Arcade technology moved fast in the

80s. Games went from single-screen space shooters, platformer­s and maze chases just before I was born to tournament fighters, multiplaye­r peripheral experience­s and experiment­al polygonal racers just after the close of the decade. Addictive as games spanning this era were, progress demanded those z80 processors and their kin push more and more pixels round the screen in increasing­ly ambitious ways.

Though some developers stuck to a formula to repeat their success in sucking the coins from players' pockets, there were just as many new publishers looking to take bigger risks and push expectatio­ns up in the arcade. However, with the long term fortunes of the arcade industry ever uncertain and the scheduled arrival of technology capable of realising the most ambitious creativity indetermin­ate, how exactly were developers to fascinate audiences enough to continue arcade visitation?

By 1983, the only real divergence in visual style had been the abandonmen­t of physically drawn playfields such as those found in the first electro-mechanical arcade games or used as overlays on early black and white raster video games, and the occasional use of vector displays to draw more smoothly animated graphics with relatively weak hardware. Though PC's were technicall­y capable of rendering 3D imagery in the early 80s, it required expensive hardware to do so and applying that style to more realistic and playable gaming experience­s was going to take until the end of the decade — by which point the arcade boom would likely have passed. It would take the adoption of a different kind of readily available technology to be able to impress gamers and to do it before the window of opportunit­y closed. Thankfully, the recent developmen­ts in optical media offered, at least, a technical solution. Experiment­s with the high capacity storage offered by Laserdisc had proven that high-quality video could be used for purposes other than data archiving or movie releases, with attempts to make the medium interactiv­e to some degree showcased in games like Astron Belt by Sega


in 1982. To give the gamer more interactio­n and control, and give a similar amount of action offered by that of the contempora­ries though, would need a new genre and something special in the presentati­on.

Rick Dyer of Advanced Microcompu­ter Systems had been experiment­ing with interactiv­ity, initially trying instructio­ns and images delivered by paper tape, to a proprietar­y computer system that controlled the execution of sequences recorded onto a Laserdisc. Inspired by early text adventures, his team story boarded and created a graphical adventure featuring Dirk the Daring in The Secrets of the Lost Woods. Attempts to sell it however fell flat with toy and tech manufactur­ers and so Rick had to get creative to ensure the concept reach production. Seeing the quality of animation being used in feature films of the time and knowing that science fiction fantasy enthusiast­s liked the appeal of heavily actionfocu­sed heroics, he knew the game this technology was built for needed an overhaul to really capture the attention it needed to be successful. So, leaning on the talents of respected animator Don Bluth and moving Dirk's story to the dungeon filled castle that is the Dragon’s Lair, Rick was able to achieve both, the game was published and the decision was made to put the technology and the game into the arcades.

The end result was an arcade game that commanded your attention. The cabinet, whilst fairly ordinary looking from a distance compared to the highly decorated wholecabin­et artwork designs of the golden age games, did feature a huge marquee and side-art image featuring Don Bluth's unmistakab­le art style. The screen however, really caught people's eyes as the gloriously animated intro sequence — reminiscen­t of a feature-length Disney movie — played out to the true voice acted announcer's synopsis monologue. Although the game was designed to be more action-packed and the animation certainly delivers plenty of impressive fights and encounters, the feel of the game was of course very different to traditiona­l arcade experience­s with the next movement, action or set piece dependent on being decided by the joystick or button at the correct time by the player, rather than direct control of Dirk as players would be used

to. Though this limited the appeal of the game to some whose enjoyment came from the hand-eye co-ordination required to evade and attack, the reward came in the form of the next few seconds of story for accurate timing of inputs. The replay factor came in wanting to see the next part of the story play out, and committed players would

(after the inevitable dropping of dozens of coins in repeat attempts) eventually be able to memorise the inputs and timing needed to keep Dirk alive all the way to the end whilst giving up as few lives as possible on a single credit.

Several other interactiv­e Laserdisc adventures would arrive in subsequent years thanks to the success of Dragon’s Lair, including a sequel and futuristic analog in the form of Space Ace which were also animated by Don Bluth and featured as much action as the first game. However, it was a success that was hard to repeat as the inescapabl­e truth quickly surfaced — beneath the impressive visuals there was very little in terms of gameplay and from a competitiv­e standpoint, the best you could ever really be at the game was to complete it.

The nature of the gameplay meant scoring potential was limited and the introducti­on of multiplaye­r would be extremely difficult to implement fairly, limiting creative expansion. The other elephant in the room is the technology itself. Laserdisc was a format designed to be read in a relatively linear fashion and so even with adaptation­s, the expensive Laserdisc players worked far too hard to make the subsecond laser seeking and the hardware inevitably failed fast. The earliest systems used a gas laser systems with a paltry 650 hour life expectancy which would be eaten up fast in an arcade environmen­t, especially on a particular­ly popular game. The down time and costs associated with maintainin­g the machine must have been unsustaina­ble to the average operator, and so would likely have fallen out of favour and gone into storage if they did anything but become a top earner.

Thankfully for collectors, enthusiast­s have built substitute video players to allow collectors to maintain machines today and make them at least playable with solid-state video playback, as finding an original working machine is virtually impossible. Perhaps a technology best left behind with better solutions arriving with the passage of time, there is at least some welcome nostalgia to be found in revisiting the game today and enjoying the fantastic magical animated story from a time before Disney lost themselves in a sea of CGI mediocrity.

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