Dinosaurs! Everyone loves them, or at least they did at some point because having a "dinosaur phase" is as much an essential part of childhood as writing letters to Father Christmas, learning to ride a bike or spending three terrifying hours wandering around the dog track because your father forgot he was looking after you and went home alone. Actually, that last one might just have been me. That's not important now, though, and we can agree that of all the unworthy branches of the evolutionary tree that have been pruned away by the relentless hand of Mother Nature, dinosaurs are the coolest. Just bear that in mind. Cling to that knowledge, occasionally remind yourself of its innate truth and brace yourself as we go prehistoric with Taito's 1992 arcade title Dino Rex.
What a quiet and unassuming logo for a game called Dino Rex, carefully set in a calming sea of blue marble. That's the last sensible thing you'll be seeing for a while, and starting with the intro Dino Rex is taking a wild swerve into Crazytown, by way of Incomprehensibleville and Bad Grammar Junction.
This game has a story, and because this game is called Dino Rex you know it's going to be a story worth listening to. Some people might therefore think it unfortunate that the story is delivered via an English translation which reads like it was produced by partially-anaesthetised robot... but not me. This how the plot of every arcade game should be displayed, so allow me to share it with you in its full, wonky glory.
"Some of the clay figures discovered in the ruins of South America assumed dinosaurs on which mankind ride. From this, some were of the option that mankind and dinosaurs lived together.
BC 2500 - Amazonia.
A battlefield existed there... That was the world controlled by Amazones... in this place, the man of the other tribes strived for the queen once of a year..."
"At that time, a man who proved that his dinosaur was stronger than the other men was able to obtain the queen, and, a year of being the world master was reserved for him. The king was called DINO REX."
Did you get all that? Look, it's very simple. As per the Flintstones Hypothesis, man lives side-by-side with dinosaurs. We know this because someone found a clay figure of a man on a dinosaur, never once stopping to ponder that it might actually be a man on a horse crafted by an extremely inept sculptor. This human-dinosaur paradise is ruled by the Amazon(e)s, and every year the men pit their trained dinosaurs against each other to determine who will be the Amazon Queen's co-ruler / love-slave for a whole year.
If that all sounds like the set-up for a one-on-one fighting tournament where dinosaurs do battle, then congratulations - you've figured out the central premise of Dino Rex.
Yes, it's Street Fighter II with dinosaurs instead of karate masters and stretchy Indian guys, it’s Mortal Kombat if every cast member was a reptile instead of just that one lame palette-swapped ninja, it's the fast, exciting and highly technical world of the 2D fighting game as played out by huge, cumbersome beasts. Hmm. I think I might have spotted a problem with this concept already, but before I get into that let's pick a dinosaur!
There are six dinos to choose from, ranging from the A-list stars of the Cretaceous age to ones that are so obscure they're yet to even appear in any Jurassic Park movie, game or other spin-off. At the top of the tree are the Tyrannosaurus and the Triceratops - at the time Dino Rex was released they were white-hot from their supporting roles on Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, so their inclusion was a granted. Below them are the Allosaurus and the Pachycephalosaurus, and at the bottom of the heap lie the Ceratosaurus and the Stygimoloch. "Stygimoloch" may sound daft, but it means "Devil from the Styx" so it gets a pass from me.
Each dinosaur has it's own special move which is activated by a specific button command, and I'm sure they all have their uses and their parents are terribly proud of them and whatnot, but it's not really much of a choice, is it? You've got to choose the T. Rex. It's a T. Rex! In a game where dinosaurs fight each other at the behest of their whip-wielding, loincloth-clad masters! I like the Triceratops, I really do, but choosing the Rex is the only sane decision.
My earlier comments on the suitability of the Tyrannosaurus may have been... ill-considered. In my defence, I did not expect him to be quite so fat and purple. He looks like Barney. Scratch that, he looks like Barney if the guy inside the Barney costume was James Gandolfini. Compared to my opponent, the lithe and dinosaur-coloured Allosaurus, I look like a joke. Whatever, I'm here now, so let's see what the Tyrannosaurus can do.
