Retro Reflections: Color a Dinosaur

There is nothing to this "game": no animations, mini-games, hidden components. Nothing. Just ugly dinosaurs.

Color a Dinosaur

Sometimes you suggest a review as a joke and everyone jumps on it unexpectedly. This was meant to be an April Fool’s Day joke of sorts, but here we are with me having to do the real thing now.

Had Color a Dinosaur come out several years before Mario Paint, I could argue its value a bit more for sure, but they were only a year apart and Mario Paint came out first. There was no need for this title in 1993 and it felt like a hollow cash-in, most likely hoping to feed off of unsuspecting parents or those who had not yet made the jump to the 16-bit system. For those who aren’t familiar with this title though and do not understand how little content Color a Dinosaur actually offers, let me explain.

The box says clearly that the game is aimed at 3-6-year-old kids and flies in under the guise of something that encourages creativity, offers relaxing violence-free gameplay, and might have even tried to seem educational, but most of that is a façade. It’s an electronic color book with horrible controls. There are no extra modes, just a selection of sixteen dinosaurs to choose from and add paint to. The player can choose from a scarce selection of colors and patterns to use. These various selections may be changed, but doing so alters any of the colors already put down, which makes it even more limited.

Most of the colors are lighter shades of each other, uncreative patterns featuring those same hues, and some flashing versions that could potentially cause a seizure. To call this vague sense of gameplay ‘coloring’ seems a bit misleading, as it is actually just a fill-in tool, a very slow one due to the NES hardware. There is an option when selecting a dinosaur whether the player wants the pointer to cycle through the various parts of the picture—which could be considered easy mode—or a freehand style can be used, but that makes it quite hard to select smaller sections and accurately navigate the portrait with the d-pad. I know it doesn’t have the advantage of coming with a mouse, but even past that no one could ever call these movements intuitive. That isn’t explained though, so unsuspecting players may hit the wrong button and make things worse on themselves.

That’s it. There is nothing else to this game: no animations, mini-games, hidden components. Nothing.

The figures themselves are drawn decently, but they have some of the oddest expressions on their faces. Almost every kid thinks dinosaurs are cool, but these guys are here to knock that down a few pegs. It amazes me how painting them weird colors isn’t what makes these portraits look stupid. If someone were to create a masterpiece on here somehow or just something they were proud of, they’ll need to pull out a phone and take a picture, because there is no way to save any of these, making the whole exercise feel like a waste of time. Perhaps even some sort of basic free drawing mode could have made the game feel more competent.

Developer credits for Color a Dinosaur go to FarSight Studios, and the credits at the beginning of the game make it seem like numerous people worked on this, but the majority of the programming and work was done by one man in his garage, Jay Obernolte. He was the president of FarSight and went on to other slightly more notable things in the games industry until 2010 when he decided to try politics. Obernolte currently sits on the California State Assembly and has a third-degree black belt, so I’d say he has left Color a Dinosaur behind him. Maybe it was less of a cash-in and something more like one man’s passion project, but I don’t think the results worked either way.

The thing the game’s mastermind couldn’t do was provide music, and that may have been for the better. One of the most interesting facts about this title is that Color a Dinosaur was one of the earlier outings for famed video game composer Tommy Tallarico (Earthworm Jim, Cool Spot) in his time at Virgin. Tallarico claimed he had less than a day to not only come up with the soundtrack but had a limited range to work with. This was his first project for the NES and Tallarico wasn’t familiar with the hardware, meaning he had to use a strict conversion program for it. Each of these factors helped to create a less than memorable tune. I doubt anyone who plays this would do it without something else on in the background. Sorry, Tommy.

Even Nintendo isn’t a fan of Color a Dinosaur. A 1997 issue of Nintendo Power had several employees listing their best and worst games of all time. The worst list had Color a Dinosaur in the number ten spot, which isn’t a surprise. The game was described as “Mario Paint without anything fun in it.”

The game is considered to be quite rare though, as it was released late in the console’s life cycle and had very little marketing. Prepare to pay eighty-five dollars and higher for a game that isn’t worth a fraction of that based off of its gameplay. Even as a collector, I couldn’t justify this one. Someone might want to play it once just for the experience or to show a friend who didn’t realize it was made, but otherwise, the game is just seen as a bit of a joke. I guess the joke was on me this time.

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