The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
DRAGON'S LAIR debuted in video arcades in June of 1983 and became one of the biggest video sensations since PAC-MAN. Bluth's classical animation mixed with true sound (both via Laserdisc) created a much needed boost to a sagging game market, and a listless animation industry.
DRAGON'S LAIR followed the adventures of Dirk the Daring in his quest for the Princess Daphne. Game players had to maneuver Dirk through a number of short, perilous positions to eventually land in the actual Dragon's Lair. Once there, the player had to defeat the dragon. If the player died at anytime, a pale Dirk would drop into the frame, with a look of disgust on his face, and would dissolve into a skeleton that would crumble.
Each area was designed as a separate unit so that the computer could shuffle the order of the events. The only fixed ones were the opening sequence of entering the castle and the last being the Lair.
The Attract Mode (which runs until someone would pay to play) tells the basic premise. The narrator talks to "you" the player as scenes of the game pass by, mostly death scenes. The player is told they must journey deep into the castle and defeat the dragon to rescue Princess Daphne. It tells the player to guide Dirk through the perils.
The opening of game features an establishing shot of the castle, surrounded by thorns. Dirk's first action is to cross the drawbridge, which collapses under him. Using his sword, he slices several one-eyed, tentacle creatures in the moat. Once in the castle, a number of steel gates slam shut behind him. The first room begins to crumble around him and he exits out of a door.
One room features a stairway and a back door. Out of the ceiling comes a long green tentacle, followed by others. Dirk must avoid the tentacles and eventually exit the back door.
Another room has a skull hanging by a rope. Once in the room, striped snakes attack Dirk. He uses his sword to defeat some and then pulls the skull which releases a rope. Dirk climbs the rope to freedom.
The fire room features two doors, each on different sides of a pit of fire. Dirk uses a series of ropes to swing to the other side.
Another room featured more crumbling. It also featured knives coming out of the wall, a pond full of snakes, a giant spider and two blocks that try to crush Dirk. Dirk makes it through by basically going pretty much straight ahead to a door out the back.
A laboratory with a bubbling pot brings more danger. The pot boils over, leaving a green slime around the floor. Dirk examines some of the bottles on the lab table, only to have the floor slime turn into a creature. His sword kills it then a wizard flashes out of the pot. Dirk also kills the menace and exits out a door.
When Dirk enters a room through a trap door in the floor, he is attacked by the purple Giddy Goons. Dirk's sword slashes through a few as he makes his way up the stairs to safety.
A hall of steps becomes hazardous when they smooth out, causing Dirk to almost slide into a pit. As he steps around the pit, more one-eyed tentacle monsters (from the moat) appear. He chops them and goes through a hole in the wall. (A chain near one wall will release a flood of water.)
In the Wizard's lair, Dirk battles several inanimate objects including a sword, a mace, an anvil and a spear. He walks up to a glowing pot and is attacked by a statue. Dirk quells all threats with his sword and exits the room.
One chamber features two swinging balls that Dirk must run through. On the other side is a ghostly red figure that tries to strike Dirk down. Dirk defeats the creature but must then run from thorns. He exits the room through a door.
A rare appearance of Daphne outside the Lair comes in the wind tunnel. Daphne disappears behind a pulsing door. When Dirk opens it, a blast of wind blows him back and then sucks him into the room. He spies an interesting item but passes it up and just goes where the wind takes him.
Entering a bedroom, Dirk must leap through a magically appearing stone wall or be crushed. If he stands there he will be gassed to death.
As Dirk enters one chamber a bench falls from the ceiling through a hole. Through that same hole shoots several burning rays. When the room bursts into flames, Dirk pushes the bench aside to find an exit through the wall.
Dirk enters a large area and climbs on a horse armor to grab a glowing object. The armor comes to life and Dirk must avoid missing a number of pillars, flame blasts and walls. When the horse crashes to the ground, Dirk kicks open a door and exits.
Another brief appearance of Daphne occurs as she's dragged out of the Black Knight's room. As Dirk approaches, the Knight taps his sword to the checkerboard floor which causes some of the checks to glow. Dirk finally makes it up to the Knight and dispatches him with his sword, allowing Dirk to follow Daphne.
