It's like they know me personally.
There are two things you should know about me before delving into this review. First, I’m a dedicated amateur paleontologist. I don’t go on field digs or even spend all that much time in my city’s museum (the Alaska Museum of Natural History), where I am voluntarily employed as their paleo consultant. However, I do write about and draw dinosaurs, I correspond with people in the field, I formulate hypotheses, I attend conferences, and I stay current with research. My technical paper library is surprisingly robust, given my meager access to journals in Alaska. Not to brag, but I probably know more about prehistoric reptiles than the entire NWR staff. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I caught all 496 (or so) Pokémon in Pearl. This took months. There were days I didn’t go to sleep until 3 a.m., knowing full well I had to get up early the next morning for work, just to snag that elusive Tauros or Relicanth.
So I imagine Sega’s executives had a camera in my house at some point. “We’ve got this one guy in Alaska who loves Pokémon and dinosaurs,” says the executive. “We can totally make a game for this guy. But we can’t just put in popular dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. That won’t satiate his cultivated appetite. We’ll need to throw in more obscure taxa, like Talarurus and Opisthocoelicaudia. And we need to give them all elemental types.”
Well, I see your ploy, Sega! You think some silly sprite-based Pokémonesque gameplay will capture my interest, eh? Think again! Wait—are those dinosaurs rendered in 3D? Are they…*gulp*…scientifically accurate to a degree unseen even in most modern Discovery Channel and History Channel shows? Is that bony crest I see on Irritator challengeri’s head? Am I correct in assuming that Einiosaurus has a downturned nasal horn? Heaven? Is that you?
This is clearly the video game I’ve been waiting my entire life for. But does it hold up to the rigors of the formal review process? Yes! With a few caveats, Dinosaur King is a wonderful Pokémon imitation. Allow me to explain.
In the near future, dinosaurs can be brought back to life with a computerized device called the “DinoShot.” Of course, the first thing you’d do upon learning of this amazing discovery would be to use dinosaurs to take over the world. The D-Team (the good guys) are ransacked by Team Rocket - I mean, the Alpha Gang - during the game’s introduction. The Alpha Gang steals a bunch of DinoShots and begin using the dinosaurs contained within to force society to bend to their will. Two boys, Max and Rex, take some DinoShots and go after the villains themselves, and in doing so are also roped into a bunch of sidequests along the way.
You start the game as either Max or Rex, which really means you start with either Carnotaurus or Triceratops. As you progress through each distinct level, you dig up dinosaur fossils with the help of a radar and drill. This is very enjoyable, since aside from the sonar and the drilling (which are pedestrian, button-pressing affairs), you get to clean the fossil yourself with the stylus and mic! You pick away at the bedrock, trying to free as much of the underlying fossil as possible before your chipping tool breaks, and blow into the mic to clear dust off the fossil. It’s awesome, but too often the fossil image doesn’t match the dinosaur you are given. Imagine my surprise when, after uncovering what appeared to be a generic Coelurosaur skeleton, I was given an Iguanadon as my reward. While it’s probably too much to ask to provide a specific skeletal image for each particular animal, it’s not a stretch to desire generalized skeletons based on the particular class the dinosaur belongs to. You know, you could have skeletons for theropods, ornithopods, stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, ceratopsians, pachycephalosaurs, and sauropods. That’s seven different skeleton images—that’s not too bad, right?
The basic overworld gameplay is virtually identical to Pokémon. You wander around a large, sprite-based environment, entering random battles and finding key items. Quests almost always involve finding somebody’s lost item and giving it back to them. In between, you can hit the ground with radar and dig up fossils. You can also dig up valuable items to sell at shops. But what about the fighting engine? Is it also just like Pokémon? Surprisingly, it’s not.
Pokémon battles have always had an underlying theme of rock-paper-scissors; you know, grass beats water beats fire, etc. Dinosaur King wears its rock-paper-scissors backbone on its sleeve. Your options for a battle are literally rock, paper, or scissors. The trick is that each move has a specific attack behind it. Winning the round allows you to attack, a tie results in both dinosaurs receiving damage, and a loss results in you taking damage. Each dinosaur favors a particular move, and after leveling up enough, can equip that move with an elemental attack. Just like in Pokémon, elemental attacks mean something. In addition, as a dinosaur levels up, it generates “Move Cards,” attacks that can be swapped between dinosaurs. Imagine that your Pokémon party’s moveset can be customized at any time. Instead of letting Pikachu use Slam, give that move to Poliwrath. The only caveat is that elemental attacks can only be used by dinosaurs of a matching elemental type.
