Entering the Dragon’s Lair (into ICHEG’s Collections)

The more than 140 arcade cabinets ICHEG owns are key components of our tens of thousands of video games and related artifacts. Our arcade cabinets range from early pioneers like Computer Space and Pong to rare titles like a stand-up Discs of Tron and the only copy of Sega’s giant Tetris in North America. Still, one game remained on my wish list until only recently: Dragon’s Lair. Now we own an original, working version!

I remember when Cinematronics debuted Dragon’s Lair in 1983; the game’s lavish animation and high-quality audio stood out in an arcade sea of pixilated screens and synthesized sounds. In the role of the noble knight Dirk the Daring, a player dodged traps, leaped pits, and slew monsters on his quest to rescue princess Daphne. That was the idea at least. In reality, players died early and often because the game contained a laser disc that rewarded timing rather than tactics, and move-memorization rather than strategic thinking. At 50 cents a pop the game was a coin-hog, sucking away players’ quarters. After a few tries, I realized that I lacked the skill—and the cash, to get far into the game. So I contented myself with watching accomplished players fight and jump their way deep into the recesses of the castle, while I saved my quarters for my own longer bouts of Galaga or Moon Patrol.But even if the game humbled me, it still mesmerized me. Dragon’s Lair’s creators Rick Dyer and Don Bluth pushed the limits of technology by incorporating a laser disc player that made possible its cinematic graphics, superior audio, and compelling storyline. Today’s console titles like Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and Red Dead Redemption benefit from the stimulus that Dragon’s Lair gave to games. Over the past three decades, the huge increases in processing power that have taken place—the natural outgrowth of Moore’s Law—provide an opportunity for today’s computers to fully realize the possibilities of the game play that Dragon’s Lair suggested.

I’ve been fortunate to find a moment here and there to play Dragon’s Lair in the ICHEG lab. And although I’m still terrible at timing my jumps and sword swipes, each time I try it, I am reminded anew of what a revolutionary, compelling game it was.