One sequence features several areas, all dealing with skeletal remains. Dirk enters a hallway just in time to see Daphne dragged out. He steps forward and is attacked by chattering skulls. His sword knocks them off him, but then black ooze comes from another set of doors. He moves further forward and has a giant chicken foot reach for him. After a few more skulls, ooze and feet, he moves into a corridor with coffins. The coffins open and skeletal creatures reach out for him. He, again, eliminates them with his sword and moves on through a secret wall passage.
As Dirk travels along a wooden walkway, the wood begins to crumble. He leaps from place to place, only to be chased by a group of bats. He finally leaps to a rope and pulls himself through a door.
Still another crumbling corridor offers more bats. As Dirk avoids the small creatures, he runs headfirst into a giant bat which he defeats with his sword.
Entering a door, Dirk finds the floor fall out from under him. He falls down a dark tunnel on the floor, that briefly pauses at each walkway where Dirk might jump. Dirk does jump and lands safely, finally walking through another door.
In one hallway is a floating pot of gold. Dirk's sword suddenly sticks to the pot as the Lizard King appears. Dirk races after his sword dodging the King's various attempts to slash him. Dirk finally catches up to the pot, gets his sword, kills the Lizard King, puts some gold in his backpack and exits through a door.
A short scene occurs when Dirk enters a room with a table on which is a beaker of liquid. Above the beaker is a sign stating "Drink me." Dirk does not and moves on.
The tilting floor in one scene gives Dirk some problems, but more arise when the floor starts vanishing. Dirk makes it through a doorway.
Upon entering a room with a throne and glowing orb, Dirk's sword is drawn and stuck to the orb. At the same time the floor begins to vanish. Dirk takes refuge on the throne, as his sword flies off the orb and to the throne. The throne then turns around and the floor continues to vanish as Dirk makes an exit out another doorway.
Walking along a wooden walkway, Dirk falls through and into a barrel that carries him along an underground river. First he dodges "Ye Boulders," then "Ye Rapids" and finally "Ye Whirlpools," as signs above these areas indicate these dangers. After one difficult whirlpool he is thrown from his boat but catches a chain to pull himself back up into the castle.
When Dirk meets the mud men in a volcanic area of the castle, he discovers his sword is not effective against them. Hence he just avoids them and makes his way to safety jumping over and around various oozing and bubbling areas.
The Black Knight returns and tries to run Dirk down. Unfortunately, a magic blast has locked Dirk's sword into the sheath. Dirk runs and avoids both the Knight and the thorns by going into a small cave.
In a multi-colored corridor of rolling balls, Dirk must make it through without being run down by one of them, or the giant black ball coming towards him. He makes it.
Another multi scene sequence occurs when Dirk finds a cavern surrounded by metal rods. They vibrate causing a strange magnetic force. He must jump through a door that opens and shuts regularly. Once through the door, he heads across a wooden bridge that is over a bubbling lava pool. The pool frequently bursts through the bridge. Dirk, again, succeeds.
Finally, Dirk arrives in the Lair. There he sees Daphne floating in a glass ball with the Dragon asleep nearby. He keeps some treasure from falling, and awakening the Dragon. However on his way to get Daphne he makes enough noise to wake the Dragon and Daphne. Not seeing anything, the Dragon feigns sleep as Dirk goes to Daphne. She explains the key to her cage is around the Dragon's neck and that the Dragon can only be slain with the magic sword.
The Dragon is now up and after Dirk. As the Dragon tries to burn, drag and crush Dirk, the knight escapes. With each escape, Daphne gasps a worried "Oooh!" Dirk manages to get to the magic sword and pull it out. The sword deflects the Dragon's fire and after some bandying for position, Dirk throws the sword and hits the Dragon in the chest (heart), killing the creature.
Dirk takes the key from the Dragon's neck and puts it in a lock that causes the glass bubble to crumble around Daphne. She leaps up and into Dirk's arms. As Dirk holds his prize, Daphne knock's off Dirk's helmet, plays with his hair, kisses him and apparently whispers something in his ear. Dirk looks slyly to camera, and then they both laugh.
