Not-so-terrible lizards

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Sometimes the simple ideas really are the best, like “Arcade zombie action but also an English lesson” or “What would happen if you blended Yumimi Mix Remix together with The Flintstones?”.

Game ArtsDinosaur Island is the cheery result of the latter, a setting where dinosaurs and humans peacefully coexist and regularly perform completely normal real-world tasks together (anything from a quick jog to construction work), people able to gently influence their prehistoric pals with skilful music playing. The story we’re told within this charming setting revolves around Emily Ito and her nonidentical twin Angie, two schoolgirls just getting on with their not-quite-ordinary education in an extraordinary world. This scenario – the school, the fun lead and her strange friends, the One Weird Thing that turns so many normal events on their head – will all feel very familiar to those coming to this from Yumimi Mix (do make sure you keep an eye out for the various visual nods to that earlier work tucked away in here), but if you’re going to stick to a formula, it may as well be one that’s as easy to enjoy as this is.

A formula that’s as beautiful as this too: Izumi Takemoto‘s unmistakeable style looks vibrant and clean whether we’re being treated to the sight of an out of control dinosaur rushing through a school or a close-up of Emily singing, every scene a treasure trove of gorgeous lines and bright colours. I want to make something very clear here – not a single second of Dinosaur Island, from the very beginning right up to the adorable “Thank you for playing” message found at the end of the end credits, uses FMV footage. Every motion you see is a layer of pixel art, the happy combination of talent, effort, and the Saturn’s famous ease with anything 2D bringing this endless parade of small details and bespoke animations to life. I honestly can’t think of anything that comes close to matching the game’s astonishing level of visual polish now, never mind back then.

Sound sadly plays second fiddle to the lavish artwork (just as it did in Yumimi Mix) and once again the chirpy music will sometimes drown out an embarrassed mumble or hurried conversation, made all the worse by the lack of subtitles to smooth over these audio wobbles – which in turn make the game unplayable, or at least largely plotless, if you’re unable to play undisturbed with the volume up. The one bit of good news here is that even on your first play you can pause or save at any point, as well as go back and re-watch something you’ve just seen Emily do before skipping ahead through anything you’ve already seen. These voluntary skips backwards and forwards in time happen in a linear fashion, always jumping just a few seconds ahead or behind your current position in the story between individual camera changes rather than ploughing right on through entire plot threads.

Which may sound like a recipe for disaster in a game that’s all story, all the time: What sort of quality tale lets you put it down in the middle of an important event or go back over something you’ve just seen the way TV shows… and movies… and radio dramas… and books… and comics do? The answer is of course “Dinosaur Island” – and this is where we find one of the rare times self-defined genre labels really do matter: The game’s spine card explicitly states this is an interactive comic – not a “find the weird item in one place to use somewhere else” adventure game or a dense visual novel – and was always intended to be treated as such. It’s a comic that embraces its digital home with aplomb, pausing the light-hearted mayhem at irregular intervals to bring up two or three potential reactions or decisions for Emily to pick from, and unlike certain games these all have a genuine impact on what happens next. If you decide Emily and friends are going to the lake rather than the jungle then they really do go to the lake – and they stay there until that little plot thread’s concluded. Pick the ukulele over the flute or the trumpet and Emily will keep and use that specific instrument in every scene she’s shown playing or holding an musical object from that moment on. No eyeroll inducing “I’m sorry, can you say that again?” dialogue loops until you pick the “correct” option or “Are you serious?! We can’t possibly do [That Thing You Just Picked]!” railroading down a single path here – and no wrong choices either. Dinosaur Island has no sudden “bad ends” whatsoever, making every decision an enjoyable opportunity to pick between silly or even sillier outcomes: do you press the hidden red button on the beach that clearly must not be pressed, or do you help haul an enormous clam onto the shore and find out what’s inside instead? Do you even go to the beach at all?

There is one inevitable sacrifice made to bring you this spectacularly animated adventure – length. Dinosaur Island’s very short by anyone’s standards – a beginning-to-end playthrough took me about an hour and a half, and that includes the time I spent watching a few optional character introductions, pausing to marvel at the layering techniques frequently used to give scenes depth or a sense of movement, and to tweet out a few of my favourite screenshots – but even though the game had finished before others have barely begun I didn’t come away from it feeling short-changed, I felt spoiled. Dinosaur Island’s care and artistry feel like craftsmanship; every frame something to be treasured, each so perfectly thought out it’s always worth checking them again to spot the nameless background character comically clutching an archway 10ft in the air as a dinosaur rampages through the school, or to appreciate the fine detail in something as simple as correctly coloured AV cables hanging out the back of Emily and Angie’s TV. As brief as the cheery little story may be it suits the time available perfectly – it’s cute, it’s engaging, and then it’s done. Dinosaur Island doesn’t make the mistake of trying to spread itself too thinly for the sake of being the “right” length or pretend there’s some deeper mood-skewering message beyond “Wouldn’t it be a lot of fun to be friends with cartoon dinosaurs?” – being friends with cartoon dinosaurs would be a lot of fun, and the game explores that pleasant concept as thoroughly as anyone needs to. I felt happy when I was playing it, even audibly giggled in a few places, and I came away from it with a smile on my face. Dinosaur Island may not be clever, or “worthy”, or good value for money, or even all that unique – but I definitely had a better day for playing it, and I can’t say that about many other games.

[Your kind support via Ko-fi made this post a reality. Thank you so much!]

2 thoughts on “Not-so-terrible lizards

  1. “Let’s make a game which costs lots to make, takes almost time to play, and offers almost no gameplay!” The 90s were great!

    Ahh, now I want to play this again with a translation FAQ! I love the art so much but never knew what was being said. Wonderful article!

    Like

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