Back in the 90s, you learned about video games through friends, magazines, and store kiosks. The quality of a new game was determined through single paragraph blurbs with a review score. A purchase was secured after a short demo at an electronics store suggested endless possibilities. And, for some reason, all your friends told elaborate lies about the games you didn’t have.
This mysterious, unknowable swirl of brief impressions and half truths made a lot of games way more exciting than they deserved. One time a kid told me Gran Turismo 2 came with a second disc where you could drive across America. The Star Fox kiosk at The Wiz felt like the future of everything. And Gamefan magazine promised me that every upcoming game was going to change my life.
For some reason, all of this completely backfired with one game: Turok.
Turok: The Dinosaur Hunter was one of the first N64 games I ever saw in person—at a kiosk in the long-defunct game shop Microplay. It looked awful. What was all this fog? Why could I only see 10 feet in front of me? Compared to Mario 64 and Pilotwings, Turok looked all sorts of wrong to my teen-aged console gamer brain.
No one ever corrected me about Turok either. I didn’t have that one friend who gushed about the game, or the right magazine review to turn it all around. It went on like this for years. “Turok is just some ugly, bad, below average attempt to get a shooter on consoles,” I thought.
In the last few years I finally started to hear some good things. A friend told me it was one of his favorite games as a kid (Will from Will & Drew’s Gaming Retrospective), Kotaku and Digital Foundry both had some positive coverage of the game, and I had an empty GameFly queue calling out to me. Finally, I gave the remaster of the original Turok a chance on Switch.
To say I was pleasantly surprised is a huge understatement. Turok: The Dinosaur Hunter is a gem. The beauty is in its simplicity. There’s really no story to speak of, outside of what you can infer from the environment around you. You are Turok. You kill dinosaurs and men with guns. Eventually you kill aliens and dinosaurs with guns. You fight in jungles and temples and, eventually, alien bases. The escalation of the action, enemies, and environments tells all the story you need to know.
Occasionally, Turok says, “I am Turok!”. That is the extent of the game’s character development.
The appeal of the game is instead found in the speed of the action, the satisfaction of exploring, and the unique atmosphere. Turok is “Jungle Quake”, a moniker I only heard recently, but feels incredibly apt. The game plays very fast, especially in the 60 fps, wide FOV remaster. The music slaps, hard…
I played Turok over the course of 3 or 4 bleary-eyed sessions, falling into a fugue state of FPS bliss as I dashed through maze-like levels murdering everything in sight. The jungles, ruins, and catacombs are sprawling but memorable, making the hunt for the many keys that unlock future levels satisfying.
In fact, it’s odd how many things that are frowned upon in game design seem to really work here. It isn’t enough to get to the end of a level, you must explore it thoroughly to find every key. This involves not only navigating the twisting hallways for secret paths, but jumping on tiny platforms, precarious bridges, and chunks of land hanging over clouds of fog. There is a lot of first-person platforming in Turok. I’m convinced Bungie must count some Turok fans among their Destiny level designers.
The game isn’t flawless though. A reliance on enemies that can simply damage you from afar without a way to dodge their projectiles can make combat feel a little cheap, and you’ll spend a lot of time killing respawning enemies over and over.
I’m a few hours into Turok 2 now, and it addresses this design flaw, giving most enemies melee or fireball attacks that can be dodged. It adds the ability to aim for headshots, alongside a bunch of iconic weapons. And yet, despite these improvements I can barely stand the game. The combat encounters are annoying. The mazes are too big and repetitive. The mandatory collectibles and objectives have driven me to strategy guides and YouTube videos multiple times already. There’s a story with characters and dialogue, but it all feels cheesy and tiresome. Turok 2 feels like a dusty relic in 2020.
But there’s something timeless about the original Turok. It’s simple and straightforward in all the right places. It was ahead of its time in all the right ways. Today the no-nonsense focus on gameplay and atmosphere is intoxicating. I now count it among my favorite games, and had I given it a chance over 20 years ago, I would have never shut up about it.