Sunday, 21 February 2021

Tom Mason's Dinosaurs For Hire (Mega Drive)

 For some reason, SEGA of America had a strange habit of making Mega Drive games based on comics that no-one had ever read. There was Ex-Mutants, Chakan: The Forever Man, and this one, Dinosaurs For Hire. Chakan's probably the most well-known of the three, though that definitely has more to do with the videogame than the comic. In Dinosaurs For Hire's case, it could have turned out a little differently, as there was a cartoon in development that never came into bring, according to Wikipedia. Then it could have formed a trinity of 90s cartoons about gun-toting dinosaurs alongside Extreme Dinosaurs and The Terrible Thunderlizards.


The game is, at its most basic level, a Contra-esque platform shooter, which sees you pick a dinosaur, then go from left to right (or sometimes from bottom to top) shooting soldiers and monsters and vehicles and so on. There are a few twists to the formula though, to the extent that the game almost feels like some kind of experimental take on the genre. The smallest, but most obvious twist is that because the player characters are anthropomorphic dinosaurs, they dwarf all the human enemy soldiers that are running around. That's a nice little touch.


But the weirdness starts as soon as the game does, opening with a boss fight against a giant turtle-like monster that's climbing up the Hoover Dam and breathing fire. After you kill it, the credits start rolling before a cheeky little pterodactyl appears and tells you that was just a prank and the game actually starts now. This fight is also the first time that your HUD disappears, which is presumably some kind of resource-juggling programming trick based on the presence of the giant monster here, and the fact that it happens again when other giant bosses are onscreen. One thing you can always say in SOA's favour is that they were always trying different tricks and techniques to get fancy effects out of the Mega Drive hardware.


With that in mind, it's a shame that some aspects of the game's presentation are kind of terrible. I'm not saying the game itself looks bad: the sprites and backgrounds are all well drawn and animated, and the player characters are especially full of personality, with little touches like gleeful facial expressions as they blast away when you hold the fire button for a couple of seconds. But there's some little things that bug me, like how all the text in the game uses a font that I assume must be the default in Mega Drive devkits or something, since it can be seen in things like leaked betas, and the notorious homebrew Crazy Bus. I know i'm nitpicking here, it's something that really jumped out at me from the start, and made the game feel a little cheap, maybe even unfinished?


I do have a more legitimate complaint, too, though: some of the stage design is really bad. For example, early on there's a stage where the main threat comes from tiny mounted security camera guns, which are constantly firing at you from all angles, and in another game, it might not have been so bad, but in Dinosaurs For Hire, the characters are too big and not maneuverable enough to deal with this kind of situation. Even something as small as a Gunstar Heroes-style fixed aiming mode might have made this stage a lot more palatable. Then a few stages later, you're making your way upwards through a spooky cave, and for some reason, as you climb, if you fall back down below, the areas where you just came from are now an instant death pit, with no kind of warning or signifier that this might be the case.


Dinosaurs For Hire is a game that's almost great. I wonder if they ran out of money or time during development and had to rush it out before they could polish up the presentation or sand the rough edges off of the game itself. But either way, if you want to see a game that's more ambitious than it is actually good, then give it a look. Otherwise, don't bother.

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