If you asked my eight-year-old self what he thought about dinosaurs, he would have told you that they were brilliant. Hell, they still are. But in that primary school time of your life they take up a special significance. How can any schoolkid not admire their commanding majesty, their imposing mass, and the time that T-Rex pulled the guy off the toilet in Jurassic Park? They were educational and fantastical all at once. A history lesson from the edge of time played out in your childish imagination as much as it did in books, toys, films and museums. Is it any wonder at all that they played as significant a role in my childhood obsessions as Pokémon did to those in the next generation.
Well, fancy that. Here we are full circle. Fossil League is, to all intents and purposes, Pokémon dismantled into to its constituent parts and rebuilt with our prehistoric pals. A turn-based catch 'em all battle with an RPG story thrown in for good measure.
It's a clone, yet one with a suitably silly plot to justify its premise. After inventing time travel, humanity decides that the best thing to do with this power is to stick two fingers up to creationism and pop back a few million years to make dinosaurs fight each other. Having just turned twelve you're now eligible for a license to participate in this cruel spectacle and a chance to win the ultimate dino-fighting tournament. There's no horrific rending of flesh as claws rip and tear in your quest for glory, however. Instead you become embroiled in a blood-free mission to rescue seven fossil pieces from several prehistoric time zones before the evil Syndicate X wipe out all of humanity.
It's all a little bonkers even if I wish it sometimes had its tongue pushed firmly into its cheek. Like the time our hero unleashes dinosaur-hell on a gang of poachers, proclaiming that dinosaurs shouldn't be captured and sold, but that fighting with them is a means to build a trusting relationship between man and beast. So making them kill each other is fine as long as you don't keep them in cages? Oh, if only it hadn't played the whole thing so naively straight. The fun we could have had.
Daft story aside, the actual gaming side is the equivalent of those low-budget European animated movies like Cinderella or Aladdin you find clogging up the shelves of Woolworths; rather amateur affairs cashing in on a name made famous by Disney. Or alternatively, and on the subject of time travel, it's as if somebody had stepped on a Butterfree in the past to ripple chaotic changes into a present where everything is the same but different.
What I mean is that while it has the Pokémon basics - non-contact fighting visuals, XP grinding, capturing new team members - at other times Fossil League reads like a crazed wishlist from every Pokéfan's wildest dreams: enemies that appear on the map instead of popping up randomly, automatic healing during battles, and the fact that everybody in your team levels up regardless of whether they popped up to fight or not. Joy of joys!
But that revolutionary thinking is punctured by the painful pinprick of reality. Fossil League may make cursory improvements on the surface but it lacks the depth of its rival. Pokémon is an immense undertaking. Not just in time, but through your continued dedication to the care, nurture and strategy of each and every monster. As exciting as dinosaurs can be to any pre-pubescent boy, here they're a world of fun away from the imaginative menagerie of Game Freak's opus. After initially capturing a starter team comprised of various essential elemental properties, there's little interest, or indeed point, in collecting anything else. Basic dinosaur abilities are too samey, and without that catch 'em all mentality you can easily fight through to the end of the game's story without really thinking. There's no real strategy in its limited scope. It's just a matter of fighting enough semi-random enemy dinos to up your levels (which happens pretty quickly, thankfully) in order to push through to the end. It's a pity, but knowing your stenopterygius from your euplocephalus just doesn't compare to fighting a cluster of psychic eggs and a duck clutching a spring onion.
The visuals are pretty poor as well. While each of the hundred or so different dinosaurs represented on the battle screen are alright in a low-res kind of way, the actual backgrounds are horribly bland, and the story visuals drawn in an amateurish manga style. The plain 3D engine is hardly pushing the DS to its limits and if you factor in some poor sound effects - giving Pokémon's pitiful Game Boy squeaks a run for their money - and a perfunctory use of the touchscreen, it's never going to capture your interest for long.
By not including an ocean's worth of Pokémon-style content, Fossil League remains a pretty plain experience. Perfectly competent in execution, yet lacking that spark that makes us visibly excited to cough up yet more money for almost exactly the same Pokémon game as the last forty-four when Diamond and Pearl land over here. Its story may hold the interest for a few days, and my eight-year-old dino-loving self may have been able to eke a little more enjoyment out of spotting all the different species, but even he would have a thing or two to say about the limits placed on this blatant clone.