Dragon's Lair

Albegas | Astron Belt | Atomic Castle | Badlands | Bega's Battle | Cliff Hanger | Cobra Command | Cube Quest | Dragon's Lair | Dragon's Lair II | Firefox | Galaxy Ranger | Goal To Go | Interstellar | M.A.C.H. 3 | Space Ace | Star Rider | Super Don Quixote | Thayer's Quest | Time Traveler | Us Vs. Them

  • Believe it or not, people within the video gaming industry had been talking about "interactive" entertainment long before the explosion of multimedia PC sales in the 90's. Even as early as 1981, folks were already excitedly talking about games which could only be accomplished through disc players. In fact, a few examples of the art showed themselves in the form of the critically acclaimed Mystery Disc series and other programming where viewers could interact with the footage on screen.

  • The Age of the Laser Game wouldn't take place until Sega unveiled Astron Belt at a coin-op trade show in 1982. Even in its rudimentary form, it was easy to see a vision of the future of arcade games. One couldn't compare the impact of live action film with the likes of a Donkey Kong or Pac-Man. At a time when the game industry was experiencing a severe slump in earnings, it became readily apparent that the most receptive area for new growth could well be in adapting laserdisc hardware for arcade players everywhere. The potential seemed so limitless as it once was when video games first made their presence felt in the early to mid-seventies. only this time the stakes were much higher, not only in terms of the survival of the industry, but also in the cost to develop games of this type. Because it was so new, Astron Belt had a few problems, and Sega decided against an instant American release of the game (it was released in Japan, but did not make an appearance in American arcades until the fall of 1983). But the news that laser games were coming traveled fast, and the excitement began to build -- and was still building -- when the second laser game, Dragon's Lair (Cinematronics/Magicom) was shown in the spring of 1983 just a few short months after the introduction of Astron Belt. Dragon's Lair would not only change the timetable for the availability of laser disc machines, but also alter the thinking of just what the new technology could provide with a little imagination and a great deal of talent. Dragon's Lair was a curious success, right from the beginning. Certainly, heading into 1983, few industry insiders would have figured the "Next Big Arcade Game" to come from the bankrupt (Chapter 11) Cinematronics. The El Cajon coin-op company had been an invisible, if revolutionary, entity in terms of industry recognition for almost a decade leading up to Dragon's Lair. Actually, Cinematronics introduced vector games to arcades with Star Hawk, a seminal space shooter, and produced the cult-favorite Star Castle. Alas, vector graphics were perceived as "fad" among arcade testmakers when games such as Zaxxon were taking the traditional raster graphics to the limits.

  • At the AMOA show in New Orleans in the Summer of 1983, laser games were out in full force with no less than 13 offerings on display from coin-op giants such as Atari, Gottlieb (shortly to change its name to Mylstar), Williams, Taito, Bally, Data East and brand new entrants to the coin-op sweepstakes such as Laser Disc Computer Systems, Simutek, and Funai. What the press saw in the laser games was the hottest new technology around: coin-ops with multitrack stereo sound effects and concert-quality music, screen images that rival any movie, and -- in some cases -- new, souped-up computer graphics that nearly cut the laserdisc images for clarity and realism. Most members of the press came away convinced that, if they do nothing else, laser games would be destined to permanently raise player expectations about how coin-ops should look and sound. The laser hype was so strong, in fact, that home videogame companies such as Atari and Coleco quickly announced home laserdisc modules for the 5200 SuperSystem and Colecovision game systems, respectively.

  • What industry pundits did not expect, however, was the demise of laser-based games by the middle of 1984. A great number of laser games lived a short life in the arcades and as a result, many of them were rarely seen and are incredibly difficult to find today. How many gamers remember having a go at such titles as Cube Quest, Super Don Quixote, Interstellar or Us vs. Them?

