This game is pure, focused malice.
I want to be clear about something here: I am not merely using hyperbole to refer to a “difficult” or “poorly constructed” game. No, what we have here is a NES game that, for reasons that shall shortly become clear, was designed by people that vehemently loathe anyone that happened to support the Nintendo Entertainment System. This game was designed exclusively to make the world a worse place, and it was released solely for the purpose of spite. Dragon’s Lair for the NES is hate.
You probably already know about Dragon’s Lair. DL was an arcade game by animation legend Don Bluth, and was, effectively, a playable cartoon. Considering it was released in 1983, a year when most videogames looked like Bobby Is Going Home, Dragon’s Lair was something of a phenomenon. Yes, it was a “controlled” type game, wherein the goal is basically to play Simon Says effectively enough to keep the game “playing itself”, but it was still fun to watch. And, again, this was the age of the Atari, a time when “videogame” could mean anything from Pong to controlling tanks to a game that tests your ability to press up every thirty seconds. Dragon’s Lair was an early example of graphics trumping gameplay, but it was at a time when “gameplay” could be severely lacking and have horrible graphics, so it gets a pass.
Unfortunately, Dragon’s Lair didn’t get a pass from technology. Dragon’s Lair ran on laserdisc tech, and, suffice it to say, it would be a long time before anything disc-based infiltrated the home videogame market. So Dragon’s Lair (arcade) begat Space Ace (arcade) the following the year, and then… nothing. Dragon’s Lair didn’t see a sequel until 1991. Just a reminder: Dragon’s Lair (1) was a contemporary of the Atari, and Dragon’s Lair 2 was released a year after Super Mario World. That’s practically an eternity in videogame time, and it was during that eternity that Nintendo conquered the gaming market. When Dragon’s Lair launched, it was the most amazing thing many people had ever seen. Dragon’s Lair 2 was practically a footnote compared to “when’s the next Zelda coming out”.
And before Dragon’s Lair 2, there was Dragon’s Lair for the NES.
Dragon’s Lair NES was released in 1990. Just so we’re all on the same page, the NES was good and established by 1990, and other games released that year include Mega Man 3, Adventures of Lolo 2, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, and Solar Jetman. While there are a few oddballs even in that list, they’re all unmistakably NES games, whether they star waddling blue balls or not. By 1990, the NES kids were all well past trying to figure out this whole crosspad thing, and onto jumping and shooting and maybe pushing blocks like a champ. This was not the Wild West of the Atari age, this was a time of the Nintendo Seal of Quality and only being moderately confused when Little Nemo started wearing a live bee like a suit. It was an age of wonders, but it was also an age where we all knew A meant jump.
In Dragon’s Lair NES, B is the jump button. A attacks. Select is pause, and Start triggers a torch “item”. This is an ominous control scheme.
Also ominous? You’re unlikely to make it past the first screen of Dragon’s Lair NES.
To say something nice, Dirk the Daring, the star of Dragon’s Lair, has excellent animation. He probably has one of the most complicated walking animations on the NES, and he really does move like a “real” person. He even turns around! This was a time when some sprites weren’t even expected to look in a different direction (hi, Gradius!), and we’ve got a Dirk walking along in a perfectly smooth bit of animation. Good job, Dragon’s Lair!
Unfortunately, this animation doesn’t come cheap, and that price is Dirk moves about as quickly as dried tar. And, fun fact, that problem doesn’t impact any other creature. Or piece of masonry. Or, Bluth-forbid, sea dragon.
Let’s revisit that first screen. There’s a bat swooping forward, and, like the good bats of Castlevania, he will infinitely respawn. Luckily, he only takes off a bit of your energy. Unfortunately, you’re not so lucky with the crumbling bridge, which inevitably leads to a moat of sudden death. If you attempt to jump the crumbling blocks, good luck, because starting Dirk’s ultra-slow jump means he’ll be in the drink before his crouching animation is complete. And turning around is right out, as he’ll slide off the bridge that way, too. However, if you manage to make it past the crumbly bits, you’ll encounter a sea dragon. Touch the dragon, and you’re dead. Touch the fireballs the dragon spews, and you’re dead. Attempt to hurl a dagger (press A) at the dragon, and you’ll lose that fire fight, and be dead. Hop over the dragon, and you’ll find the front gate of the castle has closed, and touching it means instant death. So, what you must do is walk aaaall the way back across the decaying bridge, hide in the corner, and hurl an ungainly number of daggers at the dragon until it finally dies. Also, just for funsies, if you duck to avoid fireballs, the dragon will duck too, and he’s completely out of range during that time. Assuming you survive this gauntlet until the dragon is defeated, you can then attempt to pass the bridge and the bat again, and, finally, make it to the next screen.
Oh, and side note? There are no continues in this game, so every time you lose your daily allotment of five lives, you have to do that entire sequence all over again.
And you will lose those lives quickly once you’re in the castle. That bat (which, don’t worry, will appear again and again) is apparently one of the few threats in the castle that will only take off a chunk of life as opposed to, ya know, instant death. Pits? Instant death. Snakes? Instant death. Moving walls? Instant death. Floating skulls? Sometimes lost health, sometimes instant death, with no overt distinction on why. Bosses? You better believe those lead to instant death. And even beyond that, you’ve got Dirk’s anemic jump, and moving platforms that aren’t consistent at all. Some platforms have their own “gravity”, and will ferry Dirk over pits. Other moving platforms move on their own terms, and Dirk has to walk across them to avoid pits below. And you won’t know which platform is which until you’re inevitably a pile of bones at the bottom of the nearest chasm. Oh, I’m sorry, was that your last life? Back to the moat, loser!
And that’s not all, folks! There are a number of subtle bits of malice in this adventure. The main “hub” of the game is an elevator (that will likely get you killed), and if you accidently enter an area you already completed (which, incidentally, aren’t marked at all), you have to repeat the level all over again. You may collect gold to increase your (useless) score, but if you stay still for longer than about a second (which is kind of inevitable with all these instant death traps whirling around), the Lizard King will appear and steal your gold and some health, just for funsies. And, at the (inevitable) end of your game, there’s a high score table that I swear is completely impossible to top. Seriously, you’d have to replay all the levels in this game about ten times to clear the highest score.
Put all of this together, and it seems pretty clear that the game is actively taunting the player. You will never beat the first screen. You will never see the ending. You will never get the high score. Why are you even playing this game, you foolish Nintendo kid?
And I can’t help but imagine that that is deliberate.
The Nintendo Entertainment System, with its cutesy 8-bit graphics and simple play styles, conquered the home console market for what seemed like forever. There was no place for the big budget, fully animated likes of Dragon’s Lair on the NES, and, honestly, nobody really cared. Contra was fun. Castlevania was fun. Mega Man was fun. Dirk the Daring was a legend in his time, but he was a flash in the pan compared to the turtle-stomper in overalls. The laserdisc fell by the wayside, and the cartridge conquered the land. It must have been… discouraging to be the curator of yesterday’s news, and then be expected to port that masterpiece to the system that vanquished your hero. What was left to do but punish the children that dug Dirk’s grave?
Dragon’s Lair NES is malevolence in cartridge form. It is revenge given plastic. And it’s also kind of a crappy game, so, ya know, try to avoid it.
FGC #243 Dragon’s Lair (NES)
What’s next? Random ROB… isn’t being so random next week. In honor of the release of the Switch, I’ll be covering three games that are at least tangentially related to the launch of Nintendo’s latest system. So first up is The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Zelda time is here again! Please look forward to it!