Dino Crisis - a retrospective

I am extremely bullish about Dino Crisis. I genuinely think it’s the best horror game ever made.

By Ben Spring aka on Twitter @benedict_spring

In the next few paragraphs I’ll tell you why, but if I had to explain myself in one word? Lasers. You see, when there’s a ravenous, gorgeously animated dino barreling thunderously up the gleaming, live-rendered corridor towards you, if you’re plumb out of ammo, you have another option.

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Just flick on a laser fence. Ker-click, goes the switch. Zuhm, go the lasers. Hiss, goes the dinosaur. You wait, your grin growing. The lizard hits the lasers. The most glorious combination of sounds ever pumped out of a PSX soundchip bursts from your TV speakers. There’s the low thrum of the beams. The harsh, sci-fi buzz of the shock. And crowning it all, the eardrum-scraping squeal of the charging raptor. Down it crashes. You turn off the beams. You run right over it’s scaly face, straight into the door it was guarding. Screw you, raptor. Okay, Ben, calm down, get some air.

What’s so great about all that overly florid description? Well, dear reader, that one cathartic moment represents everything Dino Crisis did right.

Level design that treads a perfect balance between linear and open, forcing you into tense encounters, in the narrow corridors those beams guarded. Graphics that milked every polygon the PS1 could render to create the insanely lifelike stalking of each of the game’s lethal enemies.

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The perfect art design, giving terrifying weight and threat to the animations and sounds of the dinos, contrasted perfectly again the cold, evocative near-future facility the game is set in, a perfect home for those vicious lasers. And true, punishing “survival panic”, as the marketing buffs liked to call it. You don’t use those fences for fun.

You use them because every single one of your questionably titled “Slag Bullets” and Anaesthetic Darts is a precious treasure, and the lasers let you scrape together another magazine-ful. There are other points to make, like how seamlessly the lasers fit into the insanely gorgeous set of mechanisms that bring life to the facility around you, (Let it be said unequivocally that the sound effects in Dino Crisis’ puzzles are tear-jerkingly perfect) but I can’t harp on about lasers forever. Even typing the word feels weird now.

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Why else was Dino Crisis so sublime? This game had quicktime events before Shenmue, albeit of the ‘spam every button’ kind. It wasn’t afraid of innovation. Dinosaurs could shake your weapons out of your grasp, you could make poison darts out of your extra lives, and in the sweetest possible nod to Jurassic Park, raptors could open doors.

It was head and shoulders above most other titles in terms of dialogue too, with a big body of voice acting, genuinely funny one-liners, actual emotionally involved decisions to make. The developers did nothing wrong. The design was absolutely sumptuous. Moonlight spilling through a cold, empty corridor, footsteps echoing out. Huge, ageing freight elevators wheezing their way into the belly of the earth. Dino Crisis’ Ibis Island is, for me, the only PS1 environment on a par with Metal Gear Solid for the beauty of its design.

Despite its age old control scheme, it’s far more enjoyable to pick back up than the original Resident Evil, and still trumps the majority of modern horror titles in terms of design and execution. And yet, unlike its zombie-themed sibling; it never went on to create a true legacy, its IP mired in an awkward middle ground between action and horror. Dino Crisis 2 was a fast paced action shooter, Dino Crisis 3 was a derivative mess. Dino Crisis never got the rebirth it deserved. It probably never will. And that’s sad, because when you look past the dated controls and deliciously cheesy story, you’ll find some of the smartest mechanical horror design ever written to a disc.

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In one scene, trying to access an identity card-locked elevator, you’re forced to write yourself an ID. You find a researcher’s phone number, ring their pager, and traipse off to search the facility. When you find their messily devoured remains, pager buzzing within, you take a scan of their fingerprints, and forge their ID. Try and top that, Jurassic World.

By Ben Spring aka on Twitter @benedict_spring

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