There are games you like. There are games you love. There are games that you can take or leave. There are games you would not touch with a forty-foot joystick. And then there are games that resonate with your very soul. For me, Street Fighter is one of the latter.
But there is one other. One that came…before.
It was a Saturday morning in 1980. I was up at 5:00 A.M. as usual to get my hands on the TV remote and thus control over my cartoon-watching destiny for the day. You see, I have a younger brother and the unspoken rule between us then was whoever got the TV remote first controlled Saturday morning. I held the remote tightly under my quilt like a knight would grip his sword, never letting it go, even for a second.
I remember it was getting close to 6:00 A.M. I was waiting for one of my favorite cartoons to start. But just before it did, I saw this on my TV:
IN THE NEWS was a series of two-minute televised video segments that summarized topical news stories for children and pre-teens. The segments were broadcast on Saturday mornings on the CBS television network from 1971 until 1986 between animated cartoon programs. And they annoyed me. I mean, who cared about current events when there were cartoons to be watched? As the segment was about to start, I went through my Saturday morning mental checklist : Hungry? No. Need a toilet break? No. Comfortably wrapped like a cinnamon bun in my quilt? Yes. I still have the remote? Yes. Satisfied, I decided to stay in my seat in my mother’s armchair and tolerate the IN THE NEWS segment. And that was when I saw him for the very first time.
The title of the segment was “Cartoon Video Games” or something like that. It showed this dorky but determined-looking knight running down a stone hallway on the screen of a large 1980’s film editing machine. The segment did not give any names and, even if it had, I was too stunned by what I saw to listen well. When the segment finished I was left feeling horribly unsatisfied. It was the first time in my life I wished the news was longer. Was it a movie? Was it a game? I did not know what to make of it. All I knew was if I understood the news segment correctly, two worlds that I had come to love, video games and cartoons, were about to mix, and I had no more than a razor thin slice of info on the event. I was in fanboy agony.
Time went on and my agony faded, but I never forgot the image of that dorky looking knight. There was something about him. He was not your typical animated knight: a handsome prince charming with a killer smile and a great singing voice. This dorky knight was the everyman. The look in his eyes said, “I am the most daring knight there is because I am too clueless to realize the odds are completely against me.” And he gave me a sense that for him to be as old as he looked, dame fortune must have held him tightly to her bosom, maybe even let him see her naked once or twice.
It was not until a couple of years later, in 1983, when I saw a teaser commercial for an upcoming episode of THAT’S INCREDIBLE, that I would see the dorky knight once again. But this time, I would hear a name: DRAGON’S LAIR!
When that commercial ended, I was left with but one goal in life: to see that show. I had watched THAT’S INCREDIBLE before. It was one of the shows in my family’s regular weekly TV line-up then, but never would it hold more significance in my life than at that time. When the day and time to see the episode finally arrived, I was on edge because my father had the remote and was a bit of a channel surfer. It was not that he would surf in the middle of a show, but he did do it during commercials and I wasn’t in the mood to take any chance where I might even miss even a microsecond of the Dragon’s Lair segment. I watched him like a hungry dragon until the segment began.
The segment came and went. It is fuzzy in my memory now. I remember seeing previews of the Dragon’s Lair stages–the most vivid of which was “Boulder Trench” and its colored balls. I heard the names Dirk the Daring and Princess Daphne for the first time. I cannot remember exactly, but I think Rick Dyer, the man who came up with the game concept, or perhaps Don Bluth the head animator, was on set showing off the game. I do remember them revealing move sequences for the game too, but not which ones.
It would be some time before I would finally find the game and play it. It was an evening. I was at the 7-11 convenience store near my home, with my mother and brother. I saw the game in the back corner of the store. Sigh. Remember when convenience stores had arcade games in them? I begged my mother to let me play it despite the game’s 50 cent price. This was an outrageous amount on money since every other game was only a quarter. But since the game had a $4300 American price tag, the arcade operators had to make their money back somehow. Heck, I remember running into Dragon’s Lair machines that cost a dollar to play. Anyway, my mom let me play and I lost my three lives so fast, I saw more of Dirk’s skeleton than the actual game. In the months to come until the 7-11 changed its games, I played Dragon’s Lair a few more times with half of my meager one-dollar allowance and sometimes with five dollars more from my grandparents. But the fifty cent to one dollar price kept me watching the game attraction screen more than actually playing.
