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Dragon's Lair

Digital Leisure // Unrated // April 17, 2007
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Daniel Hirshleifer | posted April 11, 2007 | E-mail the Author
The Game:
It's hard to review Dragon's Lair in this day and age. Even remastered, remixed, and slapped on a high-tech Blu-ray disc, the entire project is still woefully lacking context. To make things a little more clear, Dragon's Lair was conceived by former Disney animator Don Bluth at a time when video games were nothing but tiny sprites on big black screens. Pac-Man and Galaga were state of the art. Now imagine, at this time when a chomping wheel of cheese was eating ghosts, a video game that looked like it came from a fully-staffed animation studio. Don Bluth achieved this in Dragon's Lair, by replacing sprites with pre-recorded animations. Instead of the character responding to your motions, pressing the correct button would load another video with the continuation of the action. If you pressed the wrong button, a video would load showing your death (with several variants possible).

The game was a hit in arcades, but was also designed for laserdisc and eventually PC. Games grew, evolved, became ever more complex, and Dragon's Lair...didn't. Oh, a few sequels were made, and a Saturday morning cartoon show, but nothing rivaled the popularity of the original. It was popular enough that Bluth decided the burgeoning new HD formats were the perfect place to resurrect his gaming milestone. Meticulous pains were made to remaster all the film elements and create a brand new 5.1 mix. And did all the work bring a new lease on life to the game?

Sadly, no. Gaming has left Dragon's Lair in the dust. A new coat of paint can't hide the dusty parts under the hood. Dragon's Lair is frustratingly archaic. The puzzles aren't the least bit intuitive, and it doesn't help that the game randomizes where you appear when you die, to avoid memorization of their order. So you expire, then pop up in a whole new place and have mere moments to figure out what you might be able to do before something tries to kill you. Usually they succeed. It's more an exercise in frustration than anything else.

And once you do finally get the hang of it, one playthrough is all the enjoyment you'll get out of it. The puzzles don't change from play to play, just the order in which you encounter them. The only draw here are for people nostalgic for a simpler time, or those who would like a long term document of an important historical artifact. It's actually that in two senses. First is a document of a landmark game. Second, it's the first fully-featured BD-J title. Hopefully that's a sign of good things to come.

The Blu-ray Disc:

The Image:
As mentioned above, every frame of animation went through extensive restoration for this release, and boy does it show. Presented in a 1.77:1 aspect ratio (which is not OAR), the image nonetheless cannot fail to impress. The MPEG-2 1080p transfer is so clean, crisp, and detailed that creator Don Bluth mentioned this was the first time since the animation was put to film that Dragon's Lair looked this good. The disc is worth a rental just to see how well it cleaned up.

The Audio:
Also getting a revamp is the audio, which has been remixed into glorious 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. However, considering the game is rarely on a screen for more than ten seconds, we don't get too many instances to hear it in full. However, the higher fidelity has made it more than clear that Dirk sounds exactly like Homer Simpson.

The Supplements:
Easily the bread and butter of the disc, there are some really excellent extra features here, all in full 1080p HD.

Watch Mode: See every stage being played to completion, and then every accompanying death scene. Useful if you need a tip, or just don't feel like wasting your time actually playing the game.

Video Commentary: A commentary on the Watch Mode with Don Bluth, Rick Dyer, and Gary Goldman. They chat incessantly, but they're so quiet that's it hard to hear them. A lot of mumbling goes on, and some good information is spread within, but not the best thing here.

Creator Interviews: The same three guys, now just giving their thoughts on the entire project. It's half an hour and is far more comprehensive than the commentary. A much better viewing choice.

High Def Restoration: A quickie A/B comparison between the unrestored and restored footage. Doesn't work nearly as well as...

Dragon's Lair Time Capsule: A nifty little feature that A/B's all the different versions of the game as you watch the climax. This shows just how incredible the HD is; it's the best the game has ever looked.

Also featured are previews for the title game, its sequel, and another game in the same style, Space Ace.

The Conclusion:
Dragon's Lair was a huge hit in the early 80's, but playing it now is like using an Apple II after a Power Mac G5. It just doesn't hold up. However, that isn't to say the disc is without merit. For one thing, it's the first fully-featured BD-Java title, which is saying something. It's also got beautiful animated HD imagery. But I would only recommend a purchase for people who really value their nostalgia, or those who like having records of historically important items. Rent It.

Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.

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