Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be sinking our teeth into Dino Crisis.
Survival horror was hitting the peak of its popularity in 1999. While pioneers like the Japan-exclusive Sweet Home and Alone in the Dark had kicked off this sub-genre in the late 1980s and early 1990s, survival horror demanded a certain level of visual fidelity to flourish. Watching abstract pixels encounter terrifying monsters lacked the punch that players experienced when they booted up the PlayStation’s Resident Evil in 1996. Shinji Mikami and his team had crafted a three-dimensional game that, while crude by modern standards, looked comparatively true to life. This had the desired effect of amping up tension among players, and the sub-genre took off like a rocket in the late 1990s.
After the critical and commercial success of Resident Evil, Shinji Mikami was promoted from planner to producer and was assigned the series follow up by publisher Capcom. In 1998, as a new survival horror rival called Silent Hill hit game stores, Resident Evil 2 was released to acclaim on the PlayStation. This game was another massive hit for the company, and Mikami took on two more projects. The first, Resident Evil 3, was a safe sequel to Resident Evil 2 that largely recycled environments and mechanics from its predecessor; the second was an ambitious experiment in combining the underlying structure of the Resident Evil series with dinosaurs.
Dino Crisis (1999)
Dino Crisis was released in 1999 and represented a fascinating new wrinkle in a genre already at risk of growing stale. So effective were the unique mechanics of Resident Evil – ‘tank’ controls in which the player turns his or her character left or right and presses up to move forward, pre-defined cinematic camera angles, limited ammunition available for weapons – that they had not experienced any innovation since that series’ first game in 1996. These mechanical decisions placed quite a bit of control in the hands of game directors, as they could carefully dole out resources and dictate camera angles to heighten tension, but horror thrives on surprise and surprises were becoming rarer in the survival horror genre by the turn of the millennium.
Happily, Shinji Mikami was up to the challenge of innovating once again. Dino Crisis still included the tank controls of Resident Evil and lacked player camera control, but it took several significant steps away from its predecessors. The primary innovation is the movement from slow, lumbering opponents to agile, oversized predators. The game’s primary antagonists are velociraptors in the vein of those depicted by Jurassic Park. These creatures are fast, loud, and have the tendency to drop out of the ceiling or leap from bushes to ambush the protagonist in packs. Other dinosaurs are included – a massive T-Rex makes several memorable appearances as a boss – but the velociraptors act as a consistent reminder that the player should be constantly moving and adapting to his or her environment.
Dino Crisis is set on a dark, largely abandoned island home to a scientific experiment gone wrong. A scientist named Dr. Kirk has been leading a secret weapons project that resulted in dinosaurs being brought from the past to the present through a time rift and overrunning the facility. The player takes on the role of Regina, a military operative dropped into this environment with her squad. She is expected to investigate what is occurring on the island and extract survivors, if possible. The game’s themes are strongly reminiscent of the Resident Evil series, depicting governments engaged in dangerous, shadowy military experimentation with disastrous consequences; the manifestation of these consequences, though, is less apocalyptic and more in line with an action thriller.
In keeping with its greater emphasis on sudden bursts of action, Dino Crisis is the first game in Capcom’s survival horror stable to feature a type of quick time event. These sequences, in which the character is surprised and the player must rapidly press buttons to escape an instant death (regardless of Regina’s remaining health) would go on to become something of an irritating trope in games, but were very novel in 1999. Similar was the game’s insistence on depicting Regina’s health through her appearance rather than a clearly identified health gauge. If she was attacked often enough, she would develop a limp, start holding an arm against her wounds, and lose mobility; this serves to suggest diminishing health and gets players more invested in examining Regina’s physical state rather than consulting a menu screen or HUD for her stamina.
Not all of the game’s innovations were successful. The environments are arguably an improvement on Resident Evil, as they are fully modeled 3D polygons rather than static pre-rendered backgrounds; this permits pre-programmed camera movement along corridors or large rooms, but comes at the expense of some finer background detail. The dinosaur AI is also a qualified success. On the one hand, aggressive enemy behaviors are based on real-world predators like lions and tigers; on the other hand, Mikami had intended to develop more complex enemy AI that would rely on dinosaurs having consistent individual personalities working in tandem to ambush and defeat the armed protagonist. This was likely too ambitious for the hardware and the short time period in which Dino Crisis was developed, but it still makes one wonder what might have been.
Dino Crisis 2 (2000)
To fans’ surprise, a sequel to Dino Crisis was released only one year later. Equally surprising were the changes made to the franchise. Cosmetically, Dino Crisis 2 has more in common with the Resident Evil series than its direct predecessor – 3D modeled polygonal environments are replaced with pre-rendered backgrounds. These have the virtue of greater detail, but come at the expense of a mobile camera.
Rather than being another survival horror title, Dino Crisis 2 shifted genres to action. The roster of weapons and dinosaurs were expanded significantly, while ammunition was plentiful. Players were not expected to sneak past dinosaurs but were instead strongly guided towards directly engaging with them. A couple of other major gameplay changes increased the sense of action and adventure over survival horror: (1) dinosaur enemies would constantly spawn off-screen in many areas, ensuring that the player could never fully eliminate the threat from his or her environment, while (2) the ability to move while shooting placed a greater emphasis on mobility than Dino Crisis or Resident Evil had done.
The plot was relatively meager, if a touch audacious – an entire city has disappeared through a time portal and a squad of military operatives, called TRAT, is dispatched to investigate and save survivors. Accompanying them is Regina, the main character from Dino Crisis. As you’d expect, all goes wrong once the group enters the time pocket, discovering a city infested with dinosaurs. Soon, only a handful of heroes remain, including Regina and a TRAT soldier named Dylan. The plot takes a handful of surprising turns, involving some poorly outlined time paradoxes, but the narrative is more or less a vehicle for getting the player to new, exciting survival scenarios.
The scenarios themselves represent a major departure for this style of game. During one sequence, Dylan confronts a T-Rex with a tank. In another memorable setpiece, Regina must explore an underwater area using dive equipment. In the end, an orbital laser is used to strike down a marauding Giganotosaurus. These are significantly larger-scale action sequences than the survival horror genre was known for, and signaled the beginning of a wider revolution.
Resident Evil: Code Veronica would debut on the Dreamcast in 2000, featuring more gunplay than any earlier game in that series. A beta build of Resident Evil 4 from the early 2000s would quickly evolve into the action-heavy Devil May Cry franchise. Indeed, once it was finally released in 2005, Resident Evil 4 would itself reflect a much greater emphasis on action sequences than survival horror. Dino Crisis 2 seems like something of an oddity, coming at the end of the PlayStation console’s life cycle and departing so much from its predecessor, but it actually suggested a way forward for the genre.
Dino Crisis 3 (2003)
Even as Dino Crisis 2 set the stage for gaming’s action-horror hits of the 2000s, its own series’ future was far from certain. The conclusion of the second title hinted at a sequel that would deal with conflicted timelines, but fans received no such game. Instead, Dino Crisis 3 is a series reboot about dinosaurs on a space ship.
This was not always intended to be the case. In fact, Capcom had set about planning and developing Dino Crisis 3 shortly after releasing the preceding game in 2000. Recently unearthed rumors suggest that it would have been about dinosaurs appearing at various times in human history – due to the timeline instability – and Regina attempting to fight them. Early imagery of the game on a now-defunct website reveals dinosaurs wreaking havoc in a modern city, though other environments would likely have been present. Unfortunately, the game’s development was radically altered by a sense on the creative team that audiences would not enjoy sequences of cities being destroyed after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Capcom shifted the game’s setting to one that could not be connected at all with real-world events.
For players, this departure was thoroughly jarring. The plot and characters of the preceding games were entirely abandoned. The survival horror roots of the franchise, modified as they were by the heavily action-inspired Dino Crisis 2, were also jettisoned. Mobility was the primary new feature, as players took on the role of a marine exploring a seemingly abandoned space ship in 2548. One of the core gameplay elements was the player’s jet pack, which would permit vertical and horizontal movement across large, open spaces. The dinosaurs are also significantly revised – they are now fantastical creatures derived from dinosaur DNA, and have the ability to weaponize electricity.
