The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
SPACE ACE appeared on the gaming market in late 1983. A more structured and quicker paced game, featuring stereo sound and remarkable effects, it did not have the resounding success of LAIR. In fact, it would prove to be the last Laserdisc arcade game released by the studio during it's gaming period.
The game of SPACE ACE had a far more structured story and longer sequences than LAIR's various rooms and hallways. Though the main events could be juggled a bit, certain events did need to precede other events. Don hoped to eventually make the games so sophisticated that a player could go back to a world and pick up something he forgot.
Having seen how game players enjoyed a difficult game, Don and his crew made one of the most complex games of its time. The main character, Ace had another identity, Dexter. More than just a bit of characterization, this dual identity allowed for alternate paths in the game. If the player didn't choose to be Ace at specific times, the story would follow different paths. (Except for the final battle in which the player had to convert to Ace to win.)
The Attract Mode tells the story of Ace getting hit with the Infanto Ray by Borf. This ray has turned Ace into Dexter, a gangly kid. With Kimberley, Ace/Dexter try to keep Borf from using the ray on Earth. For the first time, animation was created just for the Attract Mode, including scenes of Ace first getting turned into Dexter and scenes in Ace's ship where he beams Kimberley on board.
The first sequence finds Dexter and Kimberley spying on Borf's hideout when she falls and is sucked into Borf's ship. Borf then comes out and blasts at Dexter before sending out some robots. Dexter heads to his ship (a chance to energize). As Ace, he blasts the robots and continues his run for the ship, but turns to Dexter part way there. Drilling robots imperil him, but Dexter gets by, makes it to the ship and takes off.
(Players not energizing to Ace simply continued to outmaneuver the various robots.)
Next Dexter flies off in pursuit through a shower of black ball meteorites. He radios Kimberley who says she's all right, "I'm just kidnapped by Aliens, that's all," and then shouts "Get me outta here!" Dexter replies "I'll save you Kimmy!" The ship flies through the outside ridges of Borf's craft, trying to avoid the meteor balls. After successfully maneuvering through, he requests the space station for permission to land. (There is no chance to energize in this sequence.)
Landing on the space station, Dexter discovers Borf is there also. Running through corridors, Dexter is menaced by tubes trying to capture him. A tube finally catches him (chance to energize), but as Ace he throws the tube off. Ace continues running down the corridors having several shootouts with alien guards. After one shootout he converts back to Dexter. Running along corridors, he sees Kimberley on a large screen being taken away by the aliens. He comes to a pair of exits and chooses either the left or the right.
(Players remaining Dexter merely avoided getting caught by the tubes and alien guards. Dexter does not use his gun.)
In a new location, Dexter finds a floating laser gun attempting to fry him. He gets by and leaps through a door down a hall (chance to energize). As Ace he lands on a moving floorway with another floating laser gun overhead. Ace blasts the device, but it has already almost destroyed the moving platform, so Ace leaps to another. More floating laser guns arrive and Ace leaps from platform to platform to keep from being hit or falling. The platforms soon enter a split screen effect of colored lights above and below. After the fight he turns back to Dexter and leaps down one of two holes, either left or right.
(Players who had remained Dexter in the hallway, would land on similar floating platforms. Dexter shoots one or two floating lasers and takes a shorter journey through the colored lights to the two holes.)
Next, Dexter is being chased down a corridor by the green, antlered space dogs. He avoids various rays which get the dogs, but more dogs arrive (chance to energize). Ace simply knocks the two dogs' heads together. Suddenly there is a giant robot. A cut reveals Ace between it and another giant robot. The robots shoot, but Ace jumps out of the way and they hit each other, exploding. Ace continues running and more dogs appear which he blasts with his gun. He runs into another giant robot that he blasts with his gun. More rays fire and Ace dodges them, only to convert to Dexter as more dogs arrive. Dexter runs up into a ship as the entire area begins to explode and be destroyed.
(Players who had remained Dexter continued to run through corridors and avoid rays and dogs. They never met the giant robots.)
