I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from November 2017, about how nostalgia fools us into thinking things from our youth were interesting when they were actually terrible.
The return of Stranger Things to Netflix — I haven’t seen it yet but will surely watch it with the same “yeah, this is fine, I guess, this is passable” to-watch-while-folding-laundry half-interest as I watched the first season — has rekindled interest in the old “Dragon’s Lair” video game. I’m embarrassed to say I am old enough to have played “Dragon’s Lair,” repeatedly, as a kid, and that I am still infuriated by the game today.
Apparently “Dragon’s Lair” shows up in Stranger Things 2, and just thinking about that game is bringing back a rush of ugly memories. Polygon has a good history lesson on “Dragon’s Lair,” why the game was so popular, how impossible it was to play, how expensive it was, how often it constantly broke down. I did not need this primer, though, because a larger percentage of my childhood than I’d care to admit was spent trying to figure out that stupid-ass game. As Polygon explained, the game actually ran on a Laserdisc — which is why it was constantly breaking, and why the game is less a “game” and more a “DVD with an options menu” — unlike every other game, which meant that you had to push the buttons to play at the exact right point or you lost. And I mean exact: Even if you tried to move your character away from the dragon at the logical time — like you would in any other game — you will still die unless it was the precise moment the game wanted you to move. It was impossible. I think I once played it six straight times and didn’t get past the first screen once. But the game looked so pretty, like you were actually playing a cartoon yourself, that it was irresistible.
The six straight failures was not merely an academic matter. I played at the Aladdin’s Castle at the Cross County Mall in Mattoon, and usually my mother would drop me off with five bucks to last me as long as it took her to go to fabrics store and Sears. (The last time I went to the Cross County Mall, almost all the stores were closed, and the main things I could find for sale were katana swords, sold on tables out front of abandoned CD shops. It’s a dark time for old malls in rural communities.) “Dragon’s Lair” was 50 cents, which was plenty pricey for a game I typically played for about 15 seconds. How did that game only give you one life? I remember the “Dragon’s Lair” phenomenon that the Polygon story describes, and how everybody in Mattoon had to play it, even if no one could figure it out. I think Alan Hill got past the first screen once and was basically everyone’s hero for a week.
Eventually I gave up and went on to play other games. I have never been much of a gamer, and I demand very little from my arcade experience, so I usually would play the games no one else wanted to play because you could get more plays for a quarter and because there was never a line. You want to know the video game I’ve probably played more than any other? The Journey video game. There was a Journey video game. Steve Perry shot things with his microphone.
I love this advertisement for the game.
I have no idea how this game was played — the only thing I remember is Steve Perry shooting things with his mic — so fortunately Wikipedia is there for me.
The objective of Journey is to reunite the members of the band with their instruments (and singer Steve Perry with his microphone). Each instrument is located on a different planet, and the musician must first reach the instrument, then make it back to the band’s ship without running into an obstacle. Each musician’s stage presents a different challenge.
Once all of the instruments have been collected, the band performs a concert while the player controls Herbie, a bouncer whose job is to prevent fans from rushing the stage. Once a fan sneaks past the bouncer, the crowd steals the band’s instruments, and the player must reacquire the instruments again in harder versions of the previous planet challenges. The game continues in this fashion until the player has lost all of his or her lives.
I wasn’t very good at this game either. I spent way too much time at Aladdin’s Castle — which went defunct in 1993 but I swear my wife and I came across in a random Alabama mall one time 10 years ago — to be as bad at all of these games as I was. At the time, my mom always felt guilty just dropping me off to rot my brain with video games while she shopped, but in retrospect, compared to the way we all video game now, At least I was out of the house. All told: Five bucks a pop is a helluva lot cheaper too, even at Dragon’s Lair prices. My kids can already play video games on my phone that are infinitely more complicated than those games I used to play at Aladdin’s Castle. But they don’t have to leave the couch either. Every generation has its junk culture, and every generation ultimately gets nostalgic and romanticizes that junk culture. But it’s still junk. And I’m still pissed I could never figure that stupid game out.