Allow me to take you on a journey to the outer reaches of the bad videogame, a place where words like "fun", "fairness" and "excitement" are forbidden, replaced with an unending stream of bullshit and baffling design choices. A place of darkness, hopelessness and smashed control pads. A place called Dragon's Lair on the NES.
You might already know about Dragon's Lair. If you don't, it was an arcade game released in 1983 featuring Dirk the Daring and his attempts to rescue Princess Daphne from a dragon. Its main claim to fame was its graphics: stored on a Laserdisc, Dragon's Lair featured beautiful cartoon graphics created by former Disney artist Don Bluth.
The gameplay was, in essence, a series of Quick-Time Events where you had to press a direction or the Sword button in reaction to whatever was happening on the screen. The gameplay wasn't up to much but the graphics, especially when compared to contemporary titles like the original Mario Bros. (released the same year,) were astounding and made Dragon's Lair one of the most successful arcade games ever. So, it's a pretty sub-par game elevated to a much higher status by having good graphics. That's fair enough. However, the success of DL meant that publishers were very keen indeed to release versions for the home consoles of the time. Home consoles that could not come anywhere close to recreating the graphics of the arcade version, robbing DL of the one thing that set it apart. This is where our tale of woe begins.
Much the same as Pierre le Chef, I was bought the NES version of DL when I was a child by a relative who was no doubt well-intentioned but had unwittingly exposed me to one of the greatest sources of pain in my short life. Whoever bought it for me, I forgive you. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea, with its cartoony cover and promises of thrilling battles with evil dragons. You weren't to know. The wounds are still there, but I hope this article will go some way to aiding the healing process.
Some of you might be thinking to yourselves "If this game is so bad, why did you play it?" That's because when I was a child, the arrival of a new videogame was a rare and wondrous event, with usually only birthdays and Christmas supplying a fresh batch of pixellated joy. When we got a new game, that meant we had to play the game as much as possible, because it was all we had and the thought of playing a terrible videogame was much more appealing than the thought of playing no videogames at all. So Dragon's Lair and I became rivals, bitter enemies who spent years inflicting pain on each other. It was like being married to an adulterous, short-tempered, brain-damaged cobra.
Onto the game itself, then. Rather than the QTE extravaganza of the arcade version, NES owners were lumped with what might be described as a “platformer” but more accurately described as a “lurch around slowly while dying a lot simulator”. Pictured above is the first screen of the game .You play as Dirk the Daring, the lanky knight on the left. The first thing you'll notice if you are ever unfortunate enough to play Dragon's Lair is that Dirk is incredibly, glacially slow. He's less a knight, more a vaguely humanoid pile of molasses. You'll also notice that pressing B makes you jump and A makes you attack, meaning the controls are the opposite of pretty much every NES game ever. Speaking of attacks, Dirk clearly has a sword: he walks with his hand on the hilt, so he should know where the bloody thing is. Sadly, you never get to see him use it, because pressing attack makes you throw small daggers instead. Once you move (very slowly) forward onto the drawbridge, some bats appear, some of the floor disintegrates and a goofy dragon pops his head up.
Obviously, the first thing you'd try and do is jump over the dragon and into the castle. Okay, so you give it a try. You're over the dragon! He can't turn around and hit you, so you're fine. Then you notice that the door has closed. Well, that's okay, maybe you just have to walk into it, maybe press a button. Oh no. Oh no, no, no. You see, walking into the closed door kills you instantly. Well, it doesn't just kill you; touching this eldritch oaken barrier causes Dirk to lose all his skin and crumble into a pile of bones.
What the fucking Christ. As you can see, the bullshit-o-meter is running pretty high, and we're still on the first screen. You restart back at the start of the screen, ready to try a different strategy. Walk forward, kill the bat, trigger the dragon's appearance and make your way back to the left hand side. Okay, now to just throw some daggers at the dragon. That'd be all well and good, but your daggers sail harmlessly over the dragon's head. If you crouch and throw, the dragon ducks too. The solution to this is something it took me a long, long time to figure out when I was a kid. What you have to do is get right to the left-hand side of the screen and throw your daggers so that they hit the dragon as they arc downwards. Oh, and make sure you duck in time to avoid the dragon's occasional fireballs, which will kill you instantly. Well, it's a little more understandable than the killer doors, I guess.
You do actually have a health bar, but touching anything other than the very smallest of enemies will simply kill you outright. Well that's fine, you might say, there are plenty of games where you die in one hit. Yes, but in those games you're not usually trying to control something with all the responsiveness and grace of a tranquilized walrus. Eventually, if you're very lucky, you might just make it into the castle...
