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An Oral History of ‘Turok: Dinosaur Hunter’

The inside story behind Nintendo 64’s original first-person shooter — a highly anticipated game with a prehistoric flair that would later be widely overlooked despite being an undeniable industry trailblazer

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

When it was released in 1996, Nintendo’s groundbreaking new console, Nintendo 64, was an immediate success. Heading into its second year, however, Nintendo had yet to produce a first-person shooter — a wildly popular new genre of game in which players control the game’s character from a first-person perspective. And without a first-person shooter that truly flaunted the N64’s computing prowess, Nintendo was at risk of losing vital ground to the Sony PlayStation in their ongoing conquest to corner the 3D gaming market

That’s where Turok comes in. 

Based on a decades-old comic book about an inter-dimensional Native American warrior, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter wasn’t an immediately recognized franchise with universally beloved characters running around a kid-friendly magical mushroom kingdom. But the dark, gritty first-person shooter pushed the N64’s aforementioned computing power to its absolute limit and became one of the system’s best-selling games

Two and a half decades later, however, Turok finds itself back in the shadows. People may fondly remember their first foray into the dense, fog-laden jungles to hunt dinosaurs with nothing but their trusty crossbow, but historically, Turok gets overlooked by games like Goldeneye 64 and Perfect Dark that followed in its footsteps. Before it gets completely lost to the annals of history, though, here’s the story of Turok’s rise as told by the people who made it.

Turok: The Chosen One

By 1996, Acclaim had long established itself as a titan of the video game industry, in large part due to the success of games like Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam. But the company desperately needed to evolve, as video games themselves were evolving from 2D to 3D graphics. If it couldn’t develop games for the upcoming Nintendo 64 system, it wouldn’t survive. 

To that end, Acclaim went on a massive spending spree, buying up existing independent software companies and innumerable creative properties it could license and turn into games. Finally, the company set out into uncharted territory, hoping it could utilize motion capture — something it had previously mastered with Mortal Kombat — to create 3D graphic imaging. 

Remington Scott, Interactive Director for Acclaim: You have to remember that 3D-animated humans, that look like, let alone move like, humans, had never been done. So when you’re a massive publisher pressed with developing 3D-animated games, this becomes a real problem. But Acclaim figured it out — they spent $10 million on a motion-capture studio that was about two and a half stories tall. It was avante garde; nobody had done anything like this before, but Acclaim was betting motion capture would be the key to their success again, only this time, in 3D. 

So when it came to deciding which game would be the first to utilize that — Acclaim’s building was made up of several of these large rooms with many, many producers, each with a multitude of titles that they were producing. There was a lot going on, and they’d be throwing out concepts on which games to make and who’d make them. It basically went like, “Hey, we just got this comic book, Turok. Anyone heard of it? Anyone interested?” I couldn’t jump out of my seat fast enough to be like, “Yes, please! We must do Turok.” 

David Dienstbier, Iguana Entertainment’s Project Manager for Turok, in a 2016 interview with GamesRadar: Turok was risky on a number of levels — it was a relatively unknown middle-of-the-road performer among the comic book franchises they had available to them. I’d read Turok the comic and was aware of it, but I don’t think most mainstream gamers knew it: Do people care about dinosaurs? Should it be a side scroller? Jurassic Park allayed the first question, but another risk was that nobody knew what to expect out of the N64.

Scott: Everyone at Acclaim thought it would be a cool game, and very early on it was decided that it would be the company’s flagship game for Nintendo 64. Iguana Entertainment, one of Acclaim’s new animation studios in Austin, would be the ones to develop it.  

Dienstbier: When we started development, and for a long time after, it was myself, a lead artist and two programmers working on it, and we were actually a pretty inexperienced team. The lead programmer had never programmed a game, this was my first game as “project manager,” and I think most of our team at Iguana, this was our first project. 

Scott: At Acclaim, too, we were basically making it all up as we went along. We were the first ones doing 3D motion-capture animation so there was no methodology or process for us to follow. For instance, we invented the grid you see in motion-capture movie sets today — you needed to know where you were standing in the box (otherwise, it’s just a big box), so we created the grid that showed actors where to stand.

Dienstbier: Initially, my role was to essentially envision what the game could be, and I ended up with about 140 pages of ideas, concepts and drawings. After a few great discussions with Iguana’s Creative Director, Nigel Cook, we thought, “Why couldn’t Turok be a first-person shooter?” 

Turok’s Young, Scrappy Team Makes History

First-person shooter games like Doom were becoming wildly popular on powerful gaming computers, but no one knew how Sony or Nintendo’s gaming consoles would handle the genre. This is where Turok immediately stood apart from its predecessors. Unlike Doom, where players moved through fixed corridors that didn’t offer much in terms of texture or detail, the teams at Acclaim and Iguana Entertainment created a virtual world in Turok unlike anything anyone had seen before. 

David Omari, Game Developer and Creator of an Unofficial Turok Remake, Kurok: Turok led the way in making huge steps for the genre, especially in creating a fantastic atmosphere with its soundtrack, theme and level design. The atmosphere in Turok truly transported you away to a virtual world that not many games on console had really done before. 

Scott: Developing Turok, one of the main goals was to make you really feel like you were in that environment, with real characters running around and coming at you and attacking you, with sounds of drums and monkeys somewhere deep in the forest out of sight.  

Dienstbier, in the 2002 documentary, Evolution of Turok: The first question was how do we make this game different, because everyone was doing bricks and castles and scary skulls and demons. We wanted to create a world that lived around the player, so Turok brought a more realistic environment, with more actual indigenous life in it. 

