Pokémon meets Jurassic Park meets BattleBots meets...Doctor Who? Such is the zany setup of Fossil League: Dino Tournament Championship on the Nintendo DS, a decidedly Pokémon take on the prehistoric and postpresent world. Unlike last year's Dino Master, which somehow bricked on the slam-dunk concept that is dinosaur brawling, Fossil League offers a lengthy romp through time and is accompanied by a cohesive storyline and an enjoyable, moderately strategic battling system. This game also adds an edutainment twist to the Pokémon formula, and it goes a long way in differentiating itself from all the other Pokémon clones.
Despite being absolutely ludicrous at times, Fossil League's story does a good job of keeping you entertained as you time-trot through the six prehistoric eras ruled by man-eaters, both monolithic and miniscule. As is inevitable in a futuristic human society, with the discovery of time travel comes a wanton disregard for the butterfly effect, as well as the founding of a universally popular dinosaur fighting league. However, it isn't all fun and games, as the stringent Time Travel Control Act governs the issuance of Dino Battle Licenses, which are needed to acquire dinosaurs from the past and bring them to fight in the present. Not just anyone can receive one of these licenses, of course--you must be at least 12 years of age and pass a test proving you are responsible enough to not disrupt space-time. That last requisite apparently isn't all that well enforced, as an ecoterrorist organization known as Syndicate X attempts to destroy all of mankind to prevent humanity's epic final war that totally annihilates Earth's inhabitants. Their plan is to go back in time and exterminate Big Mother, an animal that is believed to be the earliest branch of the Mammalia class, to which Homo sapiens belong. Being the hero of this story, you happen to have the only known fossil of Big Mother, which your father entrusted to you on his deathbed. In your first jaunt to the past, this fossil is stolen from you and broken into seven pieces, which are then somehow scattered throughout the early, middle, and late periods of both the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, and you must find the pieces before Syndicate X does to thwart their maniacal plan. Suffice it to say, the story is totally bananas (though hauntingly plausible), but it acts as an excellent backdrop for the meat of the action: dropping the gauntlet with dinosaurs.
As you progress through the story and, subsequently, through time, you'll encounter a large variety of reptilians with which you can fight. Battles play out much like they do in Pokémon, where you engage a dinosaur and then use a variety of attacks to either defeat it or drop its health low enough for you to capture it. It's difficult to achieve anything other than a Pyrrhic victory in battles, because enemy dinosaurs often hit you harder than you'll hit them, and your attacks tend to miss more frequently than theirs. It's good, then, that dinosaurs level up at a fairly quick pace, because in addition to the stat boost you receive, leveling recharges your hit and skill points. So in practice, you'll often be cycling through your troupe of up to five, burning through your dinosaurs that are currently healthy while you wait for your defeated dinosaurs to level and recharge. As frustrating as it sounds, it actually works well to expose you to more than just one dinosaur, and it encourages you to strengthen several different dinosaurs' skills. It also helps to reinforce the game's strategy element, which deals with the various dinosaurs' elemental affinities. Most dinosaurs specialize in a particular element--earth, wind, fire, or water--though some are neutral. Elements play out in the typical rock-paper-scissors format, where one element is more effective than another. These attacks are balanced well against each other, and even if you're matched up against an opponent who has the upper hand, you still have a good shot at walking away victorious. Because of this, battles often become nail-biters, where you flirt with being completely wiped out and must strategically maximize your matchups to get the most out of each dinosaur.
From an edutainment perspective, Fossil League does an excellent job of offering a wide variety of dinosaurs while avoiding the urge to focus on the glamorized heavy hitters such as the T. rex or velociraptor, though those are certainly included. There are more than 100 different dinosaurs in all, spanning the early Jurassic period to the late Cretaceous period. And while the jury is still out on whether, for example, a kentrosaurus could breathe fire, the game does a good job of accurately representing these dinosaurs--placing them in their appropriate time periods, classifying them in their proper infraorders, and rendering them fairly accurately. In the game, dinosaurs that wouldn't normally come into contact with each other do cohabit, but this allows for more variety, so it's mostly forgivable. As you run up against dinosaurs, they'll be added to your Dinopedia, where you'll find all of their statistical information, as well as a 3D model of each, for your perusal.
Fossil League is by no stretch of the imagination a good-looking game. Between the muddy, blurry environments, the dull 2D character models, the uncomfortably close camera angle, and the nondescript and inaccurate overhead map, you'll be disappointed around every corner. The game does at least try to animate the dinosaurs as they attack one another, which is slightly better than just having their images jiggle or do nothing at all, but the animation is as awkward as you'd imagine from a 10-ton quadruped doing a dropkick. Granted, no one really knows what a dinosaur actually looked like, but more time probably should have been spent sprucing up the visuals, especially in light of the intended educational value of associating a name with a face. The audio fares better, as it provides some nice, up-tempo battle music and a different looping tune for each time period. However, there isn't much variety to it for how long the game is, so you'll most likely turn off the sound a few hours in, or sooner.
If you've got a friend or younger sibling who also has this game, you'll be able to extend the value of Fossil League even further with the multiplayer battling mode. But even without it, the gameplay is enjoyable enough to keep you interested for the 15 to 20 hours it will take to reach the end of the story and be crowned champion of the Battle Coliseum (and, you know, save every human being who has or ever will live). It may not look like much, but Fossil League packs a satisfying experience, and you might just learn something in the process of saving the world.