The mid-90’s were quite a transition for the video game industry. Not only were the at the time dated 16-bit machines on the way out, but the new console hardware, namely the Nintendo 64, the Sega Saturn as well as the Sony PlayStation were forcibly moving developers out of their 2-D comfort zone into the bold new horizon that was 3-D. Feeling the pinch in this transition was Acclaim, who made a name for themselves by releasing licensed games and bringing the first two Mortal Kombat games to console but now found themselves in financial trouble due to a decline in sales of 16-bit games and a lack of presense in the 3-D space.
To turn their fortunes around, the now-defunct publishers hedged their bets on buying the fledgling Valiant comics to turn their comic book properties into not only video games, but multi-media franchises. The first game from this new Acclaim was quite the gamble; Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, an M-rated “Doom Clone” (what the industry called First-Person Shooters back in the day) on the newly released Nintendo 64. Nintendo of course being synonymous with family friendly games like Mario, Kirby and Donkey Kong among others and not so much big guns and buckets of blood (historically the Big N blocked Acclaim from shipping the original Mortal Kombat on the SNES unless the blood was removed). Acclaim’s gamble in this new genre would indeed pay off as Turok: Dinosaur Hunter would go on to be come one of the earliest million selling copy N64 games that not only saved Acclaim but kick-started a decade long franchise that would also spawn action figures and a direct-to-DVD animated feature.
Though Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is based on a property that has its origin as far back as 1956, you couldn’t really tell from the bare-bones story and set-up that could easily be squeezed onto the back of its packaging. Loosely based on the Valiant relaunch of the title in the 1990’s, the player as Turok must stop The Campaigner from collecting the pieces of an ancient device called the Chronoscepter, a destructive weapon that could spell the end of the Lost Land, a dangerous sub-dimension where time stands still and ancient dinosaurs roam free. So yeah, those looking for any real insight into the Turok character are better left tracking down some comics, but games around this era, especially first-person shooters, weren’t known for their deep narratives.
It’s note very often that I discuss the box art for a game, but I have to make a special note in the case of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. From the basic information that’s given about the character, Turok is a mantle that’s been handed down from generation to generation, making “Turok” a title and not the name of the character (until a much, MUCH later game, that is). The cover art of the game features a younger, contemporary take on the character who is identified in a comic printed in the instruction manual as Joshua Fireseed, the star of Turok 2: Seeds of Evil and who also has a brief cameo at the start of Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion.
The character model in the game however, does not match that look at all and holds the appearance of a more traditional Native-American who goes by the name of Tal’Set, one of the original Turok’s.
What’s interesting is that the Japanese box-art for the game features a character that resembles the in-game character way more than the North American cover. I’m not entirely sure why this was the case, perhaps it was a case of Acclaim feeling that North American’s would be turned off by the main character for some reason and gave him a radical (in every sense of the word) 90’s redesign, which is pretty pointless seeing that game is played from the first-person perspective and you barely see Turok in-game. In any case, I’m not sure why the bait-and-switch from the box to the game nor can I find any relevant data on this, but it’s worth mentioning as it’s always something that has stuck with me since the first time I saw this game on a rental store shelf and knew absolutely nothing about it.
FPS’ were no stranger to Nintendo consoles with the SNES housing a port of the PC classic Doom and even before that with the 3-D portions of Jurassic Park on the same console, but Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was to be designed from the ground up to be played on the N64 with its unique controller and as Acclaim was the first-to-market on the genre, they had little reference point on how to best optimize the controller layout for the game. This led to Turok’s own specialized control scheme that had quite the learning curve back then as well as now.
Forward, backward as well as strafing movement are handled by the “C” camera buttons while aiming controls is handled by the analog stick. As all of the 3-D games on the market at the time, mainly Super Mario 64 and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, used the analog stick for movement, Acclaim already made the player re-think how to use the controller after they just wrapped their heads around moving in a three-dimensional space. What’s worse is that the game only provides the one look option, being inverted, so those who play their first-person games non-inverted (like myself) are in for a bigger up hill battle. With a little time though, everything just starts to click and you find yourself moving around the jungles of the Lost Land taking out enemies with relative ease. In revisiting this game as part of this feature, it’s amazing how natural it felt after a decade or more of dual-analog stick shooters, but that being said, I did know what I was getting into having played the Turok N64 trilogy when they were coming out. I’d love to see a video of people raised on the Xbox 360 and PS3 try to wrap their heads around playing a game in this genre in this manner.
