Despite being an important footnote in the history of video games, the original Dragon's Lair isn't a very good game. I was recently reminded of the game's imperfection while reviewing the Xbox Live Arcade port. But as bad as the original game is, it pales in comparison to the Dragon's Lair adaptation on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Elite was tasked with the impossible, turning the incredible looking laserdisc game into an 8-bit product. With less than a megabyte to work with, there was no way to recreate Don Bluth's full-motion video from the arcade. Instead they opted to turn the game into a side-scrolling action adventure. On paper this sounds like the perfect solution, as it finally allows the Dragon's Lair player to control the action. Too bad you can't play the game on paper.
While it's true that you are finally given full control over Dirk the Daring, that doesn't mean you actually have any say over what happens. Dirk is not only slow moving, but also sluggish. He rarely jumps when you push the button and even performing simple tasks becomes a frustrating nightmare. The lengthy animations make the game almost impossible to control with any confidence.
The sluggish controls are especially toxic when combined with the trial and error level designs. Chances are you'll spend five or six lives just trying to figure out how to enter the Dragon's Lair. The first scene tells you everything you need to know about the level structures. They are full of cheap deaths, enemies that pop out at the last second and limited room to move. The game is actively rooting against you. For a few minutes I wondered if the designers decided to make the first few rooms so challenging just so they wouldn't have to finish the end of the game.
On a positive note, this NES game does a good job of recreating many of the key moments from the Don Bluth cartoon. Even though you're seeing everything from a 2D perspective, you can still point to moments in the game that come directly out of the arcade cabinet. This attention to detail would have been more exciting if you weren't forced to fight the controls every step of the way.
Sadly it's not just the first few rooms that are frustratingly difficult. Each stage presents obstacles that don't appear until the last moment, giving the player a split-second (at most) to react. The game expects you to memorize enemy placements in order to succeed, which isn't all that different from the arcade original. I was able to forgive the laserdisc's games imperfections because at least there was an interesting video to watch, but there's nothing as compelling to keep me playing this NES version.
This home console Dragon's Lair actually made me sympathize with the original arcade game. I liked the animation and attention to detail, but couldn't get past the terrible gameplay and cheap deaths. This is one adventure where even Dirk the Daring would give up on.