...where you will be instantly killed by prisoners feebly throwing pebbles from their cells. Pebbles. Instant death. I think you see where this is going. Just ahead are some spikes that move up and down. They kill you in one hit, too. How the fuck did Dirk even become a knight? He's so delicate he'd probably have exploded in a shower of bones when he put his helmet on. No wonder he never uses his sword, he's probably afraid it'll turn on him and stab him in the junk.
Then some snakes magically pop into existence. Not out of cracks in the walls, not falling from the ceiling, they're just there suddenly. They also spit pebbles. Deadly, deadly pebbles. I mean, of all the places where a snake might magically appear out of thin fucking air and spit a small rock at you, an evil dragon's castle is probably one of the most likely, but come on; this is the second goddamn screen of the game.
Oh yes, and this prick. The Lizard King. No, not Jim Morrison's ghost, but a snake in a dressing gown who randomly appears and floats around, trying to bump into you. He's invincible but luckily he doesn't kill you in one hit, which is a refreshing change in the same way that having a mouthful of battery acid is a refreshing change from having a mouthful of your own faeces.
The boss, if you want to call it that (and if you do, what is wrong with you?) is a small corridor where the mystical snakes keep appearing, spitting their deadly rocks at you. Jesus, even Splatterhouse let you get hit more than once!
After that, you're placed on an elevator, traveling downward. A small platform appeared at the side, so I jumped off and confidently stepped into what I assumed what stage two. Except it wasn't stage two, it was STAGE FUCKING ONE. Getting off the lift at the wrong place forces you to do the stages you have previously passed again. How is that physically possible, anyway?! I traveled down, but ended up at the same vertical level that I started the game at? Can I ignore the laws of physics now? Huh? CAN I? If so, I'd like to teleport far, far away from this goddamn castle, take off and nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
Eventually (after dying a couple of times trying make the jump from the elevator) I made it to stage two. I think. For all I know, it could be stage eighty-seven, or stage three thousand, four hundred and ninety-one, or stage Why The Hell Am I Still Playing This Game. Stage two is a mine-type area, still full of bats and insta-death sliding blocks, but with the added complication of nigh-invisible moving platforms.
You have to walk in time with the platform, or it just rolls out from under you and you fall onto a giant fluffy pillow. No, I'm kidding, you die. Does Dirk have no friction on his feet? I'm pretty sure that if you stand on something that's moving, you move with it.
The boss is a pair of dwarves or goblins or some other Tolkien nonsense. They hide in some mine carts and throw rocks at you. I dunno, maybe Dirk has a rare and fatal allergy to rocks. You're a knight, goddamit! Just walk up to them and slice their heads open with that sword that you clearly have right there, you're resting your hand on it right now, STAB HIM! After that's done with, it's back to the elevator of doom and on to stage three. I'd just like the mention that the exits of the elevator change after each level, so odds are that you'll get off the lift at the wrong place and have to redo a stage you've already completed. Oh ho ho, doesn't that sound like fun, children?
Stage three is full of floating skulls, including one floating skull who bobs up and down until you hit him, which makes him stop in place, spinning on his axis and firing death-rocks at you. Of course, as soon as you see him your first instinct is to throw a dagger at him. Bad move! Now the skull has stopped right in the middle of your path, blocking your way, and he won't move again until you die. You have to remember that he's coming up and make sure you hit him at the top of his arc; otherwise you can't get past him. I really am losing the will to go on at this point. There are also some swinging-ball death-trap things, but they're surprising easy to dodge. You can also get a weapon upgrade!
You can get throwing axes instead of your daggers. Joy of joys, rapture unconfined. Just beyond the axe is this little area:
Doesn't look like anything special, right? Well, what you are looking at here is one of the worst sections of any videogame I have ever played. I have played a lot of bad games. I've played the Transformers game for the NES. I've played Hooters Road Trip. I've played E.T., goddamnit. But in all my years of videogaming, this, this is the worst area. You see, there's a small platform that moves back and forth across the gap. Okay, that's fine. I can deal with that. It doesn't quite cover the whole gap, so you can't walk onto it. Again, that's fine, I'll just jump it. Except, you see that small piece of the ceiling that's hanging down? That impedes your jumping. You bounce off it and travel backwards slightly. So the only way to get onto this platform is to purposefully smash Dirk's head into the wall and time it so that as he bounces, dazed and bloodied, off the protruding ceiling, he falls backwards onto the platform. You must them immediately hold right, otherwise the platform slides out from underneath you. Did I mention that there are skulls constantly spawning just over the platform? Because they are. They are also literally unavoidable, so your health is constantly being drained. Then, because the platform doesn't reach all the way across the gap, you have to make Dirk jump across, but because he is SO. GOD. DAMN. SLOW the platform usually moves from under you before you can jump. Oh, but it gets worse. Just at the edge of your destination platform, right in the only spot you can land on because Dirk has all the jumping power of a quadriplegic rhinoceros, is a power-up(down) that takes away your newly-acquired axe and gives you your daggers back.