In spite of these bizarre changes to a reasonably popular franchise, the third entry could still have been an intriguing experience; the plot, after all, had never been the primary draw for players in the Dino Crisis series. The game’s greatest failure, sadly, was its camera system. Rather than adhere to the medium’s rapidly developing standard of player-controlled camera perspectives, Dino Crisis 3 looked to the original Dino Crisis for inspiration. Environments were rendered in full 3D, so the camera was not static like that of Dino Crisis 2, but the motions of the camera in the third game run entirely contrary to the player’s actions. With platforming sections and large, open areas, the player needs to be able to rely on lining up his or her motions in a clear, “here to there” fashion; the camera in Dino Crisis 3 is apt to reorient itself in the opposite direction while the player is attempting one of these sequences, though, resulting in frequent and unavoidable character deaths. Given that the frequently, arbitrarily shifting camera angles also detract from gaining an awareness of the ship’s layout, even backtracking or puzzle-solving sections become tedious.
Dino Crisis 3 would go down as one of the medium’s more baffling fiascoes. The first two games in the series, despite only having a character and dinosaurs in common, were very successful releases for Capcom. A horrific historical event should have had no impact on a video game developer’s plans for an inherently ridiculous premise, but it seems that Capcom misread audience interest and dramatically reversed course on a series that was still developing a sense of its own identity. Of course, the mechanical issues would likely have cropped up regardless, and may owe more to Japanese developers being slow to adopt player-controlled cameras; this had worked well in two-dimensional environments or the slow-paced three-dimensional worlds of the PlayStation, but could not easily be adapted to fast-paced action games of the 2000s.
With its commercial popularity and a fairly simplistic premise, Dino Crisis was easy to adapt to other gameplay styles or alternative media. One of the earliest of these adaptations was a six-part manhua (Chinese comic) published in Hong Kong in 2000. Like other manhua, and unlike most Japanese manga, the series was depicted entirely in lush color panels. It is implied to be a direct adaptation of the first game’s plot, but numerous details are radically changed from the game to the comic version.
In its native medium, Dino Stalker is the most notable spin-off. It is a first-person shooter featuring a World War 2 pilot shot down over Pearl Harbor but somehow transported to the Mesozoic era prior to his death. Characters from Dino Crisis 2 are present, but the game is otherwise a standalone title. Interestingly, this is the third entry in an otherwise Resident Evil-focused spin-off series called Gun Survivor. An earlier title in that franchise was released on PlayStation in the United States as Resident Evil Survivor (2000), followed by a PlayStation 2 game, Resident Evil Survivor 2 – Code Veronica (2001); Dino Stalker would be followed by a fourth entry in the Gun Survivor series, Resident Evil: Dead Aim (2003). While these are all part of a unified first-person shooter series in Japan, they were localized to the United States as distinct games.
Shockingly, a 2003 mobile game in the Dino Crisis franchise called Dungeon in Chaos/Dino Crisis 3D was released by Capcom Mobile. It was, perhaps inexplicably, a first-person shooter designed for early consumer mobile phones. The game was an unsuccessful adaptation of its source material, though that’s hardly surprising given the technical restrictions of 2003-era mobile devices.
This entry was more successful than an earlier attempt, however. An adaptation of Dino Crisis to the GameBoy Color was in development during 2000, but was never released on the platform. Two GBC builds were created, it seems: one was similar to Capcom’s over-ambitious attempt to directly port the first Resident Evil game to Game Boy Color, while the other was a top-down two-dimensional engine built from the ground-up. Though both of these portable Dino Crisis titles were canceled (perhaps due to the difficulty in depicting large-scale dinosaurs without making the player character too small to see), the latter attempt’s engine would go on to form the basis for Resident Evil: Gaiden (2001). Much more information on this is available at Unseen64.
What do you think? What’s your favorite dinosaur in a Dino Crisis game? What’s your favorite bizarre bonus costume? Do you think the series could have evolved in a more successful direction after Dino Crisis 2? Let’s discuss this series in the comments below!