Title: Dynowarz: The Destruction of Spondylus
Developer: Advance Communication Company
Another Monday and another NES game that haunts my past. Like The Addams Family, Dynowarz captivated and frustrated me in my youth. Both had strange, grating, memorable music, unforgiving and unforgivable gameplay, awkward controls, and both seemed much larger and more mysterious than they do in retrospect. Unlike the former, though, Dynowarz: The Destruction of Spondylus, whatever that means, never reaches any level of garishness, never gets strange or surreal. It’s a very ordinary sci-fi themed action side-scroller, and a mediocre one at that. Whereas games like the very weird Dash Galaxy in the Alien Asylum (1990) for the NES mixed up the sci-fi action platformer with Adventures of Lolo (1989) styled segments, Dynowarz is incredibly mediocre, and does nothing particularly notable.
Oh, except that players get to pilot a giant robotic dinosaur, punching other dinosaurs in the neck and then get to move around on foot to complete these marathon platforming segments. Wow, cool.
The box art for the game is reminiscent of the disgusting and awesome Dinosaurs Attack trading cards, with a man in futuristic armor blasting a laser right through the skull of a scaly tyrannosaurus rex. It’s not nearly as gross, but it’s striking. I guess I should also call attention to (make fun of?) the game’s title, spelled with both a Y and a Z, emphasizing just how rad Bandai thinks this game is. Little did Bandai know at the time, but in a few years, after they started selling Power Rangers toys in America, they would reach the pinnacle of radness. Be sure to notice that the in-game font for the title is that tacky, desert skyline font that recalls Cartman from South Park’s sunglasses.
Before I start playing one of these games to review, I always check GameFAQs to see what other people are saying about the game, if anything. There wasn’t much in the way of a fanbase, only two forum posts, but I did discover something else that was truly horrifying.
Advance Communication Company, which developed other games for Bandai, was the same company responsible for not only Milon’s Secret Castle, but the ever dreadful Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of AVGN fame. They also developed the early console ports of the Ys games, strangely enough, along with some other, half decent JRPGS on the NES (Niji no Silkroad). The game is much more stable than Milon or Jekyll and Hyde, but as I started playing it, I could see the similarities to Jekyll and Hyde, and I actually started feeling like I was in an AVGN video, cursing at the stupidity of the game’s design as it gave me explosive diarrhea.
Dynowarz has two modes, robot dino mode and human mode. Dual modes in NES games was not a new concept by 1989, as both Blaster Master (1988) and The Guardian Legend (1988) had them, and those games were great, mixing the platforming and run and gun genres and the action-adventure and shoot ‘em up genres together, respectively. Each mode was well defined and together, gave a meaty experience. A third game that came out in 1988 on the NES also had dual modes. That was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Players control Jekyll through awful platforming segments and when he takes enough damage, he transforms into Hyde. As Hyde, the player moves through a mirrored version of the level and must defeat enough monsters to change back into Jekyll before he reaches where Jekyll died. It’s actually sort of a tense, interesting design choice, but it’s implementation is just god awful.
This is where Dynowarz really feels like Jekyll and Hyde. The game starts in human mode, and players must navigate a series of rooms with moving platforms, inane enemies that cannot aim their projectiles, and ever increasing bottomless pits. The controls aren’t nearly as sluggish here, but the jump is awkwardly floaty, and aiming the pistol involves very accurate timing of jumps. After a few rooms, players find themselves face to face with an obvious Metroid Mother Brain in a glass tank, which also has terrible aim. Players fire a few shots into it, and it blows up.
Pretty mediocre first level, but it’s alright. As the player waits for the level to end, nothing happens. The game doesn’t send the player to the next level as per usual. The player instead must move his or her character out of the brain room and back into one of the platforming rooms. The enemies are gone, but the platforms are still moving.
Maybe to be more realistic, Dynowarz forces its players to exit the human platforming levels by actually making them walk back to the entrance. It certainly adds a lot of game time, but it adds absolutely nothing to the gameplay. It’s not anymore challenging the second time, although if the player dies because of the bad jump mechanics, he will have to face the boss brain again. Couple this with the fact that there are only about five or six room “templates” that never even have a palette swap, and each human segment simply adds more rooms to the chain, and the human segments are pretty awful. Remember how cool it was to see Dracula’s Castle upside down in Symphony of the Night, which also makes players go through the same stuff twice? Wasn’t that great? There is nothing redeemable about these parts of the game.
The robo dino levels, though, are more bearable, if not just as repetitive. It’s a slow plod to the right of the screen and players never have to retrace their steps. Some enemies will drop power ups. The power ups, Fire Ball, a normal projectile, Launch Fist, a boomerang, Bomb, a bomb that can only be aimed after getting a master’s degree in ballistics, and Beam, a high powered laser, are all upgradable by collecting more of the same weapon, which is difficult, as most players will accidentally pick up the wrong weapon due to the plodding controls. There’s also a Barrier meter, which acts a second health meter which can be filled by collecting rare Barrier drops. The human and robot dinosaur share health, by the way. It’s all about the details.
