Dinosaur Island (1997, Game Arts for Sega Saturn)
Game Arts was one of the most successful software developers for Saturn, with Grandia, Lunar and Gun Griffon to their credit. Here is another brilliant gem, but sadly very obscure and unknown. Dino Island is an “interactive cartoon” that plays out like those “choose your own adventure” books from the 1980s. It’s not a traditional videogame in the sense that there are no goals or objectives or challenges. You’re really just watching a very entertaining and funny anime program.
Why should any of this matter? Because everything you see has been created using the Saturn graphics hardware, not FMV or MPEG. Because of this, the visuals are sharp, crisp and very colorful. Game Arts previously experimented with this technique with Yumimi Mix on Sega CD, which was later ported to the Saturn largely as-is. On Sega CD, the visuals were mostly still-shots; on Saturn, the animation is as lush and fluid as any television production. It looks nearly indistinguishable from cels.
The story takes place on an island that is populated by humans and a host of friendly dinosaurs. The people have learned to tame the animals by playing music, either using them for work or pets, kinda like The Flintstones. The main characters are a trio of high school students who attend a musical school for training dinos, and largely involve their various comical hijinks. The tone is always upbeat, cheerful and benign, layered with a lot of goofy Japanese anime humor.
On occasion, the story will pause and present you with a list of choices. These options may include deciding which musical instrument will be played in class, or which fireworks will be set off at a festival. I don’t think this largely changes the overall plot, but results in variations on specific comic scenes, and it adds a great deal of “replay value,” as you will want to see all of the different story threads. There are multiple endings that are based on your decisions, but, again, there is no “bad” ending or a “game over.” You are not expected to follow any specific path, only to enjoy the show and all of its possibilities.
I really enjoy Dino Island and consider it one of my favorite Japanese Saturn games. It shows off the system’s amazing 2D superpowers and always impresses. Even if you don’t understand Japanese, you can follow pretty easily and laugh at all the goofy cartoon humor. I especially enjoy the nods to home video, such as the pause icon shown in an above screenshot. You can also fast forward and rewind the show, and once you’ve reached the ending, you can watch the entire program uninterrupted as a pure cartoon.
I enjoy the era of experimental videogames that emerged at the dawn of the CD-ROM era, when software studios were willing to try new ideas and push the medium beyond its arcade roots. I wish we could see that creative spirit emerge once again, but the videogame industry is far too insulated these days, and designers are far too obsessed with validating themselves to Mommy and Daddy, passing themselves off as wannabe movie directors. Game Arts really opened the door with their mini-genre of interactive cartoons, and it’s one that should be explored further.
Collectors can find this game for $20 or less, making it very affordable as far as Saturn titles go. Be careful, as there is a second title called “Dino Island Yokoku Hen,” which is actually a demo disc that was released before the full version. According to Segagaga Domain, this disc features a 10-minute video sequence explaining the Dino World characters and world, and also features a very nice sound and music test. The two covers are nearly identical, so be careful to grab the correct version. Or you could just collect both. That also works.