Dragon's Lair Trilogy Review
Posted by Zach Kaplan
Is Dirk still daring after all these years?
If you were a child of 80's or 90's, chances are you hold a Don Bluth cartoon close to your heart. Though Disney or Looney Tunes may be the first names you think of when it comes to classic hand-drawn animation, at least inside the United States, such beloved films as The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven and Anastasia all carry the name of Bluth, an ex-Disney animator who founded his own production company to blaze new trails and break new ground. One of those achievements was 1983's Dragon's Lair, which combined their signature cartoon style with the immersion of the interactive video game, all through the power of the LaserDisc. It spawned two follow-ups, 1984's Space Ace and 1991's Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp, and they're all here on one disc in Dragon's Lair Trilogy.
Of course, what was groundbreaking thirty years ago is dated by today's standards, as instead of controlling your heroes, Dirk and Ace, you'll simply press the right button at the right time. If your character needs to turn left, you press left when the command comes on screen, or hit another button to draw your sword or laser blaster. It's still quite entertaining to try to respond correctly in time or memorise a sequence of events to predict your next move, but those who are used to having full control of the protagonist might find this approach too simple to hold their interest.
The first Dragon's Lair is set apart from its sequels in an important way – the scenes are randomised. As you venture through your enemy's castle to save the ravishing Princess Daphne you'll face a variety of imaginative obstacles like foot-chomping skulls and giant multicoloured marbles, and you'll enter each room in a completely different order, restarting in a new location every time you die. In contrast, Space Ace and Time Warp progress linearly, meaning you'll watch the same set of scenes over and over until you get it right. It diminishes the exploratory atmosphere of the first title and heightens the emphasis on memorisation, and it can get pretty repetitive before long.
The other two titles are linear for a reason, however – the first game is extremely narrative-light, while Space Ace and Time Warp have somewhat more complex stories. The former sees Ace fighting the evil Borf and rescuing his fellow fighter Kimberly from his clutches, evading his Infanto-Ray with which the villain plans to turn the human race into children and, in the meantime, Ace into a cross between a diminutive Jerry Lewis and Mandark from Dexter's Laboratory. Time Warp has Daphne kidnapped again by the evil wizard Mordroc, who plans to slip the Death Ring on her finger, wedding her and taking her away from Dirk forever. Here you'll have two main enemies – the aforementioned occultist and your equally terrifying stepmother, who furiously chases you to spur you on your journey. It's one that will take you to the Garden of Eden, Beethoven's studio, Wonderland and more.
While the introductory tale contains almost no dialogue, the following titles are very speech-heavy, arguably to their detriment. While it enriches the narrative, hearing the same lines over and over again can grate on one's nerves – especially when it's as corny and poorly acted as in Space Ace.
Don Bluth films have always competed formidably with Disney's in part because of their beautiful, fluid and inventive animation, and the Dragon's Lair series is no exception. It greatly makes up for what the gameplay lacks, and it's just as impressive as it was thirty years ago. Seeing these breathtaking cartoons remastered makes Trilogy infinitely preferable to the iOS, DS and DSiWare versions, as well as most of the countless other platforms that these titles have graced. This is also thanks to the priceless inclusion of the ability to watch the games all the way through without pressing a button.
Your weapon or an object above, below or next to Dirk will blink to let you know which button to press, which can become somewhat frustrating as what's expected of you isn't always 100% clear – if it's above you and to the left, do you press up or left? – especially in the flashy, fast-paced Space Ace. Thankfully Digital Leisure has included an on-screen guide, a graphic popping up to show you what to do. This can be in the form of the layout remaining visible for the entirety of the cartoon, the correct button lighting up when you're to press it, or an image appearing just at the right moment, which we found much easier as it's far more attention-grabbing. It also beeps, which you can turn down or off, or remove the entire thing and rely on the original indicators within the cartoon. This is great for those who want the authentic experience, as well as solving one problem presented by the guide – staring at one spot makes it difficult to pay attention to the animation itself. Dragon's Lair II included one more innovation, the ability to grab special items that pop up as you go, which are easy to miss if you're focusing on the awaited indicator.
There are three difficulty settings for Space Ace and two for Dragon's Lair, which add more commands and are more demanding of your timing precision. You can also watch the home version of the first title, which plays in order and with more scenes than in the arcade, and view the director's cut of Time Warp with an altered finale. The original attractions are included as well, and you can set the number of lives for each playthrough.
It would have been nice, however, if more extras were included to really make this collection feel special. Anything historical – behind the scenes footage, concept art or interviews, for example – would have been immensely welcome, but their omission makes this release feel more like just another port (there are about 60 of the first game alone). Additionally, the whole thing start to finish clocks in at about half an hour, which might prove a bit thin for some.
Don Bluth's timeless high-quality animation is impressive and entertaining even after thirty years, and the inclusion of multiple difficulty levels, an on-screen button guide and Watch Mode make playing through Dragon's Lair Trilogy a worthwhile experience. However, its extremely simple gameplay and the repetitiveness of the linear Time Warp and Space Ace are to the game's detriment, and the lack of a robust library of extras hold this compendium back from what it could have been.