You are the disappointment your parents feared



Dragon’s Lair (1992)

It’s a terrible truth that applies to us all: everything in life is disappointing. Everything. It’s typical cynicism from me, I know, but you’ve got to be aware, and you’ve got to be prepared. I bet you’ve been disappointed by friends and family countless times. Your exam results probably fell way short of your expectations. Or if they didn’t, you picked a heartbreaking thing to do with them, like law or medicine or lion-taming. It’ll lash rain on your wedding day. And your children will be disappointments too, even down to their gender and unashamedly ginger hair.

But it’s alright, because once you’re aware of these things, you can do your best to prepare yourself for them. Cushion the relentless blows as they come. It’s an awful word, disappointing, but if you’re prepared for its arrival, things ain’t so bad.

Every now and then, however, an unexpected disappointment strikes your morale with such a terrifying fury that you’ll wonder if you’ll ever again be able to make it out of bed. Your complexion will assume a ghostly Casper-like pallor, you’ll refuse even tea, and loved ones will constantly be fretting and asking if you’re alright.

I can only imagine, then, how gut-wrenching the feeling must have been when Dragon’s Lair made it from the arcade to our home consoles, in particular the NES.

I must first of all say that the original arcade version of Dragon’s Lair wasn’t even really a game – it was more like an episode of Earthworm Jim, even with its own foxy princess to rescue. Except, of course, your playable lummox was a human who spent only a few minutes wriggling shamefully along the ground.

The only real gameplay in Dragon’s Lair Arcade was to watch crisp cartoon cutscenes and occasionally press a button to not die. And the fans went wild for it. Yes, a game about quick-time events proved immensely popular, because the graphics looked the bizzo – as I say, the princess was a fox. It helped that all the other beepy-boopy games surrounding coin-op Dragon’s Lair surely looked dark and depressing by comparison. Although I can’t say that because Comic Book Guy, Billy Mitchell and the rest of their neckbeard posse will hunt me down and shove an arcade stick up my jacksy.

Now Dragon’s Lair looked pretty flash, and it was – for about three minutes. But once you’d spent your children’s inheritance learning all of the danger spots in the game, and the timing involved, there wasn’t much left to keep you interested for the long haul.

But how on earth do you even take a boggling piece of technical trickery like that, can it all and seal it within a NES cartridge, while still charging full price and still selling it as a masturbatory feast of graphical engineering? Short answer, you cannot do it. And anyone who chose to believe otherwise was in for the biggest disappointment since Jesus finding out about Judas Iscariot’s little earner.

Obviously watching a cartoon on your NES, with the limitations that big grey box had, would’ve been deeply saddening. Well, it would have been impossible in fact, but I’d liked to have seen the porters try it. Since there were big bucks to be capitalised off the Dragon’s Lair name, but no viable way of porting it faithfully, the lads in charge (if anyone ever was in charge) furnished us with a drab side-scroller instead.

Except they must have looked up side-scroller in the dictionary, but took the definition for “morbidly troubling catastrophe” instead because Dragon’s Lair NES is one of the most offensively putrid games I’ve ever fallen into the trap of playing. You wouldn’t think a rushed NES side-scroller could attract such wretched heat, in comparison with the 4,000 others on the console.

But what crucially excludes Dragon’s Lair from this exclusive inner circle of mediocre games is that at least all of that other clag have just a tiny aroma of playability about them through an otherwise repugnant stench. But Dragon’s Lair stinks all the way through. It’s vomitus to start with, diarrhoea in the middle and a rotten cadaver by the end.

Let me explain: in even a moribund NES game like, God, bear with me… Bugs Bunny’s Blowout or Adventure Island 57 or something, in even those games, you can at least get through one or two levels. It’s only after that point that those games suddenly become far too hard, or far too boring and repetitive, or both. But at least you get maybe three to five minutes out of them. It was only if you paid full whack for the game that you might feel that bit more compelled to stick with it all the way to the end. And who knows? You’d probably have to be pretty desperate, but you might even end up liking Wizards & Warriors XXVIII even after those initial five minutes.

But Dragon’s Lair NES does not give you five minutes. Dragon’s Lair NES is scarcely prepared to give you five seconds. You play as a harshly scaled down version of Dirk the Daring, the reluctant hero of the arcade original. On the NES, he sort of reminds me of that obnoxious Zelos from Tales of Symphonia, both in looks and the laid-back way in which he carries himself.

To be fair, in keeping with the graphical niceties that the Dragon’s Lair name was known for, Dirk is pretty nicely animated – it means you’ll get to marvel at his walking animation as he slowly ambles headlong into a death trap and collapses in a heap of bones. More good news: if this animation wows you, you’re going to get the unique chance to see it over and over and over again.

That’s because this game demands not much short of perfection. Which again seems like it’s in keeping with how the arcade game played out. But the arcade game designers were at least wise enough to make sure that no control input from the player was required bar occasionally dribbling on the stay-alive button.

The NES men, and by “men” I’m probably looking for “man” and by “man” I’m probably looking for “shaved ape”, went way overboard with Dirk’s moves, trying to give us a left and right, a crouch, a crawl, a sort of jump and even a knife weapon, none of which really work very well. Regardless, you’ll need complete mastery of each of these controls in addition to something that very few games have ever asked of me: clairvoyance.

One of my favourite ever games, Perfect Dark, asked me to demonstrate a bit of divination at times so as to stay out of the endless hails of infinite-ammo-backed gunfire. But at least that was only on the toughest difficulty; I could dial things down a notch if I wanted to.

No such luck on Dragon’s Lair NES, as you’ll discover very quickly indeed. You blow on the cartridge’s connectors, jam it into the console with about as much care as you’d take drunkenly stuffing cash back into your pocket, and you flip the switch. The title screen boots up, replete with grim music, and you brew yourself a stern cup of tea to help you pull away on your new gaming voyage.

You finally press start, take a few steps right, and find yourself reduced to bones and rubble with what Ian Fleming might term “terrifying swiftness”. Now, what on earth? What on earth happened there? Must’ve been something you didn’t see. You give it another bash – same again. The bridge is collapsing, or bats are hitting you, or your jump button is about 2 hours too late… In fact, you can try everything you like, but even making it to the entrance door of the very first screen and touching it will have you killed immediately, no questions, no trial, no funeral.

This game hates you so much that even your eponymous dragon host himself sticks his head out of the moat to laugh at your weak efforts. Dying in one hit is always a bit of a wretch, but certainly no dealbreaker. Crash Bandicoot can hardly take much punishment. Dying in one hit when your character has all the sprightliness of Brian Blessed getting out of bed is, however, a different matter entirely. We all hate to call things impossible, I’m sure, me and you both being highly ambitious and forever upwardly mobile people. But for an achiever’s lifestyle like ours, Dragon’s Lair NES is simply unpalatable. It is offensive.

To release a game like this, teetering on  the worse half of the threshold between “balls hard” and “bloody impossible”… it’s a callous thing to do. An absolute war crime. Now Dragon’s Lair Arcade needed just about perfect play to see you through to the end, but at least it only cost about 3 cents or 2p or 40,000 Italian lira or somesuch to have another go. Its miscreant of a NES sibling went for full price, lasts about two minutes judging by tool-assisted speedruns, and it’s unassailably tough – even if you have infinite tries, there’s no way you’ll get any kind of money’s worth out of this.

It’s not just the dunderheads (like me) or the mentally bewildered (also me) who’ll never see past the first screen. I paid nothing for this game, got nothing out of it, and I’m still bitterly disappointed about it. All we can hope for is that whoever on Earth was responsible for this ended up as so much bones and dust.

27 November 2014

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