Dragon's Lair Review
Don Bluth is a rather intriguing figure in the world of animation. A Texas-born filmmaker who cut his teeth working as an animator on some of the least creatively-inspired Disney features of the mid to late 1970s, his greatest claim to fame is staging a mass walk-out from the studio in 1979, the result of a growing belief that Disney features had lost their way, lacking the essence instilled in them by Walt Disney prior to his death. Bluth and co set up their own studio with the intention of recapturing that magic, but, rather ironically, the various animated features they produced throughout the 80s and 90s were largely saccharine and badly-written talking animal affairs, throwing a number of the superficial ingredients of Disney films (the aforementioned talking animals, expansive musical numbers, full animation, and so on) into the pot but failing to blend them into a cohesive whole. Bluth's best-known work is arguably his run of sickly-sweet collaborations with Steven Spielberg, including The Land Before Time, An American Tail and All Dogs go to Heaven, the latter of which saw Bluth foisting his own beliefs on his unsuspecting audience in the most bludgeoning way possible.
Since the mega-disaster that was 2000's Titan A.E., a project which Bluth inherited mid-production and was unfairly expected to salvage in a short space of time, he has failed to get another project off the ground. However, his work continues to have something of a cult following, and they don't come more cultish than Dragon's Lair, a swords and sorcery adventure game originally released in arcades in 1983 using LaserDisc technology, for which Bluth and company provided the visuals. The concept was, at the time, an inventive one: by making full use of LaserDisc's ability to dynamically access data from various parts of the disc (as opposed to the linear nature of VHS and Betamax), the game would display specific pieces of animation depending on the player's actions, essentially making it an interactive movie of sorts, and also offering graphics far better than any video games available at the time. As such, it can in many ways be considered the forerunner of the considerably less ambitious interactive games that Disney includes on many of their DVD releases. Dragon's Lair was later released on a variety of other home entertainment systems, including the Amiga, MS-DOS and Windows-based PCs, Macintosh, and, most recently, DVD.
The concept is fairly simple and anabashedly derivative. You are Dirk the Daring, a swashbuckling medieval warrior, tasked with entering the castle of the wicked dragon Singe to rescue the fair Princess Daphne. Using the Left, Right, Up, Down and Action commands, the player must rely on a combination of quick thinking and sheer luck in order to navigate through a series of deadly traps and enemy encounters, before eventually taking on Singe himself and, naturally, winning the heart of Daphne. Unfortunately, no matter how interesting this premise sounds, and no matter how great a cult following Dragon's Lair has built up over the years, the whole thing is let down by fundamentally rubbish game design. It is essentially built around a process of trial and error: wait for the game to become interactive, and then guess which of the five buttons you need to press in order to get to the next area; memorise and repeat ad nauseam.
On the Blu-ray version, this becomes even more mind-numbing as, when you fail a certain section, instead of being made to repeat it, you are simply moved on to the next area. This not only makes the game more or less pointless, it also renders it completely incomprehensible as the whole thing essentially becomes a series of brief clips of animation that fail to link together in anything approaching a coherent manner. (An option is provided in the setup menu to change the number of lives provided from unlimited to a mere five, but this, despite making the game more challenging, does nothing to improve its flow.) Some puzzles, seemingly selected at random, do admittedly require to actually be completed in order to progress, but, for the most part, the gaming experience on Blu-ray essentially ends up being comprised of a seemingly random reel of death scenes, most of which last for a couple of seconds at most. Complicating matters even further is the fact that, on the Playstation 3, the icon that is supposed to appear in the corner of the screen to tell the viewer that his or her input is required fails to appear. The manual accompanying the disc admits that this may be a problem on some players, but consoles us by helpfully pointing out that the system will nonetheless accept the player's input. Translation: mash the buttons continually and hope for the best. Add to this continual cuts to black whenever a new sequence is queued up, as well as the play button appearing in the bottom left hand corner once said sequence has loaded, and you end up with a phenomenally unimmersive experience.
What's worse, during development of the Blu-ray version, the programmers apparently didn't have access to the BD-Java specification (see this article), meaning that compatability problems far beyond the inconvenience of a missing icon are rife. One user failed to get it to work at all on his Philips player, while it has been confirmed that the only devices on which this release was actually tested were the Samsung BD-P1000, Panasonic DMP-BD10, Sony BDP-S1 and the PlayStation 3, in addition to PowerDVD BD for Windows. If my experience with the PS3 version constitutes an accurate representation of how the game was intended to be played, then I shudder to think what it would be like when it was playing incorrectly. Small wonder the manual accompanying the disc carries the following disclaimer:
"Although Digital Leisure Inc. believes this program performs the functions described in this guide, the program is provided 'as is' without performance warranties of any kind, either expressed or implied, including but not limited, [sic] the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. The entire risk as to the quality and performance of this program is with you."Translation: it might not work, in which case it's not our problem.
Dragon's Lair is a largely charmless and shambolic mess of a game. I would have liked to think that the LaserDisc original was somewhat better, and that the total shoddiness of the gameplay was due to the buggy implementation of the game on Blu-ray, but I have been informed that the Blu-ray version is, barring the aforementioned alteration to the death penalty, an extremely faithful representation of the gameplay of the original release. According to an interview with the programmer responsible for porting it over, he basically had to bend over backwards due to the rough state of the development tools and lack of access to the source code, so I suppose it's a wonder it works at all. Regardless of whose "fault" it is, though, the fact remains that it's close to unplayable - a poster child for everything that is wrong with the concept of interactive movies and the tools currently available with which to render them.
Note: because Dragon's Lair on Blu-ray is too much for one person to handle, the video transfer portion of this review was written by DVD Times hardware specialist David Mackenzie, who is no stranger to questionable digital restorations of animated material.
