Blu-ray BD-Java Reviews
Dragon's Lair Review
I admit that I never once played Dragon's Lair when I was young. The game, which debuted in the early 1980s, was simply not available to me, as I was a high-school kid at the time and I believe such arcade games were very scarce if not non-existent in the Philippines.
It is this fact that allowed me to approach this game with a somewhat fresh perspective, one that was uncluttered by nostalgic memories of days spent feeding quarters into an ever-hungry machine.
The game itself has been described as a "classic", one of those old-time titles that has seemingly withstood the test of time and has proliferated as well into many different media such as Laser Disc, the PC, and even DVD. It was groundbreaking in that it used beautifully-drawn live-action animation as the backdrop for the game, with the user having somewhat minimal control over the continuous flow of the story, and providing intermittent commands to the hero, Dirk the Daring.
As preparation for viewing the Blu-ray BD-J version of Dragon's Lair, I had downloaded the Dragon's Lair Java ME MIDP ("Midlet") game from Cingular's online store into my wife's Motorola Razr cell. I found it somewhat funny that I was in the midst of evaluating the same product from two very different perspectives, the very large high resolution version on BD disc, and the much smaller and lower resolution version on a mobile device, with one similarity being that both were powered by Java.
The mobile game came in at under 70 kb, a surprisingly small footprint for a game with lots of animation, but which I later found was somewhat misleading in that the game had to repeatedly access the internet to pull new story images and backgrounds as the user went from one level to another.
This presented a problem for me, since the mobile I was using did not have a monthly data plan, and I was actually being charged by the kilobyte. I played several levels anyway, and thus managed to get an overall feeling for the game. One notable feature of the mobile game is that you can upload your high scores directly to the internet and view high scores from other players, and much to my chagrin, I found that my efforts came several orders of magnitude lower than the best players listed from the web.
I then popped the Blu-ray disc into my Playstation 3. The game had been trumpeted in its press release as "the first game title ever to be released for the Blu-ray Disc High Definition format using BD-J.", and I had been waiting to play it ever since it had been thus announced.
The first thing I noticed was that the picture quality was very good, and the producers went to great lengths to emphasize this to the viewer. One very interesting feature included in the title is a short film that juxtaposes images of older versions of Dragon's Lair with the new Blu-ray BD-J version, and the difference between the HD version and the older ones cannot be more striking. This is a beautifully rendered game, and the vivid colors and carefully-drawn animation is shown to perfection on my HDTV screen.
The second thing I noticed was that the BD-Java version had pretty much the same controls and animation as the MIDP version, although obviously the latter had much smaller, lower resolution screens. This meant that I was able to immerse myself quickly into the BD-J version and enjoy the better graphics without being too concerned about learning the ropes.
I'll structure my comments about the title so as not to unduly confuse people. My first set of comments will address the flow of the game itself, characteristics which may have been deliberately introduced into the film in an era when arcade producers wanted the fastest rate of cash inflow into the arcade box as possible. The second set of comments will tackle items which I felt would have been helpful for the user but which either were left out or were not accomodated by the Blu-ray player that I used (the PS3).
The first thing that younger gamers - who may have become used to the fast, responsive, near-realtime controls of recent console and PC games - will notice is that Dirk the Daring can only be controlled at certain times in the flow of the game. This is something that may cause frustration, because repeated manipulation of the controls do not produce any immediate effects on the unfolding scenery before them. I sometimes found myself jabbing at the controls in a frenzy when danger approached, only to watch in sheer disbelief as Dirk carried on, oblivious to my most determined efforts at getting him away from danger. The rational person will point out that this is a limitation imposed by the very foundation of the product itself, where segments of animation had been spliced together into a complete storyline, but one nevertheless has to approach the game with a different mindset than when playing today's more common shooter or role-playing game.
The second thing that was deliberately introduced into the game is the fact that segments in between the numerous "action points" (where the user has to make some decision) are relatively short. This by itself may not be a problem if one already knows all the moves necessary to prolong Dirk's life, but it does produce a series of disjointed segments with seemingly no connections to one another for new users who do not know the secret moves. The rapid "action points", where the user would most likely die in quite different and hilarious ways, were obviously in place to part arcade players from their coins as quickly as possible, but I nevertheless wished that the creators had made the gameplay "smoother" by allowing some respite from the seemingly endless action, so the user can take some time to marvel and luxuriate in the brilliantly-colored visuals.
Beyond these points though, there are several items that I found to be notable. The first is that the menu system closely follows the rather static menus found in DVDs. There is no way to open the main menu and play the game at the same time. This is in contrast to other BD-J titles, which feature interactive menu systems that do everything but jump out of the screen and walk your dog.
Second, the producers created a "help system" that was supposed to guide the user in navigating the dangers as the game played. According to the manual:
You will notice a yellow diamond appear on the lower right corner of the screen when it is time to make a move. You can enter left, right, up, down, or sword (ENTER) and the diamond will change to the input you have made. If you have made the correct move, the directional arrow on the screen will be displayed in yellow. If you've made the wrong move you will see a transparent red arrow (or sword) and Dirk will die.
I have a pre-release version so this may have been corrected for the final release, but when I play the game on my PS3 I have yet to notice anything consistently appearing on the lower right hand corner. What really happens is that when you press any key a red diamond shows up, and if you made the right move, a green diamond sometimes shows up. This is obviously not a big deal, but it nevertheless would have been a nice way to help new players get through the most frustrating parts of the game.
The game responds quickly to user input, and the programming keeps the black screen to a minimum when the game flows from one scene to another, although it is still somewhat jarring to have such abrupt cuts going on. One possible alternative would have been to use a milder form of transition like a fade-in/fade-out or closing circle, or perhaps the image could have been frozen and a loading icon used to ease the transition from one cut scene to another.
Finally, the title uses a picture-in-picture feature to allow viewers to watch the entire film (including the numerous Dirk the Daring death scenes) while watching the creators of Dragon's Lair comment on the scenes as they unfolded. As noted in another review, it was actually quite informative to watch and listen as they entered into a fascinating dialogue about the events and processes that were involved in the creation of this classic game.
In summary, the Blu-ray BD-J version of Dragon's Lair is a great example of what can be accomplished using BD-Java at this early stage in its development, and kudos to the folks at Digital Leisure Inc and to the programmers (like David Foster), who reportedly had to struggle through the publicly available documentation and the somewhat variable implementation of BD-J in different players. Although I had some relatively minor nitpicks, Dragon's Lair is neverthesless a visually stunning title with a unique game play that might frustrate newcomers to the game, but which will undoubtedly bring back fond memories to nostalgic old-timers.
NOTE: All images in this article are copyright to Digital Leisure Inc. They are not meant to correctly depict the actual representation of the movie in high-definition.