Inside Pulse 12

Playing the Lame, Vol. 2

Hello hello, and welcome to another exciting, fun-filled installment of Playing the Lame!

Gee, that sounded so sincere in my head.

Anyway, I’m Mark, here once again to bring you the cream of the crap, as it were. I’d have finished this up earlier, but I had to go back and play around with the game a bit, as some of my memories were a touch fuzzy regarding certain parts, so if it ends up being up later then Wednesday, it’s because I ARE DUMB.

I’m also back to playing FFXI (Final Fantasy XI) thanks to the free beta being provided by OXM (Official Xbox Magazine). It’s nice to see Microsoft lining up a MMO for the 360, though why they’d go for FFXI in specific is slightly questionable… given the choice, I’d imagine games like World of Warcraft or City of Heroes/Villains would be a better choice. Then again, FFXI’s stolen a year of my life now, so maybe I’m not the guy to question such a choice. Anyway, expect a preview as soon as I can bang it out.

Nothing else new otherwise, so let’s get to the lameness.

LINKAGE:

Tom Pandich discusses his new car and bad licensed games in Gaming Zen. Strictly for the record, you could also look up Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City (horrible platformer where Jordan fights monsters to save teammates), Spice World (no explanation needed), or Lethal Weapon (Danny Glover’s got KICKS!) to satiate such desires. Of course, the revelation that Tom played Shaq Fu and didn’t take his own life makes my admiration of him all the greater.

Lucard reviewed Samurai Shodown 5, and liked it quite a bit. I’m absolutely hideous at SamSho games, but I’ll still be hitting the store to pick this one up. That he compared the mid-boss battle to fighting off marines while drunk dissuades me not even the slightest bit; I enjoy the abuse. Oh, and it bears noting that SamSho5 doesn’t work on 360; I’m listening to proof positive of this screaming in my ear at this moment.

James Hatton not only rocks with the rabble, but also with the Marvel News. That new Spider-Man costume made me throw up in my mouth a little, though.

Kennedy (not doing the joke again this week) reviewed The Aristocrats, and now I want to see it. Dammit.

gloomchen discusses hair bands, booze, and being disrespected by the deaf. Pure gold.

PLAYING THE LAME, VOLUME 2.

Name of the offending title: Dinotopia: The Sunstone Odyssey (henceforth referred to as Dinotopia)
What system was this forced upon: Xbox, Gamecube (There’s a GBA game too, and a couple for the PC, but I neglected to put myself through those, for obvious reasons.)
Who was responsible for this crap: TDK
Date this abomination was foisted upon us: August 3rd, 2003.

I couldn’t find a picture of the title screen. My apologies.

When I was eight years old, I had this thing about dinosaurs. I guess a lot of kids liked them, but I liked them A LOT. I wanted to be an archeologist, I had dinosaur bed sheets and curtains, and my favorite toy in the whole wide world was my Grimlock Transformer (dinosaurs plus robots equals nirvana when you’re a kid). Of course times change; I collect Spider-Man figures now, and I’m more content to go to college to learn how to fix computers instead of how to dig up ancient bones, but even so, dinosaurs still hold a special place in my heart.

And games like this drown that special place in bile and feces.

Dinotopia, for the uninitiated, is based on a series of books and made for TV movies/shows about people who co-exist with dinosaurs. The movie and TV series have received several awards, but were a “blink and you’ll miss it” experience, largely because the movie is rarely played on TV, and the series lasted all of one season before being cancelled. I’ve not had the opportunity to expose myself to the wonders of these televised efforts, and I lack the interest in hunting down the books, but I have to honestly believe that Dinotopia, as a franchise, has at least some merit.

I have to assume this, of course, because while Dinotopia the game is a horribly lame piece of work, the franchise continues to make money. Granted, financial viability isn’t exactly an indication of quality (Ragnarok Online continues to make a profit despite simultaneously being a broken experience and a breeding ground for assholes), but I’m willing to make the logical leap here, if only because I feel it would take entirely too long to go look for the shows/read the books, thus delaying this column. You might think I am perhaps too lazy, and that would also be a valid assessment, but hey, my column, I’ll rationalize it however I want. To paraphrase “The Big Chill”, “Rationalizations are more important than sex”.

