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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Crapshoot: The edutainment game about designing your own dinosaurs

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From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, a game two hundred million years in the making. No, wait. Sorry. A few months, maybe. One year tops. Is it kinda neat though? You bet Jurassic is!

Dinosaurs! Next to fluffy, sleepy kittens, officially the greatest animals of all time. Big! Dangerous! Much more intimidating before we found out about the feathers, but thought raptors were actually like the ones in Jurassic Park! Designasaurus—technically Designasaurus 2—is your chance to put your stamp on history, and be the 5,000,000th person to do the ‘Doyouthinkhesaurus’ joke. What luck!

Designasaurus is what happens when idiots get hold of time-travel technology. It’s an edutainment game—one sec while I blow the dust off the standard image, it’s been a while since we saw it…

…an edutainment game designed for kids. They’re not the idiots. The idiots are the scientists at the Designasaurus Research Foundation, who have accidentally lost the genetic code for the Gigantadon to the evil Max von Fusion. While he’s been arrested, saving everyone the trouble of tracking him down, it’s apparently deemed inappropriate to stick piano reeds under his fingernails until he just tells you where the hell he put them. Cue an epic chase through time, through the Jurassic, Cretaceous and Triassic periods to find the 16 pieces of the code and… wait, what exactly are the stakes here?

To save the world? Hmm. Not sure how this matters in the great scheme of things. I’m not sure that one dinosaur is going to make as much of a “political and military” difference as the DRF thinks, especially in the year 2500-and-a-bit. Yes, it can survive in multiple climates, but we have time machines and genetic engineering and guns. I think we can handle our enemies getting their hands on reptiles.

To help science? Well, it seems like a simpler approach would be to just use the time machine and just go pick one up if it’s ever existed before. Or maybe just send a raptor back to eat von Fusion before he scatters the pieces into the timestream. Paradoxes? Pffft. It’s not as if the butterfly effect is going to make much difference in the actual plan for sorting out this situation.

To teach kids about dinosaurs and shut up, it’s just a framing device for a silly edutainment game and you can’t expect too much from those for goodness’ sake? Well, kind of. I guess. To a point.

Rather than sending a hunter though, the DRF decides it’s a much better option to genetically modify its own dinosaur to both contaminate the time-stream and quite probably confuse them at some point in the future. While it can’t die, thanks to an emergency beam-out system, your custom atrocity can have kids, and nobody gives a damn if you eat every other dinosaur and poop out their bones.

Creating your own dinosaur is obviously the best bit. You can pick an existing one like the Allosaurus, Deinonychus or Triceratops if you want, but it’s far more fun to just rip all of those losers to pieces and create your own from the best bits. Here for example we have the tail of a Stegosaurus, the body and arms of an Iguanodon, and the wig of an esteemed barrister. Go, Dinosaur Lawyer!

Alternatively, you can look elsewhere for inspiration. Here for instance is an attempt to recreate ancestors of Mass Effect’s Krogan. Meet Urdnot Rex. Who exists solely for that pun.

Sent back in time, your dinosaur has to survive 16 increasingly dangerous time periods. The goal is simple—find the genetic plans that have been dropped somewhere on the map, and get back to the teleporter. 

Why you have to do this last bit when your dinosaur can be beamed out at a whim, or why you only send one dinosaur instead of a whole herd of Dontfuckwithusaurses, I have no idea, but that’s why I’m not some genetic engineer from the future. Amongst other, more pragmatic reasons, obviously.

Survival isn’t desperately complicated. You have to keep your dinosaur fed, watered, and not crushed by herds or eaten by carnivores. The parts you chose determine whether it’s a herbivore, eating trees and vegetation, a carnivore who’ll have to hunt for dinner, or an omnivore who’ll technically eat anything and can therefore fully appreciate the joy of a good plate of steak and chips. Go, evolution!

It’s not exactly a hardcore simulation. Dinosaurs that would hunt in packs, like Coelophysis, will happily take a solo pop at a much larger predator, cannibalism is perfectly acceptable, and the typically fish-eating Pteranodon really want to put the ‘sore arse’ in ‘saurus’. Fighting consists of entering combat mode and spamming the attack key. This being edutainment, there’s very little gore or detail, but here’s an authentic simulation of what one of those epic battles might have looked like.

One minor issue with the genetics side of the game is that while you’d think there’d be some challenge in balancing different pieces for a dinosaur with strengths and weaknesses… well, to hell with that. Every piece updates a straight rating with a value like “Excellent” and it takes about five seconds to come out with history’s ultimate arse-kicker. This is another piece of evidence in favour of just writing the Gigantadon off until von Fusion gets bored of solitary confinement. As edutainment villains go, Carmen Sandiego he is not. I bet he doesn’t even have his own catchy theme song or anything.

As ever with edutainment, the first thing to test is whether or not it’s taken any steps to avoid things every kid will try, and how funny it is when it inevitably fails. In this case, it’s not that hard, especially when it’s reporting your failure to do something like protect a nest.

Unlike many edutainment games, Designasaurus does at least offer a solid amount of ‘tainment’ with its ‘edu’, and it’s fun to mess around with. It has a few nice features, like being able to print out your dinosaurs, and the added hilarity of later levels developing into almost bullet-hell levels of crap to wade through. 

Then there’s the reveal of the Gigantodon—which turns out to be the crazed drawing of a teenage boy, more or less. In the distant past, it would be a force to be reckoned with. Now, I just wonder what it would taste like after being shot with a sniper rifle and served up with a generous helping of chips. Victory, I assume. Victory, and probably chicken.

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