Omari: The level design was linear, but there were lots of secrets to be found in the levels; the game rewarded you for exploring by giving you some truly out-of-this-world weapons and finding the parts of the chronoscepter, the last weapon in the game. It was just another great reason to hook the player in, and boy, it didn’t disappoint. Enemies were animated in realistic ways when they were shot, the blood and gore was graphically impressive, and again, there was all the insane weapons and their truly fantastic visual effects.

Scott: We knew we could capture humans just fine. And we all loved and were inspired by Jurassic Park, but we were like, “Sometimes those dinosaurs didn’t feel like they moved like real creatures.” They were amazing, but at the time, you think, “How do I make this better?” 

Then it was like, “Well, if we could, we’d capture a dinosaur.” Obviously, that wasn’t possible, so then we started thinking, “What’s the closest thing to a dinosaur?” We toyed with the idea of capturing the motion of birds. Smaller ones would be most difficult, so our first thought was a giant bird like an emu or ostrich. But we quickly realized upon visiting a farm that they run really fast and they’re hard to control. You can’t really “direct” birds on what to do, and in a small zone like the studio, they could run into a wall and hurt somebody or themselves — they’re wild animals! So it just didn’t work out, and instead, the dinosaurs were animated by the great team at Iguana. 

Dienstbier: We also put into Turok probably the most insane arsenal of weapons that anyone had seen before, along with a level or realism in motion that had never been seen before either. 

Scott: When it came to capturing human motion for stunts, we had to sell the motion in order for it to translate to the Nintendo 64’s in-game graphics in a way that was as real as possible. 

We had a stuntman, Brad Martin, who we’d put in a harness and whip around to emulate him being picked up and eaten by a dinosaur. We’d shake him side to side, toss him off to the right side, and then we’d do the same thing all over again — shake him side to side, but now toss him to the left side. Then we’d pick him up again, shake him back and forth and toss him over to the right at a 45-degree angle, and same to the left. Basically, any kind of dinosaur attack or explosion in any direction, he was being tossed. It was weeks of just high-intensity awesome stunts with someone who went on to become one of the greatest stuntmen alive

Dienstbier: There was so much animation cut from the final product for space or time. We had raptors jumping out of nowhere and attacking the human enemies, we had giant brachiosaurus that were going to march through the tree-top villages and animations of them ripping tree branches off that they could eat. I still haven’t seen something as cool in a game as some of the animations that were created for Turok. But as a team, we really drew on each other’s strengths and expertise in order to create a finished product we were all proud of. 

Scott: The level of passion and energy that went into developing this game — from top to bottom, I think eventually we all really believed in it. We were all just like, “This is going to be phenomenal. There’s no doubt that Turok is going to be a game-changer.” 

Can Dinosaurs Save Acclaim? 

Gobbling up creative properties and developing groundbreaking technology for motion capture were both massively expensive gambles that put Acclaim on the verge of bankruptcy. With their share price down 76 percent and showing no signs of bouncing back, industry critics wondered whether a video game based on a niche comic book franchise could prevent a multi-million dollar company from complete collapse

Though the game wasn’t completely finished, Turok’s first big test came in June of 1997, during the third annual Electronics Entertainment Expo (or E3) held in Atlanta. 

Dienstbier: When we debuted the game at E3, Acclaim just had one booth with a TV that we showed the game on. It was really more of a tech demo than a real representation of the finished game, but what really sold the game and got people excited about it was when I was playing it, and showed the motion-capture characters, the more organic environments and what we believed to be special about it. When I pulled the minigun out and mowed down the palm trees, suddenly there was a giant crowd around that game. 

Scott: Can you imagine being at E3 at that time, and then watching a guy like Dave play that game? He knew how to play that game like crazy, so you’re watching that and going, “This is a game-changer. This is so incredible.” And then having the marketing team standing there, going, “Shit, these guys are killing it. We’ve definitely got something here.” The E3 crowd got people behind it a lot. 

Dienstbier: To see a game like that running on a cartridge-based system was flabbergasting to a lot of people. And after the response at E3, lo and behold, we started getting more resources and development tools, and the team ballooned to its final number of around 17 or 18 people. The game had become more of a priority [for Nintendo] because they saw it as an excellent means of showing what the Nintendo 64 was capable of doing, and that Nintendo wasn’t messing around. 

Turok Tuesday

Though it was originally expected to be released in September 1996, the E3 hype and additional time spent in development paid off. The mounting anticipation helped Acclaim’s stock price rise from 62 cents a share to $5.94, and when Turok finally hit shelves on March 4, 1997, dubbed “Turok Tuesday,” over 1.5 million copies were sold. In the months following, Turok remained one of the most commercially and critically successful Nintendo 64 games, and by 1998, it had made nearly $200 million in revenue.

Omari: Because it ultimately came out after Quake, but before GoldenEye, Turok ended up being underappreciated overall. At the time, though, there was nothing like it. It paved the way for first-person shooters in its smooth gameplay and interesting controls that worked remarkably well and felt great to play and carved out a place in the heart of a generation of gamers like myself. 

Scott: Turok is one of the things I’m most proud of in my career. It’s one of the crudest, because of the technological limitations at the time, but what we were doing way back then set the stage for what blockbuster movies do today. 

Omari: If Turok included a multiplayer mode on its release, it would be considered right up there as one of the truly great console first-person-shooter games of all time. It inspired me to re-create its design philosophy in Kurok, and now you’re starting to see other remasters that look to recreate the feel, atmosphere and gameplay of the classic 1990s first-person-shooter style. For fans and gamers like me at least, I love to see it. 

Scott: It just goes to show that you have to believe in the projects you believe in, believe in whatever it is you’re doing, because when you do, something good will come of it. And that’s why we’re here today, still talking about Turok 25 years later.