Turok

Turok

Written by Sean Colleli on 1/25/2016 for PC  
More On: Turok

I’ve said it before, reviewing old games is tricky. When they’re remastered or updated to a modern platform, as Night Dive Studios has made their stock in trade, it can be useful to re-evaluate classic games and judge them on the merits of their conversion. But what about a relic like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter? The original Turok is remembered almost entirely in the realm of rose-tinted glasses. It was technologically groundbreaking in early March of 1997, especially as an N64 exclusive when the platform had so little software to begin with. Turok at least proved you could do a first person shooter on the N64 and do it reasonably well, especially adapted to that bizarre controller, which was as much a missing link as the dinosaurs Turok was gunning for.

But then something amazing happened: GoldenEye 007 dropped like a bomb a mere six months after Turok debuted. While Turok was a fairly serviceable proof-of-concept, GoldenEye was a work of art in comparison. Neither game has aged particularly well, and I’ll admit to having a huge GoldenEye bias (it remains my favorite game of all time), but judged on their own merits there really isn’t a contest—GoldenEye wins hands down.

Is Turok still worth a look nearly two decades later? Well, yes, at the very least as a fascinating time capsule of FPS design. That said, I had another burning reason for taking this assignment. Acclaim’s Iguana Entertainment, the studio behind Turok, would go on to do some pretty significant work. After creating a couple superior Turok sequels, Iguana survived Acclaim’s disastrous collapse by morphing into Retro Studios. Many of the developers who worked on Turok were none other than the team that created Metroid Prime, what I consider to be one of the greatest first person adventures of all time.

Reviewing Night Dive’s remaster of Turok, then, was a fascinating glimpse into the contemporary heritage of my most-loved games. The early fingerprints of Metroid Prime are surprisingly evident on Turok. The settings could not be more different, however. A time-traveling Native American, Tal’Set of the Saquin people, is given the mantle of the legendary Turok. An extraterrestrial villain known as the Campaigner steals the mystical Chronoscepter and uses it to enter the Lost Land. Turok is charged with protecting this mystical Lost Land, a place across time where dinosaurs and ancient peoples coexist, so he must journey inside and retrieve the Chronoscepter from the Campaigner.

…Yeah, it’s some corny stuff and would be right at home in a newsstand pulp, which makes sense because Turok traces his origins to comic books of the 1950s, where he was one of the first Native American super heroes. It’s a pretty crazy setup for a video game and not something you’d see these days, but you wouldn’t even know any of the backstory without the manual. After some fairly flashy intro screens you’re dropped right into the game, and this is where Turok’s gameplay lineage start to take shape.

It turns out Turok is a fascinating look into the transitioning FPS genre in the late 90s. This game was released less than a year after Quake—which kind of hurts my head to think about—and the design influence is quite noticeable. I played Turok back in the day (a few of my friends had it) but I played a lot more Quake and I ate, slept and breathed GoldenEye, so I didn’t notice the similarities until now.

Turok is firmly rooted in the past, with floating powerups, little crosses for health pickups, and a formidable 15-weapon arsenal of shotguns, miniguns, and even a nuclear rocket launcher. The game’s naively earnest approach to Tal’Set’s Native heritage is embodied in his ever-present bow and arrows, which can be upgraded to fire explosives. I have a nostalgic yearning for the shooters of yesteryear, where developers packed them with crazy guns just so players could experiment with what worked best. Today’s shooters are a bland parade of samey pistols and automatics with a few shotguns for good measure, and even GoldenEye’s weapon roster was mainly military-inspired firearms (we didn’t get the cool crazy stuff until Perfect Dark).

Turok is also surprisingly violent, not for a late 90s shooter but definitely for an N64 exclusive. Playing Turok reminded me how much I miss those guilty pleasure motion-captured death animations; mercenaries slowly crumbling to the ground as blood spurts from a wound in the side of their neck, or velociraptors collapsing into a growing pool of guts n’ gibs. It’s a far cry (heh) from the uniform ragdoll stumble of Call of Duty or even Half Life 2. Incidentally, watching a guard in GoldenEye gasping through a trachea wound as he crumpled in slow agony was a shocking, formative moment for me as a gamer. It showed me just how starkly real games were getting back in 1997, and it’s cool to see that Iguana was doing similar things in Turok. Shooters just don’t have that kind of understated but in-your-face brutality anymore; that sticky, authentically human element to the violence that touches something deep, unsettling and instinctual down inside of us.