Okey dokey then, that's definitely something. By rotating the joystick in a circle and pressing attack, you can command your Tyrannosaurus to leap through the air and gently nuzzle his head against his rival. Aww, isn't that sweet. Before I continue with the more advanced stuff, I suppose I should talk about the basic controls, and basic they most definitely are. You have two attack buttons, one to attack with your head and one that generally controls the tail or legs, depending on your dino. Different moves seem to be produced mostly by holding the stick in various directions while attacking - for example, pressing the "head" button while the stick is neutral makes the T. Rex chomp away at head height, while pressing the same button and down-forward on the stick makes him lunge for the ankles. You can also hold up and attack to roar, which builds a meter on the side until it fills and grants you one of the "POWER" icons you can see under the health bar. I never figured out what these power bars do. I hear tell of super-special moves you can perform, but I couldn't manage to pull one off and Dino Rex is hardly forthcoming with information about its arcane gameplay mechanics. Even the roaring, which does look kinda cool, is hamstrung by the fact that the roars have clearly been taken from lions, tigers and other zoo animals.
In the end, I managed to win the first bout with a sustained aerial bombardment via my special move, plus the occasional tail-whip. My trainer must be so proud. You can see the trainers at the bottom of the screen, running back and forth as the battle rages, cracking their whips whenever you press the attack buttons. It takes a braver man than I to whip a T. Rex, but these guys seem to know what they're doing and they never come to any harm.
Until the fight is over, I mean. Then a pterodactyl swoops down and carries the losing trainer away. Is that thing part of the Dino Rex tournament? Is it an official event adjudicator, waiting just off screen like some gargantuan golf caddy for the fight to end so that it can scoop up the loser, say "it's a living!" and then deposit the poor bastard in its nest to be torn apart by a dozen hungry infants? Because that's what happens when you lose.
Maybe it just happened to evolve a form of symbiosis with the Dino Rex tournament. That's why they died out - when mankind evolved beyond pitting dinosaurs against each other in mortal combat, the pterosaurs lost their main food supply.
Between fights, you get a bit of story, which is nice. The match was won! By me! Oh, and the Tyrannosaurus helped, I guess. I don't know why my trainer has the head of a kabuki actor.
Fight two is against a dinosaur that wasn't on the character select screen and is only identified as "Mono," so I guess it's supposed to be a Monoclonius, maybe. Whatever it is, it has no chance against the mighty power of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and his most ferocious technique - the "Over-excited Kid Performing in a Bad School Play" Combo!
That is an actual move in this game, activated by pressing the "kick" button on its own. It's not very effective. This means it fits in nicely with pretty much all of the T. Rex's attacks, because none of them are great. This is especially true when you're fighting a dinosaur like the Monoclonius here, because as you've probably noticed there is something of a size difference. Any attack that doesn't hit low is right out, because you'll be swinging over your opponent. The jumping special doesn't work either, because it only seems to connect at head height and using it one the smaller opponents will just see you flying over them and landing on the other side. Speaking of which, if you do end up behind your opponent then there's no Street Fighter II-style mechanic of, you know, turning around - the two dinosaurs instead calmly walk back to their respective sides of the screen like a pair of boxers at the end of a round. It certainly shows that the trainers are master of their dino-taming art, but it does drag the already-slow gameplay down even further as every few seconds you have to wait as the combatants slowly trudge back to the correct end of the screen.
See now that's just rude. It may look like I'm under the cosh here ("cosh" being the scientific term for a dinosaur's [CENSORED]) but it was a minor setback and I managed to snatch a victory by using the down-forward chomp over and over again.
Like all good sportsmen, our hero celebrates his win by getting drunk with a woman in a bikini. The "blessing wine" gives him a strange dream, and he is not kidding about the strangeness.
It's a bonus stage, set in the present day, where your mission is to kill as many people and destroy as many vehicles and buildings as you can. Well, it was unexpected, I'll give it that. It's an entertaining little diversion, and the pleasure gained from seeing a fat, purple T. Rex bellyflop onto a police car is not to be sniffed at, but it's worrisome that this bit is more fun than the actual game. I mean, you get a percentage score at the end showing how much you have contributed to the "Collopse of the Civilization," what's not to love? The weirdest thing about this whole segment, however, is that it has a plot.
An ongoing story that we'll be seeing more of later, where some guy called Mr. Ho Lee responds to the dinosaur threat by forming his own private army. Well, for an arcade fighting game I can't fault Taito on the ambition of their storytelling.
