Genre: Platformer Developer: Funcom Publisher: Hi-Tech Expressions Players: 1 Released: 1994
If you grew up in the ’90s, it’s possible that you may have a vague recollection of the animated movie, We’re Back: A Dinosaur Story. With Jurassic Park having been released the same year (1993), the whole dinosaur craze was in full swing. As I recall, there was a lot of dinosaur related media through the ’80s and ’90s, it’s probably safe to say that people were obsessed (you know things are bad when there’s a sitcom based on anthropomorphic dinosaurs). Licensed games typically get a bad rap for either being rushed to coincide with and capitalize on whatever property they’re promoting, or simply being shoddily produced and reliant upon the strength of the license to sell (if it’s Superman, Batman, or The Goonies, it has to be good, right? RIGHT!?). While the Genesis isn’t without its share of licensed dreck, it also saw a fair amount quality titles, with games like Cool Spot, World/Castle of Illusion, and Aladdin springing to mind.
A Dinosaur’s Tale was developed by Funcom, which of particular note also developed Daze Before Christmas and Nightmare Circus. The former being a mediocre platformer where you play as Santa Claus and can collect a power-up which lets you turn into “Anti-Claus,” Santa’s evil alter ego (….yeah), and the latter being a near unplayable mess of a game released only in Brazil by Tech Toy. To Funcom’s credit, Nightmare Circus did seem to have an interesting premise and creepy atmosphere, and it was also never even meant to be released in any sort of official capacity.
One thing I want to address before we arrive to the actual review is the name of this game. I’m not certain why they decided to change it from A Dinosaur’s Story to A Dinosaur’s Tale. They changed one word in the subtitle (hurrah synonyms!) It also basically follows the movie 1:1 from what I can remember, and the description on the back of the box even goes as far as calling it a “simulation” of the movie. So it isn’t like this is a pseudo-sequel/prequel to the film or anything like that. It’s inexplicable. Now, onto the game itself…
Once you get to the title screen you’re given the standard options of either starting the game or setting up the controls. In the option mode you can change the controls for the Pterodactyl portion of the game to either “flight sim,” which is inverted, or “arcade,” which is standard. The difficulty can be set to easy, normal, or hard; and there’s also a sound test. It’s particularly odd that they give you the option of changing the flight controls, which are only used in around three stages of the game, but not the controls for the platforming sections, which make up at least half.
Upon actually starting, you can choose to play as Louie or Cecilia. Aesthetics aside there’s no real difference between the two. The only thing that changes is the order in which a few of the levels are played (Louie starts off at the pier for level one and arrives at the apartment building as the second level, whereas Cecilia starts at the apartment, and for whatever reason the pier pops up a handful of levels later). Less significantly, Cecilia’s hit points are shown as a blue hair bow, whereas Louie’s are represented by a red baseball cap. As far as I could tell, everything else played out exactly the same.
The back of the box touts “over a dozen exciting levels,” and while that seems about right, the game is broken up into two basic types of stages. The first type is your run-of-the-mill side-scrolling platformer, where you control one of the two child protagonists. Dispersed in between those you play the “dinosaur” stages, which are somewhat similar to Space Harrier, at least in terms of presentation and perspective.
Graphically, A Dinosaur’s Tale is a mixed bag. The main characters Cecilia and Louie are fairly detailed and animate well, as do a few of the handful of enemies. The backgrounds and the levels themselves are all static and uninspired. Playing a game like this makes you really appreciate what was done with Sonic, Rocket Knight Adventures, Dynamite Headdy, and other great games for the system. Good gameplay is of primary importance, but small touches like in Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone, with the flowers bouncing and watching that island in the background scroll into view really add a certain amount of depth, not only visually but also in terms of being drawn into the game. With A Dinosaur’s Tale, there’s a glaring lack of frills.
The music is simple and repetitive. Luckily, there really isn’t anything that is too annoying, it’s mostly just sort of there, like elevator music. Strangely enough, there’s a pervading sense of melancholy and somberness to the soundtrack. The few upbeat tracks that are there just don’t feel as upbeat as they should. All of the “dinosaur” stages repeat the same track, only adding to the monotony.
