Back in the days when the arcade scene was ruled by sprites and the occasional vector graphic, one game stood out like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was Dragon's Lair. The game was an interactive cartoon that ran on a laser-disc-based arcade system and featured high-quality hand-drawn animation by cartoonist Don Bluth. You were put in control of the hapless Dirk the Daring, a surprisingly uncoordinated hero who was charged with rescuing Princess Daphne from the evil dragon Singe. The game's impressive visuals and loopy humor made it an engaging experience, despite its simplistic gameplay, which was based on trial and error, and the game was soon elevated to classic status. Nearly two decades after Dragon's Lair was released, the game is getting a new lease on life, courtesy of a new developer, Dragonstone, which is composed of members from the original team, including Bluth himself. Dragon's Lair 3D: Return to the Lair will offer a new take on the original game by blending elements from the original game with new gameplay that, as the title implies, is fully 3D. We had a chance to check out the Xbox version of the game to see how the updated classic is coming together.
The game's premise will stay faithful to the original game's plot and find Princess Daphne in need of some rescuing. The comely princess is locked away in Singe's partner-in-crime Mordroc's castle--a trap-laden little abode with 250 rooms to explore--which happens to be enormous and is a generally hostile environment for the heroic types. This time out, you'll take full control of Dirk as you navigate the deadly hazards. The odds are evened out a bit by Dirk's new arsenal of moves--which can be added to by collecting items--and helpful tips from Daphne via a magic amulet.
The gameplay in Dragon's Lair 3D differs quite a bit from its simplistic cousin. The gameplay still has elements of the trial-and-error gameplay seen in the original game but tempers it with a life bar. You'll still find hazards that are one-hit kills for Dirk, but they're outnumbered by less-fatal encounters that just take away a bit of life. The core gameplay is now more in line with traditional platform-style games. You'll explore rooms, collect items, solve puzzles, dispatch enemies, swing from chains, and, of course, jump across platforms.
Successfully navigating the life-threatening rooms in the castle will, of course, hinge on your grasp of Dirk's abilities. Fortunately, despite Dirk's wealth of moves, controlling the hapless hero is a fairly user-friendly experience. You'll move Dirk around with the left analog stick and control the camera with the right stick. The X button will serve as attack and as a context-sensitive use button. A is for jumping, B is for blocking, and Y auto-targets enemies. The black button brings out or sheathes your sword, while the white button does the same for your crossbow, once you've got it. The D-pad will let you cycle through the different arrows for your crossbow by pushing up and down, and pressing left or right will cycle through the different magical essences you'll collect, which enhance Dirk's abilities. Finally, the left trigger will make Dirk run when you hold it down, and the right trigger will make him crouch or roll when you hold it down. In addition, Dirk will be able to catch ledges and pull himself up onto them like any good action hero. The setup works fairly well and is easy to pick up. Dirk is pretty responsive, although it may take a minute or two to get used to the timing in the game. The camera needs some attention in places, but it didn't pose too much trouble overall.
In terms of its presentation, Dragon's Lair 3D does an excellent job of taking the sights and sounds of the animated laser-disc game into the third dimension. The characters and environments are perfect matches to their flat cousins. The game's use of cel shading is a nice touch that helps maintain the game's cartoony look. Dirk looks quite good and his clean polygonal model moves very fluidly, thanks to a generous amount of animation. The rogues' gallery of enemies you'll face, roughly 40 that are a mix of familiar faces and new adversaries, are a loopy bunch that stay true to the game's goofy humor. You'll even be treated to 3D renderings of Dirk's infamous death animation. The rooms you'll go through are well done and have a good amount of variety to them, although you won't be able to do too much sightseeing on your journey because of the aforementioned enemies as well as hazards such as fireballs and crumbling floors. As far as the game's sound goes, you'll hear the usual grunts and yelps from the skittish Dirk along with a solid assortment of growls and cackles from his foes. The game's score, composed by Chris Stone, who did the music for the original game, is made up of 40 musical pieces that suit the action well. Technically speaking, Dragon's Lair 3D will offer an unexpected treat to Xbox owners who have HDTVs and stereo receivers. The game will be the first to support 1080I on HDTVs, and it will offer Dolby 5.1 support, making Dragon's Lair about as fully loaded as a video game can get these days.
From what we've played so far, Dragon's Lair 3D is coming together surprisingly well. When you consider the disastrous "updates" of classic arcade games that have gone horribly awry, Dragon's Lair 3D is looking pretty slick. The game captures the feel of the original while offering a number of new features, and overall it's a pretty impressive update of what was a 12-minute arcade game. Fans of the original game and platformer aficionados will want to keep an eye out for Dragon's Lair 3D: Return to the Lair when it ships this November.