Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Genesis Game Reviews: Mega Turrican

The Turrican franchise is one of those often forgotten classics, at least here in the United States where the Commodore Amiga and other home computers didn't really take off. Instead we played our home consoles, like the stalwart Sega Genesis that this site is dedicated to. Thanks in-part to the 2012 Neo Geo and Dreamcast releases of NG:DEV.TEAM's Gunlord, a love-letter clone of the Turrican saga, awareness of the franchise has been slightly raised in North America (at least among the retro gaming community).

Originally designed almost completely by German programmer Manfred Trenz, Turrican was released for the Commodore 64 and with his help ported to the graphically superior Amiga by Factor 5 (a now defunct developer known mostly today for the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series). The Amiga version and its sequel, Turrican 2 which is often called the masterpiece of the series, are seen by many Amiga fans to be the most iconic titles in the series.

So just what the hell is a "Turrican" and what does it have to do with our beloved Genesis? I'm glad you asked. Turrican (which actualy refers to our hero's Turrican assault suit) is a side-scrolling run'n gun game mixed with lots of platforming elements and exploration. You control an armored warrior whose fate is to blast through countless hordes of strange enemies. It's been described by many as Contra meets Metroid which is about as apt a description I could give. The unforgiving breakneck action and various weapon power-ups reminds one of Contra while the platforming, hidden secrets and sprawling levels will call Metroid to mind. The hero can even transform into a ball that drops bombs like Metroid's Samus Aran.

The first game was ported to the Genesis by Code Monkeys but unfortunately suffers from lazy sound work and is ultimately inferior to the Amiga original. The second much more polished and popular game suffered an even worse fate. It was released on the Genesis as the movie tie-in game, Universal Soldier. Some of the game is intact but the graphics were butchered and levels were removed and replaced with poorly designed ones.

The gameplay of the elder Turrican titles had a few eccentricities unfamiliar to console gamers of the time. Instead of bouncing back when you're hit and having temporary invincibility like most games, in Turrican you'd take constant damage while in contact with an enemy making the game highly difficult until you got used to it.

With the exception of programming a version of Turrican for the NES by himself (called Super Turrican but unrelated to the SNES game), Manfred Trenz was essentially done with the franchise after Turrican 2. Factor 5 took it upon themselves to continue the saga and they initially chose the Genesis as their platform. The result was Mega Turrican, our subject for today. This caused some ire among the faithful Amiga fans who demanded their own Turrican 3 and Factor 5 obliged. The result was an altered port of Mega Turrican, renamed Turrican 3: Payment Day.

Up until this point Turrican still didn't really have a good showing on home consoles and for better or worse, Mega Turrican seems to be designed to cater more towards the taste of Genesis owners than to fans of the Commodore computer originals. The most controversial difference is the level design. While many stages still have a good bit of space for exploring, most are considerably more straightforward action affairs than its predecessors. Mega Turrican borrows more from the book of Contra than Metroid. One advantage of this is that Factor 5 managed to give us some impressive set pieces with wonderful boss battles. The graphics are all very highly detailed and up until this point the franchise had never looked better. The old Turrican gameplay is mostly intact with some concessions to console gamers such as now getting knocked back when you're hit. For me this was a welcome change and more in-line with the kind of action gaming that I'm used to.

Like previous Turrican games you still have three different weapons to collect and power-up. Your Contra style spread shot, a mostly useless bouncing shot that follows the walls and a straight-shooting powerful shot perfect for taking down bosses. You also have a screen clearing bomb and the ability to transform into a spiky ball and drop bombs. Unlike Turrican 2, you're limited in how long you can stay in your ball form by a meter that only replenishes between levels or when a life is lost. This helps keep the game from becoming too easy and forces you to use the ball transformation more tactically. Another useful weapon is a homing missile that isn't very powerful but makes up for your character's inability to shoot up or down like Mega Man.

Other than the less expansive levels the biggest change in Mega Turrican is the removal of the lightning whip, a powerful weapon that you could only use while standing still but aim in any direction. Considering your primary weapons only shoot forward it was a very useful tool. In its place is a grappling hook, giving the game some Bionic Commando styled flair. It's difficult to use at first and arguably still clumsy even when you become practiced at it but it's an interesting addition and in my opinion one that's utilized well by the level design. Mastering it will become key to making your way through the game.

One of my favorite parts in the game is the junk yard level, which is one of the more straight left-to-right stages, because it contains a few beat-up bosses from previous Turrican games. Presumably this is because you sent them there! These kind of continuity nods never fail to make me smile since it shows the developer really cares about their product and its history.

