The Disney Civil War That Led to Arcade Video Game Classics

Illustration for article titled The Disney Civil War That Led to Arcade Video Game Classics

We don't often associate Disney with video games - not outside of its current push as a publisher, anyway - but in the late 1970's, turmoil at the famous animation studio inadvertently led to the creation of two arcade classics.


Don Bluth was an animator at Disney in the 60's and 70's, who worked on movies like 101 Dalmations, Sleeping Beauty and Robin Hood. In 1979, however, having been worked to the bone on Pete's Dragon with no bonuses or thanks, Bluth quit, amidst reports (like this Variety article) that all was not well in the relationship between Disney's executives and its animators.

He quickly formed his own company, Don Bluth Productions. Which, for the record, did not build houses.


Had Bluth left on his own, it wouldn't have been that big a deal. Lots of people work on movies. But when Bluth left, he took eleven of Disney's animators with him. Ever wonder why Disney stopped making good cartoons for around a decade, starting with the early 1980's? Yeah, it was largely because of that.

Don Bluth Productions lasted from 1979 until 1985, and during that time produced only one feature animated film, cult favourite The Secret of NIMH. While also putting out on animated short, the rest of Bluth's time was taken up in a spin-off venture with a man by the name of Rick Dyer.

The pair came up with the idea to produce arcade games that, using new laserdisc technology, could display Bluth's top-shelf animation during gameplay instead of the relatively primitive sprites or vectors other games could manage. In 1983, the first of these games, Dragon's Lair - one of the first games to ever charge two quarters for a single play - hit arcades.

On the downside, the use of pre-recorded visuals meant gameplay was incredibly primitive, relegating the "player" to someone making directorial decisions like when to initiate an attack. But for many, that didn't matter. Dragon's Lair looked amazing, the clarity of laserdisc and the quality of Bluth's work resulting in a game that still looks great even by today's standards.

It was followed a year later by Space Ace, a similar title which at least gave players a little more involvement, as instead of executing quick-time-events they could also make basic decisions like which path the hero would take.


Although Bluth's first independent venture went bankrupt shortly after, in 1985, he would quickly found another animation company, and later go on to work for 20th Century Fox. In that time, he worked on movies like An American Tail, Land Before Time and Titan A.E.

Illustration for article titled The Disney Civil War That Led to Arcade Video Game Classics

Commander Borf, the villain of Space Ace (and who Bluth actually provided the voice for!)

He has also found time to work with video games a little more, providing the cinematics for forgettable 2003 platformer I-Ninja, and more recently provided the artwork for Tapper: World Tour, which was out earlier this year.


It's easy to deride the primitive gameplay of these titles now, but remember, back then the sheer quality of the game's graphics made the reduced interactivity less of a concern. The millions of dollars the games (including a 1991 sequel to Dragon's Lair) made backed this up.


It also "inspired", for better or worse, similar games produced during the "FMV" (full motion video) era of the PC CD-ROM, 3DO and Sega CD, who would rely on pre-recorded visuals at the expense of actual gameplay.

And to think, all that came about not through a bold, visionary, lifelong plan, but because a guy who worked at Disney got worked too hard and quit!


Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends


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Another reason that Bluth left was that he (and the other animators) felt that the Disney brass had lost touch with the company's original spirit. Bluth and co. had been brought up by the old-guard of animators, guys who worked on the masterpieces of the 40's and 50's, to carry the touch and keep the art of animation alive. If you look at Disney's films in the 1970's its pretty obvious that they were cutting costs on the animation end and forcing the animators to pump out subpar work for the sake of profit. Compare The Secret of NIHM to any of Disney's late 70's work and you'll see a huge difference in quality, which is even more impressive since NIHM had a small budget.

The sad thing is that 2D animation seems to be dying in the States. I like CG but there's a charm with hand-drawn stuff that just can't be replicated. There are still people keeping the art-form alive but it's pretty clear that we'll never see feature-length animation on par with Bambi or Pinocchio again.