What differentiated Turok as a franchise on the whole was its crazy weaponry. Starting off you have a very traditional shooter inventory like a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, etc but as you progress through the jungles and ruins of the Lost Lands you acquire things like a nuke launcher that is so destructive it can destroy all trees in the vicinity it’s fired in and the Chronoscepter should you be able to find each piece of it hidden in every level that’s even more potent as a weapon of mass destruction. Some of the most fun you’ll have in Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is tracking down a cheat code or two that grants you unlimited ammo as well as all weapons and then unleashing hell on even the most mundane enemies just to get their reactions.
For a game that came out in 1996 close to the launch of a brand new console, Turok impresses even today with the level of AI found within its enemies. Human foes will react depending on what area of their anatomy that their shot in, often hilariously I might add, while tenacious dinosaurs won’t stop until they’ve been pumped with enough lead. Some of the more annoying foes, and it’s a pet peeve I have with all FPS’, are tiny enemies that hover around either your feet or your head with a very small window in which to kill them. The best course of action is to normally switch to one of your smaller caliber weapons or even your knife which can be annoying to get to in the heat of battle as you have to cycle down through your weapons with the “A” and “B” buttons.
As impressive as the regular stage enemies intelligence is, the same cannot be said for the games handful of bosses. They all provide an amount of awe with their sheer size, especially the T-Rex you fight towards the end as well as a robotic mantis, but the strategy for all is just to simply strafe around and slowly whittle down their massive life meters which isn’t very fun and drag on a bit too long. I think everyone who purchased a game with a guy holding a knife to the throat of a raptor would be very disappointed if a T-Rex didn’t make an appearance somewhere, but I wish more thought had been put into how fun it could have been to take down the King of the Dinosaurs with the arsenal of weapons provided to you.
One of the things that’s rather jarring going back to Turok: Dinosaur Hunter in this decade is that despite being on hardware that’s incredibly dated, it feels in many respects far more ambitious than games that are published today in the FPS space. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter does have a very simple structure: collect keys to access more levels, fight a boss sometimes and collect more keys, but whereas modern shooters are content with funneling the player down a path and then dazzling with shallow set-pieces, Turok encourages the player to explore massive levels that are easy to lose your bearing in; this is very much a “Nintendo Power Game”, a reference that may be lost on today’s culture, but needless to say even on the lowest difficulty setting, you’re probably going to use some resource to get some help . Levels range from jungles, to catacombs and sci-fi settings like the inside of a space ship, all of which are a fun to explore every square inch searching for new weapons, keys, or that sliver of health and ammo that will get your over the horizon.
What can make exploring these expansive levels a chore is the emphasis developer Iguana Entertainment placed on jumping in this game. Whether it was a mandate set down by Nintendo or the fact that plat-formers were all the rage in video games in that era, this game features a plethora of annoying easy-to-miss jumps that are more hazardous than any dinosaur. The jumping controls in Turok are fine but the space in which your characters needs to land on is normally pretty narrow with a mis-step meaning a lot of lost progress, health, lives, or all three. This is especially true later in the game where platforms are placed either bottomless pits or lava traps that feel unfair a lot of the time. When you enter into a section where some leaps of faith are required, you’re normally given a save point right before such that if you die, you can restart with little to no lost progress, however there’s also a fair amount of times where this isn’t the case either and it can be quite frustrating.
There’s a lot of reasons why Turok: Dinosaur Hunter shouldn’t have worked: It was the first game on its kind on a brand new system, based on a little known property and on a machine known for more family friendly fare, but in spite of all of that, it turned into a franchise that would define the Nintendo 64 in its short life span. It is not a perfect game, what with its reliance on first-person plat-forming and bland boss encounters, but in everything it does right: namely its expansive levels and destructive weaponry, it more than make up for its short-comings. You won’t find this game on a Virtual Console of any kind given the myriad of licensing issues, but I implore anyone who owns an N64 to either pick up again or try for the first time, this somewhat lost classic.