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I still suck at Dragon’s Lair

12 December 2009 Leave a comment

In 1983 I was 11 going on 12 and a video game addict. It was not unlike me to swipe laundry-bound quarters to feed my addiction. When Scholastic’s book club paper for our grade came around each month, I’d scour it for any books on video games, and there were a lot of them back in the day (mostly focused on how to beat Pac-Man). It was reading, right?

Word came to me somehow that there was a very new game on the market that was extremely exciting, with art that had never before been seen. Dragon’s Lair took a little while to make it to Ridgewood, Queens, and my friend Rob found it at some corner store on Woodward or Onderdonk a few blocks from our house. Sweet!

It cost 50 cents to play Dragon’s Lair, and Rob always seemed to have the coinage on him. I watched him play a bit, and then put my two quarters up to ensure that I’d get the next round. Not that it was needed: we were the only two kids in the entire deli. But old habits die hard, and spots is a habit I’ll probably have until the day I die.

What I had seen, which was a beautiful work of art, and what I experienced were two different things. The art and sound for Dragon’s Lair is simply amazing courtesy of the expensive laserdisk technology it was using. The game play? Oh my fucking HARD.

You are Dirk Daring out to save Princess Daphne, who’s been kidnapped by a seemingly horny dragon who lives in a castle with lots of clever traps. Your job is to quickly twitch your way around these traps while making yourself useful with nothing but a sword, or, on the coin-op machine, a controller and button.

In most games, both then and now, when you started the game, you were randomly placed in a scene in which a split second choice had to be made. If this was the first time you encountered this scene, you would probably die as you’d make the wrong choice. The same would go for the second and third time, depending upon the number of choices available to you. Timing was of the essence, and as a player you didn’t have to worry about strategy or thinking at all. Thinking was death. Choosing unwisely was death. And many a kid spent a few quarters just trying to get past the first couple of scenes.

That was me: I spent a few quarters trying to get past the first couple of scenes and then I gave up. There was simply no fun in constantly dying because of one bad decision. A lot of people around me felt the same way. Dragon’s Lair wasn’t a game; it was an investment in success. I went back to the older Ms. Pac-Man coin-op and would simply occasionally glance at Dragon’s Lair to see if anyone actually found any success at it. Five minutes with Ms. Pac-Man was four minutes, thirty seconds more than I ever spent with Dirk, and she was a cheaper date, too.

Despite my lack of success at Dragon’s Lair, I always enjoy reading about it in the history books. It’s been ported endlessly to other platforms over the years, most recently to the iPhone. It was with some reluctance that I purchased my own copy of Dragon’s Lair for my phone. I never paid attention to the ports, was never successful at the game. But finally, this morning, I did it.

And what did I find?

Yes, death, my old friend. Each and every decision outside of the initial swing sword at purple things when you fall through the bridge scene met with Dirk’s untimely but well-designed death. This is one game I think I’m simply doomed to suck at.

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