Space Ace was Don Bluth's less-successful follow up to Dragon's Lair. Much of the same development team from Dragon's Lair worked on Ace, and the arcade cabinet utilized the same Laserdisc technology. For Ace, Bluth set out to push the Laserdisc technology beyond what he had previously showcased in Dragon's Lair, primarily by making greater use of its random-access abilities to create numerous branching pathways. Instead of building one linear sequence, and killing the player if they missed an action, the game could often incorporate a "miss" into its narrative and continue on.
Just as was tried with the randomization of sequences in Dragon's Lair, the idea was that a player could have a different experience on the second, third, or even tenth play - in this case, checking out content they missed in the previous play. Space Ace was also designed to have a greater emphasis on story and characterization, hoping to address the "collection of disjointed scenes" criticism of Dragon's Lair.
The player controls the titular Space Ace on the trail of an evil alien mastermind named Borf. Borf has developed a new weapon, the "Infanto Ray," which he intends to use to enslave the population of Earth. While scouting Borf's space station, Ace's gal, Kimberly, is kidnapped and Ace himself is hit with the Infanto Ray. The ray transforms him into a lanky kid named Dexter, and leaves him in a state of fluctuating between these two forms.
The player must fly, shoot, and dodge their way through Borf's lair, save Kimberly, reverse the effects of the Infanto Ray, and put a stop to Borf's plans for good.
Gameplay is essentially identical to what was introduced in Dragon's Lair. The player has a joystick to select directions, and a "Shoot" button to perform actions. Animation plays up to a decision point, at which time the player has a second or less to react before the game will branch to a new path, or Ace will lose a life.
Sections of the animation will quickly flash yellow to indicate both when and how the player should react. If a door on the left flashes, the player should flick the stick left to travel through the door. The action that will be taken with a successful move is often left intentionally unclear, so that Ace's antics will surprise and entertain the player as much as if they were watching a cartoon. If the player misses an action that results in death, they lose a life from their stock of 3 and must restart at the beginning of that section.
Space Ace's main hook is its transforming protagonist. The player defaults to Dexter, whose cannot use a weapon, and whose sections are therefore based around dodging and avoiding hazards. Numerous times throughout the adventure, the player will get the option to "Energize." If they press the Shoot button in time, Dexter will transform into Ace, a muscular hero who can (and will!) use his laser pistol to blast through enemies. Due to the branching pathway technology, if the player does not transform into Ace, they will often continue on an altered path as Dexter.
Space Ace also introduced difficulty levels (Cadet, Captain, and Ace) where Dragon's Lair had only one. The difficulty levels were intended to make the game accessible to a wider audience, however, this was achieved by simply skipping over the more difficult sections. Nearly half the available scenes are playable on Cadet, and roughly 2/3rds on Captain, forcing players to master the Ace difficulty to see all the content.
As with Dragon's Lair, hand-drawn cell animation was used running at 24 frames a second - the same as with an animated feature film. Colors were vibrant and detail unsurpassed by anything standard arcade hardware (or computers) could generate or display. A few of the sequences used models for rotoscoping, namely the spaceships, motorcycle, and tunnel and rocket skates scenes.
Dragon's Lair's Chris Stone provided the soundtrack, this time more theatrical, continuous, and now recorded and presented in stereo. Space Ace features more dialogue than Dragon's Lair, so Bluth's studio did look for professional voice talent. In the end, to save money, they decided again to pull voices from within the studio. The sole professional voice talent is Michael Rye, reprising his role from Dragon's Lair as the game's narrator.
- Space Ace - Jeff Etter (animator)
- Dexter - Will Finn (animator/story)
- Kimberley - Lorna Pomeroy (animator)
- Borf - Don Bluth
Initial ports were for home computers, and shipped on multiple floppy disks. The Laserdisc's cell animation was redrawn with less detail into computer sprites, and many levels reworked or redesigned to accommodate the hardware. Cutscenes were removed due to space limitations, so nearly all sequences cut sharply to the next, without transitions. Branching pathways are also removed, with some scenes altered and made more linear (for example, Dexter doesn't need to change to Ace to shoot the pistol).
The Super NES received the only console port of that generation, and replicated the arcade Laserdisc's vibrant colors with some success. However, gameplay is the most radically revised for this version - becoming essentially a platform title with new shooting sequences. Scenes are redesigned or invented for this version, with a focus on side-scrolling mechanics, and the player now controls Dexter/Ace fully at all times instead of making decisions at key points. Platform hopping and top-down shooting make up the basic gameplay here.
With the advent of CD-ROM based consoles, ports of the original Laserdisc game made the rounds with varying degrees of quality. The Sega CD release naturally featured the most compressed video, but the gameplay was largely intact. Modern releases, such as for iOS, use advanced video compression to the same effect. Digital Leisure also released a DVD version of the game, playable in most home DVD players by using the arrow keys on the remote. A similar Blu-Ray release of Space Ace and Dragon's Lair was completed in 2008.
Though Don Bluth set out to make a game that surpassed Dragon's Lair as a true showcase of animation, most arcade owners weren't impressed. Ace's increased difficulty level was cited as a problem, as was the decision to originally only offer Space Ace as a new cabinet (rather than a conversion kit). Space Ace also had the misfortune of hitting in the center of the 1983-84 video game crash, when consumer interest in the entire industry was noticeably suffering.
Owners also seemed less interested in a different, but similar, game to the original Dragon's Lair as they were in an actual sequel for it. Bluth's studio would go on to put the advancements made in Ace to use in Dragon's Lair II.
- Don Bluth decided to market Space Ace in a way that was new to arcade owners, but tried-and-true in the movie business - designing extensive press books and press kits to promote the game in the same way as a feature film. Theatrical movie posters were even printed up and distributed to arcade owners.
- The game often contradicts itself as to whether Dexter is a young Ace (and his real name), or a separate character. Kimberly occasionally calls Ace "Dexter," supporting the former, while the intro attract mode suggests Ace is trapped inside a kid's (Dexter's) body.