Dinosaurs have been exciting the minds of people around the world over a century, perhaps closer to millennia if you prescribe to the theory that the dragons of legend were born from the discovery of ancient massive bones and teeth. To the modern western world it was the display at Crystal Palace based upon a few scant bones which started this fascination with the terrible lizards. Never before had such creations been seen which could instill both wonder and horror into a person simultaneously.
Other creatures have been popularized in video games for decades from the wolves and mammoths grounded in reality to dragons and even zombies in the most modern games. And yet, dinosaurs are all but excluded from the gaming zeitgeist even after their success – and subsequent failure – has been proven time and time again in well-received games. Why, where have all the dinosaur games gone??
Let’s take a little look at the only species ever to suffer extinction twice. Once 65 million years ago, and again in only the past few years.
Mentioning dinosaur games to most gamers will often lead to two franchises coming up in conversation. The first is Turok. Contrary to popular assumption, Turok didn’t start out as a game when it first hit N64s way back in 1997. The character of Turok actually came into existence in 1954 as part of Four Color Comics. The game’s premiere installment had the caveat of being the first 3rd party game to be published for the N64 and has long since held a place in the hearts of many for its holy trinity of gore, violence, and dinosaurs.
Since its release Turok’s name was put to five more titles each one seeing a downward curve to the barely passable Turok of 2008.
The second is Dino Crisis. The original hatched by Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami took dinosaur games in an interesting direction of horror over violence. Dino Crisis played out much like Resident Evil and as a result saw a great deal of success. It’s sequel aptly named Dino Crisis 2 took more of an action-orientated direction and was still able to fair well. Sadly the third installment was mediocre at best. See the pattern yet?
It seems that every ground breaking series using the long-extinct reptilian rogues of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods has seen meteoric (not an extinction pun, honest) success with the first installment only to fall into a crater then disappear into myth. Not every game of the past has seen this same pattern though.
Somewhat long in the tooth by now is the Jurassic Park series of movies which branched through the evolutionary tree into lunch boxes and games. Taken from the original book written in 1990 by Michael Crichton the film was an instant blockbuster as it hit silver screens in 1993. Of course with this being the 90’s games started popping up everywhere. The games based on the original film and its successor The Lost World popped up on home systems quicker than an oily Velociraptor down a water slide. For the most part these games were a cut above the standard movie-to-game adaptations of the era (a personal favourite being 1997’s The Lost World on Megadrive/Genesis).
It did start to get weird though. Warpath: Jurassic Park clawed its way onto the PlayStation 1 in 1999 with the combination of two popular gaming ideas. Take a fighting game and make dinosaurs beat each other to death. How could a notion like that possibly fail? It didn’t. Warpath isn’t a game you’ll find on any Retro gamer’s must-have list but it was the epitome of average games, fun enough for the price you paid. There are at least 10 more games which could be listed here in the retro section such as Starfox Adventures and Primal Rage but there’s one dinosaur title which probably signed the death knell for the future of our much-loved Tyrannosaurus and friends. Trespasser.
Also known as Jurassic Park: Trespasser it should have been the shining example of games design with Dinosaurs for generations. In it you play as Anne who is stranded on Site B – or Isla Sorna – as the only survivor of a plane crash. Instead of being armed to the teeth with crazy weaponry like Turok or the combat training of Regina from Dino Crisis, Anna is a normal girl trapped in a world 65 million years in the making. Equipment strewn across the island by inGen’s haste to retreat and puzzles mean she is forced to use wits and guile over brute force and missiles. Essentially a survival game with dinosaurs.
Then the accountants started to weigh in, and there were no T-Rex’s around to pluck them up from porcelain thrones in 1997. Trespasser was given a release date which would coincide with the release of The Lost World, however a year later the game finally came out having much of this high design removed. The resulting mess of DNA left a bitter taste in the mouth. What could have been a brilliant seminal survival horror experience which would take many realistic factors into account, lumbered around in the form of a scaly mess. It was the first game to use rag doll physics and still failed in such a fashion that it’s almost admirable
In recent months and years we’ve seen a definite surge in people’s desire for three types of game; survival horror, zombies, and multiplayer. Titles like DayZ have seen cult followings combine with mesmerizing sales figures to produce massive communities all of their own. Each server is a microcosm for the world at large. A chosen few fight amongst each other against a backdrop of the shambling masses. So is it such a stretch to take this premise or indeed that of H1Z1 and replace barely dangerous zombies with hissing bipedal monsters with claws?