So the dinosaur levels look much better than their human counterparts. The dinosaur roams barren planets full of other dinosaurs and each planet at least gets a palette swap from level to level. The combat is slow but it’s tricky not to get hit and most of the time players will take less damage just running through the enemies than stopping and trying to aim one of the stupid weapons to hit them. I guess I prefer the boomerang, as it’s useful when fighting the flying pterodactyls, as well as hitting enemies that are on a platform above the player, which is impossible otherwise.
There isn’t much variety to these levels, though, and there are only a handful of enemy sprites. Most of the bosses are recolored enemies, and it feels like the developers went out of their way to make each level as featureless as possible. The enemy “AI” is funny, I guess, especially when enemies will get stuck backing away from players, very slowly, until they get sucked up offscreen. Most of the dinosaurs pop up out of the offscreen area, even the giant dinosaur enemies, which is pretty humorous to watch, but annoying to deal with. The dinosaurs can also jump, sometimes twice their own height. One thing I do like about the enemies, and this is very minor, are the enemies with the purple/aqua color palette, which really showcases the beauty of the NES’s Picture Processing Unit color palette.
The dinosaur levels are much less aggravating than the human ones, and are a lot easier. I don’t think I died once in these areas during the whole game, and I’m pretty sure players have infinite continues (not like they would want them). During the brontosaurus boss fight (the first brontosaurus boss fight), I found myself without a weapon and simply had to punch the thing in the neck for three minutes. The brontosaurus quickly got stuck atop a platform, and was easily subdued. Each outdoor level features an eerie floating satellite in the sky and I’ve read through the instruction manual lore and still do not know what it is.
The saving grace of the game is its subtle, repetitive, barren soundtrack. Consisting of only six songs, the soundtrack is decidedly atmospheric despite the game’s rad overtones, and it adds to the moody, black levels. The “level interior” track, which plays during the human segments, is catchy, a bit urgent, with these scattering blips and churning NES whistles. But the “planet surface” track, the one playing when inside the dinosaur, is a great NES track, possibly one of my favorites. It sounds deeply sad, and really does call to mind a lonely journey through space. The track has this staccato thumping that urges the player forward, with, again, those NES whistles adding to its mysterious, science fiction nature. The “planet cavern” track, which plays when inside a cave area as the dinosaur, is a bit more uplifting, but equally as ponderous and mysterious.
And these would be great tracks in the game if they were not repeated with every single level. Osamu Kasai, the supposed composer, is listed on MobyGames as having also worked on the very lively Sparkster (1994), but I don’t think that’s true, adding a little mystery to the game’s history.
Despite how repetitive the game is both visually, musically, and gameplay-wise, my biggest complaint about the game is its disinterest with building its world. It’s a mid-NES game, so I can’t expect a plethora of colorful NPCs or anything, but the game is just so lifeless that even if players read the manual lore, they won’t care. There is absolutely nothing in Dynowarz that establishes a world. Each level begins and finishes with the exact same transition. When a boss is defeated, the player is granted a key that leads to the human section, and when the player defeats the infected brain, the dinosaur is beamed up to the next planet. After the final brain is defeated, and the player manages to get out of the labyrinth, the player then moves the dinosaur to the last beam elevator and without so much as a bit of dialogue, the game abruptly ends.
It would have been so simple to have at least two (one in the beginning and one at the end) Ninja Gaiden (1988) style cutscenes to at least give the vague impression that the game world is real. A world map, which could be shown in between levels, would have gone such a long way here. It could be argued that the omission of these things adds to the sort of primal isolation of the game’s tone, but everyone knows that’s not true (this isn’t Metroid). If the human areas each had a different color palette, or if there were a few more tracks and a few different enemy sprites, this game would be much more memorable.
As a kid, I loved the idea of moving in and out of the different spaces, but everything is too similar to be great. Usually, when I revisit weird old video games, there’s a lot of interesting things to talk about, spatial relationships, tone and atmosphere, garbled graphics, and the general strange and mystical properties of these games, but Dynowarz is a disappointment. It’s not even as humorous as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, not as schizophrenic. The game is bland.
– – –
Though, at the end of the day, I think what really caught my imagination with this game is how closely it resembles playing with playset-sized miniature figures on a barren carpet floor. Out of all the Mighty Max sets and Star Wars sets I had, one of my most indispensable sets of figures was a group of cyber warriors and robot dinosaurs I got from a gumball machine when I was about four or five. Dynowarz is certainly, yet unintentionally, reminiscent of my days spent spread out on the living room carpet, my figures duking it out in soul-wrenching, epic battles. I’ve always been attracted to miniature versions and game sprites, and despite Dynowarz not being an attractive game, there is a certain charm in controlling a slow moving, mini dinosaur in space, punching other dinosaurs out of the way.
– nilson carroll