I say tomayto, you say tomahto. I say laserdisc videogame, you say stupid interactive full motion video non-game. And then I say you suck and laserdisc games are completely awesome and no I will NOT call the whole thing off.
I love laserdisc videogames. My obsession with them started when they came out in 1983. I was 8 or 9 when Dragon’s Lair first came out in arcades, and even though I wasn’t great at it, I was madly in love with it. All of it. The technology, the animation, the characters, the whole feel of the game. The LD game craze continued, and I was hooked on the whole idea.
M.A.C.H. 3, Cobra Command, Astron Belt, Space Ace, Star Rider, Cliff Hanger — I thought they were all so cool. I saw a Thayer’s Quest machine once at Gold Mine arcade in Green Bay, but I don’t think I tried it out. I was better at some than others; I couldn’t get anywhere in Space Ace or Cobra Command, and at 50 cents a play, not knowing the moves made it intimidating. But I could get several scenes into Cliff Hanger, and that was the first time I ever had a crowd of onlookers gather around me at a machine (this used to happen at arcades in the 80s, remember).
It was a short-lived phase though, as any arcade historian will be quick to point out. Frequent breakdowns of the equipment caused this fad to fizzle before Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp could be released in time to ride the initial wave of laser games’ popularity.
But nostalgia casts a very powerful spell over those of us who grew up in the golden age of arcades, and I never forgot how much I loved those games. When DL2 finally saw the light of day in the early 1990s, I made it part of my regular arcade play rotation and many of my peers were impressed with my abilities at it (though I never finished it in the arcade). And not long after that, when my local comic shop got in a bootleg VHS tape of the complete laserdiscs of Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace, Cliff Hanger, Cobra Command, and Dragon’s Lair II, you better believe I plunked down 20 bucks for that blurry piece of shit and watched the holy hell out of it, reliving childhood memories and examining the footage with a somewhat more sophisticated eye.
Then, as an anime fan in the early 90s, when I realized that Cliff Hanger was actually cobbled together from footage of two Lupin the Third films…well, after I scooped the brains back into my head after they’d been blown clean out by that revelation, I bet you can guess what my favorite anime movie became (it’s Castle of Cagliostro, and it’s still one of my top 5 — maybe 3 — favorite movies of all time).
Naturally, being a console gamer as well as an arcade fan, I was always looking for a way to replicate — or at the very least, approximate — the laserdisc game experience at home. This wasn’t really possible in the 80s (although the planned Halcyon laserdisc game system by RDI would have been the ticket), so we had to settle for adaptations like the Commodore 64 version of Dragon’s Lair (which I believe was the same as the Coleco Adam version), which was a series of action set pieces but not the full motion video of the original. (Let’s not discuss the painful NES and SNES versions.)
PCs in the late 80s and early 90s were the first to replicate Dragon’s Lair in an arcade-like manner, although at a somewhat lower image quality.
Finally, with the advent of CD add-ons for consoles, I started getting the experience I craved. The SegaCD (MegaCD) was my savior, with not only DL and Space Ace, but also the great lineup of Japanese LD conversions from Wolfteam/Renovation.
In fact, had it not been for them, I never would have learned about the Japanese LD arcade games, like Time Gal, Ninja Hayate (called Revenge of the Ninja on SegaCD in the US), or Road Blaster (aka Road Avenger in the States, presumably to avoid copyright conflict with Atari’s non-LD game titled Road Blasters). There was also Cobra Command (aka ThunderStorm), which we Americans knew from its having been released by Data East in the heyday of arcades here.
The Pioneer LaserActive console took things a step further, with Time Gal and Road Blaster getting the full laserdisc treatment for the system’s MegaLD module. Scant availability and a price point too rich for my blood prevent me from bringing this into my gaming life; however, I have had the opportunity to play RB on the system at Midwest Gaming Classic, and it really made me want one.
I’ve explored as many options as I can, from buying Dragon’s Lair on many different formats (Game Boy Color? Sure, why not) to trying out the Daphne emulator (I can’t find all the files I need). Some of those Japanese titles were released on PlayStation and Sega Saturn in Japan, and they’re pretty good. The last console generation probably brought us the best iterations of the Don Bluth titles, with DL, Space Ace, and DLII all available for PS3/360/Wii in almost perfect quality (although cropped on top and bottom to fit 16:9 TV ratios, with an option for an “arcade” mode that retains the original 4:3 aspect ratio but adds an unnecessary simulation of scanlines and monitor curvature).
But lemme tell you about my best laserdisc game experience. My friend Brad ran an arcade in Madison, Wisconsin in the early 2000s, and he’s a DL fan too. He had just gotten his DL machine up and running, and not only that, had replaced the ROMs and the laserdisc itself with a new edition that had been put out by the laser game fan community. I was there when he fired it up for the first time, and we were both very excited. So he said “hey, we should try to beat it.” He didn’t have to ask me twice. So he put the game on free play, I cracked my knuckles, and got to work. I basically knew the moves from having played as a kid and also from the various home versions I played (SegaCD was the first version I had beaten), and while Brad tended to his customers, I stood at the newly-resurrected machine, putting it through its paces. Four hours later (I think he grabbed me a Red Bull from the convenience store across the street at one point), I finally finished the arcade Dragon’s Lair for the first time in my life, and it was pretty frickin’ glorious. So much so that I ran through it again before I left.
Despite the fact that I do have a small collection of arcade machines (6 cabinets, pared down from 15 at one point), I have never fulfilled that childhood dream of owning a real Dragon’s Lair. But we’re at the point now where video game technology can pretty much give me the real deal, so I’m at peace with that.
Younger players who know these games as “FMV” titles with no real gameplay, or think of them in terms of “QTE” (Quick Time Events, a term coined in the game Shenmue, which featured scenes requiring reactive directional or action button presses) just don’t have the context to understand what these games were all about when they first came out. It’s really a situation where you just had to be there.
For more (everything, in fact) on laserdisc videogame history and to find out where things are at in modern LD game fandom, I highly recommend you check out a website called the Dragon’s Lair Project.