“Who wants to go to Chuck E. Cheese tonight?”
These were magical words in 1984. My Dad knew nothing could top a family trip to the world’s most famous arcade and pizza parlor. I remember the scent of marinara and warm dough hitting you when you entered the building. I recall the digital jingles fighting against each other in the background, all trying to get your attention. Games with familiar musical themes, like Popeye and Star Wars, clashed with infectious new tunes from Burgertime and Dig Dug. An animatronic band of hip animals would play next to the dinner tables, and joysticks were always slick with pizza grease. My sister and I got to go once every couple of months.
Every time we went, it felt like a totally new experience, given the heavy rotation of arcade cabinets. Some games – like Ms. Pac-Man, Popeye, and Donkey Kong – managed to hold their position on the confetti-themed floor indefinitely. But competition was harsh for B-grade titles. Rally-X, Frontline, and Pengo would quickly disappear in favor of new titles like Pole Position, Jungle Hunt, Pac-Man Jr., and my absolute favorite – Dragon’s Lair.
It seemed the operators at my local Chuck E. Cheese knew that they had something special with Dragon’s Lair from day one. A second monitor had been set up above the cabinet, streaming the current player’s game. That allowed you to watch the game’s action without crowding the person at the controls. It was the one game in the place that cost 50 cents to play, instead of a quarter. And despite the fact that most players lasted for less than a minute, there was always a long line to play.
The game looked amazing! There was nothing else like Dragon’s Lair. It featured movie-quality animation, produced by the same creative team responsible for The Secret of NIMH in theaters. Of course, this gorgeous presentation came at a cost: there was no actual gameplay in Dragon’s Lair, beyond hitting the right button at exactly the right moment to carry a scene to its conclusion. But from the vantage point of a fourth-grader, it wasn’t clear that the mechanics were so limited. When you were watching others play, it looked like they were deciding when to dodge, and when to pull out their sword. And at that age, even when you were brave enough to pop some quarters into the machine yourself, losing instantly was not inconsistent with your experience on other tough games, like Zaxxon. I always assumed I was just bad at it – not that the players who managed to save Princess Daphne had simply memorized a complex series of inputs that never changed.
The game had lovable characters and memorable enemies, and it painted a world that provided a robust foundation for ten-year-old adventure fantasies. Despite never being able to get past more than three screens, I caught Dragon’s Lair fever that year. I would play out the sequences from the game with friends at recess. I eagerly followed news about the announced Saturday morning television show. And most importantly, I committed myself to dressing up as Dirk the Daring for Halloween.
My best friend at the time was a boy named Daniel. He was a pretty savvy fourth-grader. He loved Dragon’s Lair as much as I did, but discouraged me from choosing to be Dirk for trick-or-treating.
“Nobody will know who you’re supposed to be,” Daniel insisted.
“No, everybody will know! Everyone loves Dragon’s Lair! You’ve seen the lines at the arcade!”
“Only kids know about the game. Grown-ups don’t. So it will be like two years ago, when you had to explain to everybody that you were Bo Duke for Halloween.”
Daniel had a point. My second-grade Halloween was rough, because I had chosen to dress up as the blonde guy from Dukes of Hazard. Nobody thought it was cool. And everybody needed me to explain the costume, which spoiled the fun of dressing up in the first place. But Dirk the Daring was super popular! Ricky Schroder even had the Dragon’s Lair cabinet in his house on the TV show Silver Spoons!
“Just go as Indiana Jones,” Daniel suggested. “You love that movie. And people will know who you are because of the hat and whip.”
I did love Indiana Jones – Temple of Doom had come out that summer, and I had seen it four times. It was not a bad suggestion, but I chose to stick to my guns. Dirk the Daring I would be, no matter what. Only one problem – nobody sold Dirk costumes.
“Oh, don’t worry, your grandma can make that costume for you,” my Mom offered. So we sent my seamstress grandmother a picture of Dirk clipped from a newspaper. I counted the weeks. I couldn’t wait for the return package, with a carbon copy of Dirk’s red and orange outfit inside.
The final product was hard even for me to recognize as something from Dragon’s Lair. The hood in my costume had pull-strings; the skullcap was made of felt instead of leather; and the red wrap was just long enough to look a bit like a dress. By contrast, Daniel had convinced his parents to get him the deluxe, off-the-shelf Darth Vader costume with the full helmet. He looked awesome. And just as he predicted, everybody knew who he was supposed to be… and nobody knew who I was dressed as. He got compliments on being scary, or looking “just like in the movie”. I got comments like “are you an ancient soldier-man?”
This was the first time I realized that this awesome gaming hobby was niche, not mainstream. Everybody in the world knew the characters from Star Wars, but only a select few knew the characters from Dragon’s Lair – or Space Ace, or Donkey Kong, or Mr. Do! And I learned that this exclusivity actually added to the cool factor – if you met somebody else that loved these characters as much as you did, you were likely to become pretty close friends. I’m glad that games are now opening up as a medium for everyone to enjoy – but I will always like the niche stuff best.