Dexter lands on a walkway in a futuristic junkyard and is immediately bagged in plastic. He destroys the bagging machine and escapes only to have to avoid a junk crushing mechanism. Leaping from item to item, Dexter encounters another bagging device (chance to energize). Ace rips out of the bag and looks over to the crushing device. To his right, a giant green snake- like creature rises up to the walkway. He blasts it with his gun and continues leaping to escape the crushing device. Another green snake-like creature pops up and Ace handles it the same as the other. After blasting a third creature, Ace reverts to Dexter. Dexter notices a ladder nearby and climbs up.
(Players who had remained Dexter continued to leap around avoiding the trash crusher until they find the ladder. Dexter never meets the green monsters.)
Dexter's ship is seen leaving an exploding base and being followed by enemy ships. He flies into the corridors of a "Death Star" type space station to escape. His ship is often seen through the controls of one of the enemy. Dexter leads the villains out of the corridors and over a city on the space station. As Dexter blasts some of the villains he shouts "See you later, space invader." Finally his ship lands into a puddle of water on the ship. (There is no chance to energize in this sequence.)
Dexter next pops up in a tiny flying saucer type craft flying at high speed through a series of red and black checkerboard tunnels. A red robot and numerous craft endanger him (chance to energize). Ace takes his gun and blasts the red robot and out maneuvers the other crafts. More red robots and crafts arrive, but Ace handles them all in a similar fashion. Finally he converts back to Dexter as one tunnel ends and Dexter jumps out of the craft.
(Players who did not energize continued through the tunnels avoiding the craft and robots. Dexter didn't fire at anybody.)
Dexter's ship lands on a platform in a foliage area. As he steps out he is attacked by a giant purple plant-like creature, which he blasts with his gun. He runs to the other side of the platform and comes face to face with a giant hairy, orange creature, while more purple plant creatures also appear. Running along a corridor he is spied by two blue catlike creatures (chance to energize). Ace merely grabs the cats and throws them off. The giant orange hair beast is back and reaches for Ace. Ace blasts the creature, whom he calls "Shag," in the nose and runs for it, but Shag blocks the route by crashing a hand through the walkway. Shag picks up Ace and Ace blasts him on the nose again, causing Shag to drop Ace. When Ace hits the ground, he converts into Dexter. Dexter runs along the corridor avoiding the various plant monsters, blue cats, etc. and finally leaps to a tower of rocky rocks. Shag reappears and Dexter blasts him once on the nose and grabs on to a rope and swings away. Again Shag follows and Dexter again blasts him on the nose. Dexter lands on a pathway with two caves in front of him, one to the left and one to the right. He takes one.
(Players who did not energize merely did not have the Ace experience, and thus never learned the creature's name.)
Next Dexter is seen falling into a deep metal chasm, when he's pulled up by a rope. On a cliff is Kimberley who warns "Beware your dark side." She then turns into an evil Dexter, called Hexter, who shoots at Dexter. The two have a gun battle and Dexter takes refuge in a hiding area that Hexter seals up and fills with water (chance to energize). Ace breaks out of the water trap and confronts Hexter who then converts to a gigantic Evil Ace. The Evil Ace is blasting away at Ace who runs along a corridor only to come upon Evil Ace's face. Evil Ace grabs up the piece of floorway and tries to eat Ace. Ace shoots the Evil one right in the mouth. Evil tries to shoot Ace, but the good one is too fast. As Ace leaps from place to place on Evil's body, Evil keeps shooting away parts of his own body until only a head is left... and even it evilly rolls, like a huge boulder, towards Ace who escapes down a pathway. Just as Ace enters a doorway, he converts back to Dexter.
(Players who did not energize were dropped out of the bottom of the water trap. There they meet Hexter who splits into two Hexters, both blasting at Dexter. As Dexter runs he runs into more and more Hexters until he reaches the doorway.)
Dexter enters a room only to be sucked through a long glass tube and land on a motorcycle. He races to outmaneuver a group of space pigs on cycles (chance to energize). Ace drives the cycle to where Kimberley is waiting. "Dexter, you're late," she gripes. Ace requests, "Call me Ace," as he asks her to get on. "Thanks, I'll walk," comments Kimberley until a giant pig shows up and begins eating the walkway. As the pair ride, Kimberley tells Ace that Borf is going to point the Infanto Ray at Earth. Since Kimberley knows where the ray is, they'll go there. The two then plan to shoot Borf with the ray. Ace also asks Kimberley for a date. "Get serious" she replies. "I am," says Ace. Suddenly Ace converts back to Dexter.
