A few months back, I reviewed a somewhat obscure comic book game for the Sega Genesis called Ex-Mutants. The source material for the game was based on a comic that was originally published under the Eternity Comics label before being passed around to several other companies, eventually winding up at Malibu Comics which was purchased by Marvel Comics. Thanks to Chris Baker, author of WRONG! Retro Games You Messed Up Our Comic Book Heroes, who through his awesome book I found out about Ex-Mutants, I also was made aware of another property that went through a similar transition and turned into a game for the Sega Genesis. That game of course is the one in the title, Tom Mason’s Dinosaurs for Hire, one of the single best Contra clones ever produced and a lost 16-bit classic that no one really talks about.
Dinosaurs for Hire was a short-lived comic series, according to the Wikipedia article the Eternity Comics run lasted only nine issues, and starred a group of alien humanoid-dinosaurs who crash-land on earth and become mercenaries for hire. The comic focused on four characters: Archie, a t-rex in a leather jacket; a triceratops named Lorenzo who rocks a Hawaiian shirt; an eye-patch wearing stegosaurs named Reese and finally a pterodactyl named Cyrano. Three of the characters: Archie, Lorenzo and Reese are the characters you play in the game, with Cyrano showing up periodically to tell you a bosses weak-point or tell a lame joke. When you start the game, you’re immediately thrown into a boss fight which you don’t actually have to win, and if you manage to beat it, the credits start to roll and Cyrano comes in to tell you it’s not the end of the game, but a problem with the Genesis’ blast-processing unit.
As my copy of Dinosaurs for Hire was without either the game’s packaging or the instruction manual, I couldn’t tell you what the story of the game is as the game itself only really gives you a bio on the three playable characters. I don’t think it particularly matters though, as in researching the comic that the game is based on, it was never meant to be taken seriously, which you could perhaps gather from the sentence “a triceratops named Lorenzo who rocks a Hawaiian shirt”. The developers cleverly wove those into the game design, as the flow of the levels don’t really follow any type of natural transition, and the themes can be seen as a parody of video game tropes at the time. You’ll fight ninjas as you ride an exterior elevator up the Empire State building, only to then move into the Hoover dam to fight electricity monsters, eventually winding up in Japan where you’ll fight elemental samurai’s among other locations.
Whether you’re well versed in the Dinosaurs for Hire lore or not though, all you really need to know is that if you’re a fan of run-and-gun games like Konami’s Contra franchise, you need to get this game in your collection ASAP. As either Archie, Lorenzo, or Reese you’ll run through Dinosaur’s for Hire’s twelve or so levels never letting go of the fire button as you mow down ninjas, robots, and giant bosses that require precise, twitch based movement to topple and offer an immediate sense of satisfaction when you finally execute on their pattern. Towards the later stages, in particular the last two, the game goes a little overboard on boss fights, but they never become tiresome or frustrating, which is helped by their excellent design.
You’ll never fight the same boss twice, and they range from everything to giant, screen filling, fire-breathing spiked turtles that are big enough to eclipse a dam, to robotic vehicles that break off into separate parts that have to be defeated. Some, like a robotic triceratops and an unfrozen dinosaur, even have special gimmicks that challenge you in ways beyond just shooting off parts until they die.
Dinosaurs for Hire wears its Contra love clearly on the sleeve of either its Hawaiian shirt or leather jacket, but it does things that make it both challenging, yet at the same time accessible. I admire the Contra games and have fond memories of playing the franchise both as a kid and adult, but I was never particularly good at them and couldn’t manage to finish any entry of the series. To make things fair, Dinosaurs for Hire adds a health meter, but even with this addition, it doesn’t make things a breeze. You still have to very nimble to make sure to remain as healthy as possible, because dying not only sets you back to the start of a stage, but diminishes the power of your firearm as well.
If there was a game that was built for a rapid-fire controller, it’s this one, as lifting your finger off the fire-button at times can really hurt you a lot. In the series that this takes inspiration from, there was a multitude of power-ups, but lets face it, you sought out the spread gun and held on to it for dear life. In Dinosaurs for Hire, you collect power-ups to build up to the spread gun, and it makes it such that no upgrade is worthless. Starting out you have a single shot machine gun but through collecting items it not only deals more damage, but eventually fires up to three bullets that arch diagonally up and down as well as fire straight. Once you build up to this, you feel unstoppable but should you die, which you will, you crash pretty hard, especially if you’re left with just your regular weapon to fight a boss that takes up the entire screen. That also being said, there’s a definite sense of satisfaction in taking down one of those monstrosities with a non-upgraded gun as well.
Even though Dinosaurs for Hire is a very fun and polished 2-D action game, it’s not without its problems as well, unfortunately. Some of the levels, like one where you’re within the Hoover Dam, can be confusing to navigate, and at times it can be difficult to decipher what can and cannot be used as a platform. Select plat-forming sections also feel like they could have been tightened up, like in the second stage set in a subway where you can be on the tracks as well as the platform. You have to transition between the two to avoid enemies and bullets, but often you’ll make a jump upwards only to fall back down or conversely you’ll try to move to the lower section and not be able to. The controls for movement and shooting are tight overall, but given that you’re dinosaurs, you’re not as nimble as you feel you could be, and while that’s understandable, you do in a few times at least miss the refined spin-jump of playing as a shirtless commando. Over the entirety of the game though, those instances are thankfully very small and you’re left with a game that just simply feels good to control.
The soundtrack for Dinosaurs for Hire isn’t exactly stick with you, but it suits the constant action just fine and is never obnoxious. Some of the sound effects however can be unpleasant to the ears, but I’m glad the audio took a hit in this department over the music. The sprites of the heroes, enemies are bosses are all great, but the environments themselves lack that little extra detail to stand out. They’re fine on the whole, and the themes they’re representing are understandable, but most fail to impress like the characters and bosses do.
Even with its minor issues with plat-forming and not so great looking locations, this shouldn’t stop you from picking up what can only be called one of the most criminally underrated run-and-gun games of the 16-bit era. If you grew up loving games like Contra: Hard Corps and Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes on the Sega Genesis, consider Tom Mason’s Dinsosaurs For Hire your immediate next purchase if you don’t have it in your collection already. Don’t let the silly title and premise fool you, this is as old-school challenging and fun as they come and shouldn’t be missed.