Hello once again, fellow Retroware travelers! This is Franchise Fatigue, the bi-weekly examination of gaming franchises past, present, and forgotten!
This week, I was stuck for a little while on picking a specific game – the other Retroware writers have all been writing up excellent stuff on Sega CD games. The problem being, actual factual “franchise” games on the Sega CD are kind of… rare. And the popular ones were obviously picked up quickly by the other writers. Seriously, how many franchise games on the Sega CD can you rattle off without the aid of Google? Lessee, there’s Sonic CD, Lunar, Final Fight, Mortal Kombat, Shining Force, um… does “Working Designs” count as a “franchise”? No? Okay.
Originally I settled on Shining Force CD, but it became too much of a chore to actually finish that game. Seriously, it’s boring, I’m sorry. Nice music, though! And the cute characters keep their Camelot-designed charm! But not enough juice there to sustain an entire article.
So, I scuttled around for a while, thinking of what to do next – and to my unexpected fortune, I discovered the great Cartoon Book Club podcast! Spearheaded by the great webcartoonist K.C. Green! They had a spirited discussion about the meteoric rise and sharp fall of animator and director Don Bluth; they briefly discussed Bluth’s astronomically successful arcade game Dragon’s Lair; their take? It’s not very fun. Like, at all. You pump in quarter after quarter, only to get a split second further into the “game” and instantly die because you swung your sword a split-second too early or too late. Yeah, that’s about right.
Of course, Dragon’s Lair was such a tremendous hit that ports were quick to be produced. Look ye upon this Wikipedia list of every Dragon’s Lair game, and despair – 69 ports! (Heh heh, 69.) “Surely,” I thought to myself, “one of these ports has to be a genuinely good game.”
After a day-or-two binge of awful, awful ports…
The SNES port. AKA: URRGK
I came to realization that, no, they’re all bad. Apparently, even when turning Dragon’s Lair into a more “traditional” console game, the big takeaway the developers got from the original arcade game was that the main appeal of the original arcade game was frequent, frustrating deaths. No, not the funny, intricate Don Bluth animation, or the simple appeal of controlling the outcome of a funny cartoon – Nope! You die, a lot, all the time. Allow me to say how much that sucks: IT SUCKS.
Instead, let’s look at one of the earliest console ports of the game that let players at home experience Dragon’s Lair the way it was meant to be played; angrily picking arbitrary spots to die while grainy FMV footage showed their untimely demise. The Sega CD version!
So, I don’t think I’m blowing the lid off of anything controversial here – Dragon’s Lair was a gimmick. An exceptionally cool-looking and well-executed gimmick, but it’s a gimmick. It’s hardly “interactive.” All you’re really doing is screwing with chapter stops on a video stream; your split-second actions choppily lead you to various “challenge rooms,” which test your lightning-fast reflexes to avoid all the elements of doom and peril that come your way. Of course, some of the rooms themselves are quite clever and ingenious – the scene where you have to dodge several colorful boulders by timing it so that a bigger boulder behind you smashes them from the sides, for instance, is a unique and interesting idea that would be done, um, much better in other games in the future.
Now, I didn’t have a Sega CD as a kid – but then, who did? They cost over 200 dollars and were not sold in every retail location under the sun. But boy did I want one – specifically, the JVC X’Eye that was proudly being flaunted at the big electronics store near my Grandma’s house in Denver. They had Dragon’s Lair setup on a loop – the attract screen playing endlessly, begging my then-12 year old self to take it home, caress it, and give it tender loving care.
The irony being that Dragon’s Lair is an exceptionally short game – the original arcade game runs about a half an hour, start to finish, although you can easily get to the end at around 12 minutes if you’ve got everything memorized. The original laserdisc that shipped with the arcade cabinet was only one-sided, with the other side affixed with a thick metal plate to keep the disc from bending and warping – still, the game required the disc to spin a LOT, causing call kinds of failures from the laserdisc player; LDs weren’t exactly meant to be skipped around as frequently as Dragon’s Lair required, so the motors that controlled the spindle were not long for this world. It’s virtually impossible to find an original Dragon’s Lair arcade game that hasn’t been upgraded or refurbished in some way.
So, the pity being that people who spent lots of money on a Sega CD to own an arcade accurate home version of Dragon’s Lair – which must be a lot, considering that you can easily find discs of the game selling for only a dollar - were probably pretty peeved to discover how short the game really is. And once you’ve finally memorized every arbitrary pattern to get to the end, there really isn’t any incentive to go through it again. No replay value at all here; except to watch the purdy animation again.
Ah! There’s the rub with all these FMV-heavy games that essentially defined the early CD-ROM “Multimedia” craze of the early-to-mid 90′s. They were simple, flashy, but ultimately facile experiences that quickly faded away once their novelty ended after a half-hour or less. As a kid I wanted nothing more than to own Tomcat Alley, but in hindsight I’m glad I opted to spend my Sega allowance on the great Light Crusader, a great Treasure game with hours of gameplay. Tomcat Alley would’ve maybe given me, what, 45 minutes?
It’s funny, but time and time again we see how quickly these gimmicks fade in comparison to good old-fashioned gameplay; Sony and Nintendo barked pretty heavily on the bonuses of 3D gaming, but consumers were quick to ignore that in favor of more “traditional” games; heck, the 3D part of the 3DS is now advertised as a “feature” instead of the defining factor of the handheld. Nintendo was quick to put Mario front and center, instead of the 3D features, once it became clear that people weren’t willing to drop 250 bucks on 3D for its own sake.
Solid gameplay always trumps gimmicks. Dragon’s Lair‘s gimmick was pretty cool and unprecedented in 1983, and its legacy is rather secure as an “arcade classic,” in spite of its obvious problems; but in a curious bit of nostalgic retconning, Dragon’s Lair is mostly looked at as a funny curio, instead of the quality addictiveness of contemporaneous arcade games like Mappy and Spy Hunter. There wasn’t anything like Dragon’s Lair at the time, and as soon as there were plenty of things like it, consumers were quick to dismiss them. Give us not these frustrating trial-and-error death-a-lons, they cried; give us solid fun gameplay with personality!
All told, we are richer for it. Although, Dragon’s Lair *does* have one outstanding redeeming quality in my book, and I’m not talking about Princess Daphne’s enormous breasts – JUST WATCH THIS VIDEO OF ALL THE DEATH SCENES FROM KONAMI’S BADLANDS, OH MY GOD