoy it here any more than I did during the other two games. As such, I gave it a shot for a few minutes and then hit the old "watch" button. As a game, Space Ace fails completely, and as a cartoon, it's mildly interesting - though shorter than the other two, at a little over eight minutes - but nothing special.
Space Ace offers picture quality that falls squarely between the two Dragon's Lair DVDs but more closely resembles the first. Sharpness remains decent for the most part but quite a lot of softness appears as well; the image usually seems acceptably crisp but this can change rapidly. The artificial edginess of DL returns, though I still couldn't find moiré effects or jagged edges. SA seemed to lack speckling but it displayed a fair amount of digital artifacts which give the whole production a rather grainy appearance.
Colors once again are relatively acceptable but they tend to seem a bit drab at times; no hues ever appear as bright or bold as they should in this kind of program. Black levels remain pretty deep, and shadow detail was fine. The softness and artifacts are the main drawback to this image, and the lack of intense colors doesn't help.
On the other hand, Space Ace finally delivers a good sonic experience. While the first two were glorified mono, this one clearly provides a much wider soundfield; I didn't need to stick my head close to any speakers to detect that! The center channel does remain the focus of most of the activity, but the sides also provide quite a lot of effects; the action spreads nicely across them. The surrounds kick in frequently as well and add a dimensionality to the experience that was sorely lacking in the first two games.
We also finally get a mix that could remotely be called "powerful". The effects pack a much greater punch in SA and seem to feature good dynamic range; deep bass is lacking, but in comparison with the thin audio of the first two, this one appears much more realistic and bold. Music isn't quite as strong, but the score comes across fairly well. Dialogue seems decently warm and natural, although some light distortion appears at times. While the sound of Space Ace won't blow you away, it's pretty good and definitely tops the lackluster audio of the other two games.
The supplemental features on Space Ace will likely look quite familiar to anyone who's seen the other two games. Again we find the same ads for the other Digital Leisure products - DL, DL II and A Fork in the Tale - and the usual booklet with game instructions and a walkthrough.
Finally, we get some interviews with the game's creators. The latter run for about 13 minutes and 15 seconds. Happily, this feature does not just duplicate the materials we already saw with DL. Although the focus of these news pieces remains largely on DL itself - obviously SA didn't create as much of a stir - they branch out a bit, and we hear Dyer talk about his new then-ultra-secret gaming platform that he felt would revolutionize the format. Unfortunately, the lack of more recent information on the DVD means that we never learn what that venture was. If anyone knows, please e-mail me; I'm dying to find out the fate of Dyer's project!
Unfortunately, that was the most excitement I felt at any time as I interacted with these three DVDs. Whether as games or as animated films, Dragon's Lair, Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp and Space Ace are all failures to varying degrees, though at least DL II makes for a mildly entertaining cartoon.
I would try to steer you away from all of these DVDs even if they were available for $5 each - there's no fun to be had on any of them - but the situation is even more absurd since Digital Leisure have the nerve to ask $35 apiece for these turkeys. That amount could buy most DVD movies on the market or could get you any number of real computer games. I guarantee your money would be much better spent on either of those options that on these terrible games; avoid them at all costs.
Final note: at the start of this review I promised a listing of the DVD players that Digital Leisure state will not run these games. Here it is, as related on the cases of each DVD:
Dragon's Lair: "Not compatible with Toshiba 2107 and 3107 DVD
Current as of 6/10/2000
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