  • Rick Dyer of RDI Systems Inc., however, did not give up on laser games and released the Halcyon home laserdisc game system in 1984. It was only available for a short time and was an unqualified disaster as consumers were unwilling to pay over $2000 for a machine that only had two games available for it at the time it was discontinued. The Halcyon version of Thayer's Quest was voice-activated instead of the keyboard input used in the arcade version, and the laserdisc was double-sided and had a whole lot more footage than its coin-op counterpart. This may have been the first instance of a home game being of better quality than the coin-op, and also released at the same time.

  • Why did laser games fail? For starters, the laserdisc players themselves cost thousands of dollars at the time. While CD-ROM players and laserdisc machines are inexpensive today, that wasn't the case in 1983. Furthermore, reliability was spotty and maintenance and repair costs were often stratospheric. Many of the early laser games used an industrial Pioneer laserdisc machine that was filling up the company's warehouses where they remained, unsold. Since the particular machine had been discontinued by that time, when the machines began to break down at alarming levels, Pioneer did not have enough replacement parts necessary to meet the demand for parts. But Pioneer wasn't the only culprit. Laserdisc machines by Philips also were extremely unreliable. And even when arcade operators did receive reinforcements, many coin-op technicians lacked the experience and know-how to properly maintain and repair the machines. Finally, there were high development costs associated with developing the games themselves. The production of laser-based games was not a simple matter of assembling a team of designers, programmers and artists like in the days of yore, Actors, animators and computer graphics experts were often needed. As a consequence, laserdisc games for the first time began to cost 50 cents per game (or more) instead of a quarter which was the norm at the time.

  • But the reason given by most people for the failure of laserdisc games has to do with gameplay. Aside from the incredibly rich graphics that laser footage offered, the play action and control were sluggish because of the slow speed of laserdiscs, and the screen would also blank out during particular sequences, which made many laser games more of a novelty attraction -- a two-week wonder. In addition, after Dragon's Lair appeared, manufacturers raced to come up with their own laser machines, with the philosophy being "get it into the arcades, and subject matter be damned." Most of them featured retreads of familiar game concepts like Tempest or even Space Invaders, played out with the usual computer-generated figures against a background of gorgeous video "wallpaper". The other type prevalent in the laser age was of the Dragon's Lair variety -- interactive movies using stored animated or live-action images only -- where players have limited control of their gameplay environment and merely control the outcome of each cartoon or video footage scene by correctly entering the right move at each decision point. In short, companies were falling into the derivative trap that nearly did in the conventional video games. Boredom rapidly set in.

  • But if Myst, 7th Guest, Riven Revolution X and Lethal Enforcers can be so popular with gamers today, does it mean that laser games were ahead of their time? Or are game players today easier to please than gamers of yore? After all, laser games fizzled less than two years after Dragon's Lair first burst onto the scene in 1983. Regardless of the reasons for the laserdisc coin-op's quick demise, the term "multimedia" would have to wait until nearly a decade later with the advent of Multimedia PCs. One final note: Laserdisc games did make a brief comeback in the early '90s, most notably by American Laser Games with Mad Dog McCree, Who Shot Johnny Rock and a few others.

  • Let us now take a look at a few of the well-known laser games as well as those that barely made it to market (and are therefore exceptionally rare today for obvious reasons).

    Many thanks to Bobby Tribble for contributing to this section with lots of pics and some write-ups.

    Albegas (Sega/Bally/Midway)
    Astron Belt (Sega/Bally/Midway)
    Atomic Castle (LDCS)
    Badlands (Konami)
    Bega's Battle (Data East)
    Cliffhanger (Stern/Taito)
    Cobra Command (Data East)
    Cube Quest (Simutek)
    Dragon's Lair (Cinematronics/Starcom)
    Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp (Leland)
    Firefox (Atari)
    Galaxy Ranger (Sega/Bally/Midway)
    Goal to Go (Stern)
    Interstellar (Funai)
    Laser Grand Prix (Taito)
    MACH 3 (Mylstar)
    Space Ace (Cinematronics/Starcom)
    Star Rider (Williams)
    Super Don Quixote (Universal)
    Thayer's Quest (RDI)
    Time Traveler (Sega)
    Us vs. Them (Mylstar)

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