Okay, back to the dino-fighting. Ugh. Here's the thing: Dino Rex is a bad game. It may have an endearing madness to it, but gameplay is king and in this case that king is one of the more inbred Habsburg monarchs. Taito managed to take almost every aspect of a successful one-on-one fighting game and get it completely wrong. The dinosaurs are too big, too slow and too ungainly to allow for any kind of exciting, fast-paced combat. The controls seem ashamed to be associated with the game and will only cooperate after repeated proddings, with big delays between you inputting the commands and the dinos doing anything. The hit detection is some of the most baffling I've ever seen in a fighting game - I lost count of the amount of times my tail swung straight through an opponent's head with no effect or I was knocked down by an attack that clearly came nowhere near me. The amount of damage you give or take from an attack seems to vary wildly each time it connects, the power determined by some unseen arbiter that rules over the madness of Dino Rex, subjecting the player to its unknowable whims.
Where the gameplay is just plain bad, the presentation is a more of a mixed bag. The sound effects are fairly good, even if a lot of them did come straight from the lion's mouth, as it were. The music is exactly what you're imagining it to sound like - tribal percussion and the odd bit of chanting, apart from the music in the bonus stage which just puts me in mind of an off-brand version of "Air on a G-String."
The graphics feel even more schizophrenic. The dinosaurs have the look of digitised photos of actual models, and presumably the effect was intended to evoke the classic stop-motion filmmaking of Ray Harryhausen... but it doesn't. It just makes the dinosaurs look cheap and stiff, especially given that they're all coloured in just one hue, not to mention that they're in a completely different style to the rest of the game. Just look at the trainers, or any of the people in the backgrounds, or especially the way Mr. Ho Lee was drawn at the end of the bonus stage. There's no cohesion here, and the end result is that everything looks jumbled and cluttered
It's not all terrible, though. Probably the best aspect of Dino Rex (bizarre game universe aside) is the backgrounds. They've got some nice details, like the giant sauropod that marks the edge of the stage pictured above, and most of them have some destructible features like guard towers that can be knocked over or cages full of dinosaurs that can be broken apart, setting the captives free to run across the bottom of the screen. There was some effort put into the backgrounds, and I appreciate it.
Hang on, I'm back in the future and, as promised, there's now an army out to get me complete with tanks and helicopter gunships. Unluckily for them, the T. Rex is completely invincible during the bonus stages. They can slow me down with missiles, but they can't stop me, and if you get to the end of the stage quickly enough you get to fight Mr. Ho Lee. He's driving a crane. I'm completely baffled.
Wait, it's called Ho Lee City? Did he conquer the entire city on a platform of protection against dinosaur attacks? Should the plotline of your bonus minigames be more involving than the actual game?
Okay, back to the fighting. Here I'm battling against a bright red Stygimoloch, a dinosaur species which has essentially ceased to exist following studies that showed it was probably just a juvenile Pachycephalosaurus. I mean a young one, not one that makes underarm farting noises when people are talking or anything like that.
As well as the controls, the balance, the hit detection and the speed, one other thing that Taito got completely wrong was the difficulty level. I'm not saying the Stygimoloch cheats, because it goes beyond cheating and places you in a fight against what may well be a psychic dinosaur. Your every move is preempted, any attack you launch being immediately countered by one of Stygimoloch's own moves, usually a stab of the tail that sends you flying and seems to have a hitbox the size of, appropriately enough, the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs.
This wouldn't be so bad if the game wasn't such a chore to play. It would still be bad, because nothing kills my interest in a game faster than repeated, brutal but above all unfair deaths, but it'd be less bad. Why am I subjecting myself to this? Why do I struggle against the dinosaur equivalent of Bruce Lee, the stubby arms of the Tyrannosaurus seeming more laughably pathetic now than ever before? Then I remembered about the bonus stages. I need some closure on that. So I kept lumbering on, until I got lucky with a few ankle-bites and the Stygimoloch went down.
My reward was a fight against the mighty Triceratops, who is definitely not just a slightly altered version of the Monoclonius I fought earlier. To my relief this fight was much easier than the last, because Triceratops are apparently the densest dinosaur species to ever walk the Earth. Even for a group of animals renowned for their walnut-sized brains he seems notably thick, and all the Triceratops did during the fight was run at me and wave its legs about in a manner almost as ridiculous as the Tyrannosaurus' standing kick. A bit of patient tail-slapping put paid to the 'tops, and only one battle remains before I can claim the title of Dino Rex. First, though...
