Simple nostalgic yearnings for what we didn’t get are not the only reasons gamers lament the loss of what may have been Rare’s coup de grace of gaming.
Welcome back to Nerd Revolt! I thought this would be kind of timely considering the recent release of Rare’s Sea of Thieves on March 20th.
The Lost Game: Rare’s Dinosaur Planet
There is always something so captivating about unfinished and abandoned projects – the very fact that they’re unfinished and were never loosed upon the world can make it feel like the history of literature, music, or gaming (or insert other art medium here) has been left hanging without an ending. In some cases it even feels like the natural progression of history itself hinged on the completion of that abandoned work, and like finding a lost chapter to a sacred book, we would be able to set the world back on its natural course if the creator could just return and finish what they started.
No lost chapter is more spellbinding to me than Rare’s Dinosaur Planet. After the astounding success of Jet Force Gemini, which itself followed on the heels of Donkey Kong Country, Perfect Dark, Banjo-Kazooie, and a slew of others, British third-party developer Rare, Ltd. seemed to be unstoppable. For their last title on the Nintendo 64, Rare wanted to pull all the stops and create what would be remembered as a masterpiece.
As should be obvious by now, things did not go as planned. This is the story of how Dinosaur Planet got derailed and what we might be missing.
What It Would Have Been
What plot details I have found for the game, assuming they are real and accurate, reveal an intricate tale of multiple planets, cosmic-scale battles between god-like races, New Age ecology (more on that later), and of course, dinosaurs.
Player characters Krystal, a vixen wild child, and Sabre, a Wolfen prince, are transported to Dinosaur Planet from their home planet Animus in search of Sabre’s father, King Randorn. The king leapt through the same portal to Dinosaur Planet heeding a call to be liberated from General Scales, the ruthless leader of the raptor-like SharpClaws. By kidnapping the prince and princess of the herbivorous EarthWalkers and the pterodactyl-like CloudRunners, Scales seeks to turn the tribes against each other so he can rule it all himself.
Sabre rescues EarthWalker prince Tricky and uses a sword and magic in combat; Krystal is armed with a magic staff and is joined by princess Kyte of the CloudRunners. Both together and alone in a variety of locations, Sabre and Krystal quest to gather the six SpellStones to stop General Scales’s evil plot to drain the planet of magic energy.
Krystal catches up with Randorn at Warlock Mountain, a location that is somewhat of a hub for the game. There, Randorn tells her of an ancient Dinosaur Planet legend: once, there was a god-like race known as the Krazoa who ruled the universe. The Krazoa, however, were driven to extinction during a titanic battle with the dragons, who were also defeated. From the last of the dragons, a god named Kameria, the dinosaurs were born.
Eventually, our heroes learn that some of the Krazoa survived! So did a dragon named Drakor, one of whom is manipulating General Scales from behind the scenes. By extracting Dinosaur Planet’s magic energy, he seeks vengeance on the Krazoa, who he aims to destroy once and for all.
There are a bunch of other twists and revelations along the way, including that the Krazoa might also be evil. But Krystal learns that Sabre is prophesied to die if Drakor successfully defeats the Krazoa. The endgame places a pivotal decision at our heroine’s feet: save Dinosaur Planet or save her friend. Not a bad story for an action-adventure game at the turn of the millennium, am I right? Assuming the source is legitimate, of course.
The Loss of Dinosaur Planet
Dinosaur Planet was going to be fully voice-acted, featuring two distinct combat styles across the two player characters, numerous and varied environments, and puzzle solving that incorporated the game’s spell-casting system. The game used The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s engine, being that Dinosaur Planet was intended to be an action-adventure game in a similar vein. So what happened?
According to some former Rare employees, the demands of the game on the Nintendo 64’s technically limited game cartridge caused delays that left Dinosaur Planet out of the public eye for some time. Around the time of E3 2000, as Shigeru Miyamoto stated in an interview, he was reviewing progress on Dinosaur Planet when he noticed striking similarities between Sabre and his own Star Fox protagonist, Fox McCloud.
He encouraged Rare to rebrand the game as a Star Fox release. The development team rewrote the universe and story to incorporate Star Fox canon and characters, the game was shifted to the Nintendo Gamecube, and the game was renamed Star Fox Adventures.
Admittedly, it is my pet theory that Miyamoto deep-sixed the original incarnation of the game because of the potential competition it posed to his own franchise giants like Star Fox and The Legend of Zelda. Rare had achieved a seemingly endless chain of blockbusters on the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64.
