Manfred Trenz’s sprawling, run ‘n’ gun, platformer magnum opus, Turrican, is a work of art, no doubt about it, though not much of it original. It’s a hodgepodge anthology of so many existing IPs, you have to wonder where to draw the line between homage and brazen plagiarism… and also why Manfred didn’t. He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!
Nonetheless, that Turrican is a prime candidate for a ‘spot the inspiration’ drinking game should hardly strike you as a revelation, given that Manfred was instrumental in the development of the shameless Mario rip off, The Great Giana Sisters, and equally audacious R-Type clone, Katakis. Each of these controversial releases almost landed Manfred’s employer, Rainbow Arts, in court for copyright infringement; in fact, Irem were so impressed with the unofficial German version of their classic, coin-op shoot-em-up, they coerced Manfred into coding the official Commodore 64 port.
Turrican’s core game-play mechanics constitute an exquisitely seamless blend of Nintendo’s 1986 action-adventure game, Metroid, Konami’s 1987 run and gun ’em up, Contra, and an obscure 1987 Japanese coin-op title by Data East known as Psycho-Nics Oscar. The latter was simply abbreviated to ‘Oscar’ in America presumably because the original moniker sounds too much like Japanese Engrish to westerners.
It’s a side-scrolling, action-platformer starring a gun-totin’ robot; the eponymous Oscar of the title. It’s not clear if he belongs to someone called Psycho-Nics and Data East simply forgot to insert an apostrophe, but I digress.
Turrican’s aesthetics and arcade ergonomics can be directly attributed to Oscar, despite the Japanese game engaging a much more linear level architecture. It features a Gradius-esque, five bar ‘pick your own power-up’ system whereby you collect ‘N’ pills to shift the focus from one weapon or upgrade to the next. Once the one that takes your fancy is highlighted, you are able to select it, and the sequence resets. The available tweaks include a mega jump, sub-weapons such as grenades and missiles, protective armour, rapid-fire, and various upgrades to your puny main firearm.
Oscar can sustain three hits before kicking the bucket, whereas in Turrican your life force is drained continuously for as long as you remain in contact with an enemy. Unlike most console-style games, you aren’t knocked back when you take a hit; the onus is on you to back away from the immediate threat before you perish. Still, it’s more forgiving than Contra’s one-hit death policy, and the status quo was restored for the SNES and Mega Drive versions, where a strike results in a flash and momentary invulnerability.
By comparison, Turrican’s level design is open-ended, dizzyingly labyrinthine, and generously adorned with hidden secrets to root out, not at all dissimilar to that of Metroid. Ka-ching! Take another swig of Pilfer Punch. Actually I think we better call time on the boozing game; I don’t want your inevitable deaths on my conscience!
The even more glaringly conspicuous connection to Metroid, however, is the Xeroxed energy ball or gyroscope, known in Nintendo’s game as the morph ball. Contra’s influence is slightly more subtle and can most significantly be traced back to the choice of weaponry and power-ups (the spread shot and flying upgrade capsules especially), and the protagonist’s rapid momentum.
Almost as if in two-fingered salute to Nintendo who put the kibosh on Manfred’s plumber-beater three years earlier, elements from Mario make a cameo appearance. Blocks can be headbutted to dislodge power-ups which need to be collected before they escape your clutches, and in the sequel you can perform the infamous head-bounce manoeuvre to dispatch enemies that look like miniature ED-209s, standing in for Goombas. They let out a shrill squeal as their heads retract into their legs and they scuttle off to seek cover. The head-bounce is so ubiquitous today, we take the animation for granted. In 1990, however, it was a witty and rewarding in-joke for players with a wider appreciation of gaming lore.
Even before we leap headlong into the action, the imitational fun commences right off the bat with the opening title screen. Also the work of ‘MT’, this is a thinly-veiled rehash of Manowar’s Kings of Metal album cover art illustrated by the esteemed heroic fantasy artist, Ken Kelly. It’s not clear if he has ever expressed an opinion on the parody, though I’m fairly sure his approval wasn’t sought beforehand. That wasn’t Manfred’s style.
Taking inspiration from existing artwork is one thing, but surely you won’t find anything in Turrican that’s outrightly ripped from popular culture? Think again! ‘Subsong 2’ arranged by Ramiro Vaca, which serves as the title music for the C64 version, was lifted from the 1986 soundtrack of Transformers: The Movie. The original instrumental composition by Vince DiCola is known as ‘Escape‘.
Ramiro enjoyed Transformers so much he also based Turrican’s ending theme on ‘The Death of Optimus Prime‘, an instrumental synthesizer track, once again the work of Vince DiCola. This time round he did have the decency to tweak it a bit I suppose, making it more optimistic to fit the game’s congratulatory curtain call.
Thankfully Chris Huelsbeck came on board to redress the balance for the Amiga incarnation, which uses all 7 of the system’s 4 sound channels (try wrapping your mind around that conundrum!). His sublimely unique soundtrack has gone down in history as one of the Amiga’s finest auditory hours. It has since been performed live by an assortment of professional, classical orchestra ensembles, and released as a standalone album both on CD and as a digital download. Let’s not forget, he also wears a rollickingly dapper flat cap, which is, of course, critical to any discussion of his exquisite musical talent.
Turrican I and II – and their various computer and console ports – each feature an entire level dedicated in homage to the Alien movie franchise. It incorporates creatures instantly recognisable as the Academy Award-winning facehuggers, xenomorphs and spawning, four-lobed leathery eggs from which the facehuggers hatch, devised by the Swiss surrealist painter, H.R. Giger.