The main platforming portion of the gameplay is mediocre. The controls could use some adjustment, but they’re fairly responsive as-is. The stage layouts are all relatively bland, and consist of going from point A to point B, with a few bosses thrown in. Enemies in the game move from one edge of a platform to another, at varying degrees of speed, with no other actions or attacks. It isn’t until the later stages of the game that you encounter a monkey who throws rocks (well I hope they were rocks) at you. The bosses are rather dodgy as well. They remind me of the ones from James Pond II: Codename Robocod. They’re quite a bit larger than your character but they’re limited in terms of animation (most are frozen in one pose or stance) and attacks. Instead of actually having unique attacks, the bosses use the same boomerang attack that your own character has.
One of the only unique elements of the game is the ability to buy items during the pause screen. Once killed, enemies will yield what are referred to as wish bubbles. These are essentially a form of currency. Immediately upon pressing start you’ll be given a menu where you can purchase different items and power-ups. It’s an odd feature in that most games with a similar shop mechanic only allow you to purchase items either at the beginning or end of a level or at fixed points within the levels themselves.
Despite some gameplay flaws, I would say that A Dinosaur’s Tale is only moderately challenging. This can be attributed to a few issues. Falling objects and projectiles thrown by enemies can be difficult to avoid, even if you know they’re coming. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll be hit at least once by each of the new obstacles in the game unless you have some ridiculous reflexes. Another major annoyance within the game is the limited distance which you can fall. You’ll instantly die if you jump onto a platform that is too far down (think Bubsy without the death animations). A lot of the enemies in the game are also fast and small, and the hit detection is not exactly forgiving so you’ll need to be precise. This is all negated once you learn how to use, or more accurately abuse, the wish bubble item system. For example, by the time I reached the final boss I believe I still had 70 or so bubbles, which equates into being able to buy 14 additional hit points.
I didn’t try out the easy difficulty, but the change in going from normal to hard is significant. Nothing about the game is made any tougher, in and of itself, but the wish bubble mechanic is altered. Instead of letting you carry over your wish bubbles from level to level, like on normal (and presumably easy), they’re reset to zero after every stage. This means that you can’t stockpile them and buy multiple hit points and power-ups during boss fights, at least not in the same way you can on the easier difficulties.
The second type of stage is where you take control of different dinosaurs like a T-Rex, Pterodactyl, etc. (I’m sure they had names but I can’t be bothered). The Pterodactyl stages are similar to Space Harrier and Starfox (minus the fun). For the other dinosaurs, who are all riding on top of cars, you’re forced to lateral, left and right movement. In these stages, you simply have to dodge obstacles and have the added option of collecting the wish bubbles, if you want to anyway. These levels are a chore; they consist of avoiding the same obstacles for a few minutes and simply waiting for the stage to end. Another thing that makes these stages annoying is the fact that the dinosaurs you control are so massive, and the perspective is so direct that it’s usually difficult to see what is coming at you. They’re still easy to finish, but it’s just another unnecessary nuisance in a long line. The dinosaur stages feel much more like bonus levels, but they’re still calculated into the “dozen exciting levels.” Excluding them, you’re left with six to seven short and uneventful platforming stages.
A Dinosaur’s Tale isn’t egregiously bad, but it feels like they put in just enough work in for it to pass as a game. If the entirety of the gameplay had been platforming, I may have been inclined to classify it as average, but the tedious dinosaur stages knock it down a few notches. I can’t really recommend this game to anyone. For die-hard Genesis gamers, there’s already an abundance of platformers on the system much better than this, and although the subject matter is aimed towards them, I doubt kids would want to take a break from their current gen consoles long enough to play something like this. Retrospectively, even as a kid I believe this is one game I would’ve felt slighted by. It’s at best a ruinous weekend rental. While there are undoubtedly some diamonds in the rough that were overlooked in all of the dinosaur hullabaloo (I recommend checking out Dinosaurs For Hire), this is one fossil that should stay permanently buried.
SCORE: 3 out of 10