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25 Years Later — Turok: Dinosaur Hunter Redefined Console Shooters

From the Nintendo 64 to the PC remaster, the legacy of Turok is intertwined with the history of ports.



25 Years Later — Turok: Dinosaur Hunter

The Nintendo 64 was never the best platform for shooters. At a time when PC already had moved to mouse and keyboard, a limited controller held the console back: moving and rotating the camera at the same time was generally avoided, making tank controls the only choice for first-person shooters. As a result, almost every console shooter of the late ‘90s plays much closer to last decade’s Wolfenstein 3D than their contemporaries, like the Quake series or Duke Nukem 3D. It is curious, then, how the N64’s contributions to the genre are still very well remembered, so much so that Rare’s Perfect Dark, still sits as Metacritic’s highest rated shooter of all time. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter isn’t quite there, but it shares much of its console companions’ quirks and limitations, if they really can be called that.

Those limitations – like the tank controls, the low speed and draw distance, and the limited vertical camera movement – weren’t much of an issue for players of the time, though maybe we should say, they weren’t an issue for console players. Platforms were highly segregated in the late ‘90s, so much so that porting a game to a different platform would often result in a completely new product.

Ports from this time are then very interesting, grappling with design dilemmas that have since disappeared: How do you make a piece of software inextricably tied to its hardware, universal? How much of the gameplay can change before the game becomes unrecognizable?

Most companies choose to simply outsource the problem, giving out some liberties in the meantime, as was the case with the Windows version of Final Fantasy 7. Others, like Id Software with DOOM 64, choose to let another studio build an entirely different game under the same IP, in order to preserve the essence of the series without sacrificing playability.

With this context in mind, we can now understand how peculiar Turok really is: an almost careless, straight port to the immensely different PC ecosystem. The result is near-flawless, even today.

Turok, The Nintendo 64 Classic

At its simplest, Turok is a treasure hunt. Each level is like a violent tour of a new exotic location, full of secret rooms and invisible bridges to a stash of ammo. The objective is to collect enough keys to unlock a new area.

Though key hunting (the act of searching for keys in an FPS) had been commonplace on PC since at least Wolfenstein 3D, it was rarely seen in console shooters. Shifting under the weight of its slower, methodical gameplay, Turok changed the function of the keys so much that it reshaped the nature of the game itself, until even the PC port was unrecognizable from its inspirations.

For one, keys in Turok don’t open new sections of the level you’re in. Rather, if you acquire enough, you can unlock a whole new level. Given that keys are no longer necessary to reach the finish line, they can be hidden far better than they were before, and the developers seem to jump at any opportunity to do so.

In fact, what immediately sets Turok apart from its contemporaries are the dark, natural environments, woven into labyrinths by the level design. The effect is both nostalgic and novel, organic and clearly artificial. The theme of the game plays with this duality too, mixing dinosaurs, aliens, and a time-traveling militia. It too is incredibly creative for its time, a much darker affair than the first Far Cry, not quite the comedy that is the original Shadow Warrior.

Turok: Dinosaur Hunter 25 years later Nintendo 64 Retrospective
Image: Night Dive Studios

Being loosely based on a comic book might have helped Turok convey its campy action movie tone through the poor narration, but what really sells it is when the story just isn’t there. The first boss battle comes completely unprompted, as an SUV jumps out of the bushes and tries to run you over. Defeat it twice and a regular human soldier jumps out of it, machine gun in hand. He laughs like a bad Stallone impersonation and takes as many bullets as the car to go down.

The PC Port

Where Turok really shows its Nintendo 64 roots is in the game’s pacing. The labyrinthic structure perfectly serves the sprawling necropolis and the ancient cities that make up the game’s levels. This structure also works perfectly for the slow, methodical gameplay common to most console FPS of this generation.

The same goes for the high focus on secrets and hidden areas, which works perfectly on N64 but would be close to impossible to find on a fast-moving PC shooter. And here lies the problem with Turok.

While not as well-received as the N64 version, the PC port of Turok was a significant economic success. More importantly, it is on this platform that the legacy of Turok lives: the easiest, most comfortable way to play the first two installments in the series is through Night Dive’s stellar remasters of the PC ports. Before then, it was through the original 1997 port.

Even then, many of the core elements of the N64 Turok almost work against this port: the key hunting does not translate well to the faster gameplay; circle-strafing around enemies often breaks them; the lack of manual saves makes every failed jump sting harder. Even then, there is no doubt that the remastered PC version makes for the most pleasant experience of the bunch.