This may seem great, but it has one major flaw. Because the system is based on ro-sham-bo, you can’t use any attack at any time. Very often, your opponent will give you a hint as to what move he’s going to make before he makes it, giving you the opportunity (this is the key to success) to pick a move that will beat his. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious: “I will try a Critical Move” (favored move). If their Critical Move is rock, then you just pick paper and win. Thus battles always have a certain predictability to them, which is a major drawback. Strategy isn’t strategy when it’s forced, and a Level 2 Neovenator can easily beat a Level 9 Brachyceratops if he hits the right moves. The focus of fights quickly shifts from moveset strategy to figuring out what your opponent is going to do. Later battles get into a sort of “I know you know what I know” mindset, with baddies spouting lines like “I assume you’re going to try and beat me if I use a Critical Move.” It becomes increasingly important to remember what attack you just used, and to keep an eye on both your and your opponent’s moveset. This isn’t a terrible system—it works just fine, but it’s so completely different from what Pokémon offers that it takes some getting used to.
It is annoying when enemies do NOT give you hints as to what their next attack will be. After going through tons of random battles during which the bad guy spills the beans, it’s jarring and frustrating to fight a boss who gives up NO information, which results not in a battle of wits, but pure chance. Boss fights are won by grinding, pure and simple. Get your team to a significantly higher level than their team, equip some elemental attacks, and pray that your (elemental) move will beat their move, and that your elemental attack is effective against their type. Bosses can be irritating, to say the least.
The dinosaurs look great. Each one has a different character model; even Eustreptospondylous looks significantly different than Allosaurus, which is a miracle considering the hardware this game is running on. Animations are smooth and believable, and just over-the-top enough to be entertaining. The only area of complaint is that almost all of the dinosaurs have the same animations. That is, Fukisaurus and Carnotaurus do the exact same things, even though one is an obligate quadruped while the other is a facultative biped. But the animations themselves are great—there are few things more entertaining than seeing Dacentrurus curl into a spinning ball of spiky death and flinging himself toward his opponent.
And now, the technical jargon. Feel free to skip ahead. No, seriously, if you aren’t concerned with the technical accuracy of the dinosaur content in Dinosaur King, feel free to skip ahead. Consider yourself warned.
For all it gets right, Dinosaur King gets a few simple things very wrong about dinosaurs. First, it’s interesting to note that the Dinosaur Encyclopedia (basically your Pokédex) places each dinosaur in phylogenetic context, showing you how it’s related to every other dinosaur. However, you can’t freely move the phylogeny around—you can only move from the starting point to where that dinosaur ends up. You aren’t really allowed to see, for example, how many steps Einiosaurus is from Stegosaurus. The tree itself has many pretty awful inaccuracies. In the game, Therizinosauroidae, Maniraptora, and Coelurosauria is presented as an unresolved trichotomy. In reality, the Therizionsauroidae (which might not be a valid clade) is part of the Maniraptora, which itself is part of a larger Coelurosauria. The game also makes no real separation between Allosauridae and Megalosauridae. Megalosaurs, for one thing, might not even be tetanurines! For another thing, “Megalosauridae” is most likely a wastebasket group with no real taxonomic value. Spinosaurs and torvosaurs have been united recently in a potentially monophyletic “Spinosauroidea,” but better torvosaur fossils, as well as ancestral spinosaurs, are needed before that idea really catches on. Furthermore, the game has some weird ideas about ceratopsians. Brachyceratops is presented as a distinct taxon, but in reality it’s probably just a juvenile centrosaurine. Its taxonomy cannot be nailed down any more than that because of the poor fossil record for subadult ceratopsids. Another oddity is the presence of Eucentrosaurus, a taxon once considered distinct from Centrosaurus, but was quickly reassigned as a separate species within the latter genus (C. brinkmani, I believe). OK, I’m done.
For these faults, however, it’s interesting to see so many obscure dinosaurs represented graphically—and represented well—and I really thank the developers for going that extra mile. It’s not every day that you see dinosaurs like Rajasaurus and Baryonyx in a video game. Even better, your contact at the D-Lab is named Minmi!*
Dinosaur King is a good game. If you can get past the requisite level grinding and somewhat strategy-free nature of the battle system, you’ll find a decent Pokémon-type title with real dinosaurs and entertaining 3D battles. And of course, there are Wi-Fi Connection battles and, interestingly, item-trading options. I’m diving into this game with the same zeal I did for Pokémon Pearl. Any love lost in boss fights is reclaimed by the awesome dinosaur models. If you like dinosaurs and Pokémon, you can’t go wrong here.
*Minmi is named after Minmi paravertebra, a small Australian ankylosaur that held the record for shortest dinosaur genus name until 2004, when Mei, a small Chinese troodontid, was named.