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The Laserdisc Revolution November 26, 2010

Posted by Maniac in Histories.
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A few dots appear on a screen and maybe a few dashes, some of which may or may not have color to them. Beeps and bloops come out of the speaker. Insert twenty-five cents please. In the early 1980s, that’s what you would call a game.

But gamers were about to get something more.  A new storage media, one capable of displaying full motion video, was on gaming’s horizon, and it made most other games look like antiques in comparison. They used laserdiscs, a new technology for home video display which at the time was light years ahead of what VHS and Beta were capable of. Any individual second of a movie could be called upon the disc with very minimal seek time and no need to rewind or fast forward. For a long time, programmer Rick Dyer had been trying for years to find a format capable of producing an interactive game. He started with cash register paper on a mechanical machine, a great idea but one that couldn’t be mass-produced easily. The laserdisc format was perfect to make the next generation of arcade games. All that was needed was a piece of hardware attached to it which was programmed to take a user’s response and compare it to the correct solution to get the player through each level.

The machines themselves consisted of a built in controller with a stick capable of eight possible directions, and one attack button making for a total of nine possible input options for any danger moment. A standard definition monitor displayed the images off the laserdisc, and sound could be output in 2-channel stereo. If the user could correctly survive the sequence, they would make it to the next. If they couldn’t, the user would fail and would have to replay it.

Dragon’s Lair, directed by film veteran Don Bluth, would become one of the first arcade games released which would make use of this technology. Released in 1983, The arcade cabinet was also designed to be easily adaptable to any future game release. Within no time at all Dragon’s Lair became a cult classic. While usually arcade games would take months to recoup their cost to their arcade owner, Dragon’s Lair paid itself off in a matter of weeks, unheard of in the arcade market. The fascinating graphics and challenge of Dragon’s Lair provided its player with the incentive to keep playing.

Built on top of Dragon’s Lair’s hardware, Bluth and Dyer’s studios created the next game to take advantage of the laserdisc arcade machines, Space Ace and released it around a year later.  Fortunatly for the arcade owners, Space Ace could be bought in full or as an upgrade package (which was much less expensive) to convert an already existing Dragon’s Lair cabinet. This is almost like what a home player could do by just swapping out the cartridge in their Atari 2600!

But there was one thing that not even Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace could outrun, and that was the gaming collapse that it had found itself in the middle of. By 1983, the greatest crash in gaming history had begun. The flooded market of games could no longer sustain itself and even the biggest companies were going out of business. While Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair were doing well in sales, the arcades that were displaying them and the publishers that funded them were going bankrupt and closing down. The problem was that they were single handedly holding up a market that was not just on the decline, but ready to burst. By the time their third game was nearly complete the money just evaporated and the company was forced to lay off all their employees. It was expected to be a temporary inconvenience, but it lasted for years.

Dragon’s Lair II would finally see a new investor five years after the entire staff had been laid off and the Bluth Studios had moved to a different country. The arcade market had become an entirely different beast all these years later, and a new champion of the home gaming market reigned supreme, and it was Nintendo. Graphics were now better, and since more games had been using the technology in the meantime, the initial wow factor of a laserdisc game was gone. The arcades would need to evolve again or lose to the home video game market.

Technology may have improved but the games have always stayed the same. The resolution may have changed but it still takes the same moves to progress through sequence 13 and save Princess Daphne. However, the games have stood the test of time. Dragon’s Lair has been ported to over a dozen different formats over the past 25 years ranging from the early PCs to iPhone, to Blu-Ray Disc. The players are in many cases those very same players who put down 50 cents back in 1982 just to try to make it to the last screen. Playing it again brings them back to the time when the Arcade was the King and the Princess was not in another castle.