Since Factor 5 made this game themselves with Turrican 1 and 2's composer Chris Huelsbeck the music is spot on. Mega Turrican shockingly has some of the better tunes on the Sega Genesis. The rocking soundtrack comes at even more of a surprise when you consider the criticism that western developed games for the system usually receive in the aural department. The sound effects also do a keen job and the few voice samples present are quite clear.

The story is simple and follows up on the second game. To put it briefly you're Bren MacGuire, the hero of Turrican 2 (the first game was a completely different, unnamed character in the Turrican suit) and you've received a distress call from a beautiful woman informing you that The Machine, your arch nemesis and destroyer of worlds, who even kind of looks like Galactus from Marvel Comics, has returned and regrouped his forces. It's up to you to save the girl and the universe from this menace one last time.

Other video games and comic characters aren't the only thing derivative about this game, though not in a bad way. One level borrows liberally from the Alien film franchise, going as far as pitting you against the xenomorphic creatures and face-hugging terrors of cinema fame. Considering this film franchise was also a big inspiration for Contra and Metroid the shout-out feels kind of natural.

While Mega Turrican is likely not a game you're going to beat the first time you sit down with it, the challenge is fair. If you spend the time to hunt down the copious number of extra-lives hidden throughout the levels you should be able to give yourself the edge needed to eventually clear the game. You don't want to spend too much time exploring because you are being timed, but unlike the previous Turrican games you should have little trouble beating levels within the limit since the area to explore usually isn't very large. Like other games of its type, its all about getting boss patterns down and learning how to deal with certain enemies. It also pays to learn which weapons perform better in a given situation.

Ultimately this game gets a hearty recommendation to anyone who is into the run'n genre. It's the complete package with great graphics, sound and action. If you've played all the well known titles to death but ignored Mega Turrican you should consider it as your next stop.

I feel like Mega Turrican is a great jumping on point for people looking to get into the franchise. It's more tuned towards what console gamers expect from this type of game but still holds some of the platforming elements that made the earlier Turrican titles a unique experience. Super Turrican on the SNES takes elements from both this game and Turrican 2 though it drops the grappling hook of Mega Turrican which many people see as a plus. Unfortunately that game is also short and anti-climactic. Apparently Factor 5 was forced to use a smaller capacity cartridge than they were expecting causing some levels to be cut out. The game ends after fighting an alien queen boss that is also present in Mega Turrican and you never have a confrontation with the series antagonist, The Machine, even though he appears in the ending.

This was somewhat rectified by a sequel, Super Turrican 2, which was a late release on the SNES and as such is unfortunately rare and expensive. Super Turrican 2 pushes the graphics of the SNES to its limits but is even more linear than Mega Turrican. As a straight-up action title it's an amazing game though some have said it's Turrican in name only. It also brought back Mega Turrican's grappling hook mechanic to mixed opinions. Unfortunately in 1995 this was also the final game in the Turrican line, relegating the series to the status of "almost forgotten classic." Though there were attempts to give the series a 3D update that were never brought into fruition, the death of developer Factor 5 has also essentially sealed Turrican's fate.

As mentioned earlier, the independent game Gunlord has kept the the game alive in what is practically a spiritual sequel. You know now that I think about it, developer WayForward made the fantastic Contra 4 for the DS, as well as the amazing "Metroidvania" game Aliens Infestation. I wonder what they could do if they got a hold of the Turrican license? A man can dream can't he?

Presentation: 9 The intro is a little wonky with some really terrible artwork that attempts to have a Japanese flare to it despite being a European game. Other than that however the presentation is great and the game has a wonderful atmosphere. The box art, front and back, is really stunning in my opinion.  I'm just going to come out and say it, Mega Turrican has my favorite box art any Genesis game.

Gameplay: 8 While extremely fun there are a few hitches that keep it from being perfect. The grappling hook mechanic never really becomes second nature though you'll become decent at it with practice. The ball transformation can also be awkward and hard to control. Some levels are better designed than others but when it comes down to it the shooting is fun and the controls are responsive.

Graphics: 10 I know graphics can get better than this on the Genesis, but lets face it, not by much. I feel like more care and detail were put into the graphics of this title than the first Super Turrican game for the SNES. The sprites and backgrounds get equal attention, there are a few parts with some nice parallax scrolling, and the bosses are mostly big and menacing and the explosions are every bit as satisfying as games like Contra Hard Corps. The animation doesn't slouch either.

Sound: 10 The sound effects are satisfying, the voice samples are clear and understandable and the music is some of the best you could ask for. I'd be doing a disservice by not giving it a 10.

