Tag Archives: dragon’s lair

FGC #424 Brain Dead 13

This game are sickFunny thing about the Playstation and its era of videogames: it proved that no one had a damn idea what they wanted from a videogame.

Today’s game is Brain Dead 13. It is another title that, like Dragon’s Lair or Time Gal before it, is barely more than a playable cartoon. The player controls Lance, a typical computer geek, who, during an average tech support house call, winds up in the clutches of a mad scientist (and, as someone in the tech field, I can safely say we’ve all been there). It’s your job to guide Lance back to safety, and escape Fritz, an imp with an impressive mastery of chainsaws for a creature with hooks for hands. Of course “controlling” Lance is a bit of a misnomer, as this entire game is prerecorded, and it’s less Mario, and more “press left now or die”. It’s something you’ve seen before if you were a child of the 80’s, and it’s something we saw an awful lot in the early CD era of gaming. Is it a “game” or is it an “interactive movie”? Gamepro tried to answer that question a couple of times, but I’m pretty sure Scary Larry never gave us a response. C’est la vie.

Of course, whenever a game like this comes up, it is compared to Dragon’s Lair (I’ve already done it once!), the title that pioneered and defined this kind of gaming experience. The corollary to that that is rarely mentioned? Dragon’s Lair hit the arcades in 1983. For a bit of comparison, Super Mario Bros. (1) hit the Famicom in 1985. The laserdisc/CD-based “playable cartoon” is older than Bowser.

Prepare to die... a lotAnd it’s easy to see why Dragon’s Lair was successful. It’s pretty! It probably made about fourteen billion dollars in quarters, as, come on, who can resist those Don Bluth graphics when it’s playing an attract mode next to friggin’ Joust? Who doesn’t want to be Dirk the Daring when the alternative is… Ice Climbers? I don’t even want to consider the universe where someone would choose those parka wearing nincompoops over a fully realized cartoon dude fighting for his Marilyn Monroe-inspired love. Yes, we’ve all been claiming for years that graphics don’t matter, but even one with such a refined palate as myself may or may not have once bought a game entirely because of its fine graphics, and completely ignored a better game that unfortunately looked like the ass end of an ass (or even just looked different from what was supposed to be advanced). A lot of people decided to swim to the Dragon’s Lair shore from the deep, barren gulf between “animated feature” and “pixels that kinda maybe look like a ghost, but we’re calling it a monster”.

So it makes a certain amount of sense that when the CD-based consoles started to become available, there was a push to produce more FMV/”cartoon” titles. It took all of seven seconds to recognize the difference between a Shinobi and the high resolution (for the 90’s) art of any given prerecorded CD title. The thinking must have been amazingly simple: pump out some videogames that look astonishing, and people will line up to buy the newest systems with their advanced graphics. We could have all been happy with games produced under that premise.

Unfortunately, what we got was Sewer Shark. Nobody was happy with Sewer Shark.

The Sega CD, by and large, was a failure. Give or take a Myst, PC gaming would take years to reach the same echelon of fame as its console brethren. And the Playstation… well that revolutionized gaming in a way that is still relevant today. Why? Because it might be the first videogame system that was successful because someone made a conscious decision to make videogames.

Brain Dead 13 is a Playstation title. What’s more, it’s a Playstation title that came at the start of the system’s lifespan, and, thus, was inadvertently influential on a certain demographic of nerds. It would not be surprising to find that not a single person reading this article ever played Brain Dead 13. However, it would be astounding if no one ever saw this gremlin in this exact pose…

Fritz!

Brain Dead 13 wasn’t exactly getting airtime during Seinfield, but it was introduced via a disproportionate number of GamePro pages. It was featured in Electronic Gaming Monthly. And I’m going to go ahead and guess that it probably was on AOL’s frontpage for its videogames community at least once. Like Battle Arena Toshinden, Brain Dead 13 is one of those titles that, should the history of the world be abolished and replaced exclusively with late 90’s videogame magazines, might finally be recognized as one of the biggest games of 1996 (or so).

But you’re not going to find Brain Dead 13 on the Playstation Classic. In fact, you’re not going to find it anywhere. Why? Because the early days of CD gaming taught us a valuable lesson about videogames: we like to actually play videogames.

Sports!Brain Dead 13 is gorgeous, particularly when compared to the polygons that could poke an eye out from the early PSX days. Unfortunately, beyond being pretty, there isn’t much “there” there. This title, designed for home consoles (and computers), and not to be a quarter-munching arcade machine, has all the replayability of a VHS cassette. In fact, Dragon’s Lair and similar titles from this specific genre have been released in recent years with a “just let me press play and watch what happens” feature. Brain Dead 13 has not been lucky enough to receive such a rerelease, but the first Youtube result for BD13 is a 47 minute “longplay” of the entire title (which includes an approximately 15 minute death compilation). And if you watch that 47 minute video? Congratulations, you have seen literally everything Brain Dead 13 has to offer! And, technically, you suffered through the same exact experience you would have if you actually played the game, just give or take actually pressing the buttons and dying a whole heck of a lot.

And, as the past decade of let’s play debates have proven, there are a number of people that seem to believe the preceding statement could be true of all videogames. You watch a longplay of some random game, see the player 100% every last challenge the dev can throw into the title, and then why would you ever need to “play” the game at all? You’ve seen everything there could be! Videogames are videogames, man, and there’s no difference between pressing down to make Lance duck under Fritz’s blades than making Super Mario crouch below Bowser’s fireballs. A videogame is a videogame, so let’s all buy some videogames! Sewer Shark ahoy!