BEHIND THE PRODUCTION
DRAGON'S LAIR was a new experience for the Bluth studio and crew. They had to work under an even more strenuous deadline than on NIMH. They also had to work in complete secrecy. The artists, consisting of mostly previous NIMH crew members worked on the production without telling anyone, even family members. Such secrecy was common in the video game industry where "spies" were rampant and programs easily copied, but animation had previously been a fairly open atmosphere.
Once again, Don viewed the project as another last ditch effort to save classical animation. The original project brought to him by Dyer and Cinematronics was a fairly simple concept with simple graphics. Don, though, opted to restructure the game. Rather than merely have the player make choices, Don pushed to put more of a pattern of "threat/resolve" as it came to be called in production. He also wanted to increase the graphics to the maximum potential available. Don realized that just an animated game would be a draw, but that a superior animated game could be a sensation. He was right, though it would mean the game would inch over the one-million dollar budget.
As the crew went to work, they studied other video games. Don found the key to the games was speed. This caused Don to re- think some of his former animation ideas. Rather than focus on strong character or story, he needed to increase the tempo and editing. Scenes needed to be shorter. Payoffs had to come quicker and be bigger. Similar to the old Warners and MGM shorts, Don realized that images moving faster needed to be broader to be read easier.
Perhaps the broadest area of animation came in the famous death sequences. Whether Dirk was being squeezed by tentacles, eaten by giant bats, or falling into a chasm, the animation found in these scenes are quite broad and "cartoonish" for a Bluth studio production.
The voices for the game were the crew, themselves. Dirk's various "ooh-ahh-eee's" were voiced by sound engineer Dan Molina. Daphne's squeaky "Save me" was from Vera Lanpher, head of the assistant animators. The Lizard King was hummed and mumbled by Dave Spafford. The narrator was Michael Rye.
A slight amount of music was written for game and mostly heard in the attract mode. This was written by Chris Stone, an outside composer. Though Laserdiscs did offer the availability of stereo, no elements of this game were done in stereo. However, some of the sound effects and voice tracks were bounced from left to right speakers to give the impression of stereo.
The new venture faced two drawbacks. Of major concern to the arcades was the cost of the game. A unit (game) cost over $4,000, nearly twice a normal computer-image video game. The sellers told the arcades that it was a good bargain, though, for the company planned to make future games which could be simply inserted in the machine (along with a new game chip) and the owner would have a new game at a low cost.
This large price tag also meant a more expensive game, fifty cents per play. During production this became an element of discussion among the makers. Would players pay twice as much as normal a game to play LAIR? To allow for the possibility that players would balk at fifty cents, they designed the game for a lower fee that would only allow the player to go to a certain point in the game. The original laserdisc still contains these various points with instructions to "continue play" deposit another coin. However, it proved unnecessary as players were willing to pay the higher premium
For game players and reviewers, they constantly complained of the breaks in action caused by the time needed to access different parts of the disc. The producers claimed this would be reduced in future games and hopefully eliminated fully.
IN THE ARCADE
When DRAGON'S LAIR hit the arcade world, not even the Bluth studio was ready for the explosion of excitement. LAIR became one of the hottest games in the industry, as well as one of the biggest moneymakers. At fifty-cents (twice the cost of other games), the game still had long lines of players waiting to try their hand at saving Daphne. Some machines were generating as much as $1,000 per day!
Helping make the game a success was the difficulty in obtaining one. Pioneer was not geared up for the instant success of the game and was unable to supply the needed laser units. A report in Video Week of August 8, 1983 stated that Cinematronics could ship 200-400 machines daily, but had to settle for less than that. The game debuted with less than 5000 units in place. Cinematronics felt they could easily move 20,000 to 30,000 immediately.
(Oddly, this lack of supply would soon have a negative effect on the entire laser game market. By November 1983, Pioneer was still only meeting half of its commitments! This caused delays in other companies coming up with additional games and thus the flood of new games never really happened.)
Months after the game debuted, less than 6500 arcades had units (which equaled around $25.26 million). Don stated he thought over 135,000 games could be sold.
The rarity of the game had arcade owners using Hollywood gimmicks to build increased interest. Some arcades had red carpets and ropes leading up the game. Others placed giant TV monitors over the game so all could watch it. One arcade actually put bleachers in for the crowds!
It didn't take the media long to see the excitement and soon Don and his artwork was back in the news. Almost everyone was discussing this new trend in games and where it might lead.