Lasting Appeal: 8 There's not much to come back to once you've beaten it unfortunately and the game is kind of short. It's a fairly difficult game so probably one you won't beat on your first play, however it's not so difficult that you won't breeze through it once you've found where the 1-ups are hidden and you have a feeling for the controls. Regardless, it's simply a fun game and one you'll likely revisit if you enjoy the run'n gun genre.

Overall Average: 9/10


Collector: Mega Turrican was originally made for the Genesis and ported to the Amiga and in my opinion this is the superior version since some graphics were removed on the Amiga port. With great box art, an affordable price and the fact that it's one of the best run'n guns on the console this should be a no-brainer.

Gamer: If you've already played Contra Hard Corps, mastered Gunstar Heroes or you're just a fan of the run'n gun genre you should be kicking yourself if you haven't played this yet. It's more of a straightforward action title than its predecessors and a good place to start with the Turrican franchise for genre fans. Avoid the first game's Genesis port and pick this up instead. The Super Turrican games on "that other console" are worth checking out as well. Best of all I believe all three of these games are available on the Wii Virtual Console.

If you're interested in how the older Turrican games played you can find the pretty good PC version of Turrican 2 on many abandonware sites and it works perfectly with DOS Box.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Peripheral Review: Competition PRO, Series III Controller (SG-18)

Third-party controllers, some are great, some are awful and almost all of us have used them in one form or another. Whether it was to get a cheap second player pad for our new console or to try and enhance our gameplay they've been with us since at least the days of the Atari 2600. The Genesis is no stranger to peripherals designed by other companies, and today I'd like to talk about one.

If you own a Sega Genesis, you're well aware that having a six-button controller is a must, especially if you're a fighting game fan though many other genres make use of the extra buttons too. Sega's first official offering is considered fantastic by a lot of people, including myself, but for some reason I always enjoyed the size and shape of the original three-button pad more. Anyone with long, skinny fingers like mine probably feels the same. This lead me on a search that eventually ended with a purchase of the Competition PRO, Series III controller by Honey Bee (model number SG-18).

At first I was a bit apprehensive, their earlier Competition PRO controller (which was adopted by Tectoy as the Genesis model 3 pack-in controller) was a bit cheap feeling and with a poor directional pad. It also had very loose buttons that would rattle when the controller was shaken. The controller also had the look of the three-button pad, but it was unfortunately quite a bit smaller.

Thankfully when designing the Series III they made some great improvements as well as some cool additions that have made it my controller of choice. This time the controller is the same size and shape of the official three-button, though slighty thicker. The buttons are smaller than the three-button controller but are all the same size as each other and aligned diagonally as you'd expect. The spacing might be a bit too far for some people, so keep that in mind if you already have trouble hitting all the buttons you need to on the standard controllers.

I find the build quality to be generally good. The buttons still rattle when the controller is shaken but when in use they're firm and deliver acceptable feedback. The directional pad is also great, almost on par with the stellar official one. The mode button is also situated on the controller's right shoulder much like Sega's original six-button design.

If this were all the controller offered I would already be sold. For someone looking for the feel of the three-button pad and the functionality of the six-button one, I haven't come across any other controller that has delivered better than this one. However, this brings us to one of the coolest features of the controller: the turbo switches!

Most of these third-party controllers come with a turbo feature but it's almost always an all-or-nothing affair. You turn turbo on and you have to deal with turbo effecting all of your controls. This can be pretty nerve wracking if you need to be jumping and shooting with turbo, but the turbo switch cripples your jumping ability. This controller shares a feature with Sega's six-button arcade stick by having a specific switch for each button meaning you can customize which buttons will turbo fire and which buttons won't. Very cool and occasionally very useful. The switches also have a third setting for auto-fire which is another great and slightly more uncommon feature.

You may have noticed by now the varying colors of the switches and buttons and as you might have guessed they're color coded which means matching a switch to a button takes only a split second. This is a very simple idea that I thought was very helpful and clever.

The final feature is the useless but obligatory slow function which is essentially just turbo-fire for your start button. The switch for this  is oddly located on the back of the controller and I didn't even realize it had a slow function at first. Nevertheless it's there in-case you were worried about it.

My controller states that it's the registered U.K. design. I'm not sure if it was ever officially released in the United States but it works fine on machines from any region and it's not too tough to hunt down or too expensive. If you're comfortable with your current six-button controller this one isn't a must buy, but if you're like me and want that three-button feel then this is a great purchase and it might just become your primary Genesis pad. The turbo and auto-fire features are a great plus as well. Overall the Competition PRO, Series III gets a worthy thumbs up.