SEATTLE — Digital Eclipse, a relatively unknown video game design company in the United States, has achieved the incredible: It has taken a nearly 20-year-old video game, adapted it for a 12-year-old video game system and in process created a technological breakthrough.
Why would anybody care about an ancient game running on an obsolete system? When the game is “Dragon’s Lair,” one of the best-remembered games of the ’80s, and the system is Game Boy, the most popular game system of all time, any working union is bound to create news.
The problem with adapting “Dragon’s Lair,” which first came out in 1983, to modern game systems is the game’s graphics. Stored on laser disc, “Dragon’s Lair” featured cartoon animation instead of computer game graphics. The programming was little more than a collection of video clips spliced together by a game engine. It was the story of a knight name Dirk exploring an enchanted castle as he rescued a princess.
Players would see an animation showing Dirk facing some new danger. They’d be given a moment to respond by moving Dirk to safety by having him pull his sword. The game would then show an animation of Dirk moving on to the next situation if they got it right or dying if they made a mistake.
While “Dragon’s Lair’s” gameplay most resembled a multiple-choice quiz, its graphics made it a sensation in arcades. Don Bluth, the former Disney animator who went on to make such movies as “The Land Before Time” and “Titan AE,” created the animations.
As hand drawn animations, the graphics in “Dragon’s Lair” require much more storage space than the computer-drawn objects in most games. While other arcade games of the ’80s contained less than a megabyte of code and fit on a few ROM (read-only memory) chips, “Dragon’s Lair” required a laserdisc. It required far too much storage to fit into a game cartridge.
With its limited gameplay, huge storage requirements and astounding graphics, “Dragon’s Lair” only worked on consoles that read CD-ROM such as PlayStation and Saturn. Permutations of “Dragon’s Lair” came out for Super Famicom (released in the United States as Super NES) and other cartridge systems; but these versions were side-scrolling adventures with standard game graphics that bore little resemblance to the arcade game.
Then an independent game developer called Digital Eclipse created a compression scheme for running full-motion video clips on Game Boy Color which they first used in the Game Boy version of Disney’s “Tarzan.”
” ‘Tarzan’ got us huge recognition, so we wanted to push that technology a little further” says Digital Eclipse creative director Mike Mika. “The natural thing that we thought of was ‘Dragon’s Lair.’ Jeff Vavasour (chief technical officer) came up with the idea. It was sort of a ‘lets try it and see if it can be done.’ “
It took Digital Eclipse nearly eight months to complete the game.
“We created a demo that we presented to Rick Dyer and Don Bluth (the creators of the original arcade game),” says Mika. “Once we got a hold of Dyer, he was excited about doing it. Then we did a road show. We showed it to Capcom (Capcom USA, the American subsidiary of Osaka-based Capcom Co.) and various other publishers, and it was Capcom who in the end said they wanted to go ahead with it.”
Even with their compression technology, Digital Eclipse engineers were not able to pack “Dragon’s Lair’s” 15 minutes of motion picture-quality cartoon animation into an 8-Mbyte Game Boy cartridge.
“Most of the credit has to go to the artists who refined all the frames of the game,” says Mika. “In order to get the compression to work properly, they had to do a lot of repeated tiling in each frame.”
In order to scale the game down to 8 Mbytes, artists had to find ways to reduce data in the art. Backgrounds with small details were sometimes replaced with single-color blocks.
“They went through, and they actually dumbed down every frame of the game by hand as much as they could under a really tight schedule. They had under three months to do it,” says Mika. “There were a number of artists working day and night.”
With 15 minutes of animation running at 10 frames per second, the Game Boy Color version of “Dragon’s Lair” contains approximately 900 individual frames. The modifications not only included blocking out small details, but weeding out sounds and clipping unnecessary effects such as parallax scrolling between layers of animation.
“As the space started getting smaller and the time started running out, we had to make certain sacrifices,” admits Mika.
The final result, however, is impressive-possibly the most impressive technological display ever created on Game Boy. When a Digital Eclipse team demonstrated the game to Don Bluth, he could not believe the quality of the game. “Bluth was excited to see that it could be done on Game Boy Color,” says Mika. “He never envisioned that it could be done on something portable.”
Dyer, whose contribution to the original “Dragon’s Lair” was more technical than artistic, was apparently fascinated by a more high-tech irony. “Rick (Dyer) was excited to see that Game Boy Color had a Z80 (processing chip). He did the original ‘Dragon’s Lair’ code on a Z80 (processor), and the actual arcade game shipped with a Z80.”