Can dinosaurs save Acclaim?” asked Business Week in March 1997. It was a fair question. The previous year, the videogame publisher based in Glen Cove, New York had begun to struggle. Its share price dipped 76 per cent and Wall Street was shouting “sell, sell, sell”. Then came that year’s E3 in Atlanta.
Hidden away in a corner of the exhibition space was a small Texan developer named Iguana Entertainment and its youthful project lead David Dienstbier. Firing up a copy of Nintendo 64 game demo Turok: Dinosaur Hunter on a tiny TV, Dienstbier began blasting away at raptors.
No one had ever seen anything like Turok. It was a firstperson shooter set in a lushly vegetated outdoor world inhabited by dinosaurs, motion-captured 3D humans, and the odd wild boar. While Doom asked you to glide through hi-tech corridors blasting demons, Turok was mapped out across fog-shrouded mesas. The mist helped mask draw-distance issues but it also added an atmospheric feel, enhanced by brilliant audio design featuring monkey calls and jungle drums.
An hour into the demo, Dienstbier had a gaggle of onlookers. By the end of the day, he had a crowd. “I pulled out a nuke and levelled half a dozen palm trees and they were like, ‘No waaaaay!’” he recalls with a hearty chuckle. “People had seen big guns onscreen before but they’d never seen those sorts of effects. They just went apeshit.”
In that instant, Turok became a sensation, especially among the corporate suits at Acclaim. “It was a very surreal moment because everyone at the company suddenly went, ‘Turok equals money… Dave, my boy! Have a Cuban cigar’.”
By the end of E3, Dienstbier had been slapped on the back so many times that he was in danger of bruising. When it was released on March 4 – dubbed ‘Turok Tuesday’ – the game went on to sell 1.5 million copies. Acclaim’s stock price bounced and the mayor of Glen Cove temporarily renamed one of the town’s streets ‘Turok Boulevard’.
Through the rose-tinted specs of hindsight, every hit title looks like a sure thing, but the picture is less clear when you’re submerged in development. Work on Turok began in 1996. Eager to bolster revenue from its lucrative licensed movie games, Acclaim had begun to diversify. Among its acquisitions was Valiant Comics, which published the long-running title Turok, the story of a Native American warrior lost in a land populated by dinosaurs, aliens and supernatural beings.
When Nintendo approached Acclaim and asked it to make an exclusive FPS to help launch the new N64 console, the publisher dusted off Turok. Making the game of the comic fell to Iguana Entertainment, a software house in Austin that had also been part of Acclaim’s buying spree. The developer – which kept a glass tank of reptiles in its offices – had previously scored a slamdunk with the console versions of NBA Jam. Hopes for Turok were less high – which may be why Iguana’s management farmed it out to an inexperienced team led by fresh-faced newbie Dienstbier.
An escapee from the ad industry (“Where I saw concerted proof that Satan did exist”), the burly designer had never project-led a game before. “When they called me into the office, I said: ‘You do realise I don’t know what the hell I’m doing? I just started in this business’.” You’re a smart kid, they told him, you’ll figure it out. With few resources and even fewer staff, Dienstbier rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in.
Acclaim was a giant of the 16bit era. Its fortune had been made with the home console version of Mortal Kombat – a game which impressed with its digitised 2D sprites. As times changed, though, Acclaim had begun to struggle. 3D graphics demanded a completely different approach. Remington Scott, the company’s soft-spoken interactive director, was one of the new breed of talent brought in to help the company make the leap to the next generation. The answer was motion capture.
“Acclaim spent about $10m on building a motion-capture studio strictly for entertainment, not medical or sports analysis,” remembers Scott. “They cored out the centre of a building and created a two-and-a-half-storey-tall optical-motion-capture facility.” Acclaim’s vigorous adoption of the technology helped drive its ubiquity during the ’90s, and games like NFL Quarterback Club, Frank Thomas’ Big Hurt Baseball and Turok became early landmarks of motion capture. “Everything you see going on in videogames today [in terms of motion and performance capture], we were doing and defining back then – trying to figure out how to do it for the first time,” Scott says.
It was so successful that Hollywood came calling. Acclaim’s mo-cap studio was used for some of the visual effects in Batman Forever and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Meanwhile, Scott himself became a leading figure in performance capture, working on cinematic CGI pioneers including Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Lord Of The Rings and Beowulf.
Back in 1996, Iguana’s team happily embraced the new technology. Motion capture offered an elegant solution to the production problems with which they were saddled: limited resources (“We had about two
or three animators when we started the mo-cap shoot,” says Dienstbier), a lack of Nintendo devkits, and a punishing 17-month schedule. Thanks to Acclaim’s studio, movement could be quickly mapped on to the textured models bringing blocky, low-res polygons to life with startling results.
While Turok’s character models weren’t as photorealistic as the digitised sprites in, say, Mortal Kombat, their lifelike movements made them surprisingly convincing. On the team was stuntman Brad Martin – now a Hollywood pro with credits on Spider-Man 3, Die Hard 4.0 and Salt – who was launched gamely off air ramps and trampolines to simulate enemies being blown up by grenades and rocket launchers. “We strung him up on a harness and flung him around like he was in the mouth of a dinosaur,” Scott remembers.
More tricky were the non-human enemies. “I really wanted to record the actions of a dinosaur, but seeing as they’re extinct, that was a little challenging,” he explains wryly. “We ended up doing some tests with large birds. The ostrich was too big and the trainer couldn’t control it, but the emu was a better choice. We had problems adhering the markers to the animal and directing it, so we didn’t end up with much usable data. But the reference material was valuable. I still come back to that on projects that come up to this day concerning dinosaurs.”
In the end, it was only the human enemies who were mo-capped, but it set a new benchmark in terms of 3D character animation. “Turok became a poster child for the kind of motion capture that was possible in 3D gaming,” explains Dienstbier. “We wanted to make the game an event. We were saying: you may think you know everything about what firstperson shooters are, but we want to show you what they can be. We really wanted to fire up people’s imaginations.”
Mention the words FPS and N64 to most gamers and you’ll get one answer: GoldenEye. While Rare’s seminal shooter thrived on the elegance of its multiplayer, Turok had to fly solo. As a singleplayer experience, it proved suitably atmospheric. The environments took most of the credit for that, providing players with a selection of lush jungles filled with wild boar and vicious raptors, juxtaposed with gloomy caverns and ruins. “Games like Doom were extraordinarily limited to confined, rectangular interior spaces,” argues Dienstbier. “We wanted to do something that would open that up.”
Not content with merely opening up the FPS, Iguana also wanted to max it out. In Turok, everything was bigger, bolder, badder. Neither Sir Arthur Conan Doyle nor Steven Spielberg ever imagined ‘binosaurs’ (bionic dinosaurs), but Turok did. The insane result was, among other delights, a T-Rex with a head-mounted laser cannon. Then there was the weaponry design, from the quad-rocket launcher to the lip-quivering power of the fabled Chronosceptor.
“It’s tame by today’s standards but at the time I think Turok had a grandeur about it,” reflects Dienstbier, who’d go on to work on several of the sequels. “It felt bigger. It was more over-the-top in terms of what its weapons did and how the enemies reacted to being hit – our particle effects system was very, very advanced for home consoles. We wanted to make PC fans go: ‘Holy crap! This is playing on a Nintendo machine that I just plugged in!’”
Considering the game’s violent content, there were naturally concerns over how Nintendo would react. “We really knew we were pushing Nintendo’s tolerance for violence in a game on their console,” says Dienstbier. “But it turned out a lot of our fears were unfounded. They never wanted to see anything, approve anything.” Instead, realising it had a potential hit for its new console, the house of Mario began throwing resources at the Turok team.
“We were having a real hard time getting devkits from Nintendo, and we only had two of those really expensive SGI machines,” Dienstbier explains. “All of the artists and designers were sharing one, and our lead programmer [Rob Cohen] had one in his office so he could write the game engine and test it. After that E3 demo, development systems suddenly started turning up. It was great.”
So, did the dinosaurs really save Acclaim? Yes and no. Although the game’s sales, and the franchise it spawned, helped the publisher struggle along for a few more years, Acclaim filed for Chapter 7 in 2004. The company may be defunct, but Turok lives on with six sequels and a reputation as one of the most bonkers firstperson shooters of the ’90s. It’s a dinosaur of the FPS genre, but it needn’t fear extinction.
This feature was first published in E228, June 2011.