Earlier this week an old arcade game from 1983 was released on Nintendo Switch. It is one of the few video games that was actually present at the Smithsonian Institute (Pac-Man is another; along with Pong) as it holds a historic place in the legacy of video gaming.
The name of the animated interactive experience is called Dragon’s Lair.
Oh you’ve heard of it? Not surprising — since the title has been released and re-released for dozens of gaming platforms over the decades.
At the time, video games were in their infancy and even in the arcades the graphics presented are almost unbelievable (even for those of us that lived through the era):
Meanwhile in the same year, Dragon’s Lair came out and this is what it looked like in the arcade cabinet right next to Mario. Bros.
Dragon’s Lair is a fully animated video game — drawn by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth (Secret of Nimh, All Dogs Go To Heaven). Unlike other games, you didn’t directly control the character — but rather tapped directions and buttons to “keep the movie playing”. Failure resulted in death of your on screen persona.
Later generations would be exposed to similar technology in what was known in the 1990s as “FMV Games” (full-motion video games) featuring real actors and sets but having limited interactive “game play”.
But that is a topic for another article.
“Retro gaming” or classic gaming is very big right now. Endless packs and collections are available for old consoles and arcade games. Make a trip to a big box store like Wal-mart or Target and you’ll see mini-arcade cabinets for a few hundred bucks that promise to bring the games you used to love to your living room.
There is no doubt about it; check listings on eBay for coveted old video games and you’ll see some titles commanding top dollar. People are willing to pay out the nose to relive their video gaming childhoods.
… and why not? Have you been paying attention to the nonsense going on with video gaming today? Dragon’s Lair didn’t have loot boxes or dances to unlock.
Those of you that have followed me around throughout the decades know I have been involved with retro video gaming long before it was cool (or expensive) and one of the biggest sticking points to me when looking at these repacks, re-releases or retro-gaming-cash-grabs is …
Just how authentic is the experience?
First world problems, right? Someone is starving in the streets, but Shane R. Monroe is worried that Pac-Man sounds a little funny or Pitfall! runs 10% slower than the original Commodore 64 version. Why is HE so concerned that Centipede should really be played with a track-ball and not a joystick?
Let’s say you own … a pet duck.
If one day, someone took YOUR duck and replaced it with a duck that looked pretty close to your duck. Would you care?
Of course you would. It LOOKS like a duck … it quacks like a duck … it IS a duck.
But it isn’t YOUR duck.
Companies that produce “ducks” in the way of classic video games don’t seem to get this. They believe as long as they produce a duck that is close enough to the duck you remember — that’s sufficient.
The problem is that the masses that are being offered these ducks? They don’t have good memories of the ducks that they grew up with. They remember colors and feathers and the sounds. But they don’t remember the traits, behaviors and particulars of the duck they loved.
For them? Any close-enough duck will do.
When you go to Target and buy one of those little mini Burgertime arcade cabinets — you’re not getting the arcade version of Burgertime. You’re getting some OTHER version of Burgertime (like an NES version — or worse). It looks like Burgertime and it plays like Burgertime. But it isn’t the arcade version of Burgertime.
Remember these? Jakks Pacific made a fortune selling retro game shaped TV games that didn’t require a console or anything to play; just put in some batteries and plug it into your TV.
For those that grew up feeding Pac-Man quarters on a daily basis were able to memorize patterns of how the ghosts moved. By honing this skill, they were able to become better and get higher scores.
Those patterns don’t exist on these TV games. They don’t exist on the NES versions of Pac-Man that are subsequently sold as retro consoles.
Looks like a duck. Quacks like a duck. But that duck doesn’t do the trick you taught him. Many duck owners don’t care.
But some of us duck owners do.
Sometimes, the authenticity is ruined by something like the controllers.
In the early days of gaming, video game designers were able to create whatever control scheme they wanted for their arcade games. Consider this one:
Some games depend on trackballs, spinners and other customized controllers and/or button layouts to play them as they were intended.
Even if they made perfect reproductions of these games for the home user — the experience is lost because the control schemes are not easily recreated.
They want you to play something Centipede (which used a high precision trackball) like this:
But, we made it look like a duck and quack like a duck. Close enough.
For many of us? These are counterfeit products. These are mere shadows of what we grew up with and what we want to relive. Frauds. Cheats. Lies.
When you look at other collectors or folks looking to experience things they once loved — be it vintage cars, old comics … whatever … the level of authenticity is highly scrutinized. It has to be the EXACT printing of the comic. It must be an ORIGINAL ashtray for the car in question.
Those ducks can’t be “close enough”. They have to be the actual duck.
If someone released your favorite childhood movie and replaced all the guns with walkie-talkies and sold it back to you … that would probably piss you off, right?
What if they went back into a film that defined your childhood and … I dunno .. made a different character shoot first? It’s still Star Wars. Looks like Star Wars. SOUNDS like Star Wars.
So let’s get back to Dragon’s Lair.
Dragon’s Lair is a cartoon. Essentially a movie. While you play it, you must use a controller to tap directions and actions to keep the movie flowing at exactly the right time. If the cartoon is altered or the moves aren’t the same as you memorized them back in 1983?
Operation: Nostalgia has failed.
Over the years (and versions), there were times when Dragon’s Lair was not up to snuff. The animation was changed. The moves weren’t accurate. The timing was off.
Hopefully you can understand (by watching how the game works) that deviation from an accurate representation could be frustrating to the gamer and tarnish the nostalgic experience.
But Dragon’s Lair isn’t alone — and it is not even the exception to the rule of “just good enough” when it comes to retro video games and their often inaccurate recreations.
Something that is not tolerated in other vintage markets.
As usual, the bigger fault of this trend lies with us — the classic gamer and consumer. We seem (by and large) to be willing to spend good money on these pseudo recreations. If we weren’t speaking with our wallets, these recreations wouldn’t exist … or at least exist in the half-baked state they tend to be.
More ducks will come and more ducks will be sold. Hopefully after this article, you may examine your duck a little closer before you take him home.
Oh, how did Dragon’s Lair on the Nintendo Switch stand up to my excessive nostalgic scrutiny? Check out my review here.