Games with Attitude: Dino City is Friends with a Dinosaur
Do you remember 1992? Nirvana, November Rain, Michael Bolton, Aladdin and The Bodyguard and Wayne’s World. Mortal Kombat. Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Academics, in the distant future, will try to write about 1992, and they’ll all be consumed from within by a foreboding sense of dread, like a weird fiction novel come to glorious life.
1992 was also the unofficial start of an insidious trend, one that produced more terrible games than any other video game trend ever: “mascots with attitude”. Spawned by a worldwide attempt to copy video gaming’s coolest cat, Sonic the Hedgehog (a final explanation of the 90′s: Sonic the Hedgehog was considered beyond cool), and resulting in characters such as Aero the Acro-Bat and the imaginatively named Zool, a “gremlin ninja of the Nth dimension”, mascots with attitude games have one common MO: they suck. Most of them are dreck, while others submerge their heads in the pool of alright.
Few of them suck as badly as Dino City, though. But just look at that box art! It should be the video game equivalent of being thirteen in 1992, hanging out on a skateboard while your T-Rex friend (who didn’t want a T-Rex friend?) listens to The Lemonheads on headphones you only dreamed about your parents buying you. T-Rex had headphones, because T-Rex could scare the shopkeepers into giving him free shit.
Dino City was made by Irem, the company behind foundational shmup R-Type and who invented the side-scrolling beat ‘em up with Kung fu Master, so even to a player from the future it shouldn’t be half as bad as it is. And let me be blunt: Dino City is exactly as bad as the mascot game stereotype demands.
In fact, it’s a sort of video gamification of schadenfreude, a thoroughly polished piece of gaming that someone should have put a stop to early on. It is an unresponsive, arbitrarily punishing platformer, the kind that sold to kids because it promised having a T-Rex friend who knew all about Pearl Jam. The game here, though? The game, and its developers, had no idea what they were doing.
That said, Dino City’s complete lack of understanding of what makes a good game reminds me of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Wiseau famously shot his directorial debut in both 35mm and HD film, unsure of the differences, and that’s the kind of deliriously boneheaded decision that powers Dino City, too. There’s a reason I practically beat the thing: it’s such a perversion of everything good about video games that it kind of rounds back into being an enjoyable experience, imparting in me something of a gaming Stockholm Syndrome.
What separates Dino City from the abject and miserable—say, The Adventures of Mighty Max, a television tie-in that plays like how I imagine terminal illness would feel: a slippery, random decline into death—is that you can see there’s something here. There’s some point where Dino City might not have been as bad as it is. Its central mechanic—you’re a little child riding on a dinosaur, who you can dismount to explore the world by yourself—promises fun. It has some neat mechanics, like slingshot platforms and icy paths that melt and reassemble, that could be competent, interesting design elements. It’s not just a Mario or Sonic clone, either, so there’s that.
But just like Tommy Wiseau couldn’t resist getting four gratuitous sex scenes in his Shakespearian drama, Dino City couldn’t resist being a dinosaur platformer, which brings to light the reason this subgenre of a subgenre died a mercifully quick death: dinosaurs are fucking heavy. Rex and Tops, your two choices of steed, move like elephants on bath salts. When you command them to do things, they’re not quite sure what you’re saying. “Oh, you want me to jump? Hold on. I guess I can do that. I’m kind of sleepy. I’m going to take a quick nap, first.” This was a conscious design decision, too: whenever I dismounted Little Girl from Tops, she jumped with absurd, ridiculous precision.
But you might think, that isn’t so bad! If you just dismount the dinosaur, leaving it in a probable drug-fueled stupor at the beginning of the level, maybe the little girl—smaller, a better jumper—can go through the level herself. Just leave the dinosaur behind! He’s grooving to Mother Love Bone. Don’t bother him.
This, unfortunately, leads to the most surreal moment of the game: you advance, and the camera, following you like an invisible brick wall, sweeps your gaudy steed along with it, deposits it in a pit, and the little girl throws up her hands and makes an expression similar to the one I might make if the bottle of milk in my fridge spoiled before its sell-by date. It’s kind of a “Dude, what?” expression, like she’s disappointed with you for forcing her to abandon her feckless dinosaur buddy.
Irem crammed Dino City full of surreal horrors like this. Skimpily dressed cavewomen leap at you, in blatant defiance of evolutionary theory and survival instinct, to try to hug you; cavemen throw oranges at you that make a sound like a wet balloon popping. There’s roller coaster levels, for some reason. The first of them forces you, at the conclusion of the level, to jump off screen, disappear from the game entirely, and then be deposited by the exit. There’s no way to avoid this without pulling off a ridiculously difficult series of jumps, and any sane player will fall into the glitch by accident.
The madness culminates not one level later, with a minute long ride on a nightmare carousel (let me assure you: the first of many), a spinning wheel of eight tiny platforms over a bottomless void, where you careen your dinosaur around encroaching birds to the most maddening carnival music of all time. Somewhere along the way, the developers mistook madness for fun.
But it’s a disarming, charming sort of madness, the kind that keeps you coming back. The password system—the incredibly antiquated, already out of style in 1992 password system—features some Russian characters instead of English ones. Why? No fucking reason. It’s like by the end the developers, on coming to work, had to spin around in circles for five minutes before they started working, and passed that habit on to the localization team.
For a “mascots with attitude” game, though, Dino City doesn’t disappoint. It’s a bit mental, but god damn if that dinosaur doesn’t look like the best best friend. He’d beat up all the blogosphere bullies, at least if he could get them two pixels away from his short, wimpy claws.