Of all of the bad decisions in this port, speed is by far my favorite. The faster running speed is a godsent since enemies die faster too when you wield a mouse and keyboard, though finding secrets doesn’t get any easier when you’re zooming past them faster than a velociraptor.

What’s more, running and strafing at the same time ups one’s speed significantly, while jumping, strafing and rotating the camera at the same time seems to warp the fabric of space itself. Needless to say, this ruins much of the platforming challenges. Much, but not all.

Turok: Dinosaur Hunter Retrospective
Image: Night Dive Studios

The platforming might actually be the worst victim of this port, together with key hunting. The challenges are nothing special for a ‘90s shooter, but in Turok they take a much more central role. Sadly, a modern player will only realize this once failing a single jump brings them back three minutes. Or when realizing, after half an hour spent trying to speed through it, that what looked like a platforming challenge was really a simple navigational puzzle.

Still, the overall port works staggeringly well, considering how differently it plays from the original. Though some might be the merit of foresight, the port releasing fast enough that we can assume it was planned along with the N64 version, part of it was due to the revolutionary control scheme the original offered.

In a truly risky move, especially for an N64 title from 1997, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter decided to move away from tank controls entirely, leaving its players not even the option to choose a control scheme they would be more familiar with. Though it wasn’t really dual analog (that is, left stick moves the character, right stick aims), the effect was still similar to the feel of the WASD and mouse that PC gamers were already used to.

What Remains of Turok Now

It is true, as much for Turok as for the similarly revolutionary Alien Resurrection and TimeSplitters, that the dual analog control scheme was not brought by a single game. But with its timely PC port, released less than a year after the N64 original, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter stands as a statement to what really does and doesn’t translate between those early console shooter innovations and modern PC shooter conventions.

What stands out more is what’s missing: Turok has no crosshair, no crouch button, no quicksaves, or manual saving from the pause menu. There is no sprinting either, instead, the protagonist is always running at top speed, a speed far higher than what most of those levels, and these enemies, were built to accommodate. What’s also noticeable is how short the levels would really be, if it wasn’t for the (now much harder) key hunting.

Playing Turok now, the feeling is that the character too, has grown old with the player, and he too is revisiting this world, after learning a few tricks. This feeling is especially evident in the stellar remasters, both from Night Dive Studios, of the first two games in the series, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Turok: Seeds of Evil.

On top of some excellent accessibility features, such as the highly customizable head-bopping options, and the much tighter controls, the draw distance has been made seemingly endless. Doing so removes completely the fog effect and reveals that most levels, which used to look like dense natural environments, are actually the typical mix of wider areas connected by tiny corridors common to most videogames to this day.

Turok: Dinosaur Hunter Retrospective
Image: Night Dive Studios

All in all, while the remaster loses some of the magic of the original, playing Night Dive’s version of the PC port feels even more like looking at a relic of the past, which is a magical feeling in its own right: it is like peeking at the foundations of an ancient city and imagining how it must have looked with its walls still up; it’s like using an elevator to climb on top of the Eiffel Tower.

Even plugging in a controller won’t replicate how the game functions on the N64, instead allowing for an experience that certainly feels closer to the original than mouse and keyboard.
“Feel”, you might have noticed, is the keyword of those remasters.

Battling with the (now) completely out-of-place key hunting brings down the experience a peg or two, and saving the game only in certain spots can be quite a pain at times. The same goes for the lack of a shadow under your feet, making each jump more difficult than it needs to be. Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives: the game itself is staggeringly playable for an experimental N64 shooter, and the remasters are some of the best we’ve seen in recent years.

The Night Dive versions of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Turok: Seeds of Evil, itself an excellent sequel to the original, are the best (and more accessible) way to replay the classics. They come bundled with the excellent map maker tool, and both the Steam Workshop and the fan websites are chock full of community map packs and even mini-campaigns. On a value per money spent, the convenience of both games cannot be overstated.

Well-rounded nerd and self identified loveable weirdo, Diana loves stories in all their forms, even though she’s too lazy for most things that aren’t games. She’d drop anything for a night of TTRPGs, and often does. You can find her rummaging trough the tiniest of indie games releases, or trying to wrap up a 50 hours long Visual Novel she regrets ever starting.