My heart is racing when I look down the sight of my crossbow at a Tyrannosaurus Rex less than 100 meters away. All I can see is an enormous shadow, like something out of an old horror movie, obscured by dense fog. This is the shot I've been practicing for during my eight hours playing Carnivores: Dinosaur Hunter Reborn. It's the shot I've been waiting to take for more than 20 years.
Before 2015's Carnivores: Dinosaur Hunter Reborn, there was just Carnivores. I was six years old when it came out in 1998. I often split time on the family computer with my younger brother, who would have been around four at the time.
My father says that Carnivores is the last computer game he really remembers playing alongside my siblings and I. We would take turns choosing a weapon and a dinosaur to face, then being dropped onto an island to hunt them.
My earliest jump scare memories are of being eaten by a velociraptor. The camera would circle my dead hunter's body as a raptor snarled and bit him to pieces. My little six-year-old heart pounded as I gathered my wits to try again. The Tyrannosaurus Rex, even more dangerous than the raptors that gave my brother and I both sweaty palms, felt like an insurmountable, omniscient foe. If we saw one, we were as good as dead already.
Except for one time, which is why I'm playing this game again. It's why I've been holding onto a tiny grudge for 20 years. You see, each dinosaur has a weak point in Carnivores, and as kids my brother and I had to learn to aim precisely with a mouse if we wanted to bag them. For stegosaurus it was the entire head. On the velociraptor it was the head and neck. The greatest catch of all, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, could only be felled by a shot directly in its eye. If I was too young for such a feat, so was my younger brother. And yet, according to family legend, he successfully made that shot at four years old.
I've met four year olds. They're better at video games than I remember being. Still, when I realized that Carnivores had been remade and re-released on Steam, I began questioning the old family stories. I quizzed my brother. Does he even remember his legendary kill? He does, allegedly. He made the shot with a rifle, the standard weapon, with my father looking over his shoulder.
"I will swear on a dungeon master's handbook," he says. A true oath for a grad-school nerd. "If I lie after that, I'll have to turn in my dice, badge, and gun."
I decided I have to even the score, so here I am playing the modern version of Carnivores. It operates mostly how I remember: I choose a weapon, starting with the default iron-sight rifle. The first dinosaur I'm permitted to hunt is the stegosaurus, a slow and stupid target that's no challenge for me, destined future T-Rex slayer. With a handheld GPS that gives me the lay of the island, I set out to track my prey by the sound of its calls echoing across the starter island. I kill the first stegosaurus outright and despite my dismissal of the beast as below my skill level, its confused and distressed cries make me regret my bloodlust.
I quickly realize that I have the option to equip tranquilizer darts instead of bullets and do that instead, because it makes me feel less like a rich jerk hunting herbivores for sport. I'm sure the giant quadcopter that picks up my sleeping friends with a sci-fi tractor beam will take them to a nice farm upstate and not some kind of dinosaur kill shelter.
After neutralizing a handful of stegosaurus, I move on to ankylosaurus and then parasaurolophus, learning to judge the drop of my crossbow bolts with each confirmed "kill." After earning enough "gems" from each of my trophies, I'm finally able to take on a beast with some teeth (pointy ones, that is), the Ceratosaurus. My palms sweat as I begin tracking the first truly dangerous dinosaur I've encountered. The mix of fear and anticipation makes me feel six years old again. One hungry Ceratosaurus manages to kill me so fast I barely realize I'm in danger. When I die, the game immediately cuts to a bland game over screen that doesn't let me watch my killer ripping me to shreds the way the original Carnivores did. It's my first clue that DHR's stakes are lower than what I contended with as a kid.
In my determination to finally have something to lord over my brother at Thanksgiving dinner, I become a ceratosaurus hunting machine. Capturing them nets a hefty reward and prepares me for the tension of hunting the king of the Cretaceous Period. I use my winnings to unlock tools like a radar upgrade showing nearby dinosaurs on my map. I reuse the cheesy strategies I still remember from my childhood, like jumping on top of tall rocks to stay out of reach predators as I shoot them from above. I don't regret my shortcuts. The ends are worth the means. Eyes on the prize.
The more I play, the more maps I unlock, each more difficult than the last. Eventually I wind up back on the starter island, this time in a dense fog. It's my first available encounter with a T-Rex. While I initially assume the fog is meant to be a new challenge, I begin to wonder, as I crouch-walk anxiously around the island, if the fog is actually for my protection. DHR gives the T-Rex 5/5 stars for sight, scent, and hearing ability. It is the apex predator, after all. Am I the prey?
I equip increased damage for my tranq crossbow, camouflage, scent masking, and the radar upgrade showing me the T-Rex's location once I'm within range. With all these tools I sprint all over the fog-covered island, suddenly fearless. Yet despite my preparation, I can't seem to find a T-Rex. I try two separate hunting trips to locate one with no luck. Discouraged, I switch hunting licenses back to the ceratosaurus. I'll capture a few more to earn enough gems to equip all my current gear and a decoy sound that will let me mimic a T-Rex's call to draw it in.
Of course, that's exactly when I finally find one. Sequestered on a remote peninsula, I find a T-Rex and ceratosaurus casually milling about together. I pull out my radar and use my binoculars to be certain it's the real deal. Sure enough, my AR lens confirms its identity. I take a shot at the ceratosaurus to scare it off. Now it's just me and Mr. T.
I feel six years old again, heart racing and certain that if even one of its tiny, impossible-to-hit eyes spots me, I'll be dead before I can try to aim. My first shot, the one I've been waiting 20 years to take, is just a test. I hit it near its jaw. I know that won't take it down, but it will tell me how it reacts. The T-Rex howls in pain and stomps past me, shaking my screen with every step. I'm not dead yet, and I feel bolder for it immediately.
I follow it up the coast, sneaking in and out of the brush until I can get within range again. Now here's my dirty little secret: I won't actually have to hit it directly in the eye. Sadly, DHR ditched that requirement. Shots to specific body parts do more damage, but in the new Carnivores, I'm rewarded for tenacity more than accuracy. I already know that my capture won't be the stuff of legends that my brother's was. Still, I'm prepared for a lengthy hunt. This is the baddest mother around. Surely it will take a number of successfully tranquilizer darts, despite that increased damage upgrade.
I hold my breath in-game and unintentionally at my desk as I line up my second shot. It lands in the dino king's neck. The T-Rex wails again. Then it... falls?
Its oversized legs pedal the air while it lands on its face and my jaw hits the ground with it. After all that, the legendary Tyrannosaurus Rex took only two crossbow bolts to bring down? I realize I switched my hunting license back to the ceratosaurus for the hunt, meaning I can't even ask the quadcopter to pick up my trophy. I stow my crossbow and call for my evac.
I spent eight hours playing and preparing for a kill that never truly could have helped me upstage my brother. Ever a cheery font of encouragement, he says "Guess they had to make it easier for you, dino-slaying n00b."
I'm not sure exactly how much my pride is worth, but I do know that copies of the original Carnivores go for $10 on Ebay. Next time's for keeps.