The Hollywood Reporter devoted a full page to the game and Don on July 18, 1983. It quoted one arcade owner who stated, "Without a doubt it's the most popular game here. There is no number two. That one's just taken over."
Don discussed the audience for LAIR. "We're appealing, in LAIR, to the people who didn't see NIMH - teens. Maybe if they get used to the Bluth name in arcades, they might go to the theaters and see the films." In another publication Don repeated that thought. "What excites me more than the money, is the fact that the people playing this in the arcade are mostly teenaged guys. Those are the kids that, according to statistics, aren't supposed to like cartoons. Cartoons are for children, right? But teenagers like the detail of this animation. The fact that they can get involved."
Daily Variety indicated LAIR might single-handedly reverse the current game slump. One arcade operator who handled 450 arcades, stated that LAIR had increased traffic in the arcades as much as 25% to 50%. He also stated the game was used 75% to 80% of the time, even weeks after its introduction. These figures add up to an additional 20% to 30% in revenues at the arcades with LAIR. Newsweek agreed, stating "DRAGON'S LAIR is this summer's hottest new toy: the first arcade game in the United States with a movie-quality image to go with the action."
It was also during the success of LAIR that Don announced that he had been contacted by Steven Spielberg following NIMH. Don enjoyed mentioning how Spielberg had called to congratulate the crew. According to Don, Spielberg had thought classical animation was dead until he'd seen NIMH and suggested the two team up on a future project.
Quick Silver's (a key magazine for the arcade industry at the time) John Cook reflected on the staying power of Laserdisc games. "Do video disc players have a future in the coin games business, or are they merely the latest in a long line of expensive, fleeting gimmicks?
"Well, my prediction is that by this time next year a new videogame **without** a laser disc player will be as rare as a silent movie in 1929."
He went on to state "Game designers have been working within the limitations of existing technologies for years, in the attempt to create cartoon graphics up to the standard of quality of Disney Studios. DRAGON'S LAIR (executed under the direction of Disney graduate Don Bluth) represents the pinnacle of the animator's art."
The New York Post claimed, "It's a video game! No, it's animation! No, it's 'interactive video,' a combination of both. And it's also a quantum jump into a whole new art form of the arcade."
Ending the Post piece was a mention of the difficulty in finding LAIR, "Meanwhile, the game is in such high demand around the country that it is in short supply here. You may have to go down to Penn Station, or one of the very few other arcades in town that have it, tape 50 cents to the machine to reserve your spot, and wait in line for a while to find out what all the fuss is about."
Arnie Katz, editor of Electronic Games Magazine commented on the strength of the graphics. "The visuals are absolutely breathtaking. There's never been anything like it in a coin- operated game. And no game has made you feel like you are a character in an animated movie. It's the difference between a line drawing and a photograph. There's nothing wrong with a line drawing, but a photograph has more impact because it packs more detail."
Not all were entirely taken by the game. Animation commentator Howard Beckman discussed the actual game in Back Stage magazine. "Don Bluth, who wanted to bring emotions to audiences through animation, has entered a world in which plot and character development are virtually unimportant and the only emotions are those of the quick thrill. There may be money here, there may even be a future of vast possibilities for all of us in the combination of animation and video games, but it may only be another lesson in reality for Don Bluth and Dirk the Daring."
Some arcade players claimed the game was too difficult and expensive. There were no clues as to what to do in the game or which way to go. They cited that LAIR was really a maze not a game, and all one had to do to win it was watch someone else go through and follow their steps exactly. For them, LAIR had no variety and thus no repeat playability.
However the game was popular everywhere it went. New Scientist magazine in England stated, "A new videodisc game called DRAGON'S LAIR is sweeping the arcades of Britain, in much the same way that Space Invaders did a few years ago."
Don saw it as being a key area in which animation could grow. Similar to the shorts markets used by Disney in the Thirties and Forties, Don could use the videogames to train new animators and earn money for future features. In fact, as much as the games were successful, Don had little interest in them, preferring to spend his time looking into future feature film possibilities.
