How It Began
My grandparents, of all people, had a large role to play in my young life when it came to the type of media I consumed. I remember going over to their house one time with my mom and my brother, and after dinner, we went to the theater and watched Jurassic Park. I was barely six-years old at the time, and I was entranced. I had already developed a healthy obsession with dinosaurs at this point in my life, but Jurassic Park threw me headfirst into a fantasy nightmare. The idea of creating dinosaurs from DNA found in amber wasn’t at the forefront of my mind so much as the carnage the dinosaurs wrought when they broke free of their enclosures, and what humans had to do to survive in the face of a predator they’ve never encountered before in the history of the species. My fascination with this subject grew by watching Carnosaur with my grandparents later that year; a movie with plot-lines along the same lines as Jurassic Park, but more reliant on gore than a well structured narrative. It didn’t stop the movie from giving me nightmares, however.
As time went on, my obsession with “human vs dinosaur” scenarios like this only grew. At the same time, video games began to incorporate dinosaurs in this very same manner, with some of the more memorable games being the Tomb Raider games for the PSX, Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues for the SNES, and Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition for the Sega Genesis (all of which my grandparents bought me for Christmas and birthdays). I obsessed over these games, and they became my go-to for dinosaur inspired adventures, with Rampage Edition even letting you play as a Velociraptor, spreading carnage and disarray while hunting down Dr Grant. I thought games with dinosaurs couldn’t possibly get any better. Then my grandparents bought me Dino Crisis, and my world was forever warped.
Island of Lost Time
Dino Crisis came out on the heels of the massively successful Resident Evil 2, a game that I played earlier that year and still love to this day, but that’s for another video. Dino Crisis was originally developed by the same team as the Resident Evil series, and even had the legendary Shinji Mikami directing it. For anyone unfamiliar with the game, the story follows three members of the Secret Operation Raid Team, or SORT, as they investigate an island research facility following the disappearance of a fellow agent. The agent’s mission was to investigate a Dr Edward Kirk, a doctor who was assumed to be dead that is apparently working on a weapons project on said island. Four SORT agents are inserted into the island under the cover of night, only for one to get blown off course and subsequently eaten by a T-Rex. The remaining three agents, Gail, Rick and Regina, are left unaware of their teammates’ death and continue with the mission. After accessing the base, they discover several eviscerated guards and agree to split up, until the discover dinosaurs have infested the island, and the whole mission has gone sideways. Soon, their mission becomes one of survival against the world’s oldest predators.
Life Finding a Way
It’s a pretty straight-forward premise, and even if you don’t pay attention to the plot, the background information, the files, and the subtleties, the message is pretty clear: dinosaurs are on the loose; get out alive. Everyone I know can understand that, and given my love for dinosaurs, I was able to get behind that completely. This coupled with my recent playtime of the Resident Evil games had me sold from the get go, and I was not disappointed.
Survival Horror games at the time of the release of Dino Crisis were experiencing a golden age. Shortly after the release of the original Resident Evil, Clock Tower saw its first release in 3D in the West, as well as Silent Hill and Parasite Eve. Silent Hill was celebrated for its attempt to distinguish itself from Resident Evil, using fully 3D backgrounds, a dynamic camera, an emphasis on psychological horror, and even some stealth elements to dodge enemies. While all of the games mentioned are fantastic, none really touched me at the time like Dino Crisis. It wasn’t just the animations on the dinosaurs being very realistic at the time, or the puzzles, or the 3D environments, but something about the vibe of the game kept me hooked.
The Evolution of Feel
To start, Dino Crisis uses tank-style controls, meaning that regardless of camera angle, your character will walk forward when holding “up,” turn when pressing “left” and “right,” and backpedal when holding “down.” You had to hold a button to aim, but instead of remaining stationary while aiming, you could move around a bit, giving the gunplay more options when facing faster enemies. It was familiar yet different enough to allow the player to explore more options in combat, which is vastly more visceral and punishing in this game. Dino Crisis also uses some of the other familiar elements of the Resident Evil series, like rare ammo and health pickups, storage boxes, set save points, and exploring for keys to solve puzzles, yet all of these elements have their own unique twist.
The ammo and health are a little more common than your typical Resident Evil, but have a twist on them that was unique at the time. See, you could gather items and use them, or you could increase the effectiveness of said item by using the mixing system. Something similar to this would be put into Resident Evil 3 a few months later via the gunpowder system (yet another favorite game of mine). Basically, you could take and combine items like intensifiers, multipliers and various aids to create stronger health packs for your character, hemostats to stop the bleeding from attacks (which slowly drains health while leaving a blood trail behind you), and even make various darts to tranquilize or poison dinosaurs.