(Players who didn't energize still drove up to Kimberley, but as Dexter. She gets on the cycle and they head off with no dialogue about plans or dates.)
An establishing shot of Borf at his control panel opens the next scene as the game cuts to Dexter and Kimberley on rocket skates heading onto a tricky maze. The pair race around the maze heading for the center (chance to energize). Ace and Kimberley find a new danger when rays begin destroying parts of the maze. Borf makes his second appearance in the game pushing a button that puts Ace and Kimberley under water. The pair grab a pair of aquabooms that propel them through the water. A giant red eel appears but Ace blasts him with his gun. Borf releases the Black Eel, another giant, as Ace and Kimberley get oxygen from aquaplants. The pair grab their aquabooms and make a run for it. The Eel catches them and even after a blast from Ace manages to get them in his mouth. Before the eel can swallow, Ace blasts again from the inside. As the Eel opens his mouth, Ace converts to Dexter. The two race out of the tank to safety.
(Players who didn't energize didn't have the maze blasted out from under them. Also when under water, after meeting the red eel, Dexter would simply shoot it and make the getaway seen from the Ace Black Eel scene.)
Kimberley and Dexter are washed onto a sponge pad where three doors are in front of them. Kimberley asks repeatedly, "Which way?" Dexter seems unsure.
The final sequence has the pair land on a platform in Borf's central control. They are immediately attacked by the pig guards. Dexter blasts a few, but they are still able to take Kimberley away. As Dexter goes in pursuit, he is stopped by an explosion. It is Borf, wielding his Infanto Ray. Dexter runs along some corridors (chance to energize). Borf jumps down and battles Ace with rods similar to staffs. Meanwhile, Kimberley has been placed on a platform floating over some form of boiling substance. She cries out for Dexter while the platform is being lowered. Ace finally tosses his stick away and jumps on Borf, giving him a few good head socks to the head. As the pig guards approach, Ace grabs a rope and swings away.
He lands on the platform and frees Kimberley. The pigs attack as Borf goes to his weapon. Ace battles the pigs and tells Kimberley to run. Borf begins shooting, but Ace is too fast. At one point he hits the pig guards who turn into piglets. Ace grabs a mirror and places it in front of the next blast. This reflects it back to Borf who is hit with no effect. At least at first. Suddenly, Borf's head decreases in size followed by the rest of his body and becomes a little blue baby.
Ace catches the blue bundle as it falls. Kimberley comes up and asks Dexter if they can keep him. Ace replies, "Call me, Ace." The baby Borf looks up and says, "Ace." Cut to a shot of Dexter/Ace's ship flying off.
(Players not energizing fought Borf with the sticks as Dexter. However, two more energizing opportunities were given during this fight. Only as Ace could a player defeat Borf. If the player didn't energize he was killed.)
During the game, when a player died Borf would come up the screen and taunt them with such phrases as "You will lose," and referring to the player as "Creep."
BEHIND THE SCENES
Don wanted ACE to out-game not only LAIR but other games. He went to work to make it one of the most spectacular showcases for animation around. (He still saw the games as means to an end.) All stops were pulled out and the effects crew was put to the test.
He also wanted to eliminate some of the complaints leveled against LAIR from the early tests. One was to make the game a bit easier by giving visual clues. These clues were "flashes" on the screen as to what the player should do. A flash at a door meant go in the door. A flash on the gun meant draw the gun. These flashes were started to be incorporated at the end of production of LAIR and appear in some of the sequences, but they do not always refer to the proper action. (In fact in one sequence following a flash will get Dirk killed.) In ACE they were all planned out. A player's eyes had to be fast, but Don figured most players had fast eyes and good reaction time from playing other games.
Another aspect he wanted to change was the scattered gaming of LAIR. Whereas LAIR featured numerous small sequences that didn't really add up to much of a storyline, ACE was planned almost as a mini-movie. Don and his crew worked on getting more character and story elements into the process. He began utilizing the "threat/resolve" set-up as part of the storytelling process. This element would later show up in his features.
