Arcade Story

This is a story about me and a video game. Although I have always been and expect I always will be a nerd, the events of this story take place when I was approximately 8-10 years old, meaning I had not yet worn away the extra layer of turbo-nerd that little boys of that inclination tend to have at that age.

I’m not especially proud of this story, but I post it because I think you will find it amusing, and also because it captures a little bit of the essence of the arcade era which has been somewhat lost to time.

As the video game industry was on the verge of collapse in 1983/84, one of its most spectacular dying gasps was the laserdisc genre, and by far the most simultaneously beloved and despised game of that genre was Dragon’s Lair.

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Dragon’s Lair was the story of a sword-wielding adventurer named Dirk the Daring who sets off into a trap-laden castle dungeon to rescue a breathless, blonde, half-naked princess stereotype named Daphne from the titular dragon.

Inside a Dragon’s Lair cabinet was basically an off-the-shelf Pioneer laserdisc player connected to some custom hardware and a CRT display.

For the unfamiliar, what made Dragon’s Lair unique was its visuals. Rather than the pixelated spaceships and aliens that everyone had seen before, Dragon’s Lair was a full-motion cartoon which had been produced by former Disney animator Don Bluth, also famous for animated movies such as “The Secret of Nimh”.

Also unique was its gameplay. Rather than make continuous movements with the joystick as you would in most arcade games, you watched the cartoon (which was of course always the same) and at specific moments in the scenes you would make a single directional move with the joystick or press the “sword” button.

The move you made was meant to be somewhat informed by what was happening on screen. If you were surrounded on three sides by evil-looking tentacles, but there was a door open on the right, you were probably meant to go right. Although you might think attacking the tentacles with the sword button would be appropriate, if that didn’t happen to be what the designers had in mind you could say goodbye to one of your lives.

Although the pricing system was highly configurable by the arcade owner, most arcades configured the game to grant you five lives for 50 cents, which was double the traditional 25 cent admission price of most other arcade games at the time.

Since anyone playing the game for the first time would not already know the moves, and would not be able to infer them in the fraction of a second given to them to make a decision, it was punishingly difficult to play for most people.

However, there was no particular skill involved other than rote memorization — as long as you “simply” knew what all the moves were and when to make them, you could beat the game every time.

I was obsessed with Dragon’s Lair, and its spiritual science-fiction sequel Space Ace. (A true sequel, Dragon’s Lair II, is lesser known as it arrived almost exactly as the last remaining arcades were being shuttered. I only ever saw it in the wild once.) I was an animation nerd, and a video game nerd, and here were these games right at the intersection.

Like everyone else, I wasted a lot of my parents’ quarters playing Dragon’s Lair and lasting for about 2 minutes before losing all five lives. Fortunately, the local grocery store had a Dragon’s Lair cabinet, as well as a couple of other games, so I got many occasions to practice.

One day I was sitting in our apartment reading a video game magazine (nerd!), and in the back was a little section of classified ads. My eye was caught immediately by the words “Beat Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair!” For a few bucks, you could send away for this random guy’s strategy guide, which listed all the moves and when to make them.

Please realize there was no residential internet. We had a computer, but no modem. There was no just going to Google for an FAQ or walkthrough. If you didn’t know the moves, you just didn’t know them, unless you knew someone else who knew them, which of course you didn’t.

I begged my parents. Weeks later, my strategy guide arrived (a few black and white photocopied sheets of paper stapled together), and I began studying.

I took notes on the scenes I knew I couldn’t beat and made little cheat sheets to take with me to the grocery store. But it wasn’t enough just to know that to get past the room with the swinging paddles and grim reaper you moved up, sword, down, up — you had to know that the first up movement had to be performed at one of a few precise moments. This still required a bit of trial and error. (Personally, I’d make the move when Dirk was at the bottom of the second of a series of crouches.)

Then my parents did something unexpected, for which I will always be grateful.

A local arcade not far from where we lived regularly put old games up for sale. My dad noticed that they had listed a Space Ace cabinet for $300. To this day I will never forget my shock — my dad bought it and brought it into our tiny apartment. I had a full-size, real-deal Space Ace arcade cabinet in my childhood bedroom.

You have to understand, this sort of thing never happened. I cannot convey to you how blown away I was by this action. We weren’t at immediate risk of starvation or anything, but we were hardly rolling around in piles of excess cash. We lived in a small apartment in Cupertino. This sort of superfluous costly purchase was not generally familiar to me.

