A Look at the Cliffhanger LaserDisc Arcade Game

In 1983, an arcade videogame called Dragon's Lair featured fully animated movie scenes that were streamed off LaserDisc. It was a great success and spawned a mini-boom of likewise imitators. Stern Electronics, the US publisher known for many successful video and pinball games, sought to get in on the action, but lacked the resources to finance a million-dollar production of their own. Instead, they turned to Japan in search of animated movies to use.

They found two anime films based on the popular Lupin the 3rd franchise: The Mystery of Mamo and The Castle of Cagliostro. After securing the rights, Stern hired Evanston, Illinois-based production company Associated Audio Visual, Inc., who assembled action scenes from both movies into an interactive game, and the resulting product was dubbed Cliffhanger.

Like most LaserDisc videogames, Cliffhanger is an interactive movie where you move a joystick or press buttons at key moments when prompted by on-screen displays. This provides the illusion of participating in the action, by dodging enemies, attacking foes or driving a car through crowded roads. Any actual interaction is minimal, and you are really just responding to flashing lights while a movie plays in the background. For the time, it was an impressive feat, but the lack of true immersion combined with high production costs doomed the genre to extinction. By 1984, the US videogame industry was in complete collapse, including the arcades, leaving only a few publishers to survive.

Miyazaki fans will be interested to know that the dubbed segments for Cagliostro were recorded exclusively for this game and appear nowhere else. An effort was made to include these scenes in the Discotek Blu-Ray package, but were unsuccessful due to rights and contracts.

The Cagliostro dub is almost cartoonishly bad. It almost sounds like the pimply teenager from The Simpsons recorded the voices and that all the dialog was riffed on the spot, without any scripting. You can also hear the original Japanese soundtrack playing faintly in the background. The names have also been changed: Cliff (Lupin), Jeff (Jigen), Samurai (Goemon), Clarissa (Clarisse) and Count Draco (Count Cagliostro).

Today, a Cliffhanger arcade is extremely rare and expensive, but the game is playable on MAME, the arcade emulator. It remains an interesting curio from a bygone era, one that could never be allowed to happen again. Miyazaki would probably slap you upside the head if you even mentioned the subject in his presence.

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