As Dragon's Lair was produced in the 1980s, it was printed and edited on 35mm film. As many readers will know, 35mm film has a higher resolution than 1080p video. As such, for the Blu-ray Disc version, Digital Leisure have reverted to this film source rather than transferring from a lower quality video tape master. The result is picture quality that is by far greater than the television-style pictures featured in the original LaserDisc-powered arcade version.
Unfortunately, Digital Leisure haven't stopped there, and have taken it upon themselves to perform a "digital restoration" on the film materials. "Restoration" in this case is questionable, as they have modified the film's look beyond its original appearance. Digital Leisure have manually painted out dust and dirt from individual frames, and have also modified the appearance of the film's natural grain for the worse, with obtrusive results.
Digital Restoration's biggest challenge is simple: the results of the process shouldn't be noticeable. However, the team responsible have elected to electronically freeze the moving film grain on certain shots, and then selectively un-freeze the areas of the screen required to show movement. Because the source film moves around in the Telecine as it is being digitally scanned (an effect known as gate weave), details that have been "unfrozen" suddenly change position, giving a strange warping effect around moving objects that is difficult to describe but definitely noticeable. The bottom line of it is that the Film Grain removal has done more harm than good, and is often ineffective anyway. Digital Leisure would have been better to simply accept the fact that Dragon's Lair, as animation produced on film, will always look like film, and let it be. While other aspects of the video are mostly excellent (bar a few obvious MPEG-2 compression artifacts), they shouldn't have tried to make this 1980s material look as if it came from video.
In fact, the disc's special features include a restoration demonstration, in which the "unrestored" footage actually looks better in this regard than the "restored" footage. The trailer, included as a bonus feature, also shows how glitch-free the transfer could have looked.
There is another niggle with the presentation, namely the fact that Dragon's Lair is reported to have been produced with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (in other words, 4x3). This Blu-ray Disc is presented in 1.78:1 (16x9), meaning that it's not an original aspect ratio presentation. In all honesty, as someone who hasn't seen the original, I wasn't consciously aware of the change, and there didn't seem to be any points where the alteration of the ratio was obviously detrimental. Either way, with the space afforded by a dual-layer Blu-ray Disc, I can't understand why an option wasn't included for the original ratio.
The only audio track included is a 640 Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 affair, which is an upmix from the original mono recording used for the arcade version. Traditionally, I come down very hard on DVDs (as well as HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs) that include only a remix at the expense of the original audio, but in the case of Dragon's Lair, in which the image itself bears little resemblance to the manner in which gamers would have originally experienced it in the arcade, it becomes much harder to talk about what is authentic and what is not. Either way, this is a fairly conservative remix, adding a handful of split channel effects, but with little in the way of rear speaker or subwoofer action.
No subtitles are included. Given that there is so little dialogue in the game itself, this is perhaps not a great loss, although subtitles would certainly have been appreciated for the bonus content.
Despite the lacklustre quality of the video restoration, Digital Leisure have certainly pushed the boat out as far as bonus content is concerned, bringing together principal creators Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and Rick Dyer for a series of retrospective features. In a nice touch, all of the bonus materials are presented in 1080p high definition (MPEG2).
First off, all 19 minutes and 20 seconds of animated content can be viewed sequentially, with or without visual commentary by the aforementioned gentlemen. Because the Playstation 3 is still currently the only Blu-ray player to support secondary audio and video functions, the windowed footage featuring the three commentators is superimposed on a separate encode of the game footage rather than being "true" picture-in-picture. However it was achieved, though, it is a very good commentary, with the participants reminiscing about their experiences making it and not being afraid to critique areas in which things went wrong. Indeed, the overall impression given is one of miscommunication, with the animators and programmers not seeming to properly understand each others' needs and abilities, which could perhaps explain the rather disjointed nature of the end product. There are a handful of gaps totalling about a minute where the window featuring the three commentators simply disappears and their banter ceases, but, barring this, they do a decent job of continuing to provide anecdotes for all 19 minutes of footage.
A 23-minute interview piece is also included, with the three creators sitting together, as they did for the commentary, and discussing a variety of issues, including the HD restoration, abandoned concepts for future games that never got off the ground, as well as providing a few brief glimpses at deleted scenes and concepts that were abandoned because they didn't playtest well. Broadly speaking, Dyer and Goldman do most of the talking, with Bluth largely silent unless prompted and, on a few occasions, seeming to be absent completely. Again, this is a solid and informative piece that is suitably long without outstaying its welcome.
A brief side by side comparison of the footage before and after restoration follows, although ironically this merely serves to highlight how much better it looked prior to the digital tinkering was applied. A rundown of the various different iterations of the game is also included. This showcases the Amiga, deluxe edition CD, 20th anniversary edition CD, LaserDisc, DVD and high definition versions (although the LaserDisc footage appears to have been sourced from an over-compressed downloaded capture with the contrast incorrectly set, while the DVD footage has not been properly deinterlaced), with the HD edition unsurprisingly leaving the other releases in the dust in terms of resolution and colour reproduction.
The disc concludes with high definition trailers for Dragon's Lair, as well as for two other Bluth-animated games along similar lines, Space Age and Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp.
How much you get out of Dragon's Lair on Blu-ray will unsurprisingly depend on how fond your memories are of the arcade original. This is undeniably the best it has ever looked (although pointless "restoration" techniques incompetently applied prevent it from reaching its full potential), and the bonus features are uniformly excellent. However, I personally struggle to find a single kind word to say about the game itself, while there is no guarantee that the disc will work correctly or at all if you do not own one of the small number of players on which it was tested prior to release, thanks to the blasé attitude of the Blu-ray Disc Association regarding the format's interactive functionality. Caveat emptor, as the saying goes.
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