Genre: 1-on-1 Fighting
Release Date: 1992
Platform: Arcade, PS2 (Japan only)
Director: Takatsuna Senba
In 1990, game designer Takatsuna Senba led a team to create a vertical shooting game called Gun Frontier for Taito. This was Senba’s first crack at designing and producing simultaneously, as he had previously worked as designer on 1989’s Darius II. Senba was able to complete this game on time an under budget despite the precarious circumstances of its development.
After Gun Frontier, Senba and his crew made the incredible Metal Black, initially conceptualized as a sequel to Gun Frontier.
After Metal Black they team immediately started planning a dinosaur-themed shooting game with helicopters (note: a game with this exact specification would be released by SNK and Yumekobo in 1999: Prehistoric Isle 2). This made sense since the team obviously had the talent for shooters and classic dinosaur movies like Valley of Gwangi, One Million Years BC, and The Land That Time Forgot were seeing a resurgence of popularity due to VHS releases and television screenings (it’s worth noting that worldwide dino-mania hadn’t begun yet with Jurassic Park still more than a year away).
However, that plan changed quickly since 1991 brought a watershed title to the gaming medium: Street Fighter II.
And thus, Taito bigwigs demanded Dino Rex switch genres from shmup to fighting game. Now, this in and of its itself isn’t a bad idea (1994’s Primal Rage was able to create a multimedia franchise on the concept), but it’s clear this mid-development switch, coupled with a time crunch and a team completely inexperienced in fighting games wouldn’t work out. At this point in time, the only major fighting game experts in Japan (and thus, the world) were at Capcom and SNK (and most SNK’s staff were ex-Capcom!).
The development itself was grueling, with a small staff and some sub contractors working under a tight deadline. The end result of the development lead to Senba stepping down from his role at Taito as he couldn’t deliver the game on time due to the specifications and clashed with the requirements placed on the development team.
Dino Rex was released in 1992 on the Taito F2 Sytem arcade board. The game has 6 playable characters, 7 stages, and a few small beat em up sequences between the fights.
What makes the game unique and memorable is its theme and aesthetics- the on screen characters and giant dinosaurs being handled by whip-wielding commanders (think the Rancor and his handler from Return of the Jedi). These massive dinosaurs are rendered in a digitzed stop motion style (previously used by Reikai Dōshi and later used by Primal Rage, Mortal Kombat, and The Neverhood).
Despite being released in the 90s, Jurassic Park had not yet released, popularizing the more paleontologically correct dinosaur poster and anatomy that is commonplace now. Instead, these dinosaurs are upright, lumbering, tail-dragging creatures evocative of the illustrations of Charles R. Knigh and the stop motion films of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Karel Zeman and the like.
The stop motion effect was achieved by Senba himself, who built puppets and photographed them on a blank background to later digitize them into player sprites. This was done presumably to save time and money but also leads to an incredibly impressive dinosaur game with an unabashedly retro feel. The perfect companion piece to a vintage dinosaur movie marathon!
Until recently, I assumed these were original models crafed for the game, but given the game’s low budget nature, I was somewhat suspicious that such high quality sculpts would be made originally for this title. After some digging I was able to find some evidence that points to at least SOME of the dinosaurs possibly being modified versions of existing dinosaur toys and model kits from Japan. The allosaurus, for example appears to be based off of Kaiyodo’s unlicensed Gwangi model kit.
The soundtrack features a lot of percussion- shakers, hand drums, woodblock, claps, and more alongside midi horns, windpipes, and xylophone. It gives an earthy, naturalistic vibe punctuated by thundering footsteps and monster howls that would feel right at home in a film like Planet of Dinosaurs.