With any new product, many urban legends seem to have been created by LAIR. Letters to gaming magazines and Don's studio asked about supposed secret rooms and commands. One rumor alleged there was a point in the game that Dirk could use his sword and accidentally kill Daphne. Another rumor was the possibility of repeating certain rooms if enough rooms were won. The random accessibility of the computer code could mean anything might be on the laserdisc, but not seen in the normal game.
Most of these rumors seem to come from two facts. First, the use in some publicity of a sequence not found in the game, the other was the missing opening when Dirk enters the castle. Easiest to explain is the missing opening. Many arcades found the opening too slow so the program was shifted so that the game would generally start with Dirk just running into the castle. This bypassed the draw bridge and monsters sequence, which **was** in the attract mode.
As for the publicity material, when the game was first being tested and shown at the gaming conventions, a few test scenes as well as test discs were produced. For the same reason some films have scenes cut (they're too slow, not what was hoped for, too long, etc.), Starcom dropped some scenes.
This first test disc featured the standard Attract Mode, but some changes are found. First, the characters' names are not superimposed over the characters. Another is a scene of a one- eyed, pig-like creature throwing a spear.
Actual gaming sequences found on the disc are the entrance to the castle with the moat monsters and the fire room pretty much as seen on the game. The open and shutting door is shown by itself, without the lead in of the magnetic force. Next is the laboratory, with **no** green stuff on the ground. However the monster does flash out of the pot but Dirk merely puts the lid on and leaves the room, not using his sword as he would in the real game.
The corridor with crumbling floors, knives, snake pond and spider also features some different animation, mainly with the pond. Rather than the snakes coming out from the walls, the snakes are already in the pond and blocking Dirk's exit. He exits the side of the pond as seen in the final game.
Even more key was some obvious game programming not used. At each death in the test disc, the narrator tells the player that they have been defeated and that if they do conquer that sequence, "these perils await." This was obviously meant to showcase later rooms. Also apparent was an original intent to have all the rooms proceed in a particular order, rather than at random. At least one room is introduced, telling the player if they survive the room, "these perils await."
DRAGON'S LAIR became a hot property and a number of licensed products were sold. In a studio press release, Magicom announced deals with Aladdin Industries, lunch pails; American Publishing Co, PrestoMagix rub down transfers and Stick 'n Lift vinyl transfers; Fleer Corporation, bubble gum cards; Hallmark Cards, party favors; Larami Corporation, puffy stickers; Lewis Galoob, Inc., plastic figurines; M&B Headwear, painters hats and French Foriegn Legion hats; Marvel Books and Comics, children's publications; Milton Bradley Company, action board games and puzzles; Place Products Company, safety dart board games; Union Underwear Company, imprinted knitted tops; Wormser Company, children's sleepwear and Coleco, a digital and disc home version of the game. (The game Coleco finally game out with was a small home version featuring computer graphics, not the visuals found in the arcade version.) Not all of these products saw the light of day. In fact, some that were produced never got out of the manufacturer's warehouse.
Don finally had a hit on his hands. The studio produced a number of special items, itself, including theatrical style posters for the game, a button and flipbooks. It began marketing cels from the game and even created a pair of limited edition cels.
Using the new found financial success and prominence as a base, the studio began the Don Bluth Animation Club. Members received a membership card, 35mm strip of film (from a Bluth production), an autographed photo of Don, John and Gary, and subscription to a colorful newsletter. (The club unofficially ceased when the studio moved to Ireland.)
To help promote the club and game, the studio made their first trip to the San Diego Comic Con in 1983. The nation's largest gathering of comic, movie, animation, sci-fi, TV, etc. fans gave the studio a warm welcome. The DRAGON'S LAIR game at their booth saw continual use while studio artists, including Don, did drawings for the fans. Don was also honored with an Inkpot award at the convention (along with Betty Boop creator, Grim Natwick). The studio would continue using the San Diego con through the years as a place to generate interest and sales of merchandise.
DRAGON'S LAIR was placed in the gaming room of the (then) popular series, SILVER SPOONS. Ironically, the game also ended up in Disneyland's Tomorrowland Arcade. This feat brought a cheer from the former Disney personnel when it was announced at the studio.
The studio began to grow anew as games began to be planned and worked on. First in line was SPACE ACE, which the studio felt would be a bigger success than LAIR, and beyond that a sequel to LAIR, TIME WARP.
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text and format © John Cawley