The post crash years of the game industry is an odd one to explore. Due to various factors, time seems to have largely forgotten everything that wasn't Nintendo until about 1991 when some more serious competition began to spring up. Numerous worthy titles from about 1984 onward were lost in a sea of worthy titles that graced the Nintendo platform. This is mainly due to the iron clad grasp the Nintendo had in 2 out of the 3 major markets. When virtually everybody had a Nintendo, releasing a great game on a more obscure competitor virtually ensured irrelevancy. A few worthy titles have gained notoriety simply because of the success their series had on later systems - Konami's MSX output is a great example of this. Others have been given a second lease on life because of word of mouth and the later recognized brilliant pedigree of their developers and publishers. Wonderboy 3 falls into that category.
But there are tons of titles which still, to this day, do not get the recognition they deserve. While, arguably, some of these sorts of titles are niche and their appeal obviously limited despite excellent execution and premise (I'm looking at you, Ninja Golf), there exists one game series which I feel would have been right at home on any action gamer's shelf. A true lost classic, one that was derivative enough to feel familiar to anyone weaned on the NES, and influential enough to inspire countless great clones, yet somehow still forgotten.
I am talking about Turrican.
Turrican is the rare sort of game that does everything correct and still doesn't see the success it deserves. This isn't to say Turrican is an unknown title. I imagine a number of our European posters have entered this topic wondering how such a game could be considered "lost." Indeed, Turrican is one of the greatest and best remembered game series to ever come out of the continent. However, because of the formats it chose to embrace and Nintendo's dominance on overseas market share, it never achieved global success like it should have.
Before they eventually entered the public consciousness with their Adult Swim tv shows, I had heard of Tim Heidecker and Eric Warheim referred to as "the comedian's comedians" because of how well respected they were amongst their peers. Turrican, similarly, is "the action gamer's action game." Amongst developers and video game historians, Turrican has a pedigree that is sparkling, and influence that is surprising. It's just that for all the heaps of accolades placed upon the series, it never registered with the greater public consciousness. This thread is my small attempt to do the series the justice it deserves.
For the purpose of this thread, I will split the Turrican series in two. The first half of the series has been referred to by fans as the "8-bit series" because they were primarily coded as 8-bit games on the Commodore 64 by Manfred Trenz. The second half of the series is referred to usually as the "16-bit series" because they were coded primarily for the Sega Genesis and Super NES systems, without the involvement of Manfred Trenz. This topic intends to only cover the 8-bit series, as they ultimately have wound up being more important in the context of gaming history and are generally better regarded (although, I will profess a love for the 16-bit series and urge everybody to at least try Mega Turrican/Turrican 3, despite it being a much different beast than the 8-bit series).
The story of Manfred Trenz
A more recent photo of Manfred Trenz
The story of Turrican is intimately linked to the rise of one of gaming's lost pioneers - Manfred Trenz. Like another highly gifted single-man developer, Jeff Minter, Manfred Trenz was equal parts coding genius, visionary, and gaming enthusiast (and perhaps a tiny part plagiarist as well). Trenz began his coding career in 1986 not as a developer at first, but as a hobbyist in the then-budding demoscene
. Demoscene, for the unaccustomed, is a longstanding competitive, and often highly-experimental, artistic subculture that aims to meld hardware manipulation and programming with artistic expression. It has an incredibly rich and complex history which has birthed virtually every video game visual technique in modern history. I could never hope to do the art form justice in a mere summary, but hardcore gaming 101 has an outstanding article on the subject if anybody is interested
After quickly gaining a reputation as one of the more gifted demoscene programmers, Trenz began developing one of his earliest titles - a side scrolling shmup called Denaris. Denaris, like most of Trenz work, was unabashedly derivative, to the point where his game was pretty blatantly an R-Type clone. Trenz, again like Jeff Minter, wasn't so much concerned with coming up with novel implementations, but rather, in true postmodern/copyleft tradition, concentrated on remixing what had already been done and aiming to simply do it better
on weaker hardware (better of course being a subjective term, but that was indeed his goal). Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in perhaps his best known work - The Great Giana Sisters.