And I have now paraphrased Jeff Goldblum twice in one article. So long as I can avoid quoting “Independence Day” and “Earth Girls are Easy” I’ll be okay.

On the other side of the coin, TDK is a well-known name, though what it’s known for isn’t exactly flattering. See, TDK is best known as a “one-off” product manufacturer; with the exception of their CDRW drives, their reputation is that of a second-class media manufacturer. Which is not to say that they ONLY make such things; they also produce American DVD’s of foreign films… well, foreign musicals, mostly. I guess it’s good to know that “I Puritani”, “Appartement”, and “Die Fledermaus” are seeing release stateside, but I’m not really interested in watching a musical about a secondary Tick character. Anyway, point being, it’s not much of a stretch to assume that a second-class product maker would manufacture second-class video games, which isn’t far from the truth.

Their best game to date was Robotech: Battlecry. When that’s your BEST game, you’re pretty much screwed.

So we’re dealing with a franchise that had no notable exposure to speak of, and a publishing company with entirely the wrong kind. It’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that a game born from such a union would be mediocre, uninspiring, or god forbid, bland… but words that weak don’t really describe the lack of quality that’s on display here. Dinotopia is such a comedy of errors on every single level that the whole experience comes together into an artistic masterpiece of suck, equivalent to if Pablo Picasso, under a fit of explosive diarrhea, created a “Brown Period” in his artistic history. It really wouldn’t matter how great the product was, though we already understand it’s not good… but the medium in which it’s rendered removes any sort of enjoyment we could otherwise glean from the piece.

Wow. That was a hell of a lot of writing to say something sucks. I think I let that get away from me. Oh well.

A BRIEF LAYOUT OF “DINOTOPIA”:

You spend your time in Dinotopia playing as Drake Gemini, one of two sons of the recently deceased Jonas Gemini. Jonas, it seems, was trying to find some Arctivus Longevus, a root that grows in the Rainy Basin on the island, when he was eaten by a dinosaur. I tell ya, I hate it when that happens. Son Drake decides to defend Dinotopia, at the prior request of his dad, whereas son Jacob decides he really wants to kick some dinosaur ass and joins a revolutionary group. Both are visited by their father’s friend Castor Pollux (sounds like some sort of irregularity medicine), who decides to train both of them in the art of combat (yes, both, even though Jacob makes it plainly apparent he has every intention of destroying every dinosaur on the island… probably not the best idea) before sending them out into the world. Drake is now tasked with being a Guardian, basically the Dinotopian equivalent of the police, as his father made both sons promise to protect the island before he became Tyrannosaurus droppings. To aid him in his quest, Drake has various and sundry items he will acquire, as well as weapon upgrades and armor, if he manages to complete the numerous tedious fetch quests to get them. He will also learn all sorts of… okay, two or three… combination attacks to vary up his arsenal. Will it be enough to save the island? Will it be enough to keep you from falling asleep?

Probably not, but let’s give it the old college try, yeah?

WHY THIS GAME SUCKS:

The introductory sequence really spells out what’s wrong with this game from the word go: poor graphics, terrible writing, bland gameplay. We’ll touch on the graphics and gameplay in a bit, but the writing deserves special attention at the moment, because the first, oh, five minutes of the game basically serve as a way to make the player scratch his head and go “huh?”

So, Drake and Jacob have radically different ideas on how to live their lives. Drake wants to defend Dinotopia, Jacob wants to destroy it, more or less. Castor Pollux shows up and says, “Hey kids, let’s learn martial arts!” Both Drake and Jacob make their intentions known, and Jacob is obviously going to hurt a lot of innocents with his desires. So yeah, sure, let’s train him to be a killing machine, why not? When he burns down Town Hall we can cry and wonder where we went wrong.

