Real Talk By: Cmack The Don
For this edition of Old School Sundays I’m breaking away from my usual fighting game and adventure stand bys and delving into the survival horror genre with Capcom’s 1999 pre-historic fright fest: Dino Crisis. The series spawned 2 other sequels, and at the end of the 90’s Capcom was in full swing with survival horror, having struck gold with the Resident Evil franchise, which was really starting to hit its stride at this point and had not yet moved into the action mechanic we would see in RE 4.
Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami and the development team behind the original Resident Evil games broke off into a Jurassic Park-inspired survival horror adventure and the result was pretty well received. According to Wikipedia, Dino Crisis is Capcom’s 13th best-selling game ever, and has sold over 2.4 million copies. I remember trying to play it in middle school when it first came out and it just wasn’t for me. After recently revisiting it, how does it hold up?
Real S***: Dino Crisis crafts an excellent eerie and dreadful atmosphere, with a great use of sound, jump scares, and enemy placement. The Dinos themselves always feel threatening, no matter how far into the game you get, and the lack of ammo and health items at convenient points always makes you have to act cautiously and plan your next move, or pay for it.
The level design of the island facility the entire game takes place on is extremely well thought out and clever. You can see the foundations here for future hits like Onimusha, the first of which took place almost exclusively in an ancient Japanese Castle. They took the successful haunted mansion of the original RE and expanded that concept, keeping the player in a single, dangerous, isolated area, yet at the same time spacing out the passageways, reveals, and ways to get around far enough through the game that you feel like you’re always discovering something new, even if it’s just a faster, previously hidden way to get into an area you couldn’t before.
Speaking of the level design, it even comes into play with the combat and dealing with enemies. I found that the more I memorized the layout of the facility, the more I could use the ventilation system and hidden passages to outmaneuver enemies when I didn’t have the ammo, or to trap them. Around the facility there are many laser grids you can use to trap a hostile Dino and then either finish it off or hold it at bay to finish what you needed to do, or just catch your breath. Some of the creatures in the game are pretty tough and often it’s a better idea to use the environment than to bother with a shootout.
One of the most unique features of Dino Crisis is the item system. If things like mixing items, crafting a good inventory, and keeping track of what you have and what you need aren’t the idea of what makes for a fun time, I totally understand, I’m usually about faster paced action myself, so for more action oriented gamers, this might seem like a minor detail, but adrenaline pumping action simply isn’t the entire point of a game like Dino Crisis. The item process does matter to the game, that the menu and storage system is well designed isn’t a little extra convenience in this case, it really adds a layer of strategy and skill to the game. Similar to some of the Resident Evil series, you can mix new, more effective health potions, but also tranquilizers and even poison darts that are more instantly deadly than bullets, if you know what items to mix and how to mix them.
Another fun part of the item system that is completely different to this game that stuck with me from the very first time playing it years ago is the presence of various “Emergency Boxes” around the compound. Since you have a limited inventory, you can store your items in a location and use what you put there for later, with each box containing some of its own supplies as well. You have to have progressively harder to find “plugs” to open the boxes however, and they’re only in a few locations around the facility.
The puzzles are also a well thought out part of Dino Crisis. Again, as primarily a more action oriented guy, it says a lot that I could enjoy puzzle solving here, and modern games could learn a thing or two from the puzzles offered here, as it breaks up the action and exploration with a different kind of task, but the difficulty of the puzzles isn’t so insane that they seem impossible except for expert safe crackers. They’re challenging, but keep the solution frustratingly out of reach just long enough to let you know it’s there, just that you’re going to have to do some trial and error and stay observant to get it. the worst way to program puzzles is to either make them too difficult, to the point that you need a strategy guide, or to hold the player’s hand, rendering them pointless. This game skillfully avoids both.