Perhaps the best known Mario clone of all time - The Great Giana Sisters
The thing about Denaris is that it was a GOOD R-type clone. A damn good clone. So good, in fact, that it caught the eye of Rainbow Arts, who held the exclusive rights to produce home computer ports of R-type. Interested in his work, Rainbow Arts actually hired Trenz on as an employee to handle the C64 port of R-Type himself, which wound up becoming one of the very best home ports of the game for a number of years. This relationship between Trenz and Rainbow Arts would eventually give birth to a retail release of Denaris under the name Katakis, and eventually the titular Turrican series.
WELCOME to TURRICAN
The first Turrican began development in 1989 on the Commodore 64. Conceptualized and coded by Trenz himself, Turrican was designed to be a cross between what he considered to be the two greatest action games at the time - Contra and Metroid.
Taking the level based structure of Contra as it's core component, Turrican is made up of 5 very large, non-linear worlds. Although each world had a definite beginning and end (marked by enormous, screen-filling bosses), the path the player chose to reach the end was up to him. Turrican rewarded exploration not with new skills or weapons ala Metroid, but rather with 1ups and crystals, of which 100 could be collected to earn a continue. In contrast to Metroid and even Contra, exploring for these additional lives was imperative because Turrican was brutally
difficult. Until one had played the game long enough to master the game, these extra lives were absolutely necessary to advance.
Luckily, Turrican's outstanding level design made exploring these enormous, labyrinth worlds a joy. Turrican himself has a few primary weapons - a standard attack which can be changed with powers ups (such as a larger laser blast or a spread shot), some grenades, and a morphball-like mode that is clearly taken straight out of metroid, complete with the ability to drop bombs.
Because of the unique nature of Commodore-style controllers of the time -- there was no standard controller and thus most developers assumed players would be using 1-button atari joysticks as their primary input -- Turrican's most iconic weapon was born. The nature of 1-button controls means that the main button is primarily used to fire, while up tends to be used to jump. Because pressing up makes you jump, you can normally only fire directly in front of you. However, the large, labyrinth levels scroll both horizontally and vertically, and very often you'll be put in situations where enemies will be coming at you from above and below. To make dealing with these enemies managable, the Power Line attack was introduced. By holding the fire button down for a set period of time, the player will stop firing his normal weapon and instead fire a long, rope-like laser beam which can be rotated in around the player in 360 degrees.
The nature of having to stop for a second before you can use such an attack drastically dictates the pace of Turrican. It's a much more methodical action title than the two titles that directly influenced it. Often, you'll find yourself walking a few steps in any direction, then stopping and activating the Power Line in anticipation of an offscreen enemy rushing you from directions unseen. Avoiding an unseen enemy attack is imperative in this game because of a rather antiquated convention by modern standards: you have absolutely no invincibility or recovery time from an enemy attack. Unlike in Metroid, where being struck by an enemy will send Samus Aaron back a bit out of harms way and gives her a few seconds where she is invincible, Turrican will simply drain your lifebar steadily until you manually move to stop touching your attacker. This means that, if you're not paying attention, a single enemy can drain your entire lifebar in mere seconds.
This slower pace dictated by a need to always be on the defensive is directly at odds with the two other working factors in the game - namely that your success is tied to how many extra lives you can get, and more importantly, the time limit placed upon you in each stage.
