Inside the Arcade: Dragon’s Lair (1983)
The game that upped the ante in so many ways
As a 10 year old boy I had hockey practice twice a week. Inside the rink was a snack bar. Next to the snack bar was a small arcade. So every Tuesday and Friday I went on a simple mission: practice, snacks, video games.
I can remember the day I walked into this arcade and saw they had installed a colorful new machine. Dragon’s Lair had been placed in the prominent center spot. It was surrounded by kids who had gotten their skates off faster than me. So I put my quarters in the cue that determined who would play next, took a spot on the right side of the console and proceeded to have my mind blown.
If you’re not as old as me you might look at these screen grabs or even a YouTube video of the gameplay and think, “that’s cute”. And nowadays you wouldn’t be wrong. But in 1983 this game was a game changer. We’d never seen anything like it. It looked like a cartoon we would see on Saturday morning. But it was a cartoon we were in control of. And our actions inside of any scenario that popped up on the screen would determine success or failure, life or death.
When I finally got my chance to play that day, the game didn’t last long. I got smoked, quickly. Trying to move Dirk the Knight through the castle towards the dragon’s lair proved to be a lot harder than it looked. A prompt to move the joystick or attack with the sword would flash on screen, but by the time I reacted to it I would be too late. Dirk would turn into a skeleton and I’d lose a life.
This game moved fast, almost too fast. And frankly it would have been easy to walk away and think, “That’s just too hard.” But, in continuing to play and watching others I began to get a sense that this game could be beaten. All it would require was practice, which oddly enough came right after hockey practice.
Week by week I’d play this game and all the while I’d be accumulating knowledge. The game had a lot of different challenges and they’d come at you randomly. But these challenges were not infinite.
You could learn to recognize them as they popped up. And you could have a good idea (if not a blueprint) for what would be needed to clear the scene and move on. It required a lot of failure and a lot of quarters (especially since this game was one of the first to require two quarters instead of one). But slowly I began to progress further and further into the game until one day I reached the final scenario, the dragon’s lair.
I spent weeks trying to beat the dragon, but alas to no avail .This final showdown required something like 10 moves. They had to all be correct, no mistakes. The scene was loud, chaotic and tense. It was exciting, it was nerve racking, it was frustrating, it was Dragon’s Lair.
Then one day I sat down at lunch in the school cafeteria and was talking through this last battle with the dragon. A kid I kind of knew said, “It’s easy. Left, Right, Sword, Up, Sword…..”. He rattled off the perfect sequence and then went back to eating his baked beans. It was impressive, he was the coolest kid at the table that day.
It’s important to note we didn’t have the internet to look these kinds of things up. We relied on each other and what we could learn from playing ourselves. This kid might have been wrong about the final scene’s sequence. But he wasn’t. And even though the next time out I had “the answer”, it still took me five or so tries before I got it done.
Once you conquered this game it lost a lot of its appeal. The only reason you might play it again would be to show someone how to do it. But to be able to do that took a lot of time and money. Some people just walked to another game. But kids like me didn’t. We couldn’t. We had to beat it. We knew we could and we were determined to get it done. Dragon’s Lair more than any console from my youth taught me I was a gamer, for better or worse. And when I finally managed to defeat the dragon after months of trying I celebrated like you wouldn’t believe. Then I stepped back from the machine, looked around the arcade and asked, “What’s next?”.