There's been a slight delay in us getting our hands on every issue of the Visionaries comic, so we're taking a break this week and are instead treating you to a tasty little gem written and directed by none other than Flint Dille, the mad genius behind our Knights of the Magical Light.
"Now, don't forget, a great Dragon Master isn't afraid to ham it up. Sure, the monsters just want to beat the heroes up, but it's a lot more fun when they do it with style."
In the late 80s, Flint Dille found himself canned from Transformers and at the head of the quickly cancelled Visionaries and Inhumanoids (the latter of which we'll be covering next year), he started to back out of tv animation and put more focus into his work at TSR, where he'd been writing interactive game books and the occasional novel. As the 80s came to a close, the company best known for Dungeons & Dragons tried branching out into new realms, including a wide attempt to relaunch Buck Rogers, or their interactive audio adventure, Terror T.R.A.X.. Dille was involved with both, but the grand poobah of his time there was 1993's Dragon Strike, a board game designed as an easy way in for those new to table-top role playing. I've never played the game and can't attest to its success or failure, nor do I know what his level of involvement was with the game itself, but I have seen the half-hour introductory video Dille put together, and boy is it something.
The main thrust of the story is that the dark lord Teraptus has gotten his hands on a Sunstone, which he uses to coat the land in eternal night. This information is delivered to the spoiled King Halvor II by a dying Wizard, and the King half-heartedly assembles a fellowship of adventurers who just happen to already be present when his throne room comes under attack by Teraptus' undead legion. You've got the boasting knuckleheaded giant of a Warrior played by Malibu from American Gladiator, a skimpily clad Thief who's after treasure whenever she isn't cracking things with her whip, an overly dramatic Elf who's shown to be ancient by his powdered grey wig (and he's an archer, no surprise), and the Wizard, who was healed by a Cleric, who won't be tagging along with the crew should they be near death again.
They head off to Teraptus' castle, battling trees and their own internal bickering. Once they reach their destination, they have to fend off against a really bad CGI dragon before scaling the walls. Inside, they encounter an Owl-Bear (literally a talking bear with a giant owl head) who's griping to an Owl-Owl about how much his job sucks, a pair of Orcs that bellow with laughter as they give each other noogies, a blind minotaur, and a surprisingly badass Man-Scorpion. They eventually free the captured Dwarf who built the Sunstone and, with his help, take on Teraptus and his dreaded Fire Elemental (a ballet dancer rotoscoped to look like fire).
The most distinctive aspect of this short is the way in which it's shot, using live actors against green screen in front of fully digital background. It sorta works and sorta doesn't, looking like a middle ground between the old Chroma Key effects of Land of the Lost and more modern efforts like Sanctuary and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It looks crude, but it's consistent, and thus really works for me in terms of capturing an exaggerated fantasy world. Mixed with the overly clean costumes, it actually looks like figurines coming to life and wandering around a three dimensional board game. On the other hand, you get some really cheap looking rubber masks, flatly animated splashes of gore, CGI that was probably dated even for the time, and the ridiculous coyote pelt on the Wizard's head. But then there's the Man-Scorpion, which was a surprisingly effective mix of techniques. From the waist up, he's a snarling live actor in red body paint with little horns around his face. From the waist down, he's the CGI body of a scorpion. It blends together beautifully.
The feature I loved even more was the same tongue-in-cheek sense of humor Dille used to give Visionaries it's warmth and distinction. Our fellowship is constantly at each other's throats throughout their trek, only coming together at the last minute. The Warrior praises the King because the King is King and keeps everyone marching forward with a sword thwacked across their bottoms. The Thief is told to distract a guard by flattering him, so she shouts "Hey, handsome!", then lashes her whip around his neck and yanks him off a tower wall to his death. The Elf is constantly crouched in overly dramatic battle poses and always senses danger on the air just before it pops up behind him and still catches him by surprise. The Wizard... well, I've already mentioned the Coyote pelt on his head, but we also get his spells constantly misfiring and a great bit where he devises a plan to split up, only to turn around and realize the others have already gone their separate ways.
Now, as with the occasional episode of Visionaries, there are times where the humor hops over that line of going too far, to the point where it becomes forced camp. The pompous King and Queen gloating over their riches and opulent feast, even after most of their court has been slaughtered (though I do like his speedy trap door exit). The Dwarf's entire shtick is to shout a constant stream of insults at the top of his lungs until the others get around to doing what he wants them to do. Then there's the goofball creatures of Teraptus' castle, yuk yukking their way along with a level of ineptitude that calls their master's evil power into question, the worst of which is the Owl-Bear. Seriously, the Owl-Bear.
Oh, and we haven't even gotten to the Dragon Master yet. This short is introduced, narrated, and occasionally annotated by voice actor John Boyle, who, in his black turtleneck against a dark background, is essentially a floating head and hands guiding unseen players through the rules and mechanics of the game. At times, he captures the ethereal power of fantasy storytelling. At others, he's glaring and barking at us in ridiculous speeches about imagination, teamwork, and doing things at perilous risks.
In the end, this is definitely one of the strangest viewing experiences you'll ever witness. There's some bits where they admirably rise above their limited means through sincere innovation and imagination, and others where they come crashing down, either through budgetary restrictions or bad choices in terms of writing, acting, and visualizations.
Seriously, the Owl-Bear.
"Congratulations. You've just infiltrated your first castle."
Friends, I don't have to read about the 80s and early 90s in some history book. I was there. I lived it. I drank New Coke. Saw Howard the Duck at the theater. I actually owned a Milli Vanilli cassette tape. And I was a witness and participant to the unholy marriage of board game and VCR.
There were VCR board games like the Clue VCR Mystery Game that ditched that outdated notion of using your imagination and let hammy actors do the heavy lifting for you. And game systems like Action Max and the toy line Captain Power that tried to turn your TV and VCR into a first person shooter with mixed results. The video for Dragon Strike is more of a how-to for a board game that seems designed primarily as D&D for beginners. They were all attempts to capitalize on the home video boom that happened when nearly every household in America - and, likely, the Western world - owned at least one VCR.
Having played some D&D in my time, I can say with some authority that the campaign presented in Dragon Strike is the worst ever. Worse than any episode of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series. Worse than that time you let your Uncle Ned DM for you. Worse even than one of those churchified versions of AD&D that popped up in the early 80s as an evangelical counter to the "Satanic" influences of the original.
"Okay, Tommy. Do a saving roll against your impure thoughts for the minotaur."
No real D&D player would be caught dead playing Dragon Strike, but I can see how it could've been a gateway to the real thing for 12-14 year olds. In theory, anyway.
As for the video, Noel did an excellent job describing what it is. The disembodied head. The crude effects (except for the aforementioned Man-Scorpion, which is actually rendered better than the similar Rock/Scorpion in The Mummy Returns). The cheesy keyboard music. Dragon Strike is well intended, but ambitious beyond its means. What holds it all together is Dille's trademark humor and the conviction of the actors, shitty though they may be.
Owl-Bear says "It's a hoot! Grrr!"