The backgrounds are lush and filled with detail. Ancient stadium seating is filled with cheering onlookers clad in loin cloths and fur bikinis while a monarch sits in a throne fanned by his servants. Pterodactyls flutter by and dust and smoke billow as the creatures destroy pottery, dinosaur cages, and entire walls of the stadium. Storms brew, volcanoes boil, and the darkness of the rainforest surrounds soem stages. When you defeat your opponent another dinosaur will fly or run in and eat their human handler. It’s really quite beautiful, and the stages that takes place in “modern times” are just as impressively deatiled.
So with all this gushing about the aesthetics of Dino Rex, reality really has to come crashing down with the gameplay. Notice how I said the game had a tight deadline and inexperienced staff in an age before Street Fighter II set the standard for how a 2D fighting game ought to be? Well, it really shows.
The dinosaurs move in a standard 2D plane with a joystick for movement and two attack buttons. Jumping is handled by pressing the two attack buttons together- awkward, but it allows for joystick motions that dont force the player to jump (like 360 motions a la Zangief). These joystick motions are extremely non standard and tricky to pull off. Some of them involve pointing the joystick UP and that circling around to the FORWARD motion in an awkward 270 degree circle. Others involve holding the joystick BACK for a moment and then flicking it forward while mashing button 1.
These motions aren’t impossible to pull off, but you might hear a lot of criticism that the game is “unrespnosive”- and that’s because you can only perform these moves as long as you have power stocks that the game neglects to mention. Once your three power stocks drain, you need to refill them by roaring, which leave you completely vulnerable. This is another interesting idea that could’ve been served by better execution.
Another oddity of this game is that characters cannot switch sides of the arena- if you end up on the other side of you opponent, the game takes control from you and the two dinos calmly walk back to their respective sides and the fight resumes. This is the only fighting game I know of that does this.
When the game is at its best you will see dinosaurs launch each other into piles of bones or stadium walls and then spend their power stock on a follow up combo attack where their dinosaur pounces on its prey and tumbles with it like a real animal on the hunt. It’s fun and flashy, but unfortunately it looks better than it plays.
Inbetween fights you’ll get story sequences where a character recalls a dream of each dinosaur in modern times- these play as beat em up stages as you walk forward destroying police & private military cars, helicopters and buildings to chase down and destroy a rich mogul named Mr. Ho Lee. It turns out that these dream sequences piece together the history of the world and reveals that this game doesn’t take place in the past, but in the future when dinosaurs return and destroy civilization (not unlike the story of Primal Rage!). This is when the game shifts from “The Lost World” and into the realm of “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.” The game ends with you overthrowing the fattened ruler of this prehistoric world and claiming the title of “Dino Rex” for yourself- first by defeating his dinosaur and then by beating him in a fist fight. In a final twist, you are revealed to be the hero from Taito’s previous Rastan series of games. The narrative is riddled with engrish and odd typos, but is so bizarre and entertaining that it’s easy to overlook. It’s also pretty explicitly anti-capitalist, and depicts Mr. Ho Lee as a cartoony characature unique from any other character in the game. I wonder if Senbu was influenced by marxism and if his other works have similar political subtext.
Dino Rex didn’t receive a home port for 15 years until Taito Memories II Jokan was released for the PS2 in 2007. Unfortunately this was released in Japan only, and to this day Dino Rex has never seen a home release anywhere outside of Japan. It’s a shame as the game is a neat curio, but due to it never solidifying as a cult classic, I doubt we’ll see it available any time soon. Hamster has released a handful of Taito games through their Arcade Archives line, but don’t hold your breath for this title. It’s fairly easy to emulate on MAME or FB Alpha so that’s really the only way to enjoy it outside of finding an aracde cabinet. The last notable release regarding Dino Rex was a soundtrack release in 2012 containing music from Senba’s three games called GUN FRONTIER/METAL BLACK/DINO REX Sound Tracks for Digital Generation ~GameMusic Discovery Series~. This soundtrack release also has a DVD containing “digest” versions of each game as the three are colloquially known as the “Gun Frontier Trilogy.” It’s a shame, as this is an incredibly unique game with a visual style way ahead of its time. I hope some day it gets the respect it deserves!