Why 'Dragon's Lair' Took So Long to Come to Film
When it comes to video games, what's old is new again.
From Tetris getting a battle royale makeover to more modern titles like Final Fantasy VII being reimagined from the ground up, retro video game classics are seeing a resurgence like no other point in gaming history. Now, Ryan Reynolds and Netflix are teaming to bring the classic arcade adventure Dragon's Lair to life.
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Nearly 40 years after the game originally hit arcades in 1983, Dragon's Lair is seemingly more popular now than ever before, popping up in everything from Netflix's Stranger Things last year to Reynolds' upcoming film adaptation. Meanwhile, home versions of the game have become ubiquitous, making it much easier for players intimidated by its austere difficulty (and frustrating do-overs) to get into. It’s been ported since its release to just about everything, including the Amiga and even the Nintendo Switch, where it appears as Dragon's Lair Trilogy, a collection that debuted earlier in 2019.
The game places players in the shoes of the valiant knight Dirk the Daring, a would-be hero charged with the task of rescuing the beautiful Princess Daphne from a dark wizard's terrifying castle. The sprawling stronghold of Mordroc (who wouldn’t physically appear until the second game), and his faithful dragon companion Singe, is home to a heinous collection of monsters, traps and other obstacles meant to impede Dirk. Daphne helplessly awaits Dirk beneath the castle's treasure room in an impenetrable magic bubble. The key, which is hanging from Singe's neck, is the only way to pop it. Obviously, Dirk has his work cut out for him.
The game was a massive hit, generating over $34 million for publisher Cinematronics over its first year of release in 1983. Dragon's Lair has been credited with turning around the "arcade slump" of 1983-1985 and is also noted for being the first arcade offering to cost 50 cents per play.
The game returned to the spotlight briefly in 2017, when, during the first few moments of Stranger Things season two, characters Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas are seen briefly guiding Dirk the Daring on his quest to save Princess Daphne. Unfortunately, as was the fate of so many players, their run ends with the gallant hero transformed into a pile of bones. They didn’t go down without a fight, though. The boys had reached the final level, which was something of a rare feat for anyone actually trying to best the game at the arcade.
Dragon's Lair is no simple game, by any means. It hardly even resembles a traditional video game, in many ways, but that’s part of its charm. With gorgeous artwork by Don Bluth (a veteran artist with a Disney pedigree who went on to direct his own films such as The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail), Dragon's Lair was equally attractive to those who didn’t truly “understand” video games and gamers excited about the tech and looking for the “next best thing.”
Unlike popular platformers like the arcade-centric Mario Bros. that released in the same year, Dragon's Lair didn't feature dedicated "run" or "jump" buttons. In fact, player input was somewhat minimal. Each scene required players to make the correct move at the right time, timed to the buttons appearing onscreen.
For instance, a right arrow may flash for a quick second on the side of the screen, which means you've got to make a quick move and tilt the joystick (or press the directional pad, depending on where you're playing) to guide Dirk. One wrong move could indeed cost Dirk his life, so you've got to be vigilant about how you play.
There were no continues. If you died, you had to start over from the very beginning, which made it a frustrating (and pricey) affair to keep up with at the arcade. Plus, given that the original game was a laserdisc title, the disc itself was in constant use. The game skipped from scene to scene, which often caused malfunctions and freezing. Still, fans ate it up, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it directives and all.
These moves are what were widely considered the precursor to the modern game mechanic we refer to as a quick time event, which requires swift input from players to help advance a scene or pass “checks” to get to the next area. They’re still in use today, in games like Resident Evil to the Uncharted series, with Dragon’s Lair acting as something of a harbinger for what was to come. Maligned by some players, they’re a veritable mainstay in so many franchises today that it’s hard to imagine a game without them.
Dragon’s Lair was groundbreaking in several ways, many of which resound in modern gaming. Since the game bowed with its decidedly more cinematic take on modern gaming, it's obvious that newer games have indeed followed its lead. The lines between games and movies are blurring to the point where titles like Detroit: Become Human or Marvel’s Spider-Man feel more like blockbusters than console-based affairs, and it’s only serving to push the industry ever-forward. We've even seen projects like Cuphead adopt traditional animation styles in the same vein. Dragon’s Lair’s influence is widespread, whether you realize it or not.
But with all the ways Dragon's Lair transformed how audiences and even developers approached understanding and creating games, it’s never come full circle. Oddly, it’s never been transformed into a film just yet. So it should come as no surprise that, with its pop culture resurgence, the animated masterpiece is also seeing a “rebirth” of sorts in the form of an upcoming movie with Bluth as part of a partnership with producer and partner Gary Goldman (Anastasia, Titan A.E.). Bluth and Goldman previously took to Indiegogo with a successful campaign for their film, which is being lovingly referred to as Dragon's Lair: The Movie. The fans have spoken, and they want to see more of Dirk and Daphne.
Planned as a prequel meant to finally "bring the classic game to the big screen," their Indiegogo pitch ended up raising $731,172 by 7,702 backers by its closure on Jan. 16, 2016. The film is being planned with classical animation, just like the game itself, and will be set "long ago in the kingdom of Winterholler." It follows a young prince Dirk, whose betrothal to Princess Daphne is ruined after a dragon kills both the King and Queen and the children are whisked away elsewhere to the Swamps of Despair to await Dirk's 16th birthday, when he's fated to slay Mordroc and the dragon himself. When Dirk reaches the age of 16, he rejects the notion of being king, and instead wishes to become a knight to avenge his parents' deaths. That’s when the journey as fans know it begins.
Plans for a feature-length adaptation of Dragon's Lair have been in the works since well after the game's debut back in the 1980s, but nothing has ever materialized just yet. In the past, there was also a short cartoon series that debuted on ABC in 1984, as well as a comic miniseries that hit store shelves in 2003. Seeing this one come to life would be a boon for those who grew up with the fantasy adventure, naturally.
It’s unclear when the film will make an appearance, but the love for Dragon’s Lair is still alive and well — so it hopefully won’t be that long of a wait. It’s easy to see why, especially when pop culture heavy-hitters like Stranger Things are even showing it love (whether it will reappear in season three remains to be seen).
It’s a better time than ever to kick back, grab a pen and paper and start writing down those moves you’ve got to memorize to save Daphne. It’s time to revisit the Dragon’s Lair, whether you’re playing on Nintendo Switch or simply waiting to see what happens with the upcoming pic. So lead on, adventurers! Your quest awaits — just like it always has.
by Richard Newby
by Graeme McMillan
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