Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 20

Dragon's Lair

Keeping with the theme of games that look spectacular, but fail to deliver in the game play department, let us turn our attention to perhaps the greatest affront to classic video games and text book example of the theme:  Dragon's Lair.  Fans of Don Bluth's definitional laserdisc arcade masterpiece, please look away now.  Seriously, leave the room, don't read the rest of today's entry, just go do something.  Don't let this take a part of your soul the way it did mine.

When I heard that there was a Dragon's Lair game for the NES, I was shocked and skeptical (heck I was shocked and skeptical when I heard there was one for the SNES).  There was no way they could pull off a good Dragon's Lair game for such a simple system (and yet they would do just that for the Gameboy Color...).  And I was right.  If you put in Dragon's Lair for the NES with the expectation of seeing the titillating Princess Daphne in all, or any, of her glory, then you are a fool. Oh, I'm sure she's in there, but she don't look like this.

This is not to say that the game doesn't look amazing.  It does.  As a matter of fact it looks far too awesome to suck as royally as it manages to.  With the exception of Dirk, the sprites look really cool, the backgrounds are a little sparse in places, but colorful and well detailed the rest of the time, and the attempts to capture and translate aspects of the arcade game are all very much right there. But all of that amazing packaging is for absolute naught as the game fails to deliver in the most fundamental aspect: it is virtually unplayable.
But this looks so cool!  Look at the Lizard King!

I say "virtually," because the game is in fact playable.  Like many games on this list, there is a steep learning curve that keeps the game from being instantly engaging and pick-up-and-play ready, but even with that learning curve the execution of the game play is just flat out clunky.  Clunky, I said.  The first major problem is that Dirk moves like he is slogging through molasses.  If you have played or even seen the original Dragon's Lair, you know that Dirk is certainly not lacking in the spryness department.  Character inconsistencies aside, a platforming game with a debilitatingly slow main character is a recipe for disaster already.  Compound that with an awkward jumping mechanic and sloth-like responsiveness, and you've got a frustration machine masquerading as a video game.  Dirk does nothing quickly or adroitly, so you'll not be able to make any sudden moves or adept maneuvers to stay out of danger.

None of these miserable controls are helped by the plodding level design.  While most of the levels are pretty straightforward, their designs are not ideally suited to the control scheme.  There are lots of false floors that only crumble once you are upon them; and with Dirk's decrepit reflexes no way off to avoid death.  There are some enemies that kill you outright (read "most") and some that only chip away at your energy level, but either way you'll be dying a lot and usually very suddenly, particularly when enemies pop out of nowhere like those orange and black snakes.  The later levels also ask you to make a lot of very tricky jumps and dodge a lot of traps in succession.  These become finesse puzzles more than action sequences and often want you to do a lot of trial and error to discover the perfect path through the peril.

The only screen most players will ever see...
Let me give you an example of all of this.  The first screen: The Drawbridge.  In the original DL, all you had to do was fall down a hole, swipe at a moat monster, climb up and run into the castle (took about 20 seconds if you did it right).  In the NES version this is a pretty similar situation, although falling through the drawbridge = death, so don't do it.  Instead, you first approach the bridge and throw a knife at an oncoming bat, then you must jump over the hole (which only crumbles after you step on it), and land on a "safe" part of the bridge.  Once there, a sea serpent will bust up through the bridge to attack you.  You cannot attack the serpent where you are, Dirk's knife throwing skills toss the blades right over it. Instead, you must turn around (not as easy or quick as it sounds), jump back over the hole, walk all the way to the left and duck.  Why duck?  Because by this time the sea serpent is spitting fireballs at you.  Ducking, by the way, takes about 30 seconds, so be ready.  While ducking, you can lob a few knives at the serpent, but he will sink back down.  So you must stand up to get him to peek out at you.  Riddle him with as many knives as you can before he starts spitting again, then duck.  Repeat until he is dead.  After that, the bats come back and you must knife them as you jump, again, over the original hole and the new hole made by the sea serpent.  Do it successfully and you are in the castle.  Oh there is a "Gold Token" at the top of the screen if you dare try to jump for it.

All told that will take you about a half an hour to learn and master, even after I have told you exactly how to do it.  Furthermore, just doing those simple things takes about 2 minutes.  In any other game, that is a 15 second screen.  Now imagine an entire game built around that kind of fun.

At the end of the day, I found Dragon's Lair to be far more playable than I had originally assessed and as had been rumored, but I did not find it to be fun.  I think the game is beatable.  There are a couple of points in the later levels where you can earn an extra life early on in the level so that you can virtually keep trying over and over until you get it right without having to start entirely over from the beginning.  This really helps, but as you get to the later levels, you face much greater challenges.  I think you have to look at Dragon's Lair like a puzzle game with platforming elements rather than a true platforming game.  If you do that, and forget that there should be anything like real action, you stand a better chance of overcoming the learning curve and making progress.  In my five hours , I actually managed to get pretty far (I think two levels from the end), however I that may only be because I was forced to. I don't think the average gamer is going to make it past the Drawbridge without financial incentive.  The learning curve is just too steep and the controls are so inconsistent with the game play that the game is far more difficult than it needs to be and easily one of the hardest NES games out there.
Sorry, kids, the sweet Singe figure is NOT included, although it IS cooler than the game...

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