Somehow, one solitary dinosaur has caused the collapse of human civilisation. One dinosaur. I know the guns weren't hurting it, but couldn't we have, I dunno, dug a big hole and waited for it to fall in? Whatever happened, people are living in tee-pees on a long-abandoned highway, they're dressed in animal hides, they've made catapults from old road signs which, for some reason, are more effective at slowing down a rampaging dinosaur than cruise missiles. Just what will it take to stop this monster? Well, I could maybe give you an answer if there was any kind of consistency at work here. Get whipped by a Triceratops' tail and Rex will take some damage. Rocket launchers and handguns don't hurt it at all, but apparently getting whipped causes enough of a physical sensation to allow a dinosaur to be trained, and getting hit by the projectiles thrown from a crude trebuchet constructed from road signs? That'll slow you right down. If there are any rules that underpin this whole mess, I can't figure them out. Instead, I'll just eat all these post-apocalyptic survivors that have handily lined up in from of me.
It's not often that a videogame allows you to be responsible to the downfall of mankind, and as I watch the short scene at the end of the bonus round, the few survivors chasing a peacock down the ruins of a motorway, I feel a strange sense of pride. That's kind of worrying. I think I might be a sociopath.
At last, the final battle! Tyrannosaurus against Tyrannosaurus, fighting to the death on an unused set from Batman & Robin. If the intro hadn't clearly stated that this game takes place in 2,500 BC I would have guessed that there was a big twist coming and Dino Rex actually takes place in the future. The bonus rounds definitely lend some credence to that theory, and it would explain how these primitive tribes have access to neon body paint.
I don't know if you always fight a T. Rex as the final boss, or if it's a mirror match - I confess I didn't have the patience to slog my way through this mess again - but it worked out in my favour, because by now I knew what the enemy T. Rex could do, and his height meant I could use my flying attack and actually hit the bloody thing. I'd like to tell you this final showdown was a thrilling battle between two of the most fearsome predators the world has ever know, but it more closely resembled an exhibition by the world's most incompetent Olympic diving team.
It was a close-run thing, but somehow I managed to prevail. With this victory, I can claim my Amazon bride and have a year of uninterrupted Lordship over the prehistoric world!
Oh, what fresh hell is this? The incumbent Dino Rex doesn't want to give up his title, and he challenges me to a fist-fight. Me, who has the body of a Greek god, versus this guy who has the body of a Greek takeaway owner. It was a short fight. Honestly, I don't remember much about it - I'd already put down my controller to bask in my victory, and I was so taken aback by the sudden fisticuffs that I just started pressing the attack buttons as fast as possible.
It seemed to work, and upon my victory a thousand Tyris Flares descended upon me. What happened in that episode of Futurama with the Amazon women? Death by snu-snu? Yeah, that seems likely.
I have conquered all dinosaurs and pot-bellied men before, and at last I can call myself Dino Rex. Wait a minute... "Rex" means "king". And "dino" means "terrible." Terrible King. Huh. Well, it's definitely appropriate.
I'm in a bit of a quandary here. On the one hand, Dino Rex is a terrible game ruined by awful controls, no cohesion, hit detection that doesn't detect hits and the stupidest-looking Tyrannosaurus ever to grace the world of gaming. Playing through this game is a chore, and that's especially galling because the lure of playing as a dinosaur and fighting other dinosaurs is a hard one to resist. And yet, I'm glad I played Dino Rex. I might even play it again one day, and I can even think of a few honest-to-god human people to whom I would say "hey, you should play this game." It's just so weird, so charmingly, needlessly odd, that experiencing the madness is just about worth the punishment of having to play the actual game. The barely-comprehensible story, the guy that enters your initials on the highscore table by splitting a log with an axe, the pterodactyl the proudly shows you it's butthole on the game over screen and most of all the bonus rounds - they're all things I'm glad I've seen, (maybe slightly less so on the pterodactyl anus,) even if I do have to go play some Street Fighter II now to get the taste of Dino Rex's gameplay out of my proverbial mouth. You made me smile, Taito, and for that I thank you.
You know, I think you might.