Yeah, it’s all bullshit. (You hear me, Atlus!?)

Netflix might try to redefine gaming with some manner of Bandersnatch Box. Google might try to define gaming by marrying Youtube to a streaming console. Microsoft might try to define gaming with whoever has the most trophies wins. But you want to know who I think got it right? Nintendo. And you know why? Because we both believe videogames come from the same place. We believe videogames should be able to be played anytime, anywhere, with any internet connection. In short, we believe videogames are…

Freedom!

… No, that isn’t right. Not that kind of freedom.

Brain Dead 13 is, by a technical definition, a videogame. However, it offers exactly zero freedom. There is simply a win or loss state in response to every input, and there is nothing in-between. Brain Dead 13’s contemporaries, though? They offered freedom. Mega Man may have been about defeating renegade robots, but it was also about jumping and shooting around vast stages filled with traps and hidden powerups. Contra was about runnin’ n’ gunnin’, but there was always time to kill your little brother on a trip up a cliffside. Zelda offered a world of exploration (and oftentimes, two worlds), and Right in the eyeFinal Fantasy gave us scores of characters to tromp around exotic lands. So which wound up defining the hardware generation: Brain Dead 13 or Final Fantasy 7? Yes, the way Final Fantasy 7 seemed to toe the line between “freedom” and “enjoy watching this movie” (and its many, many imitators that veered over to the wrong side of that divide) may have confirmed that the developers of the Playstation era were still confused about what a videogame truly was; but by the biggest hit of the Playstation 2 era, we truly had our freedom. Grand Theft Auto 3 solidified the freedom that was inherent in videogames, and titles like Brain Dead 13 were forever relegated to the likes of novelty compilations.

Brain Dead 13, you were a relic of a time before gaming had matured enough to know what it was. Forever wield you chainsaw, confident in the knowledge that you are the awkward high school yearbook photo of gaming’s history.

FGC #424 Brain Dead 13

  • System: Playstation 1 for the purpose of this review, but we’ve also got a murderers’ row of CD-based systems, like the 3DO, CD-I, Saturn, and the goddamned Jaguar CD. Also, apparently this was released for iOS in 2010… but that’s probably not available anywhere anymore.
  • Number of players: You are alone in a haunted house.
  • Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: Everyone in this title is a cartoonish caricature of various horror tropes, like the nefarious brain in the jar, or at least two characters that seem to originate from Frankenstein. However Vivi is… a little less Roger Rabbit, a little more Jessica Rabbit than the rest of the cast. Though I suppose Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is a horror trope onto herself…
  • NSFW?What’s in the box: This is one of those rare, early Playstation titles that was released in the giant, entirely-too-vertical OG Playstation box. And those things are royal hell on trying to organize a game collection. Tekken 1, you may never be filed next to your latter brethren.
  • Favorite… uh… Room: There is an early one with a puppet that is supposed to be a famous composer or something. Mozart? I don’t know. It seems like the least derivative location in the game. Would you rather I choose the one-eyed witch? Or the other one-eyed witch?
  • So, did you beat it: Nope. I always play this game for about a half hour, die a billion times, and then decide there are better uses for my time. I could be mowing the lawn! Or scraping nails along a chalkboard!
  • Did you know? The absolute first release of Brain Dead 13 for Playstation contained a bug that prevented the game from starting up. At all. Like, that was it. The end. No Brain Dead 13 for you. I realize this may have been a small blessing for some people that had the misfortune of purchasing the title, but, come on guys, I’m pretty sure someone should have caught the bug that refuses to let the game even start.
  • Would I play again: Whoops! Did I already compare this game to nails on a chalkboard? Spoilers: that was the answer.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… to just let me talk about Kingdom Hearts 3! Good plan, ROB! So we’re going to get another Kingdom Hearts FAQ entry, and FGC “coverage” of Kingdom Hearts 3. Wow! So much Kingdom Hearts! Two whole articles! Please look forward to it!

Better castle, though

FGC #243 Dragon’s Lair (NES)

Kind of a tubby dragonThis 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.

THE REAL MCCOYUnfortunately, 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.

ARGH!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.

DammitOh, 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.

DAMMIT!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)

  • System: NES. It doesn’t even have the excuse of being on other systems to explain the wonky controls.
  • Number of players: Technically, it is two player alternating. But, like a two man con, if two people play this game, the odds of someone realizing “hey, this is terrible” immediately shoots up to nearly 100%.
  • Port-o-Call: Turns out the Japanese/European version of the game increased Dirk’s movement speeds to much more survivable levels. Unfortunately, they also added falling boulders to the elevator area, so I’m sticking to my “this game is hate” assessment.
  • So, did you beat it: Yes, with a healthy amount of modern cheating. For the record, your only “reward” is a single “congratulations” screen.

    WINNER!

    Daphne barely appears. Boo.

  • Favorite boss: Death, aka the Grim Reaper, is straight up the boss of a stage. I’m wondering if he just likes hanging around spooky castles. Not like he has anything better to do.
  • Did you know? You can actually reclaim your treasures from the Lizard King in a secret area at the bottom of the elevator. Considering the treasure does nothing but boost your score, and the odds of dying in practically any level in this game are infinitely high, I’m going to go ahead and say it’s not worth it.
  • Would I play again: Absolutely not. Even with save states, this game is nearly impossible, and I only completed it to see if there was any level of satisfaction in doing so. Spoilers: nope.

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!

Grandpa, that's just Maggie