Some Movies Are
Meant to Be Played

A few too many shabby interactive movies seemed to snuff out the genre somewhere along the way, lending the very term a groan-inducing quality for gamers old enough to remember some of the duds. Reaching all the way back to Don Bluth’s work in the genre, however, makes one quickly realize that this is a worthy and workable formula provided it’s placed in the right hands. That’s right, the Don Bluth has a few videogames under his belt to go with silver screen classics like The Land Before Time. First released in the form of bulky laserdisc powered arcade cabinets, the Bluth games are getting another lease on life on iOS — and a worthwhile new lease it is in the case of Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp (Out Now, $2.99).

What Dragon’s Lair II lacks in genuinely interesting narrative, it makes up for by going full throttle on riotously entertaining weirdness. Having lost his squeaky damsel-in-distress spouse to a scheming wizard, everyman Dirk the Daring stumbles upon a talking(!) time machine that whisks him through one themed environment after another on a quest to rescue her. Along the way Dirk crosses paths with an astounding cast of characters packed with the kind of zany personalities only a Disney veteran like Bluth could devise — and it’s a good thing Dirk happens to be nimble on his feet, because every one of them is determined to shove him right off his mortal coil!

It’s easy to see how games like Dragon’s Lair II could have sparked a craze in yesteryear’s well trafficked arcades: it is freakin’ intense! Thinking of it as an hour-long Quick Time Event (a la the much more recent Heavy Rain) is helpful, but it’s still difficult to communicate in words just how harrowing it is for the player to experience firsthand. Imagine the most action-packed sequence you’ve ever seen in a Disney film but stretched out for the full length of the movie, and you in charge of the protagonist’s every little dodge, pivot, and sword stroke while entire environments single him out for termination. I found the end result electrifying, and it’s always a visceral exercise – rather than one that can be solved through memorization – for the sheer whirlwind pace at which input requirements fly in. Failure to respond quickly and correctly yields a morbid death segment and a re-start at the latest checkpoint. Those who enjoyed the first Dragon’s Lair iOS port should note this game’s linearity compared to the prequel.

Despite its age, Dragon’s Lair II feels refreshingly experimental in the way it hamfistedly smushes story and gameplay together. It’s something of an unspoken rule in game design that when a narrative is to be delivered, this should happen in “breather” segments segregated from gameplay. Not here! Dirk’s hardy mother-in-law announces that a quest is afoot while launching an all-out assault on him for his failure to defend his helpless sliver of a wife; later on the talking time machine delivers a rush of important plot points while Dirk and the player are busy fighting off a giant Tam o’ Shanter-wearing snake (don’t ask). That’s just how things roll in Dragon’s Lair II, and, somehow, it uncannily works. Its design probably benefits from the story’s simplicity and how often the player will be revisiting each segment as Dirk dies over and over again, absorbing a little more of the plot with each retry.

Back in the day players would have to translate onscreen cues into the proper analog input, but flashing virtual buttons make things much clearer to the iDevice owner — albeit at the price of obscuring some of Bluth & co.’s beautiful animation work. Thankfully E.A. went all-out with the options menu, offering virtual buttons of different sizes and even a southpaw-friendly setup. 

On the other hand, the iOS port brought with it one big hiccup that take this version down a few notches. The player has to make Dirk snag treasures that appear onscreen during his adventure before he can access its finale, or else the time machine will keep him in a Groundhog Day-style time loop until the player accomplishes this. Problem being, the iOS version of Dragon’s Lair II completely lacks control cues for this purpose at present. This leaves the player essentially guessing at what to do when a treasure pops up onscreen — and bear in mind Dirk will die if the player even dares to blink, let alone pause for some critical thinking. Hopefully something can be worked out in updates, as this, in addition to the game’s lack of multitask support, are sure to unnerve many who would otherwise take it for a well-deserved spin.

The test of time has indeed been good to Dragon’s Lair II. The test of increasing resolution size, now, that’s debatable. There’s no question Bluth & co. poured a ton of love into the game’s rich animation and I enjoyed every bit that played out on my Retina Display, but the HD-savvy might launch a criticism or two at its visual crispness. More importantly, it’s a bit tragic that the player’s focus on correct input leaves the onscreen festivities precisely in peripheral vision, but this is also part of the game’s charm: there’s always something new to notice on a second or third time through. Played perfectly, Dragon’s Lair II might last ten to fifteen minutes, but novitiates will spend a few hours reaching that level of survival expertise.

iFanzine Verdict: An intense and off-beat work of genius in its day, Dragon’s Lair II remains relevant because it outdid most interactive movies that followed. The iOS port is unfortunately weighed down by a missing functionality to help players collect items necessary for completing the game. Should this issue get fixed in an update, consider it worthy of an extra star and highly recommended to anyone looking for an iOS game that’s completely off the beaten path.

[xrr rating=3/5]