When I was in elementary school, we had a modest computer lab full of machines that ran MS-DOS and a number of “edutainment” titles, some of which I’ve already discussed in this column. One that hasn’t yet come up is Designasaurus. In part, that’s because for years I had only a vague half-memory of the software, and it wasn’t until recently that I actually tracked down its name. It’s also because, unlike Crosscountry Canada, I have never heard anyone else mention Designasaurus, so there’s good odds that either few people played it or that it wasn’t very memorable to those who did. Regardless, let’s talk about it.
One of the things that most fascinated me about my early experiences with computers was their capacity to assist in creating art. I was mesmerized even by simple programs on my father’s computer that let him make pie charts, and I often asked him to help me generate them. I wasn’t interested in visualizing data so much as I was compelled by the idea that a computer could make colorful drawings with some input from me.
So I suppose it’s no wonder that Designasaurus caught my attention in school. Developed by Ezra Sidran and published by Britannica Software, the program has three modes which let you create your own dinosaur, walk it around a map, and print it out. The software was developed in 1988, so it’s fairly — sorry — primitive, but the idea of building a dinosaur was immensely compelling to me. I mean, it was the 90s, kids everywhere were obsessed with them. An in-game paleontologist from the Museum of Natural History allowed the player to select from different bones, building a creature to their specifications.
But Designasaurus wasn’t just about creation. Once you were finished making your dinosaur, you’d take it into the “Walk-a-Dinosaur” mode, where the goal was to help your created creature survive. That meant maneuvering the dinosaur around the screen, finding food and avoiding danger. Here, some of the parts you chose would impact your dinosaur’s statistics and behavior. For instance, herbivores focused on eating leaves and escaping predators, while carnivores had to actively chase down other dinosaurs that appeared on-screen.
It was simple, and dated even then — I’d played an NES at a family friend’s place on a few occasions that blew this kind of DOS game out of the water. But Designasaurus was a neat little combination of a few different features. It tapped into the dinomania that was everywhere in the early 90s, and by first letting players design a dinosaur and then letting them play around with it, the software kind of had one of the first character creators in games that I can remember. Plus, it was fun to mess around with different parts and see how they’d affect the gameplay outcome.
Did Designasaurus actually teach me anything? Well, maybe not about the subject matter of dinosaurs. But it did show me some of the early possibilities of computers that went beyond playing games and solving math problems. And looking back, that was probably a much more valuable lesson.