Read on, adventurer.

There can't be much doubt that Cinematronic's 1983 laserdisc coin-op Dragon's Lair is the most successful videogame in the history of the world that nobody will admit to liking. For over 20 years, Dragon's Lair games have been coining in cash hand-over-fist, while drawing nothing but bile from press and critics. This isn't some flash-in-the-pan phenomenon like Rise Of The Robots or the videogame versions of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, where big initial success was followed by disaster as consumers with burnt fingers pointedly ignored the attempted sequels and the franchises died a death - Dragon's Lair has been doing exactly what it always did for over two decades now, and yet the name's still a moneyspinner. So how come nobody's got a good word to say for it?

The incomparable Dirk The Daring. The castle's behind you, you idiot.

Well, your reporter has a confession to make. I like Dragon's Lair. There, I've said it. Oh, it's not the best game in the world or anything, not even in the top 100, but there's a simple, honest charm about DL that makes all the venom regularly heaped on it both terribly unfair and difficult to understand. It's aesthetically superior to games 20 years its junior, and has gameplay that's fundamentally very little different to that of hugely-acclaimed modern-day titles. It's popular enough with the gaming public to have generated not only dozens of games but also a merchandise line to rival anything short of Mario and Pac-Man.

It's been converted to just about every format imaginable (there's barely been a gaming system since the ZX81 that didn't get some sort of Dragon's Lair title), sometimes in several different forms - there are at least ten distinct DL games, never mind all the various ports. It's got atmosphere, brilliant characters and, in the gormless yet indefatigable Dirk The Daring, a loveable hero who oozes personality despite never saying a word. And yet, it's become a byword for everything that's bad about the "interactive movie" style of gaming, when there are many worse offenders that are almost universally critically adored. Half-Life, say.

You do wonder how such a rickety drawbridge supports a dirty great dragon. Presumably he flies in.

No, I'm not joking. Half-Life is almost as linear and pre-scripted as Dragon's Lair, and is just as happy to kill you instantly if you take a single step in the wrong direction. (The difference is, in Dragon's Lair at least you get a chance to make the right move first. Half-Life will quite happily kill you with zero warning just to move the story along, and if you inconveniently happen not to have quick-saved beforehand then that's just your tough luck. Enjoy trekking through everything from your last save point again.)

Then, of course, you've got Final Fantasy, an "interactive movie" that does away with most of the actual interacting (unless you count all the frantic pounding on the X button desperately trying to move the endless dialogue along, of course) - and which as a movie is overblown, pretentious sixth-form drivel compared to the punchy, funny, get-to-the-point Disney heritage of Dragon's Lair. Do we even have to start on the blockbusting Metal Gear Solid 2? Didn't think so. Compared to any of those, Dragon's Lair is Super Mario 64, gameplay-wise. Yet they're all heralded as masterpieces, while Dragon's Lair - for this reporter's money, twice as much fun as any of them - is sneered at and vilified. Huh?

We've all had kitchen days like this, right?

"But wait!", yells some ill-mannered oaf. "You can't compare games like those, where you have total control over your character all the time, with some rubbish where you just watch cartoons then press one button every few seconds." Tsk. Pay attention, thicky. Half-Life is every bit as much about making a single correct decision at a crucial moment as Dragon's Lair is. The fact that you have to do all the mechanical trudging between the important bits by yourself doesn't actually add anything to the gameplay. But let's see if we can find some even clearer examples that even a total buffoon will be able to follow.

You won't find many games more uniformly adored than Konami's Dance Dance Revolution / Dancing Stage series, or Nintendo's magnificent GBA classic Wario Ware Inc. And rightly so, for both (especially the latter) are tremendous. But what do you actually DO in them? In DDR, you get a visual cue for an action, which you then have to execute with precise timing - a microsecond off and you'll blow your whole score, and several such minor timing errors will end your game. In Wario Ware, you're presented with hundreds of mini-scenes in which you have only a second or two to figure out exactly what you're supposed to do AND execute it, using one or two presses of four joypad directions and a single fire button - in other words, exactly what happens in Dragon's Lair. These games may all be presented in very different ways, but their core gameplay mechanic is identical. So why love them and hate this?

The Lizard King was perpetually angry about being named after a smelly hippy loser.

(Something else which Wario Ware shares with Dragon's Lair, incidentally, is that both games are especially well suited to handheld formats - WW is the ultimate two-spare-minutes-while-waiting-in-the-chip-shop-queue game, while the Game Boy Color version of DL is a superbly-implemented conversion which you can play right through in a 20-minute bus or tube journey.)

In fairness, some awful versions of Dragon's Lair have sullied its name somewhat. The DVD player/PS2 version was terrible, removing the crucial audio clues which made the game a lot easier to play; the NES version, which turned the game into a side-scrolling semi-puzzler, was absurdly hard without the stunning graphics to make up for it; the 2D platform version on the SNES looked good but left a lot to be desired in the gameplay department; and the 2003 multi-format 3D remake was simply an atrocity (see the review on Digiworld for more detail). But it isn't these games people are generally referring to when they're slagging off Dragon's Lair, it's the original coin-op. Which, when you think about it, is pretty bizarre. And why, exactly?

Dirk and Singe caper on the big piles of gold and treasure Dragon's Lair made for Cinematronics.

Because the thing Dragon's Lair most often gets stick for is for changing the face of arcades. In 1983, arcades were at the peak of their powers - jammed full of both punters and a stream of inventive, original, exciting games. DL represented a quantum leap in technology, but at the expense of having incredibly shallow gameplay compared to the other hits of the time, and was much more expensive to play. Despite this it was a huge success, and critics often identify this victory of narrative over substance as the beginning of the end for the arcade's golden age, and the first step towards the more corporate era of big-business gaming we now inhabit.

And yet, what are the games that even the hardest of hardcore race out in their millions to buy nowadays? Mega-budget, corporate, aesthetically-extravagant, narrative-driven titles like the aforementioned Final Fantasy, Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid 2. Perhaps what they don't like is the mirror Dragon's Lair holds up to their own shallow souls - the reminder of the day they all sold out for eye candy and a veneer of sophistication beyond DL's "childish" cartoon fun. Or maybe they're just sore that having sold out for surface glamour 20 years ago, they're still waiting for something this pretty to come along again.

"Does this glass bubble I'm imprisoned in make my bum look big?"

But then, that's probably being terribly unfair to the mainstream gamer. As we noted right back at the start of this piece, mainstream gamers lap up Dragon's Lair games like ice cream sundaes with extra strawberry sauce. If you go to the Amazon entry for the GB Color version, you'll find the customer review rating sitting at an impressive four-stars average, and that's for the version with the crudest visuals and the worst sound of all the arcade-DL ports in history.

It's only the hardcore, the critics and the reviewers who tend to have it in for Lair and its ilk, and that may be because a game like Dragon's Lair renders both criticism and years of carefully-accumulated gaming expertise worthless. Everything it has to offer is right up front on the surface, anyone can see for themselves in a matter of seconds what this game is about, decide for themselves if they're interested in it or not, and start playing it instantly. It doesn't need years of practice, it doesn't need explaining, it doesn't need judging. And speaking as a critic, there's nothing we hate more than having our very reason to exist taken away from us.

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