“We didn’t know anything about videogames–that’s God’s honest truth.” That’s veteran animation director Don Bluth describing his gaming expertise before his studio created the animation for the 1983 arcade game Dragon’s Lair and its 1984 follow-up, Space Ace.
For a guy who says he was oblivious to the world of gaming, Bluth has had a lasting impact on it. The inventive and lavish animation in Lair and Ace caused a stir when they were released, and both games remain among the best-remembered ones of their era. And now, almost thirty years later, Bluth and his longtime artistic associate Gary Goldman have teamed up with Square One and Warner Bros. to create the visuals for Tapper World Tour, a jazzed-up reboot of the 1983 arcade demi-classic that came in two versions: the Budweiser-themed Tapper and the non-alcholic Root Beer Tapper. The new version, with 100 levels, rich animation and audio, and the same basic twitchy gameplay as the original–pour drinks, then send them rocketing down counters towards impatient patrons–ships for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad in early spring.
As Bluth suggests, he got involved in games more or less by accident. His fledgling studio’s first feature, 1982’s The Secret of NIMH, had been a box-office disappointment, and he was looking for a project to keep his team of Disney defectors going until they could make another movie. Cinematronics approached him with the idea for Lair at precisely the right time. (Bluth eventually partnered up with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin to make 1986’s An American Tail and 1988’s The Land Before Time.)
In the early 1980s, videogame animation didn’t get much more sophisticated than the blocky 8-bit charm of Donkey Kong. Dragon’s Lair blew right past such restrictions by storing the video on a laserdisc. Bluth’s artists did full animation with pencils, paper, paint, and cels, just as if they were making a theatrical feature. The only difference was that they produced it in small chunks that played back in difference sequences based on how the Dragon’s Lair player handled the game’s joystick and buttons.
The game was a quarter-gobbling hit–I still remember my jaw dropping when I saw it for the first time–but after it and Space Ace were released, as Bluth remembers it, “the gaming business went pffffft.” (A third game, Dragon’s Lair II, was finally released in 1991.) Lair and Ace never went away, though: They’ve been revived and reinvented dozens of times on different platforms, and are available today on the iPhone for 99 cents apiece, or a penny less than you’d have paid to play them twice in the arcade.
“People are still playing Dragon’s Lair,” Bluth marvels. “I can’t imagine why.”
Tapper World Tour runs on Apple’s iOS-powered gizmos, all of which are unimaginably more powerful than any arcade machine on the planet was back in the 1980s. But Bluth told me that his working methods haven’t changed all that radically in the three decades since he first worked on videogames: “Absolutely, pencils were involved.” With his work for animated features, early games, and the new Tapper he’s always wanted to illustrate human foibles, not just move things around on a screen. Games, he says, “are more mesmerizing if the characters are interesting.”
Might there be more games in his future? Sure, if he comes across subject matter that excites his imagination: “I like the gaming industry, as long as you get the chance to do something that isn’t a shoot-‘em-up. And especially if you get to make people laugh.”