The actual dialogue isn’t much better; the entire conversation between Castor, Drake, and Jacob is pure pain both from an aural and a dialogue perspective. The voice acting is all kinds of terrible; both Drake and Jacob sound like the Scottish Groundskeeper in the Simpsons mixed with Adrian Paul with a cold. The actual dialogue is what really takes this game into the realms of laughable badness, though. The introductory conversation with Jacob, Drake, and Castor where Jacob goes on a tirade against Dinotopia and the blind dinosaur their father rode around on (“ya know, he was doing her a favor as much as she was doin’ for ‘im”) is laugh out loud funny, for all the wrong reasons. After Drake learns how to fight, Jacob and Drake go back and forth with veiled threats (“If I were you, I’d be careful”), insults (Scalawag, Noodle-head), then finally, attempts at making up:

“We might not see eye to eye on this, but you are my brother, and I still care about you.”
“Thanks… good-bye.”

Oh yeah, Shakespeare baby. It’s not even that the game is written for kids, mind you… it’s that the game, no matter what age-group it’s written for, is just written BADLY. Everything I’ve seen about the game indicates that this is a problem with the game specifically and not the franchise, so apparently TDK paid so much cash up front buying the license that they only had enough money left to hire the wino behind the building to write the scripts.

Or maybe they were just lazy and I’m over-analyzing things.

So, Mister Pollux, who is apparently only visiting the location he’s in when you find him, has misplaced his “favorite glass rocks” in the back of the cave (all of three screens away) and asks you to get them, because he’s an old lazy bastard. So you go to the back of the cave to retrieve them and AH RAPTOR ATTACK!

Okay, it’s not a raptor (more like an overgrown Compsognathus), but there’s still no reason for some random dinosaur to attack you in your own house, or someone else’s, for that matter.

So, you return with Castor’s “glass rocks” (marbles, maybe?), which Drake announces in such a fashion that I wanted to reach through the screen and smack the shit out of him. There’s a fine line between being a do-gooder and being smug about it. Keep that up Drake and I’m going to drop you off a cliff. Castor responds to this by giving you your first experience with one of the island’s wonderfully enlightened sayings, “Breathe deep and smoke beef.”

Okay, so I screwed it up. It’s “Breathe deep and seek peace”, but I like my way better. It’s not like it’s not trying to be “May the Force be with you”, I don’t see why I have to treat it with any respect.

So, upon returning home, you learn two things that you will continue to learn for the remainder of the game: that the harvest was apparently good this year, and that everyone loves your skills as a Guardian, despite your having done pretty much nothing of note (what with you having only learned to fight like five minutes ago). Regarding this, you will literally hear the lines “The Harvest was good this year” and “Thank goodness for a guardian like you!” no less than eight thousand times throughout the course of the game, if you talk to every NPC you see. And I don’t mean varied versions of these lines, I mean those exact same lines of dialogue, from different voice actors, over and over again, ad infinitum.

Knowing that the harvest was good really means absolutely nothing to anyone, but it’s nice to see that everyone has such faith in you despite your lack of doing anything. It’s also great to note that the dinosaur in the first town sounds like that old robot voice program that came with Soundblaster sound cards. You know, where you’d type something in and he’d try to pronounce it? That a voice in Dinotopia reminds me of such things is only slightly less amusing than making that program say whatever profane words I could come up with at the time.

It’s also worth noting that the graphics are all sorts of visually disagreeable… they’re not really ugly or glitchy so much as they are bland, repetitious, and odd. Aside from seeing doors, grass, plants et al that are basically just flat images instead of actual things rendered into the world, most of the environments are highly repetitive and you’ll find yourself getting lost on more than a few occasions. Add to this the fact that when dinosaurs speak their jaws move, but when humans speak they don’t, and you’ll realize pretty quickly that this game just screams “primitive”. That sort of look can be acceptable if the game does something worthwhile to counter-balance the ugliness, but you’re not going to find anything to justify the angular heads and noticeable polygons here.

Anyway, you’ll eventually meet another former Guardian, go through a lame test of your mental acumen (a fetch quest), and be provided with a ton of unnecessary dialogue, as well as a stone mallet head. At this point in the game you really start to see the major failing point of the story: it wants to be so much more than it could possibly ever hope to be. Characters discuss personal philosophy like it was dinner table small talk, and you’re constantly beat about the head with college level stoner wisdom whilst being told to seek enlightenment and not to act in anger and whatnot. At this point in the game, fortunately, the rhetoric is largely inoffensive, and the worst you’ll be forced to endure is a monologue about how your weapon is an enemy, even to you.

