In a premiere episode that saw titanic hellbeasts looming over a fire-choked horizon, a young boy perilously trapped between reality and a grim alternate dimension, criminal teens evading the cops with their psionic abilities, and a high schooler driving a bitching Camaro, Stranger Things’ second season has already strained credulity with a single, ludicrous scene: There is no fucking way anyone ever got that far in Dragon’s Lair.
To its credit, Stranger Things does accurately capture the excitement that greeted the infamous game designed by animator Don Bluth with its opening scene of the boys rushing around, frantically gathering as many quarters as they could find, borrow, or steal to play it—as well as how stupidly expensive it was. In fact, when Dragon’s Lair premiered in 1983, the whole thing was treated as actual, legitimate news, with everyone hailing it as the kind of next-generation leap in arcade gaming that could rescue the industry from a years-long slump. Don’t just take it my word for it; check out this vintage report from Local Robert Urich.
Boredom with blocky pixels shooting at other pixels had already seen giants like Atari losing hundreds of millions, so there was an immediate and obvious fascination with a video game that didn’t look like a video game. Dragon’s Lair creator Rick Dyer, head of the scrappy up-and-comer RDI Video Systems, recognized the desire for something a little more realistic, relatively speaking. So he hired Bluth, then hot off The Secret Of NIMH, to draw him a game filled with seamless, movie-like animation. The result was a pioneering work that utilized actual cel drawings and real (if limited) human voices. It was otherworldly to look at, and the frenzy it sparked ensured long lines around the Dragon’s Lair console from the get-go, even though it cost a similarly unheard-of 50 cents to play it. Why, in 1983, 50 cents would get you a McDonald’s cheeseburger, and you still had enough left over to take the cocaine trolley over to the Duran Duran show, etc. etc. It was a lot to ask kids to spend it on one pull of an arcade game.
Stranger Things, to its credit, captures this as well. “I hate this overpriced bullshit!” Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) exclaims after watching Dragon’s Lair’s frustratingly clumsy protagonist, Dirk The Daring, die yet again. This is also accurate. Approximately 90 percent of the Dragon’s Lair experience was spent watching Dirk die, whether consumed by flames, crushed by rocks, strangled by tentacles, strangled by slightly different-colored tentacles, or—most likely—immediately falling from the drawbridge in the very first scene, your pathetic reflexes unable to wrest the Dr Pepper-encrusted joystick and match the pinpoint precision required to make Dirk react in time.
After all, Dragon’s Lair isn’t so much a video game as a series of mildly interactive cut scenes. Rather than putting your skills toward making some sort of conscious decision—gaming, in other words—the screen would just flash a little light in the general direction of where you needed to wrench the joystick or when you needed to press a button. Do it a millisecond after—or before—you’re supposed to, and Dirk dies. That’s it. He just fucking dies. There’s no margin for error; none of the accidental grace of just mashing everything and blustering your way through that makes video games so enjoyable. There’s just infuriating scene after infuriating scene of Dirk dissolving into bones over some faux-Bach funereal organ, his own grimace mirroring yours as you realize you just blew another half-dollar. Chances are if you played Dragon’s Lair, hearing that organ sound conjures a Pavlovian response deep from your repressed memories that makes you want to hit something.
That roughly sums up my own experience with Dragon’s Lair, a game that repeatedly taunted me from the local Showbiz Pizza, sucking up untold quarters that I could have applied to something more enjoyable, like Skee-Ball or choking. That is, when the game was even working: After all, by the time I got to Dragon’s Lair at the age of 7, it was roughly two years old, meaning it was more likely than not to be out of order. Its laser-disc interface meant the game was constantly scanning for the right scene to play so you could die in it, putting a huge strain on the laser-disc player inside that caused it to break down constantly. During one of the few times it was functioning, I recall finally—finally—hitting the joystick at just the right moment to get Dirk back up on that damnable bridge. I had a brief, joyous celebration, during which I was immediately crushed by rocks. I swore off the damn thing then and there.
There were kids who similarly swore that they actually beat Dragon’s Lair; there always are. Most of them were liars. In the graciousness conferred by the softening of age, I will now allow that maybe a handful of them did—although beating Dragon’s Lair is an accomplishment solely of rote memorization, acquired over a Malcolm Gladwell-worthy number of hours and untold dollars wasted. Most people didn’t have that kind of unsupervised free time or financial resources, and I was a middle-class child of divorce.
But in Stranger Things, set more than a year after Dragon’s Lair’s release, not only is the game still functioning, but the boys are all the way into the final level, only faltering at the scene where Dirk is at last on the verge of rescuing Princess Daphne from the dragon. Look, I’ll buy that they all survived their battle with the Demogorgon to pull their dead friend out of a parallel dimension. I’ll even take your word for it that they successfully avoided being placed in a permanent quarantine by military scientists to have their brains dissected by just sort of talking their way out of it. But this? This is horseshit.