The answer may lie in popular public opinion. Putting zombies in a game instantly ensures you’re going to get a bunch of impulse purchases from fans. Ask someone to name a TV show or film with zombies in it and you are guaranteed a list longer than your credit card statement after a Steam holiday sale — which probably has a few zombie games in it. Pose the same question for dinosaurs however and the response is markedly different. They’ll name Jurassic Park and maybe Primeval but that’s your lot.
Having dinosaurs as the primary AI enemy as probably become less common due to more technical reasons though. Coding how a zombie acts is incredibly simple. It has to shuffle towards the player, moan and then bite. Likewise, programming other creatures and even people has this same bonus. The guy with the gun just has to shoot at you and maybe take cover. Dragon’s fly around and then breathe fire in your face. Dinosaurs though are a different story. For one the human race doesn’t have conclusive proof of how dinosaurs behaved but there are enough theories to make a decision difficult. Add to this how our knowledge of their physical appearance has changed drastically in the past decade with the revelation of dinosaurs with feathers and you’ve got an equation which means whatever a developer thinks they got right, hundreds of wannabe Paleontologists will disapprove.
Maybe we just don’t care about dinosaurs anymore. Jurassic Park’s merchandising machine was enough to put any other to shame at the time and it did rather go overboard. This one franchise combined with the quantity of associated plastic gubbins could have led to a total burnout from publishers and developers on the whole dinosaurs in games desire. It’s not like our favourite games couldn’t include dinosaurs. Farcry 3 had the predator and prey AI environment in a state of perfect balance but there just wasn’t a call in story for there to be extinct reptiles wandering around. Indie survival titles like Sir, You Are Being Hunted could just as easy have been Sir, Don’t Go Into The Long Grass and replaced robot hunters with raptor rapscallions. It would have totally destroyed the artistic vision and general style of the whole game though and taken it from suspension of disbelief into complete story lunacy.
In fact that could be the reason. In recent years games have started to take themselves and be taken more seriously by the media at large. Carefully crafted stories built around myths and legends are much easier to write than wedging a few Stegosauri into a world. When it comes to putting dinosaurs in a game there are only really two options. Genetic experimentation and time travel, both of which are already tired topics in the game space.
Our much-loved reptile friends are not totally forgotten though. Jurassic: The Hunted was a fairly small release title in 2009 which both faired and reviewed poorly, yet there’s still a small cult following around the game. Violent Pomerania and Deer were joined by various Dinosaurs in Tokyo Jungle on the PS3, sadly while the game was very well received it didn’t sell in the numbers needed for a speedy sequel . Dinosaurs have instead taken up residence in a small corner of the PC community, team based co-op and player vs player indie titles; three of which spring to mind.
First up we have Orion: Dino Horde/Beatdown which sucked before they changed its name and still sucks now, even with Spinosaurs and Pterodactyl commanding the skies. Dino D-Day was a step in the right direction though as it took World War 2, Nazis, and cybernetic modification to build a perfectly adequate team vs team experience where players could be the dinosaur and channel their childhood imaginations. That was all well and good but there’s a standout in this field which roars at the top of its voice. Primal Carnage. There’s no story or scientific reasoning to bog people down here. Just a team of various dinosaurs fighting tooth and claw with a collection of human classes. It didn’t take much but with faithful renditions of typical species Primal Carnage saw and still sees a decent level of success.
It took a while but there’s finally one Dinosaur game coming to both PC and a next generation console and it’s from the Primal Carnage team over at Lukewarm Media. Primal Carnage: Genesis is advertised as a title with episodic single player powered by Unreal Engine 4. Without a doubt that experience is going to shape the future of Dinosaurs in the coming years for gaming. They aren’t used by 99% of developers for a varying number of reasons but maybe now finally they will come back to the fore of gaming and take up that special place in our hearts which sorely misses their footsteps.