Although 1983’s laserdisc game Dragon’s Lair wasn’t the first of its kind (that honor apparently goes to a Sega game called Astron Belt), it was the first one I remember seeing in the wild.
I was in 2nd grade in 1983, living in the small burg of Atascadero, CA. Atascadero didn’t have much, but it did have a town square with a Greyhound station where you could buy comic books, and a video arcade named Starcade.
Starcade was the holy grail for me when I was 7. It was a portal of lights and sounds beckoning toward an otherworldly place of pixelated, stylized bliss, far from the humdrum of “real life.” In reality it was probably a dingy storefront with a few arcade cabinets and some acne-riddled teens selling weed in the corners, but, as happened in arcades across the country in the 1980’s, that critical mass of endlessly looped attract modes and deep-red LED quarter slots had a transforming effect.
One afternoon that year I hung out after school with a kid named Brian. Brian was, despite a penchant for pulling his pants and underwear all the way down when using urinals, a cool enough dude, and he shared my interest in He-Man, Transformers, GI Joe, and video games. As luck would have it that afternoon, after we played at his house for awhile his mom announced she was going to take us to Starcade. We got into the car armed with a couple of bucks each, and his mom escorted us into Starcade’s hallowed halls.
Once I’d converted my dollars to quarters I surveyed the scene, taking in the ubiquitous Mappy, the reliable Elevator Action, the always-enticing Spy Hunter, and then I heard a voice booming to my left.
“DRAGON’S LAIR, THE FANTASY ADVENTURE WHERE YOU BECOME A VALIANT KNIGHT, ON A QUEST TO RESCUE THE FAIR PRINCESS FROM THE CLUTCHES OF AN EVIL DRAGON.”
I turned toward the sound and saw, on the cabinet’s screen, a fully Saturday-Morning-Cartoon-animated-style scene of a sword-wielding knight navigating a rogue’s gallery of monsters en route to slaying a dragon and rescuing a princess. It was the sort of scene I often imagined when watching the more primitive, pixelated graphics of other games, but in this case there was no need. I was actually watching a legit animated feature in video game form.
Springing toward the machine to plunk in my quarter, I noticed that the dull red of the coin slot stated “50¢” instead of the familiar “25.” This made me pause, but my response was simply to shove two quarters into the machine instead of one.
And just like that, I was playing Dragon’s Lair, creeping along a bridge to enter the Dragon’s castle. Suddenly some boards gave way and I was attacked by a horde of blue tentacles. I began mashing the sword button to vanquish these foes, only to meet a gruesome and untimely demise. I started on the bridge again, tried to sidestep the broken boards with the joystick, but still ended up falling through a hole to be murdered by the tentacles. And then once more, back to the bridge, and once more, tentacle death.
I was surprised by my quick exit, but, still riding high on the novelty of the game, I plunked in another 50 cents. Then another. And another. And within moments I was penniless, while my friend Brian was happily playing Elevator Action.
At that point I began to cry inconsolably in the middle of Starcade. There were probably other children in the world, likely not even that far away, starving, being killed, abused, and so forth, but here I was losing my crap over burning through my quarters on Dragon’s Lair. What can I say? I was the 80’s.
From then on I kept my distance from Dragon’s Lair, content to watch older kids play it, most of whom didn’t have any more luck than I did. The thing we didn’t seem to understand was that Dragon’s Lair was a rail ride. You didn’t mash the sword button to defeat enemies, you pressed it in response to Pavlovian stimulus on the screen. Which ultimately made Dragon’s Lair (and laserdisc games in general) a lot less cool than they seemed to be initially.
Still, looking back 31 years later, Dragon’s Lair and the laserdisc genre have their place in gaming history. While the substance never matched the sizzle, there was an undeniable high and energy produced by Don Bluth’s pied piper animation and the booming narration of that dazzling attract mode. It may have been a quarter-guzzler for us dumb kids who didn’t understand the game-play, but the arcade was a better place with it than without it, and while it broke my heart when I was seven, I think enough time has passed for us to make amends and bury the hatchet.
Interestingly, when I was a kid I envisioned a full play-through of Dragon’s Lair being an epic, multi-day affair. Kind of funny to YouTube it now and see that the game clocks in at a crisp 12 minutes. Sort of a “Be Sure to Drink Your Ovaltine” moment, but that’s OK. At the end of the day, I’m not going to begrudge Dirk getting his hair tousled. Thanks for the memories, and thanks to Brian’s mom for taking us to Starcade.