Welp. I'm almost speechless. I hate this game so very much.
Somehow, I found the mental fortitude required to keep playing. After that last area, I think I might have ascended to a higher plane of consciousness because the rest of the stage floated by in a dreamlike haze. That or I was so full of rage I had an aneurysm and I’m in dire need of medical assistance.
The stage’s boss is Death, the Grim Reaper, the Ultimate Answer, a bony fellow with a scythe. You get the idea. I ran towards him, eager for his embrace and an end to the suffering, but then I remembered I hadn’t seen all the stages yet, so I shot him in the face until he died or un-died or whatever happens to Death when you batter him hard enough. Compared to the rest of the game, this battle is fairly easy. Fairly easy for Dragon’s Lair, I mean; if you were playing as Super Mario, it would be embarrassingly easy, but Dirk’s sluggishness and his tendency to die at the faintest of touches make sure that it becomes an exercise in grinding frustration.
A quick point; like Castlevania, Dragon’s Lair has Death as a boss but not the final boss. In many ways, DL is like a poor man’s Castlevania: a lone hero enters an evil castle, fights Death, and has trouble jumping. Except Castlevania is a true classic of the 8-bit era and Dragon’s Lair plays like it was programmed by a blind four-year-old.
Right then, the final stage. Gird yourself, everyone. The stage is set in a swamp of some kind, and the first thing you encounter is a bubble. Touching bubbles hurts you. Dirk, a grown man, a knight no less, wearing chainmail and a helmet is hurt by touching a bubble. You’re not surprised, right? I know I wasn’t. Dragon’s Lair has turned my into a paranoid schizophrenic, terrified that everything is out to get me, although in DL’s case it actually is. There are also some very difficult-to-kill baby dragons that are fatal if touched, and right at the end there’s a jump set up in such a way that you are almost guaranteed to pick up the daggers, making the final boss fight pretty much impossible.
And here is the final boss; Singe, the titular Dragon. He’s a fat, floppy-necked beast who fires smaller dragons out of his gut and breathes deadly smoke at you. He’s one of the most difficult, unfair and broken bosses that I have ever had the misfortune to fight. He’s like a thousand Geese Howards trapped in the body of podgy old dragon. He’s got two methods of attack: first, he can fire baby dragons at you, and they in turn can shoot fireballs. Touching either the baby dragon or its fireball is instant death. Singe can also fire puffs of smoke (he doesn’t breathe deadly, oh I don’t know, fire or anything, just smoke,) either at head height or along the ground. These are also lethal. Due to the NES’s limitations, sometimes the smoke puffs flicker or even disappear altogether, which will make your life a little more difficult.
If you come into this fight equipped with the daggers, forget it. Save your time, just turn the game off and walk away. I think it might actually be impossible to finish the game with the daggers: each of the baby dragons takes four daggers to kill, and you simply cannot kill them fast enough to avoid all the fireballs and smoke. Remember, the game laid a trap just before this fight whereby you are almost certain to pick up the daggers. It’s like getting to the end of a Final Fantasy game and having all your equipment removed just before the climactic battle, or getting to the final lap of a race in Gran Turismo and suddenly having your wheels fall off.
My hatred for this game reaches depths that have rarely been imagined in the history of humanity. I want to find all those responsible for its creation and force them to play it, over and over and over until Ragnarok begins and a giant pixellated dragon with a floppy neck descends from the sky and incinerates them all in a cloud of flickering smoke.
Singe’s attacks are random and unlearnable, and Dirk controls like a drunken moose, and everything kills you in one hit. Eventually, after a titanic battle – the battle to not stab myself in the face with pencil, I mean – Singe is finally defeated. Do you want to have a guess at the ending?
Of course. It’s just a single screen with some text and a badly-rendered picture of Dirk and Daphne. It seems rather fitting. They probably (and justifiably) figured that no-one would ever see it, but I have seen it. I’ve completed Dragon’s Lair. It’s over, and now I am at peace, the demons of my youth laid to rest.
So that’s Dragon’s Lair, a steaming pile of shit in the vague shape of a NES game. I’m trying to think of something, anything positive to say about the game so that this article doesn’t just come across as a hate-filled rant, but that’s precisely what it is. The only thing I can think of is that Dirk is quite well animated, and you have plenty of time to appreciate this as he slowly trudges around the screen. Apart from that, there’s nothing but pain and disappointment waiting for you here. The NES version of Dragon’s Lair can stand forever as a testament to the folly of putting graphics before gameplay: just don’t ever attempt to play it.
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