So, what else was I going to discuss...? Oh yeah! You may recall that I hacked my classic Xbox a couple of months ago, since I haven't shut up about it since. The machine is stocked with dozens of arcade hits from my childhood... but I didn't include them all. After some contemplation, I decided to leave the handful of laserdisc games in the past, mostly for the sake of hard drive space but also because... uh... what's the most charitable way to describe these? I keep reaching for a charitable euphemism, but the only thing that keeps coming to mind is "these miserable things suck ass."
I mean, really, have you seen these games? Thanks to the content maker-shafting magic of YouTube, you will.
By my estimation, laserdisc games come in four different flavors. The first of these is "western cartoon with nearly motion picture-quality animation." Nearly all of these came out at a specific time (1983) and were directed by a specific person (animation legend Don Bluth). The lone exception is Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp, shown here. The game was put into a time warp of its own thanks to the video game crash, and wasn't released for five years. This may have been good timing, because the mall arcade had made a comeback... but then again, maybe it wasn't, because 16-bit hardware had started to narrow the gap in visual quality between video games and movies pretending to be them.
Anyway. Bluth's games are a high watermark in the sewer that is the laserdisc genre. They're only barely interactive and require way too much trial and error to enjoy as a video game, but they're at least fun to watch. Dirk corrupting a plus-sized Eve, battling his way through Alice in Wonderland, and surviving a creative outburst from Mozart is Don Bluth at his "I forgot my meds again" peak.
Next we have "Japanese cartoon with nearly television-quality animation." Some of these were pieced together from footage of films most Americans had no idea existed. Stern's Cliff Hanger is one such example; a re-purposing of Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro. The dubbing is lousy and action scenes are repeated several times in a row to pad out the game, but the footage is from a Hayao Miyazaki film, so it's at least easy on the eyes.
On the other hand, you've got something like Esh's Aurunmilla (shown here). The animation for this Gakken release was made especially for the game, rather than pasted onto it from other sources. On the down side, the game was designed on the cheap to capitalize on the fleeting popularity of Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, and it really shows in the anemic artwork and creatively bankrupt character designs. Recycling doesn't seem so bad now, does it? Esh merges the heroes of Don Bluth's games into one supremely dorky space barbarian, whose voice actor seems to ad-lib all his lines and would probably lose an arm wrestling match to your dead grandmother. The action is par for the course for this genre, except with tiny visual cues that are easily lost in the backgrounds. If you play only one laserdisc game this year... this probably shouldn't be it.
To be fair, not all of the Japanese laserdisc games were this derivative. Hell, I haven't seen anything you could compare to Data East's Road Avenger (aka Road Blaster), released years later for the Sega CD. Let me try to explain this... your wife is murdered by a gang moments after your marriage, so you kill them all in a spree of vehicular homicide. Road Avenger is seen from a first person viewpoint and there are extra buttons to press, making it even harder than the average laserdisc game, but you've gotta give props to the loony concept. It's like the episode of M.A.S.K. the networks were too afraid to air.
Let's move on from the not-really games to the kinda-sorta games. These were typically shooters using the primitive 8-bit technology of the time, superimposed over video footage. Sometimes it was Japanese cartoons, sometimes it was stock footage of a city seen from an overhead view, and sometimes it was Astron Belt's grab bag of low-budget space battles and MacGyver explosions. There's slightly more interaction here than in the previous games mentioned, with players being able to pilot their ship around the screen, but they're not given much to do beyond dodge the occasional laser and fire into the void of space. Sometimes your ship just explodes for no discernible reason. Thirty-five years later, gamers still aren't sure how to play Astron Belt, or if there's a point to it at all.
Other games made better use of the combined technologies, including Gottlieb's M.A.C.H. 3 and Simutrek's surprisingly advanced Cube Quest (shown here). Yep, those are really polygons in a 1983 video game. I was surprised too. Yet even in the better hybrids, there are still issues. The laserdisc footage is often poorly edited, with jarring transitions that take away from the sense of immersion, and the games are typically dull shoot 'em ups that don't compare to the best titles from Namco, Sega, and Williams. Throw in all the anime clips you want, but Bega's Battle is never going to be a match for Galaga or Astro Blaster.
Finally, we come to the full-motion video game. Most of these were released in the 1990s for the Sega CD, a console which was poorly suited to them due to its low color output and the limited capacity of the CD-ROM format. It's not a surprise that two of these games, Night Trap and Sewer Shark, were originally developed for the Control-Vision, a VHS-based game system bankrolled by Nolan Bushnell and considered for release by Hasbro. The Control-Vision was ultimately cancelled, but its games lived on thanks to the Sega CD. (Lucky us.)
Full-motion video games play similarly to Dragon's Lair, with live actors replacing the animation and a teeny bit more interactivity. For instance, in Night Trap, you can switch your view between eight rooms to find and catch vampires hoping to sink their teeth into the game's cast of perky co-eds. Most of these titles were console exclusives, with one odd exception.
This is Time Traveler, released by Sega in 1991. This arcade title features a cowboy who jumps from one period of time to the next, blasting cavemen, drug dealers, and some really unfortunate western-themed stereotypes. As expected from a full-motion video game, the acting is terrible, the set pieces are cheap, and the interactivity is limited. The game's only notable feature is the use of a holographic effect that makes the characters seem as though they've been projected onto a grid. It didn't take long for Sega to leave Time Traveler in the past and adapt its holographic technology to a fighting game, the claustrophobic Holosseum. It wasn't good either, but at least it was more relevant to gamers in the 1990s.
So there you have it. Laserdiscs offer a variety of gaming experiences... none of them particularly good.
(Thanks to the many users of YouTube for the video clips!
Special no thanks to YouTube, who keeps treating them like crap.)