Before I wanted to be a writer/astronaut/documentarian/videogame designer/actor/billionaire, I had grand designs of being the world’s greatest palaeontologist. Ever since my first viewing of Jurassic Park back in the murky, primordial ooze of the early ‘90s, dinosaurs and other prehistoric denizens have held a special place in my heart. It was only when I realised that I was essentially mathematically retarded and totally unable to grasp any scientific formula which claimed ‘x’ was a number, that it became obvious a career digging fossils in a dusty old riverbed in China was not to be my destiny.
Some years before reality sunk its cruel, merciless fangs into my dreams, before I took up medieval history and had an existential crisis, out from the ether popped Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis (or JPOG as it is affectionately known), a game allowing players to follow in John Hammond’s footsteps and build their own dream dinosaur park filled with the likes of tyrannosaurus and triceratops. My 12-year-old self firmly believed that he had died and gone to Cretaceous heaven: he had a game that combined his favourite genre with his favourite things. Ah, sweet 2003. It was a time when I was first stumbling into the internet, the little intrepid explorer that I was.
Indeed, I stumbled as far as GameFAQs and joined the JPOG community forum where myself and other similarly over-excitable players participated in the ‘Dinosaur Studies’ thread where we would observe our animals’ behaviour and report it back like budding David Attenboroughs. I realise now that spending hours seriously documenting virtual dinosaurs as opposed to, say, playing rugby, was probably a flashing warning-sign as to my present romantic life, but my memory assures me that I had an incredible amount of fun. Indeed, I had such a worrying amount of fun with JPOG, I bought it twice; first on the PlayStation 2 and then, later, on the PC, the superior version. I had never done that before, and I haven’t done it since.
Puh-leeease! I Hate this Building Crap!
So, with such a glamorous past behind it, have the rocky strata of JPOG stood up to 65 million years of erosion (or eight years of gathering dust on my shelf)? The answer is an unsatisfactorily neutral “well, sort of”. Despite the dinosaurs, JPOG is still a management/tycoon game with the usual “build restroom to avoid guests urinating selves/place restaurants to stave off cannibalism” strategy at its core. Even for someone who considers himself a fairly weathered enthusiast of the genre, to do this in a game whose franchise is grounded upon people running very quickly away from extinct reptiles is, frankly, odd. Perhaps aware of this, Australian developers Blue Tongue instead focused more on the dinosaurs and less on the managerial aspect, an obviously odd choice for a management game; consequently, the game is confused and unbalanced, with your Mesozoic creatures and guests inhabiting separate spheres.
Park building is, therefore, a rather one-dimensional experience. Though guests – like quarks and deodourants – come in different flavours, with favourite dinosaurs and activities in mind, it is always the most expensive attraction that brings the most satisfaction, so in effect, progression towards a coveted ‘five-star’ park is a linear path of research until the most shiny objects and buildings are available. A safari ride will always beat a viewing platform. This, coupled to ridiculous construction limits that cap how many buildings you can place, discourages creativity.
Quiet! They’re Approaching the Tyrannosaur Paddock…
Where the game’s park building stumbles, its dinosaurs, thankfully, are there to pick it up. Aside from the odd bout of gastric flu and ancient rabies, they are delightfully easy to care for, unlike the infuriatingly fussy animals of that eternal bore Zoo Tycoon. Build a hatchery and release a herd of edmontosaurs and the only things you’ll need to keep them happy is enough foliage cover and water. That, and they’d prefer it if you didn’t house them with annoying pointy-toothed roommates dying to chomp on their bottoms. Each dinosaur is a careful investment and cannot simply be bought: dig teams must unearth fossils at various sites across the globe, and from these fossils, your scientists will extract DNA; the more DNA you have, the longer your dinosaurs will live, and the more resilient to diseases they will be.
Also unlike Zoo Tycoon (I only bring it up because it is the game’s closest counterpart; also, I enjoy complaining about it), your animals are actually a pleasure to watch. Visually attractive and fluidly animated, rather than mere static money-makers, your dinosaurs are convincingly ‘living-and-breathing’ with impressive AI. Herbivores prefer the company of their own kind and will congregate in large herds with their own hierarchies; carnivores, both solitary and pack, must have their need to hunt satisfied, and players can either feed them with goats à la that scene or venture the more expensive route and allow them to dine on fellow dinosaurs. Or guests. Indeed, should the more aggressive carnivores, like velociraptor and spinosaurus, become stressed, they will fly into a murderous rampage, attack and break through fences, and (hopefully) perforate your complaining, boring park visitors with teeth marks. Only a sedative (or bullet) fired from a ranger helicopter will stop the ensuing bloodbath. Though the carnage will please Crom, the InGen shareholders will be most vexed that you have allowed your park to become a costly all-you-can-eat buffet.
So sure of their dinosaurs’ ability to entertain, Blue Tongue included a ‘Site B’ mode which allows players to simply observe their creatures in action without the need to build a park and cater for visitors. It is a feature I enjoyed a lot more when I had both boundless imagination and patience as a young adolescent, but should you still carry both of these traits and have a penchant for unevolved bird watching, following a tyrannosaurus on its hunt for tasty hadrosaurs across your tropical island is an almost therapeutic way of spending half an hour.
Save or Delete?
Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis is undoubtedly entertaining and easily the best of the franchise’s licensed games. In a sense, it is the Jurassic Park game. Whereas others have placed you, shotgun at the ready, on a ruined island filled with dinosaurs intent on churning you into a tastily anachronistic red pulp, JPOG opts for the peaceful what-if scenario where John Hammond’s enterprise is set to become the next wonder of the world.
Alas that with so much focus on the dinosaurs, JPOG is far more ‘Jurassic’ than ‘Park’. Business management is typical, mindless tycoon fare and, more often than not, your guests are annoying whingers who distract you from your dinosaurs. The option is there to experiment with cost-efficient building strategies and precise exhibit layouts, but considering the management aspect is as shallow as a compsognathus’ paddling pool, there’s very little point. As a result, building a park is dull and formulaic. While objective-based scenarios and ‘missions’ (where you take command of a ranger jeep, helicopter, or balloon, and herd, hunt, or photograph dinosaurs) help to vary gameplay, it is telling that your success in these goes towards unlocking the dino-centric Site B mode.
Should you constitute equal parts Jurassic Park fan, mentally unstable tycoon-game enthusiast, and hobby palaeontologist, JPOG offers more than enough to keep the newcomer satisfied. However, for me, all these years later, there is little left to sate my curiosity for any considerable length of time. Considering uninstallation, I find myself hopelessly conflicted: my mind says, “You nostalgic fool, there is no management gaming to be found here!” but my heart says, “Let’s ‘accidentally’ delete the raptors’ fencing one more time…”