That's right, each level has a time limit - several hundreds seconds each. These levels are enormous, with many dead ends (that are often filled with 1ups or crystals) that makes mutliple playthroughs necessary. And therein lies the genius of the game - it's inherent tension. Everything is stacked against you in every level. Do you spend your time exploring the tiny hole you notice as you're running by a cave that is obviously just big enough for you to squeeze into when in ball form that could potentially yield a dozen 1ups, or do you trek onward towards the boss because you only have 100 seconds left? Do you crawl forward at a snail's pace, trying to be as careful as possible to avoid attack to spare your lives, thus costing you valuable exploration time, or do you rush forward head first, netting you much more time to search for lives at the expense of tons of energy? These sorts of questions are faced by the player constantly. And, depending on your skillset, each style of play is rewarding in it's own way. There is thrill in honing your skills to such a level that you don't need to secure many 1ups, just like there is thrill when your life is so low that a single hit will kill you so you venture down a waterfall only to find an invisible block yielding a full energy recharge at the last possible moment.
Make no mistake, the first time you play Turrican you will die. A lot. The second time as well. You'll keep dying until you either give up (shame on you!) or learn to conquer it. Overcoming turrican is great in the same way that beating contra for the first time is great. It's a personal accomplishment.
It's also helped by Trenz's understanding of what makes for captivating game design - constant evolution. By 1989, gamers had already grown to expect longer, consistently changing games. Gone were the days of single screen, 1-background games. Levels weren't simply synonymous with "different waves of enemies in various patterns," they equated to new tile sets, new visual tricks, new things to see and do that you didn't see or do in previous levels. Turrican delivers this in spades. For the hardware, the amount of deviation from level to level is staggering. One level might take place in a bright sunny rocky mountain, with a blue sky and other-worldly vines growing everywhere, where you are expected to walk and jump to reach your goal. The next might take place in an underwater labyrinth, where suddenly physics are slow and floaty and you find yourself able to jump enormous leaps. Another might grant you the ability to fly with a jetpack inside of a cavernous mountain. The game keeps throwing new stuff at you. All along the way, new, more impressive visual tricks are unveiled. Early on, it's easy to be impressed by merely above average spritework, but it soon gives way to parallax scrolling (which is hugely impressive on the C64) to even stuff like scanline specific palette swapping on more powerful hardware (i.e. the underwater trick that Sonic the Hedgehog pulled off in Labyrinth Zone).
It all adds up to a mechanically sound title that feels greater than the sum of its components. The brutal difficulty and deliberate pacing is pure classic gaming convention - at only 5 worlds, the game can technically be beaten within minutes, but learning to play with enough skill to do so will require hundreds of playthroughs. It's that style of game where each time you play, you get a little further and a little better. It's a perfect example of a small title that lasts for months.
The glue which holds all this refinement together is masterful coding. Turrican produces the sort of experience one would expect from an NES action title on substantially weaker hardware. Most gamers tend to forget that, prior to Mario 3, games which scrolled in multiple directions were outstandingly rare. Video game hardware of that time period was generally geared towards single screen setups, or, with the aid of powerful mappers, the ability to scroll in 1 direction (either horizontally or vertically). Mario 3 accomplishes it's multi-tiered scrolling by utilizing clever implimentation of the NES hardware, which has a framebuffer large enough to store two screens at once. Mario 3 orients these screens vertically so that every level in Mario 3 is twice as tall as one screen and relies on character-width scrolling to move the left-most visible column of the screen to the far right of the screen as it passes, shifting the game 1 tile at a time and using the natural overscan on a CRT tv to hide artifacts of the effect (which is why, when played on emulation, the far right of the screen displays miscolored junk -- you were never supposed to see that stuff). The C64 didn't even have that ability in hand - it's ability to scroll in either direction was pure hardware trickery, and for Trenz to pull off scrolling in both directions at once, while still having enough CPU cycles left over to actually power the game itself, is nothing short of amazing. From a coding perspective, Turrican is amazing. It is precisely the sort of product one would expect from a genius coder in the same way we expect mind blowing tricks to come out of John Carmack. Turrican did Mario 3's vaunted multi-direction scrolling on weaker hardware before
Today, there are 4 titles which compose the 8-bit series of Turrican games. 3 had Trenz involvement, and one is a recent fan effort. They are as follows: