Saturday, December 21, 2013

What Were LaserDisc Games?

The short lived craze that helped reignite interest in video games and animation.

For those who didn't grow up during the 1980s or early '90s the word 'LaserDisc' may not exactly be familiar. Think of LaserDiscs as the record size prototype of the DVD. LaserDiscs were first manufactured in 1978, arriving shortly after the VHS beat out Betamax. Unlike the DVD or the Betamax, LaserDiscs utilized disc based technology, resulting in higher quality image and audio quality. LaserDiscs were also the first format to include extra discs filled with extra features. Despite these advantages of the LaserDisc, it wan't until the DVD arrived that optical discs became the preferred video format. LaserDiscs were considerably more expensive than VHS tapes in most regions, very large/awkward to hold, could not record shows on TV, and could not store as much length as the VHS. Thus LaserDiscs were not popular with most of the American public, save for movie buffs or the dedicated otaku.

Laserdiscs: the record sized forerunner of the DVD.

However, LaserDiscs did manage to make a significant (if short-lived) impact on the animation and video game industries. While the idea of the interactive movie was not new at the time (The short film Kinoautomat [1967] is largely considered to be the first.), LaserDiscs made the use of interactive movies more widespread due to their ability to skip back and forth between segments of film and nonlinear play devices. For those unfamiliar with them, interactive movies can be best be described as the video game equivalent of  'Choose Your Own Adventure' books, where the player's actions dictate the result of the film depending on which choices they make. Many LaserDisc games required 'quick time events' where the player has to press the correct sequence of buttons within a short given amount of time, or else they will die. This happens very frequently in LD games, because in order to progress, you must memorize the button sequence. (Thus many quarters are quickly lost if you play them in arcades.)

Enter the Dragon's Lair

Although the first LaserDisc game, Astron Belt (Sega, 1983), was actually a rail shooter that used some footage from Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan, the first widely successful game was Dragon's Lair.  Released later the same year by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, Dragon's Lair proved to be so popular that several machines were reportedly broken by children playing on them too frequently. Dragon's Lair is widely credited for saving the sagging arcade industry and renewing public interest in video games after the fall of Atari. It also gave Bluth the much needed money to fund his additional feature films and thus encouraged him and others animators to make material beyond cheap Saturday morning cartoons.

The reason for the game's appeal was simple. Unlike other popular games of the time which utilized simple, pixelated sprites, Dragon's Lair featured high quality hand-drawn animation, which gave the game a greater sense of 'realism'. (Well, realistic enough for a fantasy story about a dim-witted and cowardly knight ['Dirk the Daring'] determined to save a scantly clad princess from a fearsome dragon.) Dragon's Lair was even successful enough to have a sequel released in 1991, which is fondly (or not so fondly remembered) for its rather bizarre time-traveling plot. Dragon's Lair also received several ports to other systems (including the infamous NES version) and had a short-lived cartoon series with noticeably bad animation provided by Ruby-Spears.

Gameplay of Dragon's Lair making it look extremely easy.

In reality, you die a lot. Say goodbye to your quarters!

In 1984, Don Bluth released Space Ace, which is essentially Dragon's Lair in Space. The game had a higher budget with smoother animation, more sound effects better voice acting, and of course, a good dose of strangeness. Thayer's Quest also hit arcades the same year. Although the game was developed by RDI Video Systems (the studio that released Dragon's Lair and Space Ace), Thayer's Quest was made without any involvement from Bluth and has rather shoddy production values in comparison to Bluth's work. Thayer's Quest was initially created for the doomed Halcyon console (which had many advanced capabilities including voice recognition). It ultimately failed due to its extremely steep price of $2,500. In fact, the Halcyon is often cited as the most expensive video game system ever created!

Poster for Space Ace.

Cliff Hanger or Lupin III?

Not all companies could afford to hire American animators like Don Bluth, several of them opted to use footage from anime unreleased in the US at the time and cut it to fit into the storyline they desired. The most famous of these games is Cliff Hanger (1983) which made a cameo appearance in the movie The Goonies. Cliff Hanger was created using footage from two Lupin III games, primarily from The Castle of Cagliostro. As with many anime games released overseas, Cliffhanger had hilarious bad dubbing done directly over the original Japanese and many of the characters in the films either had their names changed or were cut out completely.

Bega's Battle (Sega, 1983) was a rail shooter with footage taken from the anime Harmagedon. Like many popular games of the time, it was featured on Starcade. It had a notoriously violent opening sequence, where a man's face is shown mutating and melting off. (And, yes, this game was marketed towards children.) The anime itself is pretty awful and forgettable despite being directed by Rintaro and produced by Madhouse. Curiously enough, two other of Rintaro's movies,  Galaxy Express 999 and Adieu Galaxy Express 999, were adapted into a 1987 LaserDisc game called Freedom Fighter. Freedom Fighter was the only game before developer Millennium Games shut down. It is thus very rare and highly sought out by collectors.

Cliff Hanger! The game that keeps you on your toes!

Genki Girls & Ninjas: Japanese LaserDisc Games

Several game developers in Japan also made LD games. Super Don Quix-ote (Universal, 1984) which is only notable for being very loosely inspired by Don Quixote and for having low budget animation on par of Thayer.Badlands (Konami, 1984) was a far more interesting game. It plays out as a Western style shooter starring Buck, a cowboy on a quest to avenge the deaths of his wife and children who were murdered by a band of outlaws. Despite, its solemn sounding setup, Badlands is actually quite humorous and silly at times due to its particularly bizarre and nonsensical death animations and random mix of American and Japanese cultural references. On a similar note, Sega also released a vengeance game in 1985. Road Blaster is a racing/shooter game where you play a man tracking down a gang of bikers who killed his wife. Unlike Badlands, the game maintains a fairly serious tone throughout. 

Outside of Don Bluth and Cliff Hanger, perhaps the best remembered LaserDisc games were made by Taito. In 1984, the company released Ninja Hayate, a game suspiciously similar to Dragon's Lair. It is about a Dirk-like ninja who attempts to rescue a princess from a feudal Japanese castle. (Ninja Hayate also bears more than a passing resemblance to another Taito game, The Legend of Kage.) Time Gal (1985) is commonly bundled with the above and is the more famous of the two. The game is set in the year 3001. You play as a skimpily dressed girl named Reika who must travel between different time periods in search of the criminal Luda in order to prevent him from altering the past. Time Gal was one of Japan's more popular LaserDisc titles, receiving numerous ports to different systems over the years. This is no doubt due to the main character being a typical excitable, ditzy 'cute' anime girl (who looks a lot like Lum from Urusei Yatsura). She laughs, spews random English and makes various pop cultural references while being chased. Half of her 'death' animations just involve her being shamed in some way or nearly losing an article of clothing. (This is actually quite creepy once you realize that several of these death sequences cut to a clip of Luda laughing.)

I'm not sure if these death sequences are annoying or hilarious. 

The Decline & Legacy of LaserDisc Games

By the late 1980s, the number of notable LaserDisc games being made began to decline rapidly as the popularity of the format waned. This is because once someone figures out the pattern of buttons needed to be pressed and sequences to choose in these games, the games have practically no replay value beyond showing off your skills to your friends. LD games thus get very repetitive over time and are often quite similar to one another in gameplay and in structure. The only major producer of LD games in the late 1980s and the early '90s was American Laser Games, which made a total of ten games up until 1994. Unlike most developers, American Laser Games used cheaply shot live-action footage which has little enjoyment beyond its camp value. All of their titles were light rail shooters which had lousy green screen effects. Most of their games were either Westerns, space dramas, or crime narratives. In 1991, Dragon's Lair's co-creator, Rick Dyer, released Time Traveler through Sega. The LD game was the first video game to utilize holographic imagery, however its standard plot about traveling through time in order to rescue to the protagonist's girlfriend may have weakened its appeal. Ultimately, Time Traveler's gimmick could not save LaserDisc games. Within four years, the DVD was introduced and the LaserDisc quickly faded into obscurity.

Although LD games were short-lived, they managed to greatly influence the future of gaming. Dragon's Lair helped re-spark public interest in the medium after the Video Game Crash of 1983. LD games pioneered the notion that games could use branching paths based upon the player's choice, introduced the notion of cutscenes to gaming, and introduced full animation to gaming. While interactive movies remain a niche market, several notable ones have been made in recent years, including Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Although these games are far more sophisticated, they owe a lot to their LaserDisc heritage.

What's the point of a low budget game if it's not animated?