Turok’s mechanics might be distinctly old-school, but its level design is curiously forward-looking. Instead of a series of sequential levels or even a narrative driven quest like Half-Life, Turok consists of a hub world and several branching levels. Each level contains keys for unlocking subsequent levels, so you can always go back to pick up a key you missed, collect missed items or hunt down secret weapons. Levels also have save points scattered throughout, the only way to record progress. I was surprised by how much Turok’s level structure reminded me of Metroid Prime and its adventure style hub and branching sub-worlds. Nintendo clearly was paying attention even as far back as 1997 when scouting for future Metroid talent—there’s a reason they accepted a seemingly innocuous, former Acclaim studio as a second party developer.

While Turok has a lot of heritage and futuristic ideas, it is also very much an experiment and that is its main stumbling block. The development of Metroid Prime was notoriously difficult with several team members leaving (or being fired) and it’s clear that the Turok formula went through some considerable, agonizing growing pains on the road to Metroid greatness. The levels are mostly earthy corridors broken up by temples and villages, until you get to the final area which is a bit more scifi. There are occasional caves and underwater areas, but it’s hard to recall a level that really stands out. It’s a bit like how Quake wowed everyone back in 1996, but the art direction was basically the same dingy brown castle repeated ad nauseum.

It’s also pretty difficult to navigate the levels effectively. Originally the entire game was draped in thick fog to keep the framerate manageable, but as a result you couldn’t see ten feet in front of your face. Night Dive’s remastered version thankfully gives you the option to push this fog back quite a ways, but I have no idea how anyone managed to explore the Lost Lands the old, misty way. Even without the omnipresent fog it’s very easy to get turned around, so you’ll probably have the automap superimposed over the action fairly often. This confusing level design makes it pretty difficult to hunt down those all-important keys, so even basic progression becomes a chore in short order.

By the way, don’t sit down to play Turok unless you have a decent chunk of time blocked out. Save stations are placed very far apart and seemingly at random, as if the level designers occasionally remembered to put them in, irrespective of map structure. This is the only way to save the game, and paired with Turok’s bizarre and archaic lives system (clunky and redundant even for ’97) it makes quick play sessions impossible. If Night Dive could have added one more major improvement, it would be a freaking quicksave option.

It’s not that Night Dive didn’t do a good job on this remaster because they did competent work as always. Turok runs smoothly on modern hardware and it works without significant glitches or compatibility issues. It’s just that the inherent gameplay is remarkably primitive and the game is harder for it. Turok is already a challenging game to explore, but with constantly respawning enemies and limited ammo and health, it can be a real, desperate slog. With the fog everywhere the original game was almost a survival horror experience; dinosaurs and monsters could jump out of the mists, teeth bared, apparently at any moment. With that fog pushed back, now it’s just irritating to see the three raptors I just spent ten precious shotgun shells to kill respawning only a minute later. There’s no shame in playing Turok on easy mode, as even normal difficulty is unreasonably obstinate.

It must have been an enormous struggle to complete this game as it was originally released; drenched in fog, displayed in 320 x 240 resolution and on that single-stick N64 controller. And did I mention that the original cartridge cost $80 at launch? Night Dive is doing us a lot of favors with this re-release, but in some ways I feel like they didn’t go far enough. As I mentioned it really needs a quicksave feature, and an aiming crosshair would have helped with picking off distant, nagging enemies. Turok is also a bit too dear at $20 on both Steam and GOG.

Personally I can’t recommend Turok at 20 bucks; I’d wait for a sale. I just don’t have as much nostalgia invested in the original game to where I’d pay that much for what is ultimately a fairly frustrating experience. But if you’re an old school fan then what you have here is one of your favorite games the way you want to remember it, not necessarily as it was all those years ago. Turok remastered is cleaned up, smoothed out and optimized for modern hardware, but it can’t quite escape its prehistoric heritage. That said, this release is really just a test drive. I can’t wait for Night Dive to release the remaster they’re currently working on, for the vastly superior Turok 2: Seeds of Evil.

Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is an intriguing walk down memory lane, and Night Dive Studios have done their usual good job of optimizing it for modern hardware. That said Turok hasn’t aged very well at all, and there are some inherent flaws that keep the original from being as fun as the sequels.

 

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.

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