Saturday, October 25, 2014

Designasaurus II

The year is 1990. The Yankees are terrible, the Berlin Wall has just fallen, dinosaurs are still walking around without feathers, and this type of introduction is not yet a cliche. Edutainment titles are a firmly established genre, and it is only natural that dinosaurs are represented. Among the prehistoric-centric titles is Designasaurus II, which proves to be fairly durable as these things go...

...And suddenly we wake up, and it is back to 2014 (or, I suppose, later, depending on when you read this), and there have been no floppy disk drives for a decade, and your computer will react as if you tried to command it in Etruscan if you try to play Designasaurus II. However, through the magic of DOSBox, it is possible to bring old bones back to life. Designasaurus II has been reviewed in recent times from the perspective of gamers. How does it fare when viewed from a paleontological perspective, by someone who remembers playing it when it was still fairly new?

So, let's see the edu—

There's something wrong with this picture.
—Okay, I'm sure there's a tricerapod because they were already using the Apatosaurus model for a nameless sauropod in this world. Granted, repurposing the Allosaurus as some kind of generic theropod would have made more sense—

I did not know that.
—Well, that's kind of partly right if I squint, and maybe there was just a game of "Telephone" going on with the consultant and the game makers, and—

—So maybe they could have used another round of polish on the text. The "did you know that..." bits appear whenever your dinosaur is sleeping, or when there aren't any more important messages. Many are either wildly off-kilter, very basic statements like what an herbivore is, or repeating one of the laundry list of possible dinosaur extinction mechanisms. The most educational part is probably the descriptions of the various times and places you can visit:

The game has two modes, a research sandbox, where you just pilot a dinosaur around for a while, and a quest, but more on that later. In both modes, you either use a pre-loaded dinosaur or create your own from pieces of others.

The pre-set roster plumps for usual pre-'90s favorites: Allosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Apatosaurus, Deinonychus, Iguanodon, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and Tyrannosaurus rex, along with token pterosaurs Rhamphorhynchus (spelled without the first "h", but honestly it has too many "h"es already) and Pteranodon. You'll notice that each one has some special ability, be it claws, teeth, spikes, clubs, horns, flight, or being Apatosaurus. Even Iguanodon has thumb spikes, which is probably why it made the cut over some more non-threatening ornithopod. Allosaurus seems to be a bit of an odd theropod out; if you already have Tyrannosaurus, why have Allosaurus? The game makers probably just wanted another theropod model. It makes up for this seeming redundancy by having an attack that can be best described as "air-guitar-fu":

"Dier, dier, dier, waah!"
"Dude, what are you doing?"
"...I...I thought we were going to settle this by rocking out."

Creating your own dinosaur involves juggling bits of multiple dinosaurs. In honor of the star of the moment, I have created a doppel-Deinocheirus:

That's not *too* bad.
 Inexplicably, the limited model generation decides that this should look like a sauropod:

Oh, well. (Also, all dinosaur names apparently end in -asaurus.)
The above screenshot also shows the unique approach to reproduction: you occasionally stumble on nests of your species and can choose to defend the eggs, an action that apparently alerts every dinosaur in a square mile to come running and steal them. Aside from raising the question of why they aren't doing that when the other dinosaur is on the nest, there is a significant philosophical quandary: where do these other dinosaurs of your species (and their implied mates) come from, especially if you just invented your critter a minute before? Also, might it not be to the evolutionary advantage of your dinosaur to let the eggs of an unrelated member of its species be lost?

You get 16 different combinations of time and place to send your dinosaur, two each representing the Late Triassic, Early Jurassic, Middle Jurassic, Early Cretaceous, and "middle" Cretaceous, and three for the Late Jurassic and Late Cretaceous. Environments include volcanic, tropical, oceans/lakes, deserts, plains/valleys, mountains, arctic, and a combination of each. Each "world" gets two types of dinosaurs/pterosaurs wandering around, and that's it. Some of the models are reused for different dinosaurs. We already met the fearsome tricerapod, but Apatosaurus gets quite a workout as a generic sauropod, and Deinonychus also stands in for Coelophysis and hypsilophodonts. The combinations are generally defensible, although there are some oddities, such as Late Cretaceous Antarctica being populated exclusively by Rhamphorhynchus and Triceratops. Refreshingly, the dinosaurs make no noises outside of a sort of grunt during combat. In addition, although the screen can be fairly swarming with critters, none of them are particularly interested in yours. If there's fighting to be done, it's either from accidentally bumping into them or is initiated by you, and you can disengage by leaving the scene. You can be as bloodthirsty or peaceful as you want; it is entirely possible to play as a carnivore and survive on the miscellaneous vermin running around, or to play a psychotic Iguanodon and shank everything that comes your way, leaving the corpses to rot. (Incidentally, no concern is ever expressed over what you might be doing to the timeline through your actions.)