The item boxes in Dino Crisis, known as emergency boxes, function more as a way of getting items than storing them. Emergency boxes come in three variations: Green, Yellow and Red. These item boxes give you different things depending on the color, ranging from ammo to health, and other useful items. The catch, however, is you need a key item to open these boxes, known as “plugs.” Plugs can be found at certain points in the facility, and there are only a limited number of plugs in the game. Some of the boxes take upwards of three plugs to open depending on how many of that color you’ve unlocked so far, so the decision is left up to the player on which boxes to access and how often. Not only that, but the box space is somewhat limited, causing the player to be quite mindful of what to horde and what to carry on their person
Save points offer another slight tweak on the Resident Evil formula. Instead of having typewriters around the facility that use ink ribbons, the game has specific save rooms that allow you to save when you are exiting the room. While not terribly different from typewriters, it still puts the idea far away enough from them while keeping everything somewhat coherent. After all, it wouldn’t make sense for a hyper advanced facility to have typewriters in it, right?
Finally, the puzzles in Dino Crisis aren’t anything super noteworthy, but they do test the player’s logic and problem solving skills, with some of them harder than even those found in the Silent Hill series. There were a few times in my most recent play-through as an adult where I was scratching my head for longer than I feel comfortable admitting. Not only that, but a lot more the puzzles have to do with manipulating the environment, usually in the form of hitting buttons and flipping switches. So, with all of these similarities, what does Dino Crisis do differently?
Adapt and Evolve
First and foremost, Dino Crisis trades the enemies from zombies and bio-horrors to dinosaurs. While, at first, zombies might seem more scary, and some other creatures like Mr X and the Chimeras are the stuff of nightmares, dinosaurs have a subtle horror about them. First of all, dinosaurs are something that existed at a point and therefore offer more tangibility than zombies, which one of the big reasons Dino Crisis was made in the first place according to Mikami and his team. They wanted to create something that they dubbed “panic horror,” where Mikami compared Resident Evil to “fun-house horror,” and Dino Crisis to a visceral, “roller coaster” experience. Mikami attempted this, and largely succeeded, with using dinosaurs.
The way the dinos are first introduced directly to the player is shortly after our protagonist, Regina, loses track of Gail. As the player walks her down a dimly lit path outside of a generator room, an unknown creature stalks them from the shadows. Suddenly, a rapid series of heavy footsteps approaches the player and a 300 pound death machine jumps in front of them. It’s a velociraptor, its big, and it looks pissed. Then, the game just hands you control. Right away you realize this is going to be different. Not just because it’s a dinosaur, but because it’s jumping around, displaying threats, lunging at you, and even mauling you while you’re on the ground. Your instinct is to run, so as you do, the camera stays in front of you, with the charging raptor bearing down fast. You finally reach the door, but instead of being safe, the thing follows you into the next room, leaping over the fence and back into your face a few times before finally giving up and running off.
I’ll admit, even to this day, that series of events gives me chills. The undead in Resident Evil can overwhelm you, and Mr. X or Nemesis hunts you actively, even following you to other rooms. However, that’s one enemy in the entire length of a game. In Dino Crisis, that’s every enemy in the game. Dinosaurs even go so far as to play dead, sleep, or hide in hopes of getting an advantage over you, and fighting more than one at a time is for either the very brave or the very stupid. Hell, fighting one of the bastards is an ordeal. The feeling a game like Dino Crisis gives you in its less goofy moments is nothing more than pure desperation; a frail creature facing off against a force of nature.
Not only are you as a player dealing with unrelenting dinosaurs, but you’re doing so in an environment that has very little to do with dinosaurs, making the frights that much more potent, and the situation that much more unsettling. It would be like opening your front door and, depending on where you live, seeing a tiger sitting on your front step. It’s not the just fact that a tiger is in close proximity to you, but also the when, the how, and the why. When the hell did a tiger, of all things, get here, how did it get here, and why the hell is it here?
The main character you play as in Dino Crisis is Regina, a 25 year old weapons expert and member of SORT. A crimson haired, no-nonsense, competent smart-ass, Regina was a refreshing change in video game protagonists. These days, the “tough as nails woman” is bordering on a trope, but back then it was quite alluring. Regina could not only hold her own against the dinos, but in some respects seemed a lot more capable. With her weapons knowledge comes the ability to upgrade her standard weapons to more powerful variants, which in turn allow the player to use different ammunition types, attachments and so forth.
Finally, Dino Crisis used fully rendered 3D environments instead of pre-rendered backgrounds, which gives it more common ground with Silent Hill than Resident Evil. While this didn’t allow for a ton of detail due to the limitations of the existing hardware, it did allow for the game to have a pseudo dynamic camera. So while the player still doesn’t have direct control of the camera, it will still follow them, but at non-traditional angles. Much like Silent Hill, the camera will sometimes sit in a set angle, but other times will sweep around the player, or will chase the player at a few paces length. It gives this movie-like quality to some of the less frantic moments, and an intensity to the enemy encounters. There is nothing quite like being chased by a raptor while running towards the camera, only to have the camera backpedaling at the same pace as you, showing the raptor inching ever closer with each step.
Dino Crisis sold well upon release, with many critics fondly calling it “Resident Evil with dinosaurs.” A lot of praise was given to the things that separated Dino Crisis from its undead sibling, like the AI, the 3D backgrounds, and setting. It seemed that there was a new series for Capcom to establish in the survival-horror world. Then Dino Crisis 2 came out, but that story is for another article entirely. Do yourself a favor right now, and find a way to play this classic. Your inner child will not regret it, at least not until its getting mauled by a raptor.