I think besides knowing that I loved the game, and it being close-enough to my birthday, my dad thought it might be fun to extract the laserdisc player from the cabinet and do other experiments with it, or connect it to the TV for movies. But primarily, it was my game, and I was very, very happy.

After some further research, we discovered that the cabinet could be converted to Dragon’s Lair by simply swapping the laserdisc and a set of ROMs on the motherboard. So now I had both games at my fingertips, set to free-play, and my strategy guide. It didn’t take long for me to master both games.

This is all just my set up for the real story.

We were on vacation, as I recall, in Anaheim to go to Disneyland. I was young, so the details are fuzzy, but this is how I remember it.

We were staying in a hotel or motel, and it was either attached to or had a small arcade of its own. Whenever we went out of town and I saw an arcade, I had to check it out. I would always beg my parents to let me go in any unfamiliar arcade that we happened across. Every once in a while, they’d have some weird game that I’d never seen before. Again, there was no internet to tell you what the hottest new video games were — you either happened upon them in an arcade or they might as well have not existed as far as you were concerned.

This particular arcade, as I remember it, had an obscure laserdisc game called Thayer’s Quest which was Dragon’s Lair-like, but even weirder in that it was controlled by a membrane-style keyboard with commands for things like taking and using specific items found throughout the game. It was weird and new so I played it until I got thoroughly confused and was starting to run out of quarters.

But they also had Dragon’s Lair. Knowing that I could beat the game on 50 cents, I wandered over and fired it up.

I was going through the motions and had progressed to about the middle of the game when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye: a crowd was forming.

Everyone who has seen Dragon’s Lair before has seen the beginning of the game. Dirk runs across the drawbridge, Dirk dodges the falling blocks, he swings across the fire ropes, and he drops on the falling disc platform. Far fewer have seen the scenes in the middle of the game. Fewer still have ever seen how it ends.

So, even people who had seen the game before were seeing parts of the game they’d never seen. Word was spreading throughout the arcade — hey, check out this kid playing Dragon’s Lair.

I kept on playing, past the lizard king, past the lava men, and finally arrived at the dragon’s lair with all five lives left.

There’s several seconds during this scene where Daphne acts like a bimbo (“Puh-lease save me!”) and you don’t have to do anything so I took the opportunity to peek over my shoulder. There were a substantial number of people standing behind me, watching me play the game. I don’t know exactly how many, but it felt like it must have been somewhere between 8 and 12. Maybe it wasn’t that many and my memory makes it seem more grandiose than it was. But there was a crowd. Enough to attract the attention of others. (What’s going on over there?)

With all of these people watching, I played through the final scene of Dragon’s Lair, but with a twist. I didn’t make the last move of the game (sword button, which kills the dragon) allowing myself to get incinerated by his fire breath four times. Not only did this ratchet up the crowd tension to palpable levels, it also increased my score higher than if I had simply beaten the game on the first try.

Then, with the crowd on tenterhooks — will he win? Does he really know how? — on that last life, I played all the way through to the end. I pressed the sword button then literally turned around and walked away, while the remaining 10-15 (non-interactive) seconds or so of the game played out. Like the nerd version of the world’s greatest hip-hop act dropping the mic and walking off stage, I just walked away from the game. I’d made the last move. Nothing left for me here. Seen this all before.

What an annoying little shit I was. I told you this was a bad story.

Anyway, no sooner had I stepped away than the crowd pushed in to watch the end sequence of the game, something they’d never seen before, and for all they knew might never see again.

I don’t recall what happened next. I guess we went to Disneyland. But my memory of my — I don’t know what to call it — performance? It has always stuck with me.

Maybe that’s what streaming games on Twitch is like for the current generation of kids. But even knowing that 60 people from around the world are watching you set new records in Call of Duty, I wonder how it stacks up to an actual crowd of people standing directly behind you, as you listen to them whispering to each other about how good this kid is at this game.

My video game glory days are probably behind me. I’m still an avid gamer, but I’ll never top my crowning Dragon’s Lair moment.

If you are curious about these games, Dragon’s Lair, Dragon’s Lair 2, and Space Ace are available for your iOS device for a few bucks each — a fact that would have shattered my brain into a million tiny pieces back in 1985.

As for my personal Space Ace / Dragon’s Lair cabinet, we sold it shortly after my family moved from California to Oregon so I could have some spending money for some other adventure. It was hard to part with, but I could tell from how excited the lad who bought it from me was that it went to a good home.