As you might suspect given the vintage of the game, there are some limitations. We already saw that the game cannot express your abominations as what they're supposed to look like, instead using one of the 10 pre-loaded models. Another limitation is modeling of scale, by which I mean there isn't any. This means that your cute lil' pink Rhamphorhynchus, which in real life topped out with a wingspan shy of 2 m, is more than happy to go up against an Apatosaurus or Tyrannosaurus, slap it a few times with its tail (or bite or claw it; it's kind of hard to tell what's going on when it fights), and then devour the carcass in one gulp.

The Sauropod looks surprised by the ferocity of the Rhamphorhynchus's onslaught!
The tail has lodged firmly in the wound!
The Sauropod looks sick!
The Rhamphorhynchus twists the embedded tail around in the Sauropod's left leg!
The Sauropod gives in to pain.
(50 Designasaurus Research Foundation credits for getting the reference. Unfortunately, a sandwich is 100 credits.)
So, anyway, the actual "game with an objective" part. You are tasked with recovering the "geneprints" of the "super dinosaur" Gigantodon, which have been scattered through the Mesozoic by the sinister Dr. Max von Fusion. While we must applaud the Designasaurus Research Foundation for being open-minded enough to hire an obvious mad scientist, it clearly didn't work out as they intended.

This is when I started to question the legitimacy of the Foundation.
I bet you didn't call him "sinister" when he started out.
To do this, hitch up your chosen dinosaur and send it through the 16 time/place combinations. For this mission, I have selected 1980s Naked Deinonychus, with its fetching rust-red, black, and gray coloration (this is actually a great color scheme for this dinosaur):

For extra late '80s/early '90s ambiance, pronounce it "die-noh-NIHK-us", like Christopher Reeve in the classic TV documentary Dinosaur!
The mission is easier that it sounds: figure out where your teleporter is in relation to the edges of the world so you can return to it quickly, cover ground in a systematic pattern, avoid walking through water or lava (good advice in most situations anyway), and resist the urge to fight anything. Because you can walk away from fights, and you don't get anything for massacring dinosaurs, and the game will always alert you when you get close to the geneprint, there's no reason not to just keep moving. If you're just trying to get through the thing, for example if you're preparing a blog post, this is by far the most efficient approach. Once you collect all 16 geneprints, you win the following:

10 million credits, which at current exchange rates are worth nothing (it's unclear what these are supposed to be for; apparently all of your lab time, which you spend tooling around the Mesozoic slaughtering dinosaurs with genetic abominations, is free. Perhaps they're good in the Foundation cafeteria?);

This lovely certificate, suitable for framing:

This is definitely going on the wall.
But only if you have one of these printers:

Dot matrix *and* continuous feed paper!
And a glimpse at the fabled Calvinosaurus, er, Gigantodon (and no, you don't get to play as one):

Perhaps Dr. von Fusion wasn't as brilliant as we thought. On the other hand, if he got this off the ground, his is truly a mind apart (and how does it weigh only 7 tons at a length of 90 ft and a height of 65 ft? Is it made of styrofoam?).

In the end, 20 years on this is a reasonable time-killer if you don't mind time travel to 1990 and can laugh off some dodgy "facts". A polished and updated version could make a fun casual game, just you running your dinosaur through the past, losing someone else's eggs and getting involved in air guitar duels with animals a fraction of your size.

Random screen shots!

"Can't...stop...doing...the Monkey!"
Did you know that...
Dinosaurs had very rich inner monologues.
Yes, defend yourself, Allosaurus! You only outweigh that hypsilophodont by a couple of orders of magnitude!
Honestly, ~500 years sounds completely realistic for me to decide on a project and return for a doctorate, although I wish they'd be a bit more formal and use my last name. I didn't spend 6 years getting a PhD while living 520 years to be called "Dr. Justin"!

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