Lady, my weapon is a stick with a stone on it. And it’s not even a sharp stone. Unless I bash my own face in with it, I’m fairly certain it’s not going to pull a heel turn halfway through Act 3 and try to break my arm, okay?

You’ll also be given first hand experience in one of the major failings of the actual game: over-reliance on fetch quests. Instead of giving the player anything interesting to do, most of your objectives boil down to “go here find this bring it back” or “go here find this use it yourself”. And that’s just the primary quests; secondary quests mirror this dynamic, only they stay within their specified zones, so many times you’ll find yourself doing a fetch quest while doing a fetch quest. Sunstones, apples, veggies, fruits, all will be collected in your quest to actually find something redeeming in this experience, not unlike digging through a landfill to find valuables.

At this point you’re given your first task: clear the hatchery of villainous villains. There are so many ridiculous things present in this section that I don’t know where to begin. The dinosaur who is apparently a farmer, despite his small and stumpy arms? The fact that the matriarch of the dinosaur hatchery is a human? The fact that the villains poisoned the matriarch and kept an antidote conveniently nearby instead of, I don’t know, braining her on sight? Or, my personal favorite, the poorly armed group of humans chasing down an Ankylosaurus?

Think about that for a minute. An adult Ankylosaurus is estimated to weigh around 4 tons, and measure around 30 feet in length and 6 feet in width. Its back is lined with bony plates covered in spikes, it has bony plates around its eyes, horns on its head for close combat, and a giant bone club attached to the end of its tail. If the damn thing can run down the hill screaming for help while poorly armored humans with sticks chase after, screaming “Shut up ya scaly, or we’ll pound YOU,” (emphasis theirs) it must be intelligent enough to know that it’s in no danger to speak of whatsoever. What are its assailants going to do? Beat on it until it gets bored and falls asleep? Not like said dinosaur couldn’t just mash them to paste by flicking his tail a little. I don’t care how much of a pacifist you are, if someone’s trying to beat you to death, and you’re an unstoppable death tank, you’re eventually going to do SOMETHING other than run like hell.

Watching Drake pound the hell out of said assailants immediately following this was actually rather depressing. I may be unaware of some sort of code of laws that the book may expound upon further than the game did, but all I get from seeing something like this is that TDK has no idea what in the holy hell they’re doing.

The game gets no better from here, sadly. You’ll eventually be forced to go off into other locations to find other former Guardians, including a giant sloth (I swear to god) who tests your enlightenment by making you fight a half an hour long boss battle. Seriously. It’s not difficult or anything, but beating on the same old guy in samurai armor (as in ancient Japanese samurai, yes) for half an hour really wears on your patience. Afterwards you’ll be sent off to find a mechanical strutter that appears to have been cobbled together from parts of an erector set, take flight on a pterodactyl across a poorly rendered valley while trying to avoid crashing into the walls around you (and failing), and negotiating through the ancient ruins of a previous civilization that’s overrun with raptors in war party gear. Trying to mentally understand how any civilization could be more ancient than the dinosaurs is only slightly more frustrating than trying to understand why the raptors don’t seem to speak any English.

It’s around this point that I lost all interest in continuing with my “adventure”, unfortunately enough. Perhaps one day I shall return to brave the world of Dinotopia once again, but frankly, I’m not too terribly interested in finding out how the story ends, and nor, I suspect, are you. Entry level Freudian bullshit combined with an uninteresting “uphold the peace of this… peaceful land”-meets-“brothers divided” storyline does not an interesting game concept make, and when combined with ugly graphics, painful voice acting, and boring fetch quests, your experience will largely be one of forcing yourself to complete the game instead of actually enjoying anything presented to you.

WHY THIS GAME REALLY SUCKS:

The major problem with a game like Dinotopia is that it’s what can neatly be qualified as a “sniveling little game”, IE a game that has no reason to exist, fulfills no needs, and serves no purpose. Were the game not to exist, no one would notice or care. It’s based on a license not many people even know of, let alone care about, in a genre over-saturated with titles far superior to it.

