The Art of the Game: Original Art from Don Bluth’s Groundbreaking Dragon’s Lair

Are video games art? This question has been cause for much conversation and debate in video gaming circles for decades. And today, many have come to a common answer: yes, of course. With video game exhibits popping up in museums worldwide, including the MoMA and the Smithsonian, and rare vintage video game cartridges bringing in record-breaking prices at auction, it is safe to say that video games are now a recognized form of art. But until quite recently, video games were regarded as simple entertainment, just as television and film were in their early years. In 1983, however, one game was heralded as the champion for the industry, one that would elevate gaming to a higher form. That game was Dragon’s Lair.

To understand what made Dragon’s Lair special, one need not look farther than its main designer, Don Bluth. A former Disney artist, Don Bluth is a great innovator of animation. By 1983, Bluth’s critically acclaimed directorial-debut film The Secret of NIMH had already made him a star in the animation world. He would later go on to direct such beautiful and breathtaking films as An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and Anastasia. His recognizable style is iconic for its adorable and expressive character design, gorgeously lush backgrounds, and fantastical elements. Dragon’s Lair was a bold experiment for a then-rookie Bluth and his team, but no one could have pulled it off better.

Dragon's Lair Princess Daphne Production Cel (Don Bluth, 1983)Dragon’s Lair Princess Daphne Production Cel (Don Bluth, 1983)

Dragon’s Lair is a unique hybrid of animation and video game. It is fully animated with a wide variety of characters, creatures, and settings. The game’s hero is Dirk the Daring, who is on a quest to rescue his beloved Princess Daphne from the evil dragon Singe. The titular dragon’s lair is chock full of monsters and death traps. Dirk will die. A lot. You will lose a lot of quarters. But it’s worthwhile to see the creative and often hilarious animations that follow each wrong turn. The animation in the game is what made it spectacular in 1983 and remains an impressive feat.

Dragon's Lair Dirk the Daring and Singe the Dragon Production Cel Setup (Don Bluth, 1983)Dragon’s Lair Dirk the Daring and Singe the Dragon Production Cel Setup (Don Bluth, 1983)

Don Bluth may not have been very established at the time, but Dragon’s Lair bears his stamp very strongly. Dirk is the classic Don Bluth hero (link to lot 96437) with his blocky features, big nose, and strong silhouette. The simple yet elegant layering of solid black over red ink highlights to create the appearance of magical fire around Dirk’s sword is a great touch. You can see Bluth’s love for crafting creatures in the design of the dragon Singe (link to lot 96438), with its menacing combination of dinosaur, lizard, and serpentine qualities. And it is easy to see the influence that Princess Daphne (link to lot 97537) would have on the design of Bluth’s later heroines, like Thumbelina and Anastasia.

Dragon's Lair Dirk the Daring Production Cel Master Setup (Don Bluth, 1983)Dragon’s Lair Dirk the Daring Production Cel Master Setup (Don Bluth, 1983)

Only three games are currently included in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian. Dragon’s Lair is one of those three. Dragon’s Lair may not have immediately answer the question, “Are video games art?” but when we look back, it is clear that we couldn’t have come to that answer, “Yes, of course,” without this iconic work. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Don Bluth’s most recent project is a movie adaptation of Dragon’s Lair, which is currently under production after a successful Indiegogo campaign. Additionally, the original game has been ported to a wide variety of systems, from computers to smartphones to the Nintendo Switch. Everyone can continue to enjoy this classic game. The groundbreaking art, however, is one-of-a-kind. If you want to own a unique piece of Dragon’s Lair art, you can’t pass up the original animation cels currently on offer with Heritage Auctions.

Posted by Caitlin Guzman

Heritage Auctions, Chicago

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