Review: Dragon's Lair (DSiWare)

Dragon slaying for people on the go!

In 1983, former Disney animator Don Bluth decided to create a video game using his stunning animation talents. Instead of the regular sprite-based games normally found in arcades, Dragon's Lair created a vivid world through some of the best animation of the time. Of course in order to store all of this animation, Laserdisc technology had to be used. While this made for some stunning visuals, it greatly limited what could be done with the actual gameplay system. There was no moving freely around levels or controlling every movement of your character. Instead a series of specific directional and button inputs were used to loosely guide your daring knight Dirk through level after animated level in his quest to save his lovely Princess Daphne. The game would go on to become a huge hit - even getting to the stage where some arcade operators started installing additional screens so people could watch games in progress - but the technology the game made use of never really took off the way some had hoped due to its high production cost and lack of playability.

Over the years this arcade game has become a much-beloved classic and has spawned ports on more game consoles than can be counted. Some versions have been close to the arcade original, whereas others have fallen well short in various ways. Now Digital Leisure has ported the classic arcade title to the DSiWare service and while some corners were inevitably cut in keeping the game to a manageable downloadable file size, it's actually a fairly solid version and one fans of the classic coin-op should find appealing.

Dragon's Lair features one of those unique play control systems that most people either love or hate. Those who've never played the game before need to know right up front what they're getting into. You don't command your character like you do in most games where you have almost total control of their movements and actions. Instead the game requires you to input specific directions on the D-pad or press the action button at certain times during each level.

You're normally given a bit of a hint as to what command to input in various spots with certain flashes of light or things that pop up during a level. For the most part, the game takes very little gaming skill and relies more on your memorizing the exact inputs and timing for each of the game's many levels. Your ultimate goal is to traverse each of the game's levels in order to reach the dragon's lair where you must slay the beast and rescue Princess Daphne from his clutches.

This DSiWare version features two game modes - Arcade and Home. Arcade mode tosses the levels at you completely randomly just like the arcade classic did. That means that when you die on a level, you don't replay the level until you get it right, instead the game takes you to a completely different room to tackle. This makes it difficult to figure out and memorize the specific commands, which is one of the reasons the arcade game managed to steal so many quarters from players trying to beat the game.

Home mode still presents random levels, but dying on a level allows you to keep attempting the level until you get it right and progress on to the next one. There are also two difficulty settings to choose from - Easy and Hard. About the only difference between the two difficulty settings is the timing window with which you have to make the correct command inputs. Hard generally requires the timing to be very close to perfect, whereas Easy gives a bit more leeway as to the exact moment that you must tap in the correct input commands.

The play control in the various home ports of the arcade game over the years has been streaky at best. Some have managed to accurately capture the timing and feel of the arcade version of the game, whereas others have been complete shambles that featured everything from annoying pauses to slight delays in the input commands that made playing the game next to impossible. Thankfully the guys at Digital Leisure managed to get the control scheme and timing down quite well and the result is one of the most playable versions of the game outside of the original arcade release. Even the tones made when commands are input correctly and incorrectly are intact and make playing the game quite fun, but still as challenging as ever.

Visually the arcade original was stunning, to say the least. While the DSiWare release is very well done considering the file size limitations of the DSiWare service, there is some loss in visual quality due to the video compression needed to fit the entire game into the downloadable file size. That means that the animation isn't as smooth as you might like and the video can be a bit blurry and grainy at times, but it's really a small complaint and one that's certainly not the fault of the developers who were somehow able to miraculously fit this entire game into this DSiWare release. It's really a small price to pay for having such a playable version of the game that can be taken with you on the go.

Much like the video, the audio in the game also comes with a few limitations. While most of the arcade title's audio is intact and quite well rendered, the compressions can make the music and sound effects a bit muffled and metallic-sounding at times. Once again, considering all that had to be squeezed into this rather compact DSiWare release, it's actually impressive what the developers were able to cram in and the audio is certainly adequate for the type of game this is. If this had been a retail release, it would be much easier to complain, rather than having to grade the game as a downloadable title that ends up being fairly impressive considering the limitations heaped upon it.

Conclusion

Dragon's Lair was a game well ahead of its time during its original release, but there's still something magical about the game, even by today's lofty video gaming standards. Sure the gameplay is very one-dimensional and the frame rate is choppy due to the compression of the video, but the play control itself is nearly arcade perfect. You might find more polished versions of the game out there, but if you've ever wanted to take this arcade classic with you on the go, this is the version you need. Just make sure you know how the game plays and what it can and can't do, because those looking for a more traditional play control system might be disappointed with the overly simplistic play control scheme the game makes use of.