Some Dragon’s Lair discoveries, 40 years on
by Rodolfo Rosini
Got sick again this week (yay) so self-medicated with massive amount of YouTube, and spent quite a bit of time watching one of my favorite subjects from my childhood: laserdisc games. In the process I unearthed some stuff that did not know about Dragon’s Lair:
- The game was developed by three companies. RDI was trying to develop a console (the Halcyon), but the unit economics were so horrendous that they pivoted into making an arcade game.
- Don Bluth Productions was recovering from a financial failure. Their first animated feature, The Rats of NIMH, underperformed at the box office (Bluth said that the kids were either watching ET or playing at the arcade instead of watching his movie), so they explored making video games and partnered with RDI.
- The third company involved in making Dragon’s Lair was a publisher, Cinematronics, which had just went through a Chapter 11 restructuring the year before. With this background it is a miracle that anything shipped.
- There are a number of unused scenes in the Dragon’s Lair disc, and it suggests the game had some limited form of choice of movement within the castle (branching paths were only added in Space Ace, Cinematronic’s following laserdisc game).
Here Dirk moves a log and reveals a trapdoor that leads to an exit, instead of taking the right door like in the normal level.
In the released game an electrified cage surrounds Dirk and one can only move forward. But here it suggests the player can choose between three paths, possibly the lava men level at the left, chewing door front, and an unused level to the right
The cave to the right takes Dirk to the unused level and it features a tentacle monster and some jumping
EDIT: Another hidden level is present on the disc, featuring three one-eyed fleshy pig orcs (porks?) throwing spears at Dirk. The rough coloring (I think there are no special effects or complex coloring palettes), plus the gameplay resembling a traditional game with very repetitive animation to me suggests this was an early gameplay test, possibly the first playable level created to show to investors before exploring a more cinematic approach to gameplay that dominates Dragon’s Lair.
In the released game Dirk also approaches the potions but is attacked by a green slime monster. In the deleted scene it suggests that the potions have each a use and the player can choose which one to pick: one is neutral, one buffs Dirk (an extra life perhaps?), and one is poured over his sword adding a flame effect – similar to the endgame sword that kills the dragon, maybe suggesting some sort of proto-inventory system (which was later expanded in Dragon’s Lair 2 with hidden objects).
EDIT: A sequel was developed, Dragon’s Lair 2: Time Warp, but sat unused until 1990 because of a lack of an agreement between Don Bluth Productions and Cinematronics. That one also had a missing level (the Pirate Ship) but it was never fully developed and instead was reused in the absolutely awful PC game Dragon’s Lair III.
EDIT: also found that RDI worked on an original prototype of a storytelling console called Shadoan in 1979, which used a roll of printing paper and a keyboard (below). It can be seen at the 4:12 mark on this collection of interviews about the making of DL. The Shadoan evolved from paper into a film projector before morphing into a proto-Halcyon, but the toy industry was not interested. You can see the obvious Dungeons & Dragons influences on the Shadoan, as well as the re-use of the wizard’s den in Dragon’s Lair.
- Anyway just found fascinating to discover something new about a game that I thought I knew like the palm of my hand, almost 40 years later and wanted to share.
- Given the extreme financial difficulties of the companies involved in the production, I think gameplay was cut down as well as anything involving choice would have created an interruption in a scene which would have been irritating (normally breaks are only between levels or when Dirk dies, and IIRC it could take ~1 second for the laserdisc player to find the new track to play).
- I remember reading about the Halcyon in 1986 or so, as RDI kept pitching the idea of a console with a laserdisc player, which wasn’t a daft idea per se, and the problem was not even the unit economics of the games which pretty much required making a small animated movie (at this time outsourcing to ultracheap Korean animation was starting to get available), just that the gameplay lacked variety (it could only do what we call today quick time events) plus had limited replayability.
- The pricetag for the Halcyon was going to be $2,500 ($6,800 in today’s prices), be voice controlled using a Z80 microprocessor, and it never saw the light of the day but there are few copies that are known to exist as prototypes. It would have beaten the PlayStation by 10 years but I guess the advancement in computing power (meaning it was capable of doing 3d) plus the CD player (which unlike the laserdisc could support digital video and data) is what ultimately won the market.
- Apparently Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) was an investor and owns one.
- Side note: RDI went bust and the guy became a realtor, Don Bluth Productions struggled and then relocated its animation studio to Ireland due to generous tax breaks, and is partly responsible for bootstrapping the Irish animation industry and could be why there is one of the best animation studios, Cartoon Saloon, in Kilkenny (of Song of the Sea and Book of Kells fame). Cinemation went through multiple acquisitions and now they offer gambling apps.
- I have read that an interactive laserdisc adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was also planned (by a Japanese company IIRC but can’t find the name) but unclear if it ever entered production and if it was just going to reuse part of the Bakshi 1978 movie.