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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

Year of the Dragon

Updated: May 27, 2018

The first episode of Stranger Things season II featured a scene that took me straight back to the 80s. The boys are in the video-game arcade and Dustin has reached the climactic battle of the most revered, mysterious and misunderstood game of the era. To my friends and I, that game was nothing less than the Holy Grail of arcade experiences. That game was Dragon’s Lair.


A whole new world

At the time, we could not imagine the vast open-world video game epics such as Skyrim and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but the foundation was being carefully laid, pixel by pixel. A new world was emerging before our teenage eyes, and despite the block graphics, two dimensions and repetitive/twitch gameplay, we were mesmerised by every painted booth.


Initially. My interest in video games and the arcade scene peaked in the early 80s, and began to wane toward the middle of the same decade. We had an old Atari hooked up to the tele at home, and I dropped the occasional coin into Asteroids, Galaga and Pac-Man. They created a whole new experience to the pinball machines I’d grown up with, but nothing that really rebooted my interest. Don Bluth changed all that.


Moving pictures

The first time I ever saw a Dragon’s Lair machine must have been around 1987. In truth, I don’t remember the exact year, but I remember the exact location – bottom of the stairs at the Hoyts mega complex on George Street, Sydney. There was a crowd of kids gathered, as if some strange and exotic magic were beaming directly out from the machine. But no one was playing it. No one knew how.


At some point in time not far removed from that first introduction, my friends and I figured it out. I can’t say who went first, only that it wasn’t me. I saved some coin by quiet observation. Mastering the game was a matter of pattern recognition. If one could remember the moves, and get the timing right, the path to Princess Daphne would open up.


Gameplay

It was never easy. Timing had to be to-the-millisecond perfect. There were notoriously difficult sections – the Black Knight, the mud men – and those that always seemed such a breeze (giddy goons spring to mind). Sometimes the machine would open the mech-horse section in mirror mode. All the moves I’d so painstakingly memorised had to be reversed. No matter how robotic your memory was, the machine would always try and trip you up. Let it rattle you and even the easier sections could become impossible. How I cursed myself for spending a cheap life misjudging a simple platform jump or rope swing.


Standing out

It wasn’t just the graphics; it was the scope of imagination. Creator Don Bluth had poured a tidal wave of it into his ground-breaking laserdisc masterpiece. To my teenage eyes, there was more imagination in Dragon’s Lair than all the surrounding booths combined. Think about all the ways Dirk the Daring could die. Think about the variety of gameplay. Survival was about much more than swinging a sword. In Dragon’s Lair, one had to run, jump, dodge, swing, ride, paddle, navigate electrified floors! In Galaga, you had to shoot stuff.


Will and grace

Two things motivated me to beat the machine:

1. the desire to get to that final scene and rescue Princess Daphne (drawn in all the right ways to appeal to teenage boys), and...

2. the crowd at my back. The latter was a big part of the Dragon’s Lair experience as I remember it. The machine was still a huge mystery to most all arcade denizens. They didn’t understand the crazy cartoon guy with the sword. But it sure got their attention when along came someone who did.



To the victor, the spoils

I first conquered Dragon’s Lair in the Timezone on George Street. I don’t remember whether it was day or night, or which friends were at my side that day. But I remember the crowd gathered at my shoulder, the will and concentration it took to get me to the game's climax. I remember Princess Daphne clapping for me in the cut scene. I remember the pitch-perfect sound effects, the cinematic musical score that drew me into the battle as if I were right there with Dirk the Daring in that treasure-filled lair. I remember the Disney-esque perfection of the dragon. I remember that last punch of the button that sent the sword flying into its gut. It was the first boss battle I ever fought, and the most satisfying.


I remember feeling a little lost afterwards. Years later, I would waste countless hours chasing a rumour that there was a Dragon’s Lair II machine out there in arcade land somewhere. I failed that mission, just as a distracted Dustin failed to take down the dragon in that memory-jolting opening scene. But anyone who watched Stranger Things to the conclusion will acknowledge that more than a little Dirk the Daring rubbed off on young Dustin. And perhaps a little rubbed off on The Waking World trilogy. One can’t say what the author might have spilled onto the pages in a moment of nostalgia-induced weakness.

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