Wow. Some days I feel really old, like when cartoons are unearthed and brought to light after nearly 30 years. In the mid 1980s, I remember a game that left a lasting impression on my brain well into college and beyond – Dragon’s Lair. And though I never spent enough time in arcades as a kid, the idea of a game merging traditional sprite-based animation with arcade game action and a bit of the magic of the Choose Your Own Adventure books was amazing back then. It was hugely successful in arcades, on laserdisc, and has been ported to a wide variety of platforms (including iOS) since then.
The game centered around the exploits of Dirk the Daring, a knight attempting to rescue fair damsel Princess Daphne from the clutches of the evil dragon Singe. Through thrills, chills, and humor, the game would show video segments showing what happens based on your choices while playing. Many of them were hilarious, showing the often clumsy hero screaming like a girl, shirking from scary monsters, and generally being a cartoon hero along the lines of something you’d see in Scooby-Doo.
Following on the success of the game, an animated series was created to fill in some of the blanks in Dirk the Daring’s world and take advantage of the game’s popularity. Created by animators Joe Ruby and Ken Spears (who were responsible for many different Saturday-morning cartoons including Space Ace, Scooby Doo, Alvin & The Chimpunks, and more), the series continued Dirk’s adventures as he protected the kingdom of King Ethelred and the lovely Princess Daphne. Numerous characters were added such as Bertram his horse, Squire Timothy, and the bully knight Hubert Blunt who is more impressed with himself than anyone else.
Though I know intellectually what the game meant to the budding game industry at the time, I have to say that it hasn’t weathered well over the years. I honestly can’t even say I remember seeing it in the mid-80s, as I was more entranced by Dungeons & Dragons, Silverhawks, Transformers, Thundercats, G.I. Joe, and others. So it’s been interesting to look back at the Dragon’s Lair series and learn more about Dirk’s universe.
Ultimately I think the series is fun for kids – with a more whimsical approach to fantasy stories than we saw at the time. Shows like Transformers and Dungeons & Dragons were pushing the boundaries of cartoon violence on TV as it was, so some lighter fare was definitely needed. Dungeons & Dragons the game was growing in popularity and the idea of adding more humor to soften things probably attracted a different audience than I was in at the time. Plus, drawing on the many Dragon’s Lair video game fans most likely offered a built-in boost to the number of folks watching.
To keep the arcade game audience, the series used commercial breaks to ask what the viewers would do next. These pauses were similar to how the game worked to make the player choose their next action. In this way, the audience may have felt a bit more involved in getting Dirk through particular situations. Plus it was a great way to keep viewers watching through the commercials.
That said. I have to wonder what we were all smoking in the mid-80s. I was probably hopped up on soda and candy, but what were the writers using? Something was definitely in the water as far as the Mudmen and the Giddy Goons went in the series. Though they seemed at home in the original game, the Mudmen alone were probably nightmare-inducing for several kids I grew up with.
The two-DVD set for Dragon’s Lair: The Complete Series includes all thirteen original 30-minute episodes, from “The Tale of the Enchanted Gift” to “The Mist of Wishes.” There are no extras, which was disappointing to me. For a game originally created by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth and adapted for television by Ruby & Spears, I would have loved to have learned how the series developed, how involved Bluth was, where they would have gone in a second season, and so on.
If you’re a fan of the groundbreaking Dragon’s Lair games and want to see where a group of animators were taking the story, Dragon’s Lair: The Complete Series is available today at the Warner Archive!