Want a good action game for kids? Ratchet and Clank, Jax, Psychonauts, Sly Cooper, Spyro, Blinx 2 (barely)… you get the point. Want something with a license your kids can relate to? There are two Spider-Man titles on GCN and Xbox that are leaps and bounds (no pun intended) above this game, and the various Harry Potter and Narnia titles, though not spectacular, are worlds removed from this drek. Want something with dinosaurs? Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis is worlds more fun than this, and about as easy to find (Gamestop and Amazon.com have it available, as does Ebay).

Or, better yet, go to a museum and see a dinosaur exhibit, read a book (Dinotopia, if you must) about dinosaurs, watch “The Land Before Time”… if there are dinosaurs anywhere near the activity, there stands a very good chance that whatever it is, it’s better than this game.

Dinotopia is a completely unneeded title that treats its subject matter like garbage, makes little to no sense, and is narcolepsy-inducing. If that statement doesn’t sum it up, nothing will.

WHERE IT COULD HAVE BEEN IMPROVED:

Well, unlike last week, there’s actually a framework here that could be worked around. We’re not going to get GOTY out of this, but given a little hypothetical elbow grease, I’m pretty sure I could turn this into a mediocre piece of work. Let’s see here…

First off, fire all the voice actors. Either hire voice actors that sound like they actually know how to act, or make the whole damn thing text-based. Considering that none of the humans have moving facial parts, it’d probably be cheaper to make the game text-based, but for the sake of quality, let’s hire new actors and re-record everything.

Second, hire a writer who knows how to write. The dialogue in the game is hideous; you could translate War and Peace into Spanish and back twenty times, using Babblefish, and come up with something more entertaining than what you’ve got here. Also, the random dialogue is bland and uninteresting the first time you hear it. By the twentieth time someone says “The harvest was good this year”, you’re about ready to eject the game from your console and Frisbee-toss it out the window.

Third, clean up the textures. Renovating the entire graphics engine is probably too much to ask, but polishing everything up so it doesn’t look like bitmaps over polygons shouldn’t be too much to ask for, I don’t think. I doubt we’d be able to make the human characters look like they’re speaking, unfortunately, but some things aren’t possible save for complete reprogramming.

Fourth, try and add some sort of depth to the combat system. Add in some extra combat moves, maybe some with a little more flash, and vary up the animations based on the club head you’re using. In-game, you get the stone club head before you’ve been given any chance to use the wood club head; instead of having a useless combat option in the game, let’s try to make each of the club heads useful, or failing that, space out the upgrades a bit more.

And finally, take about half of those fetch quests, find the guy who thought they were a good idea, then ram the planning documentation up his ass. There exists this wonderful invention of the past few years called “mini-games” that would be more than capable of simultaneously entertaining the player while reducing the amount of redundant crap that goes on in the game.

And there you have it. Six months of coding to produce a title that would most likely fall into the “above average” category as opposed to the shitstorm we’re looking at today. Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? And I’m not even getting paid for this.

WHERE YOU CAN GET IT:

Most specialty gaming stores have this available at low prices (according to the front of my copy, I bought it for $5), and barring that you could probably buy it from their websites. Blockbuster and Gamefly also most likely have the game available for rental, in case you’re not quite ready to own something so poor.

CLOSING COMMENTS:

Few bad games truly depress me with their lameness; most are simply mediocre titles that had no right seeing the light of day, or are MST3K bad and can be laughed at appropriately. When I see a terrible title with a perfectly acceptable (or not so) license attached to it, I can usually shrug, sigh, and play it without any sort of disappointment. But in the case of something like this, the little dinosaur loving kid inside me weeps openly at the existence of such an abuse of what should be a perfectly fun game. That the game is given something that could be cool by proxy is depressing; that the game openly sucks and makes no attempt to hide this, well, that’s par for the course.

And then I remember the Jurassic Park fighting game, and somehow, I don’t feel so bad.

See you next time with more bad gaming, and remember, I’m Mark B. and you’re not.

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