Video Game Archaeology: Dino City

It is time for more Video Game Archaeology! Video Game Archaeology is my monthly exploration of an artifact video game found during my excavations of various bargain bins and yard sales; an examination of a game cast off and long forgotten. This month’s game is Dino City from Irem for the SNES.

This game was given to me as part of a Holiday gift exchange with the intention of me covering it here.  One look at what is quite possibly the best boxart ever and I knew that I had to play this game. Dino City is possibly the least known game that I’ve covered for VGA.  The internet at large seems to have little to no recollection of it.  There are a few videos on youtube, but that is about all.  The few people that do remember this game seem to like it quite a bit and wikipedia tells me that it got fairly good reviews back in the day.  However, I have no idea why.  This is a pokey, awkward and too hard platformer with little in the way of personality.  I’m being kind of harsh, it wasn’t terrible, but neither was Dino City actually any good.

Dino City is loosely based on the straight to VHS movie Adventures in Dinosaur City.  I actually saw this movie, and if my 20 year old memories are to be believed it was not too bad.  I suspect that my memories are suspect, though.  The plot is that young Timmy and his friend Jamie try to watch TV on one of Timmy’s Dad’s experiments, who I guess is some sort of scientist possibly the mad sort, and get sucked into some sort of dinosaur land.  There they team up with some Dinosaurs to fight evil Neanderthals.  And to get back home, I guess.  This is a platformer, there really isn’t a lot of story.  The game was developed by Irem, famous mostly for R-Type and other shooters.  They also developed one of my favorite games, Steambot Chronicles for the PS2.  Honestly though, much of their output, especially on consoles, is rather mediocre.  For every R-Type, there is a Deadly Towers or Spelunker.  Still, they are at least competent creators of video games with some classics to their name.

The player can choose from either Timmy riding Rex the T-Rex or Jamie riding Tops the Protoceratops.  There is actually significant differences between the two, as Rex can only punch while Tops throws some sort of darts or something.  There is no advantage to Rex, Tops is better, as he seems to do as much damage as well as have enough range that the won’t constantly be being hit.  Which brings me to my first big problem with this game. Many enemies take two or three hits to kill, which is just unfeasible with Rex’s tiny punching range.  You can jump on enemies a la Mario, but that still takes several hits to kill them.  This leads to the player character taking plenty of extra hits.  At least the developers compensated for this, in the early levels I played at least, by leaving plenty of life refilling hearts around.  This is certainly less of a problem with Tops, since most enemies can be dealt with from a distance.  It is a completely different game depending on which dino you choose, and Tops is the right choice.  I couldn’t even hurt the fist boss with Rex, but I didn’t have much of a problem with Tops.

Another place where the game falters are the controls.  They often feel sloppy.  Your character doesn’t quite move like you would expect him to move.  Everything seems to happen in slow motion.  Maybe I am just lamenting a lack of Mario-esque momentum, but Mario is the gold standard for the genre.  But while I played, it just felt right.  It wasn’t helped by the way too high (read: cheap) difficulty.  It might be a mindset thing.  I expected it play like a Mario game, which are usually designed to allow players to build momentum and sprint through levels, but Dino City has a slowed, more precise pace.  I didn’t like it.

Dino City is actually pretty solid on the presentation side.  The graphics, while not mind blowing, are pretty good.  Especially some of the changing backgrounds, like the sunset in the third stage.  The sprites are big and colorful, just as you would expect from an SNES game.  And the music is not too bad either.  There are some decent tunes, but again, nothing much better than good.

I guess I can see some nostalgic love for this game from people who played it new, but it hasn’t stood the test of time too well.  It is hard in the least fun ways, having enemies that take forever to dispatch and tiny platforms with imprecise controls.  Really, it is the cheap difficulty that really sinks it.  Still, I would say it is worthy of remembrance for the majestic box art alone.  It is likely a game that is better than the movie it is based on, but we needn’t set the bar that low for our entertainment.

images taken from the vgmuseum.

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