Stale S***: Not everything in Dino Crisis is solid gold however, it’s only 13 on Capcom’s top seller list for a reason. I mentioned earlier that the level design is great, and although that is definitely true, the complex is expansive and sprawling, and sometimes you just need to look at the map to get an idea of where you are. The problem is that the map is very disorienting, and only gives you vague information. You can argue that this is purposeful, that since it’s survival horror the goal is to make you think more and grow concerned about where you are, but if that was the intent, it doesn’t serve it well. If you’re going to include a map, make it functioning and logical, not what you have to deal with in this game. The map only highlights the general area of where you are at a given time, but not where you are within that area. It has a compass feature to give you an idea of what direction you’re facing, but without a “You Are Here” icon that represents you on the map, this can sometimes serve to confuse you more, not less. It doesn’t add cleverness or difficulty, it just makes carrying out basic tasks harder than it should.
Another issue I have with the game that gets a slight pass due to age is the infamous “Tank Controls”, seen in the early Tomb Raider and RE games as well. Around the PS1 era, when many developers were just starting to get used to mapping movement in a 3D environment, you saw a lot of adventure games in particular using this clumsy control style, where only Up on the D-Pad allows you to move forward, the other buttons allowing you to turn, and if used without the Up button, it causes your character to just turn in place like a bunch of meat on a skewer being cooked at a roadside grill in the Mediterranean. The movement looks completely stiff and robotic, and I’ve never liked how unnatural it is, and how much it makes you aware that what you’re playing is artificial. I will make a note that the classic Metal Gear Solid came out a year before this and had a similar top-down view, but was much more fluid and free in terms of movement by comparison. Added to that, in terms of control, it’s simply hard to use and adds unnecessary, non-skill based difficulty to confronting Dinos, when they are definitely already deadly enough. Again, I can give this a partial pass as it was a popular feature of the time that crept its way into many great games, and has thankfully gone out of style.
Two of the other major issues I have with the game are health system and the save system. I guess they decided to get a bit experimental with DC’s health system, and didn’t want to use any sort of visible meter to let you know how you’re doing, at any point, ever. I understand that in the other RE games at the time that there was also not a heads up display on-screen to let you know how you were doing, but when you paused, you could see your health just fine. In Dino Crisis, you have to see whether you’re injured and limping, or bleeding, and take it from there. You never know if it’s a good idea to preemptively heal-up, or maybe to wait to heal even if you’re injured, since you’re not doing too bad overall. There’s no way of knowing with a definitive meter, and I just don’t care for that. If you’re going to do something as drastic as eliminate health meters, then there has to be information given in its place, and one new animation of you limping and bleeding just doesn’t say enough.
The save system is location-based, which isn’t surprising given the age of the game, but early on in save systems in gaming I don’t think developers ever estimated how convenient it is to be able to save more often. This is one area where I have to give modern gaming the edge. Gamers, especially more adult ones, can’t be expected to always have the time to play uninterrupted in long stretches, and only having two locations on a large map, that only activate a save once you exit is very bizarre to me. Both Resident Evil and Onimusha, which I count as this games cousins, have save locations that are a little less sparse than what you see here, at least one for each major area.
Dino Crisis is a fun, challenging, solid example of what vintage survival horror was, and a great example of good level design in gaming. It carries out its concept well, but it does lack that polished complete package the Resident Evil series has, it’s easy to see why the Resident Evil series carried on while Dino Crisis is looking…extinct. One little added note I’ll make is that this could be due to Resident Evil having a large cast of great characters, where the player character, Regina, is really the only well crafted member of the cast in the game. I’d like to see Regina show up in another Capcom franchise, or use her in a new game of her own that isn’t related to dinosaurs, as that to me, for whatever reason, is not an idea that you can do as many times in a row as zombies/biologically mutated beings. It’s a solid play, but doesn’t quite reach its full potential, so that’s why:
Dino Crisis Gets
3 out of 5
+Good atmosphere and lead character.
+Good level design and use of strategy in combat and exploration.
+Innovative and complex item system and puzzle design.
-Low enemy variety, most of the dinos are raptors only.
-Confusing, disorienting map.
-Poorly executed health and save system.