It was not until I encountered the game again in an arcade while on vacation, I realized the truth about Dragon’s Lair. It was very much a spectator’s game. Until a player mastered every move for every animated sequence, he was under too much pressure to enjoy said sequences. Sure, he got the euphoric rush and glory for beating the game, but usually the player was too worried about keeping Dirk alive to enjoy the Bluth studio’s amazing laser disc graphics, even the amazing Princess Daphne. However, everyone around the player watching him play was having a ball. For the spectators, of which there were often many, it was like watching an awesome animated movie. I found this to be particularly true when I finally played Dragon’s Lair II in arcades six years later.
That said, it was very much this inability for the player to relax during the game that made it so memorable. I mean let’s face it, after the player completed around twenty-eight out of a possible thirty-seven sequences (some of which were the same sequences but played in reverse), Dirk finally reached the dragon’s lair. Upon hearing the sexy-voiced details from Daphne on how to defeat the dragon–get the magic sword, slay the dragon, and get the key to break Daphne out of her prison–the player soon realised doing these things were not easy feats! This difficulty of the game, combined with the excitement of actually getting to the dragon’s lair stage, and dealing with the stress of the huge crowd of kids surrounding the machine to watch, was a lot of pressure for a player. Most people can still remember the excitement of seeing someone save the princess for the first time. I remember shouting and cheering with the other spectators around me. I even remember slapping the player on the back. It was one of those rare moments where everyone in the arcade suddenly became friends–fellow warriors who had just traveled together on an incredible quest and emerged battered, but ultimately victorious.
On a consumer level, the Dragon’s Lair frenzy would create a whole line of products, including lunch boxes, clothing, a board game. It even had a fan club. I never owned any of the products even though I really wanted the Dragon’s Lair board game–sigh. But that doesn’t mean I loved the game any less. Hey, did you know Dragon’s Lair, along with Pac-Man, and Space Invaders, is one of three arcade machines at the Smithsonian?
Man! I really wanted one of these Dragon’s Lair board games.
Lucky for me, Dirk the Daring soon made his way to saving Princess Daphne every Saturday morning on a comedy-adventure cartoon show. The series lasted for one season, and finally gave the kids what they wanted, more animated footage of Dirk in action. Sadly, Don Bluth and his studio had absolutely nothing to do with the series’ production.
Thirteen half-hour episodes were produced in 1984. The show was generally run of the mill, but boasted an unusual feature: to keep the show in the spirit of the game, before each commercial break a narrator would ask what the viewer would do to solve the problem facing Dirk and provide three options. After the commercial break, the outcomes of the various choices were shown, two usually resulting in Dirk’s death, and the remaining choice being the correct one. However, more often then not, all the choices given to the viewer were bad ones and an option not provided, but revealed after the commercial break, was the solution. I guess the show’s writers just loved killing off Dirk. I mean how often did you get to write and see a character killed in a Saturday morning cartoon? But then, the death sequences were part of the game’s fun, so why not the show too?
I watched the Dragon’s Lair animated series religiously and hoped it would get another season. It never did. However, this show did leave its mark on the world of Dragon’s Lair in that it gave the originally nameless fire-breathing dragon a name: Singe–a name that stands to this day.
What can I say? Dragon’s Lair is in my soul. Is it because Dragon’s Lair is both a carton and a video game: a match made in heaven just like Dirk and Daphne? Probably. To be honest, despite all my words here, I can’t really explain it. But I love the game and that’s why I write this now: to honour it.
And that’s why had this picture drawn too.
My Past: Dirk and Daphne
My Present: Ryu and Chun-Li
My Future: Kal and Knites
It’s so great to make all my years of gaming count for something.
More next time!