The Fossil Fighters series has always seemed like a strange one to me, being a rather blatant Pokémon clone but with the hook of being all about dinosaurs instead of anime monsters, and the fact that it’s published by Nintendo makes it all the stranger. My notions towards it though were preconceived, as I hadn’t played any of the games in the series up to this point. Well with a new entry, Fossil Fighters: Frontier, releasing on the 3DS just last week, now felt like as good a time as any to educate myself and see if maybe there was more to this franchise than I was giving it credit for. After chomping and stomping my way through a majority of the game, I can say that this saurian-flavoured monster catching simulator does have some unique aspects which separate it from its more popular kin, though it’s clearly designed for a very specific audience.
Probably the biggest difference between Fossil Fighters and Pokémon is the fact that rather than building your party up via combat and capturing, you’re doing it instead through an idealized sort of paleontology. The majority of this game has driving you around expansively large levels in specially outfitted vehicles called Bone Buggies, digging up fossils and rebuilding dinosaurs (called “Vivosaurs” in this game for some odd reason). The actual process of digging up these fossils takes the form of a little mini-game you play on the bottom screen. You’ll use your stylus to hammer, drill, and chisel out the earth surrounding the fossils, with the game awarding you a score depending on how much you uncover in the short time limit and how carefully you do it. The higher you manage to score, the more powerful that fossil and the attached Vivosaur will be in combat. While the actual mini-game quickly starts to lose its appeal after you’ve dug up enough bones to fill the British Museum, it’s simple and yet difficult enough to keep you somewhat invested and the fact that your prowess with it affects the combat means you have an incentive to keep playing around to try to further improve your skills. Helping to keep things fresh though is the fact that these large levels packed with fossils are actually pretty fun to explore thanks to the surprisingly solid driving controls. It’s not Forza or anything like that, but the Bone Buggies handle pretty well and can build up some decent speed, which is well complimented by the driving puzzles Fossil Fighters: Frontier occasionally throws your way in the form of time trials and special challenge courses where you need figure out the trick of the level before the special fossil contained therein is eaten by a boss dinosaur. All in all it makes for a fairly fun little system that properly emulates the incredibly skewed vision of paleontology that we all had as eight-year-olds.
Of course there would be no point in resurrecting these long dead behemoths if we couldn’t pit them against each other in mortal combat and naturally Fossil Fighters delivers, but frankly the combat mechanics here are somehow both too simple and too complex for their own good. Working much like Pokémon, you’ll be fighting in a traditional turn-based RPG format that has you and a couple of allies trading hits with enemy Vivosaurs; where things get unique though is with the addition of stances and support shots. Stances are exactly what they sound like and every move in the game will try to force both you and your opponent into a specific stance. Some Vivosaurs are strong in certain stances and weak in others, it’s pretty standard stuff, though the overall lack of moves in the game
(your Vivosaurs only ever learn four moves total) [CORRECTION: A reader has informed me that each Vivosaur can actually learn a total of eight moves, but four of them are obtained only by finding Golden Fossils, a collectible that I didn’t have enough time to really delve into gathering] that means that lining things up properly is rarely worth the trouble. Support shots however are significantly more integral to the experience, acting as a more active way to apply buffs and healing to your Vivosaur while in combat. Whenever your Vivosaur attacks or is being attacked, you’ll have a small window during which you can fire beneficial shots at it. You can fire as many of these shots as you like during this short period and the effects will stack, so with some skill you can deeply manipulate the circumstances of a battle. This makes every turn a chance to sway the results more in your favour, allowing you to transform a basic attack into a killing blow or turtle up in such a way as to avoid a lethal assault. It’s an interesting mechanic but it allows you almost too much influence over the results of any given attack, removing much of the strategy of the actual base gameplay. Not that there’s too much strategy involved in the first place, as I said the move sets of these creatures are fairly limited and with an elemental system that is rudimentary at best, you never really need to do much more than choose the strongest attack you happen to have available and hope for the best.
For as much as the gameplay seems designed to capitalize on the odd phenomenon that is every child’s obsession with dinosaurs, the story is where the appeal to that demographic becomes especially apparent. The premise here is that you are a fresh-faced cadet who is joining the Wardens, a group of dinosaur loving cops who police the world’s Fossil Parks and ensure that Vivosaurs are used only for noble purposes. After excelling during your training and showing bravery during an unexpected ordeal, you are partnered up with a special mascot Vivosaur and made a special agent under the command of Captain Stryker, founder of the Wardens and the hero who stopped the evil plans of the villainous Doctor Baron Blackraven five years prior. From there you’ll be sent around the world to the three different Fossil Parks (Asia, America, and Europe) where you’ll be tasked with solving various problems, all while preparing for the inevitable return of the perfidious Blackraven and his legion of Dark Vivosaurs. It sounds like the plot to an incredibly cheesy Saturday morning cartoon show, but I think that’s intentional. The hilarious and completely unnecessary opening theme song about adventure, the broadly written stereotypical characters, and the filler laden plot all reek of that same ‘made for kids’ sensibility that defined children’s cartoons in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It has that same simple style of writing where the good guys are noble and kind on the same level as Mother Theresa and the bad guys are so over the top with their evilness that it just seems tiring. That said though this kind of basic yet enjoyable storytelling is perfectly tailored to Fossil Fighters: Frontier’s target audience, excitable young children who won’t shut up about dinosaurs, so I can’t really fault it for not being the Jurassic equivalent of Hemingway.
Lastly we have the presentation, which is pleasant and vibrant but ultimately unremarkable. Visually it’s got a bright and cartoony feel to it with lots of large environments and decent set pieces that all feel nicely unique and separate from one another. Really the only knock I have against the level design is that some of the world textures can look a bit muddy, though I suspect that’s more a limit of the 3DS than anything else. As for the character designs, it’s got the kind of anime flair you would expect, though everyone has massive heads and tiny hands for some reason which can be slightly off-putting at times. Of course the most important thing to consider when it comes to the visuals of Fossil Fighters: Frontier is the look of the dinosaurs, and thankfully they do a pretty good job in this department. There’s an ample variety of different Vivosaurs to resurrect and while many of them fall into the same handful of broad categories (Theropods, Pteranodons, Carnosaurs, etc) they make an effort to add little details to each species to make them look unique. More importantly those details often come from the look of the actual fossils, which are recreated faithfully in the game as the bones you dig up to revive these dinosaurs. As for the sound design, the music is good though nothing special and there are dinosaur roars aplenty, what more do you need?
Fossil Fighters: Frontier is definitely a game pointed at a very specific audience, and that’s not a bad thing. If you’ve got a young child, cousin, or nephew who spends their days playing with plastic dinosaurs and endlessly regaling you with the same facts about velociraptors and ankylosaurs that you yourself gushed over at that age, then this game will make for the perfect gift at only $30. If however you were looking to play it as an adult, hoping for a monster-catching RPG experience on the level of Pokémon, you’ll most likely end up leaving disappointed; the gameplay grows stale quickly and the story doesn’t contain enough of a hook to really grab an adult’s attention. As such I’m giving Fossil Fighters: Frontier a 3.5 out of 5 stars, definitely worth a look for the audience that would be most interested in a game about taming dinosaurs, but less so for everyone else.