By Sean Harris

The grandfather laserdisc cartoon game that reinvigorated a slumping arcade scene and forevermore changed expectations of visual presentation. Appearing amidst far less sophisticated looking machines toting early computer graphics, the Disney-quality animation and soundtrack laden with voices and music drew spectators around cabinets so much that many had to install additional high screen monitors to keep the players from getting mobbed. At a whopping fifty cents per play, you could set your feet in the boots of Dirk the Daring, the bumbling knight charged with the duty of entering the enchanted castle of an evil wizard and freeing his captive princess Daphne from a giant, scaly creature.

Enter At Thy Own Risk.

And it wasn’t an easy task to learn for most. While it was able to bring a new dimension to aesthetics and storytelling, the interaction with the then newly designed hardware put severe compromise on the controls. Instead of freewill and full movement of a single bit mapped sprite, you were essentially confined to being in a moving video on a fixed timeline. The tale plays out, and the player watches, making critical timing movements with either the joystick or sword button to keep the film advancing. But things had to be done at just the right time, and in just the right way, or it was off to one of many imaginative and often humorous death sequences for your struggling hero.

Use your sword to kill the goo monster, then move quickly down to evade the slime (and prepare for another encounter at the cauldron!)

As the forerunner of a string of similar games that would appear to have a piece of the monetary pie slice, DRAGON’S LAIR had the burden of breaking in the format with warts in tow. While the animation would occasionally signal you toward a correct move, you were often left in the dark on just what it was you had to do next (therefore trial and error, and a considerable strain on your wallet, was the only way to test all possible outcomes). At each decision point, the player must go UP, DOWN, RIGHT, LEFT, or SWORD correctly, but with limited hints or guidelines, it left a lot of room open for experimentation. Some of the sequences involved going an obvious direction, but in a certain time-frame. Others had two possible moves that would end correctly, and two that would not. Many ill timed or wrong decisions would just emit a low buzz from the speakers, while in other instances it would trigger the dreaded kill screens. With only three Dirk’s a game (and no continues), many quarters left many hands trying to figure out the Lair’s vast trove of secrets.

Move forward (UP) just as the batons cross the path at the same time.

But that was part of its charm back then in 1983, and it’s still a blast to run through all these years later, whether you’re an ace or a novice. Once you get the hang of things, it’s really all about reflex and memory, and on the normal difficulty setting a veteran can go through it straight without a single mistake in roughly fourteen minutes. There are thirty-nine rooms to clear in the castle, seven of those repeated and “mirrored” the opposite direction to throw in a little extra confusion. They can appear to be randomly set to the eyes of a beginner, but there is indeed a method to which screens come up and when (visit www.dragonslairproject.com for a breakdown of the complicated room cycling). Only upon clearing all of them at least once can you gain access to the final encounter with the dragon, and get a shot at taking home the voluptuous, squeaky voiced maiden.

In this bad outcome, bat takes knight.

A stunning accomplishment that was far ahead of its own time, DRAGON’S LAIR showcased beautiful Don Bluth artistry while immersing eager players into a realm of interactive narrative that had never before been seen. It also forced computer graphics-based competition to start upping their standards and putting more muscle into game design, from both a script and detail standpoint. As one of just three arcade machines in the Smithsonian to this day, it still stands as a captivating, innovative milestone in the annuals of coin-operated video gaming.