Don described the (then) upcoming game to a film writer, "With SPACE ACE we've taken the laser technology ever further. There's more random access. We created SPACE ACE for teenagers. Ace is the ultimate science-fiction hero. So, we then tried to figure what the biggest threats were we could throw his way. We have him being shot with an Infanto Ray. He's turned into a weak kid.
"Along comes a villain and steals his girl friend. Now he has to both regain his manhood and rescue his girl. Those are pretty threatening situations. There's a lot more dialogue in SPACE ACE than in DRAGON'S LAIR. More music, too. The music gives you a certain rhythm when you play. In fact, it's counterpoint to the rhythm of the action. If you get into the dialogue and the music, you'll probably screw up your playing more."
Actually, the idea of having Ace "de-volved" to Dexter was a second thought. Initially the game was to feature Dexter changing into Ace in a similar vein to newsboy Billy Batson becoming Captain Marvel. (The reason Kimberley continually refers to Ace as "Dexter.") However, the writers felt that the teenage audience would relate better to an adult than a kid, so the beginning section was put on where it's discovered that Dexter is actually an adult in a kid's body. (This idea became a mini- trend in live action movies in the late Eighties with such films as 18 AGAIN, VICE VERSA, and LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON.)
As with NIMH many sets were created. The spaceships were built for the STAR WARS-like space battles. This created a new problem. When the animation was reversed for alternate plays, the lettering was reversed on the crafts. A massive tunnel was made for a tracking shot of the ship flying through the lighted corridor. There was also a rolling maze built for the rocket skate sequence.
Voice work once again fell to the crew. Some auditions had been held, but it was considered too costly. (Among those considered were comedian Eddie Deezan for Dexter.) Ace was portrayed by animator Jeff Etter. Dexter was voiced by animator- storyman Will Finn. Animator Lorna Pomeroy, then wife of John Pomeroy, was Kimberley (named after Kimberley Coy, the studio's publicist of the time). The villainous Borf was an electronically modulated version of Don's own voice. Michael Rye repeated his role as the narrator.
Ace also featured more of a full musical score, again by Chris Stone. It also was recorded in stereo, as was the dialogue and sound effects.
The time-tested crew that worked on NIMH were now joined by a number of new faces. Many were students who wanted to work with Bluth because of NIMH or LAIR. Others had come from other parts of the country looking to work on better animated products.
New for ACE would be the amount of publicity. In an effort to really show off the game and animation, Don decided to treat the game as if it **was** a movie. Extensive pressbooks and presskits were put together featuring press releases, stills, promotional ideas (like games and contests) and more. Don had theatrical movie posters done for ACE and LAIR to increase the Hollywood aspect of the games. DRAGON'S LAIR had received most of its publicity after the fact. With ACE, the studio went into arcades with publicity guns blazing.
SPACE ACE LIFTS OFF
The game was premiered in October of 1983 at the national game show in New Orleans to mixed reviews. Oddly, the new features added by Bluth worried many standard game makers. They questioned why the company hadn't immediately come out with a sequel to LAIR rather than a new game. Others thought that the new game moved **too** fast and was too difficult.
Also of some concern was the decision to push arcade owners to buy a new box (game) for ACE. One of the key selling points of LAIR, which had had a higher cost than other games at the times, was that with a simple change of the Laserdisc and a new program board, a new game could be played. The high cost of ACE seemed to dampen industry spirits. However, some were pleased when it was stated the next game would be a follow-up to LAIR.
Debuting in most shops around the end of 1983, the game hit the second major slump in the arcade business; a slump the industry would never really get over. (Nintendo was able to build up a new home-game market in the late Eighties.) The bottom line was that ACE had not surpassed LAIR. In fact, it hadn't even measured up to it for many players.
Sales to arcades were slow. Licensees were a little more cautious. Added to that were the additional expense Don had put into ACE and promotion of LAIR and the new game. The studio once again looked like it may be headed to financial difficulty.
Despite these problems, the studio seemed more determined
and upbeat than ever. The games had created a great deal of
attention and number of possibilities loomed in the future. Work
continued on LAIR II, which everyone knew would become the ultimate game.
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text and format © John Cawley