When it landed in 1983, Dragon's Lair was truly unlike anything ever seen in an arcade. The gorgeous cartoon visuals not only justified an unthinkable 50-cent spend back then, they became the most memorable of pre-crash arcade classics.
With Dragon's Lair's port to the iPhone and iPod Touch, EA Mobile and Digital Leisure are banking that the game's nostalgia and its basic simplicity have found the perfect medium - an impulse buy on a mobile platform. But does Dragon's Lair still feel the same on the small screen?
Bona Fide Dragon's Lair: This is a scene for scene port of the 1983 classic, which started the short-lived but much beloved craze of laserdisc games. You can dial up your nostalgia however you want it. Arcade mode will present you the game and will randomize its scenes the same way you played them in the cabinet 25 years ago. "Home mode" includes additional scenes that were cut from the arcade version, allows you to immediately replay levels you fail, and will be most familiar to those who played ports of this on the PC or Mac in the past. You can give yourself three, five or unlimited lives in both modes, the latter being most useful if you're trying to finally make it all the way through. Just know that you will not record a high score with unlimited lives unless you actually do finish the game. Finally, the correct-move beep can be enabled, both as a gameplay assist, and also to complete the full arcade experience.
The Move Guide: You have a movement assist feature in this game that will light up the correct direction (or sword button) to press to advance the scene, if you just want to see the game all the way through. On some levels, the sequence of moves you must make is faster than what the guide can display. The level with the black knight on the electrified floor is a perfect example, and very frustrating to die repeatedly when you think you're doing what you're told. But when the guide does work, you're just watching the controls, and not the scenes as they play out, which are the point of the game in the first place. You can't enable or disable the guide mid-game, in case you run into a tough spot and need help for just one section. Even playing without the guide, Dragon's Lair was and always will be a very difficult game of pinpoint reactions with a small window of opportunity to execute them. Unlike its cousin Space Ace, which was a breeze to play on the iPhone, Dragon's Lair's trial-and-error process includes finding not only the correct move, but the correct millisecond to make it - even when you think you know when to do it. For example, I remembered that making it past the swinging "socker-boppers" was pegged to pressing forward when they both lined up - Dirk's grunting was a second cue. But the screen is small and the speaker can be blocked by how you hold the device, making picking up such things very difficult. The game still works, but you're going to die a ton of times before you get the hang of how to move through a level, even if you know the correct moves or have them presented to you by the guide.
The Pause that Doesn't Refresh: You'd better really want to finish Dragon's Lair because you will be playing it all the way through in one shot if you're trying to beat it. Which, once you get the hang of this game, won't take long. But getting the hang of it will. If you pause anywhere in the middle of a level, you return to the beginning of that level. OK, fine, I can plan my bathroom breaks accordingly. What I forgot to do was put the phone in airplane mode, because any incoming call ends the game where you are and reboots it. Incoming text? You're back to the title screen. Whether because no effort was made, or it was a limitation with no workaround, players have no way to preserve their state in this game.
If it's your first encounter with Dragon's Lair, this version is not ideal. Find a playable DVD or PC port instead. If it were any other game, honestly, I would have given up. But I just had to see Dirk get all bug-eyed and shriek "Wow!" the first time he spies Daphne, who really knows how to sex up the protips. ("To slay the Dragon, use the magic sword...!" she purrs.)
Then again, I don't know a soul who ever beat Dragon's Lair in the arcade, and my friends and I fired stacks of quarters down it, often without ever successfully passing a level. So I have been conditioned to the abuse and have paid lots more than $4.99 for it. If Dragon's Lair has a problem, aside from the pause/interruption issue, it's one very common to iPhone/iPod Touch games, and I've complained about it relentlessly. You must obscure what you're looking at to control the action. And it's on a small enough screen to begin with. So it's telling that I got through a lot of these levels with no recollection of what it looked like doing so, and that's half the fun - and point - of the vintage laserdisc games.
Dragon's Lair was developed by Digital Leisure and published by Electronic Arts for the iPhone and Ipod Touch on Dec. 7. Retails for $4.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types; completed Home mode. Died, like, a billion times, though.
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