I must admit that the first time I fired up Dragon's Lair HD, I couldn't quite fathom how the packaging classified it as a video game. However, after a few more beers I gave it another go and was pleasantly surprised by how much fun this game actually offers. Produced by Canadian developer Digital Leisure, Dragon's Lair HD is a PC port of a cult classic arcade game dating back to 1983 - the year Return of the Jedi hit theatres. Dragon's Lair was meticulously animated by artistic genius Don Bluth, whose extensive credits also include such features films as The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven and Anastasia. As with other full-motion-video titles that would follow in its footsteps, Dragon's Lair was first and foremost a film which the user would interact with at key points to effect a particular outcome. Driven by a captivating musical score and expertly restored visuals, Dragon's Lair HD definitely has a lot to offer for fans of the genre.
The storyline is camp at its finest, which also means it's a blast to play through. Gamers inhabit the character of Dirk the Daring, a brave knight on a quest to rescue an unidentified princess from a villainous dragon. The game takes place in a medieval castle belonging to a "dark wizard", who naturally has filled it with all manner of monsters and traps aimed at vanquishing poor Dirk before he reaches his woman. Admittedly, the plot doesn't sport a lot of depth or nuance, but it compensates for this inadequacy with a generous dose of plain old sword-swinging fun.
One of the great aspects of Dragon's Lair HD is the developer's focus on authenticity. While other developers may have simply performed a crude dump from an original Laserdisc, Digital Leisure truly went all-out by transferring the game "through a delicate film restoration process" from the master tapes. The tapes were subsequently processed into the high-definition format that breathed new life into this aging classic. Similarly, the audio track was remastered, filtered for background noise and translated into impressive 5-channel surround sound. I have no doubt the amount of work involved in transforming the dusty old tapes into the eye-candy that is Dragon's Lair HD was huge, but the end-result truly shines because of it.
Authentic scene-sequencing is also a major plus for this title. Dragon's Lair HD offers two subtly different modes in this respect: Arcade Authentic, which faithfully reproduces the exact sequence of clips seen in original US arcade release; and Home Version, which includes extra clips only enjoyed by European audiences until now. While this feature may seem superfluous to the bulk of casual gamers, the cluster of die-hard Dragon's Lairs junkies out there will surely smile on the opportunity to play the game exactly as they remember it 23 years ago. Unlike a conventional film, Dragon's Lair unfolds in a non-linear fashion that left me surprised each time a fresh scene popped up; adding to the interest is the fact that Dirk often respawns into a new sequence when he dies.
The visuals in Dragon's Lair HD are, in a word, stunning. While the game is consistently well-done, there are certain scenes that really stand out among the crowd. Of particular note is a sequence featuring a psychedelic half-tube with multicoloured marbles rolling in all directions - the richness of the palette and fluidity of motion is unmatched in anything modern polygon gaming can serve up. The barrel-ride down the underground river is also especially appealing to the eyes. After several minutes of intense gameplay, I found it nice to simply hit the 'Watch' button and take in the movie for a while.
While the visuals are the main attraction of Dragon's Lair HD, the soundtrack also carries its own weight throughout the game. Rather than opt for a constantly running score, the game is characterised by orchestral accents at certain key points, such as a flare of trumpets when Dirk is startled or alarmed. Layered over the music is a veritable cacophony of sound effects that compliment the visuals quite well. The slamming of gates, swords clanking together and even Dirk's amusing yelps and screams blend seamlessly with the animated sequences.
The gameplay in Dragon's Lair is very straightforward, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. As each scene plays out, the user is required to hit the cursor keys and spacebar at certain points to successfully navigate the sequence. Timing is the crucial element here as a slow response often leads to a quick death for Dirk. To help the player along, the game will emit a low tone when a key is pressed and the wrong moment and a high tone when the timing is right. However, this doesn't help the user distinguish which key he or she should be pressing, which sometimes leads to frustrating impasses at certain points. Generous folks that they are, Digital Leisure has posted a full list of correct moves on their websites for those especially challenging moments.
On the whole, Digital Leisure has served up a winner with Dragon's Lair HD. The quality of animation seen here is unheard of in modern gaming - or many contemporary films, for that matter. A solid soundtrack and simple controls both add to the enjoyment of this title. Granted, the learning curve isn't as smooth as some might like and particular sequences will have gamers tearing their hair out when they die for the twentieth time. But this very notion captures the essence of old-school gaming at its best: challenging, fun and rewarding - and Dragon's Lair HD is no exception.