Also within the Alien stage you may have spotted the finger creature from the 1985 schlock comedy horror flick, Re-Animator. It’s essentially a gory, sinewy twist on ‘Thing’ from the Addams Family with a veiny eyeball perched precariously on the back of a crawling hand. I suppose when you’re caught up in the flow of unadulterated sprite larceny, it’s easy to forget which movie franchise you’re currently invoking.
Taking the ‘flattery’ a step further, the xenomorph features as an end of level boss in Factor 5’s Mega Turrican. Not that it was alone in ripping off Alien paraphernalia; Contra’s ‘Java’ head boss, purple creepy crawlies and box art, and Super Contra’s ‘Metal Alien’ bear a striking resemblance to Giger’s creations too.
When Manfred revisited Turrican for the NES port, he was clearly up to his old tricks again. The final ‘Machine’ boss is hoiked straight from the TG-16 SuperGrafx shoot ’em up, Aldynes. There you face the masked guardian at the end of level 2.
Apparently, Manfred was also a fan of TAD Corporation’s chimp ’em up platformer, Toki, seeing as several elements from it were borrowed to flesh out his own work. The ‘block’ bosses are an unconventional choice if you happen to be striving for an imposing adversary, unless of course you’re mimicking another game. Incidentally, the concept is used only once, and merely as a trivial, early obstacle in Toki. Also noteworthy is the unmistakable, spiked booby trap parallel between Toki and Turrican.
But wait there’s more, much more. The appearance and way the final boss in the C64 and Amiga versions of Turrican II jets around the screen is uncannily similar to that of the final boss in Taito’s coin-op shmup, Megablast. It’s almost as if rather than devising an original character from scratch, one has been swiped from another game and the colours twiddled around a bit. Perish the thought!
Also, it hasn’t escaped the notice of the wily gaming fraternity that the rapidly scrolling shoot ’em up segment in Turrican II utterly hijacks the game-play mechanics evident in level 2 of Kaneko’s coin-op schmup, Air Busters (known as Aero Blaster on the Mega Drive and PC Engine), despite both games being released in the same year.
Taking inspiration from another movie franchise, a cameo from Flotsam, one of the ‘Fix-Its’ from the 1987 comedy sci-fi film, *Batteries Not Included, can be spotted drifting down one of Turrican II’s vertically ascending sequences on a parachute. I hope the little guy was paid royalties. E.T. repair equipment doesn’t come cheap, you know.
Although Manfred had no involvement with the franchise beyond Turrican I and II, his IP-swiping legacy lives on in his baby’s various sequels and ports. Bren Maguire’s (the hero of the piece in the assault suit) ultimate nemesis in Turrican III, Super Turrican and Mega Turrican is a counterfeit ‘Stryfe’, a Marvel superhero comic book character. This isn’t merely conjecture or critics making flimsy correlations where there aren’t any, he’s actually referenced as such in Turrican III’s assembly language source code!
The same character has also been likened to another Marvel comic book superhero, the cosmic entity, Galactus, who first appeared in the Fantastic Four in 1966, though there is less hard evidence of this connection.
Turrican II begins with a graphical mugging… and appropriately concludes with another. The finale animation which transitions into a static image as a congratulatory message scrolls up the screen is a carbon copy of a sketch by the French artist, cartoonist and writer, Jean Henri Gaston Giraud (who was more commonly known by his pseudonym, Mobius). Predictably, the correlation is Alien; the illustration was devised for inclusion in ‘The Book of Alien’ movie companion guide written by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross and first published in 1979.
Turning the tables
Imitating the ‘King of Imitation’, many developers have filched graphical elements from the Turrican games.
Bon Treasure’s 1992 action shooter, Earth Defender, for the obscure Watara Supervision monochrome handheld game console shamelessly recycles Turrican’s cover art for its title screen graphic.
The 1991 Amiga magazine cover freebie game, The Adventures of Quik and Silva, is chock full of cloned Turrican graphics; robots, scenery, weapons, you name it. Even the soundtrack is by the same legendary composer, Chris Huelsbeck, though I don’t imagine New Bits on the RAM created him in a lab Weird Science style. He’s the real deal.
The cameo-tastic game in the top right frame is ‘The Adventures of Quik and Silva’.
Turrican II (Amiga) vs. Trouble Shooter II or Battle Mania II in Japan (Mega Drive).
Storm ’94 (Atari ST) vs. Turrican II (Amiga).
Apogee really pushed the boat out when it came to cobbling together their PC-based, 2D platformers, Duke Nukem 1 and 2, by stealing… well, anything and everything they could lay their hands on quite frankly. Check out the Turrican SETA fansite for the complete shot-by-shot tear-down.
In a tributary salute for the appreciation of old school gamers, the 2009 action-adventure, ‘Ghostbusters: The Video Game’ for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, features a Turrican chiptune cover emitted from an in-game arcade coin-op cabinet.
Scooter’s ninth studio album – ‘The Stadium Techno Experience’ released in 2003 – samples Chris Huelsbeck’s ‘Freedom’ track (Turrican II’s ending theme tune). Their ‘Level One’ single fully credits Chris for his contribution, though lots of other artists have helped themselves without doing so.
Albert Einstein famously once professed, “the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources”. Manfred evidently hadn’t the foggiest clue – he was rumbled twice for slipping existing games under the photocopier when he thought no-one was looking, though somehow the Turrican games eluded copyright infringement’s Grim Reaper and went on to become two of the Amiga’s most iconic poster boys.
…and aren’t we eternally grateful they did? The first two titles span 2700 majestically vibrant, frantic screens between them, whilst the game mechanics indulge us with miraculous technical feats previously thought preposterous at the time of inception. The inaugural title was embraced with such vigour that when the sequel’s demo was unveiled at a computer show in Cologne, two people were injured in the melee to secure one of the 900 copies made available! You don’t engender frenzied fanaticism of this scope accoutred with Photoshop’s clone tool alone!