Since the first game appeared on the Commodore 64 in 1990, Turrican has been an extremely popular and enduring series of games. Essentially a run-and-gunner, the open world nature, huge variety of power-ups and excellent graphics combined to make a playable and addictive formula that has rarely waned.
Handling the console versions of Turrican and its sequels was American publisher Accolade. Founded in 1984 by Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead, Accolade had gained fame in the Eighties with games such as Test Drive, Hardball!, Ace of Aces and Star Control. By the early Nineties they, like many others, had begun focusing on console development.
While the original home computer versions of Turrican were published by Rainbow Arts, its console ports were to be from Accolade and it had a tough act to follow; the games had already gained a loyal and almost fanatical following. Working at Accolade was Christopher Bankston, and he has an interesting tale to tell about his previous occupation prior to then.
Bankston says: “I was introduced to Ken Balthaser Sr, who was director of product development at Epyx and he was looking for an international producer. At that time Epyx had a secret project.” This was to be the Atari Lynx – an impressive handheld colour gaming system with interchangeable cartridges. “But Atari played dirty pool with Epyx,” says Bankston, “and put them out of business. About 100 of us were let go.” After this mass layoff, Bankston was recruited by Accolade as an international producer once more.
Bankston began work at Accolade in October of 1988 and his projects included international (read: Spectrum, Atari ST and Amstrad) versions of games such as Star Control and Stratego. “I soon developed relationships with Rainbow Arts and Factor 5,” he says, “and a deal was soon worked out for Accolade to produce Turrican on console devices. I was that producer.”
Accolade released the original Turrican on the Sega Megadrive, Gameboy and TurboGrafx-16. It was a predictable hit and plans to convert its sequel were soon in progress. At the same time, Accolade’s promotional department was working heavily with Hollywood studios to license the rights to movies.
“To the best of my recollection, Accolade had an exclusive deal with Carolco, the company that produced Universal Soldier, in conjunction with Canal Plus in France.” explains Bankston. When this deal was concluded, a decision was reached above Bankston to convert Turrican 2 into a game based around Universal Soldier. “[Turrican 2] was actually completed and the source code in my hands when we acquired the license. The timing of the movie just happened to work out. We were going to publish Turrican 2, without a doubt. But when the Universal Soldier opportunity presented itself, we agreed that it would only enhance the visibility of the game and make it stronger.”
Despite using already-existing code, there were naturally changes to be made. “As producer, I oversaw all of the design changes,” says Bankston, “and we worked diligently to ensure the game mechanics were equal to or greater than the original game. We put hundreds of hours into testing, listened to user feedback and implemented every item we considered worthy.” One of these design changes was enforced even prior to the decision to add the film license. “Back then we were working with a limited ROM size and we couldn’t fit the whole original game onto the ROM we were allocated.” explains Bankston. “Since we knew we had to shrink the game to fit onto the ROM – and that we were using some new theme material – we decided to redo some of the levels. This gave us the same number of levels, but a more uniform feel with the new game.”
In addition to redesigning some levels, Bankston also had to wrestle with Carolco. “That was difficult, dealing with them, their agents and their managers. We spent more time getting approval from them for artwork than anything else regarding gameplay. While waiting for the approval from them and having to make constant small changes, they at least left us alone when it came to gameplay mechanics.”
Universal Soldier was released on the Megadrive/Genesis and Gameboy. I ask Bankston why there were no further platforms used. “Accolade was in a lawsuit with Sega at the time,” he says, “and it drained them of substantial cash resources. We completed the game [on the SNES] and it was approved by Nintendo for manufacturing, but Accolade sadly did not have the resources to release it.”
The game was a moderate hit. Did Bankston appreciate or realise at the time the ire that it gained from Turrican fans? “I do recall our marketing people mentioning something about a backlash from the hard-core Turrican fans,” he recalls, “and I think that was a bit unfair. All we did was change the graphics and theme; the game, and gameplay, were just as good as ever and really solid. Our feedback during testing was excellent.”
Shortly after the release of Universal Soldier, Christopher Bankston left Accolade. “I had an idea for interactive movie games and had pitched it to the management, but they weren’t interested.” he says. “And because money was tight, I was completing projects and they weren’t getting released. It was one of the toughest decisions of my career but it was very frustrating not being able to start new projects.”
Risking the anger of a million Turrican fans, I agree that Universal Soldier is a solid, playable game and gets a bad rap from many fans. “We enjoyed making it and loved the final product and it was definitely one of my favourite productions.” reminisces Bankston. “And it taught me an important lesson: that not everyone will like what you make.”
My thanks to Christopher Bankston for his time.