Don’t get me wrong – I think Miyamoto is a great and brilliant individual, practically a Walt Disney of video games. However, I think he might have believed a successful new intellectual property in the spirit of The Legend of Zelda could be fierce competition for what is one of his flagship franchises to this day, and one that would be difficult to surmount for what was then still a fledgling series.
There was a positive relationship between Nintendo and Rare at the time though, and one of the easiest ways to eliminate competition is by making them into a partner. So naturally he might seek to contain the threat by offering Rare a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to utilize one of Nintendo’s super-successful franchises, in what ought to be a win-win proposition. Unfortunately, while Star Fox Adventures sold well and met with positive reviews at first, opinions about the game have soured over time. Many of us will continue to wonder what could have been if Dinosaur Planet had seen the light of day.
Dinosaur Planet as a Gem of a Lost World
I want to emphasize that it does not follow – and there is nothing to guarantee – that Dinosaur Planet would have been successful, or even any good. Unfortunately, we can never know. However, the nature of the game and the mystery of how it would have turned out gives a “lost chapter” feel to it all. I think there are certain gameplay and story elements in the original version that, to gamers such as myself, represent a missed opportunity for the world of gaming at that time.
For starters, the game featured a fully playable Krystal, rather than having Fox coming to save her as a damsel in distress. What little we can see of the original Krystal makes her out to be a strong female character in the truest sense of the word: she was her own character, not dependent on any male character for rescue or for her depth as a character.
Moreover, she had her own motivations, an actual personality, and kicked butt to boot. Her spell-casting was a nice touch too. I was personally disappointed, even as a kid, by the fact that Krystal was knocked out of the story very early in Star Fox Adventures; I so wanted to be able to follow her journey.
Then there’s the tropical setting on a dinosaurian world, the mythology revolving around items of power that carry the very life force of the planet (and the villain’s plot to drain nature of this life force as aesop for our own environmental carelessness), Krystal’s Amazonian getup, and the lush tribal-esque soundtrack. Even though it’s never stated outright, themes of ecology pervade the story and setting.
In this way, Dinosaur Planet is very much a product of its time. It gives what few materials we have from the game in development a New Age vibe, like Final Fantasy X or the Leo DiCaprio film The Beach had (and now that I think about it, Final Fantasy VII has a bit of this as well). It’s a very late ’90s/early 2000s trait, and it’s one of the reasons I personally still long for the vision of this game to ultimately be realized.
But this isn’t just about what I find appealing about this abandoned game. As a wholly original IP, Dinosaur Planet feels like a breath of fresh air today, when we are constantly inundated with long-enduring franchises. I plan to elaborate on this in a future post, but it does often feel like as a culture, we have hit a dead-end in terms of creative direction.
In large part, I think this has to do with a lot of franchises in every medium – movies, TV, video games, comics, and more – having more than overstayed their welcome. Because these works (and in some cases, artists) continue to hang on, we cannot evolve beyond them, which is why so many things feel derivative.
As a result, it feels like we’ve been cheated, with Dinosaur Planet having been cut down in its prime. This was supposed to be Rare’s coup de grace on the Nintendo 64, the culmination of putting out one hit after another. To meet such a disappointing end, for the game to essentially become a footnote in video gaming history, only underscores the loss of what could have been.
And I think it goes back to a recurring theme on this blog about nostalgia, and how it partly relates to possibility and how things going differently back then would set us on a totally different direction for today. We are left to wonder: how would gaming be different today if Dinosaur Planet had released looking like that? How would pop culture be different? Would we be richer for it, and some certain mistakes not made because we would have avoided those pitfalls? Would more ecology-themed games like Dinosaur Planet going into the 2000s have allowed that theme to persist in pop culture till today?
Of course, we can only consider these as hypotheticals. What’s done is done, but at least we can enjoy the unreleased material we do have. And who knows? Maybe some bold ex-Rare employee will someday release a working alpha version of the game for everyone to enjoy. Or better yet, maybe the Stamper brothers will return to the project and finish it as it was intended to be. If there is a will, maybe there is a way. Thank you all for reading. See you next week!
Do you wish Rare had completed Dinosaur Planet? What is it about this lost game that appeals to you? Or do you have other abandoned games that you wish had seen the light of day? Share your thoughts in the comments section!