Last year brought welcome news of a comeback of a beloved name in gaming, and in tandem with that news the revelation, to me at least, that another famous name in video games wasn't perhaps as dormant as I'd thought. With the release of Turrican Flashback later this month - a collection of the much-loved run-and-gunner series' highlights - we're not only seeing the return of the Turrican name, but also of developer Factor 5, the famed outfit behind the Rogue Squadron games and countless other fascinating projects that sadly shut down in the tumultuous wake of Lair's release.
"We never split just because the studio shut down here in the US," studio founder Julian Eggebrecht tells me from his Marin County base. "[The studio in Cologne] stayed open in many ways, and we just pivoted from game making to video-on-demand services. While the company was going through the bankruptcy, I got in contact with Netflix, and we got a lot of the early clients for all of the streaming tech back in 2009 - and then pretty much all of those streaming apps that you've been using on consoles and lots of other platforms as well."
It's heartening to know that, without even knowing it, there's been a little piece of what was once Factor 5 on the various consoles I've owned over the years - and I'm sure it was a lucrative turn for Eggebrecht and co. too. "We did that for a decade," he says, "and it wasn't the worst bet!"
That success led to a new chapter in the team's story that began last August. "What has kind of been Factor 5 the past 10 years joined Epic together," says Eggebrecht. "We still have our old structure in that half of the team is in the Bay Area, and the other half of the team is in Cologne. I'm basically leading the whole group, which is nowadays the media tech and services group inside Epic, here from California."
As exciting as all that is, it's the side hustle Eggebrecht and his team have been set free on that's perhaps of most interest, and the return of Turrican is something that's been almost quarter of a century in the making. "We needed to sort out a tonne of rights, because the situations around those games were a complete nightmare," says Eggebrecht. The final resting place for many of those rights ended up being at the now defunct THQ, and it was the publisher's downfall that presented an opportunity to Factor 5.
"Ironically a really good friend of mine - Jason Rubin, the founder of Naughty Dog - happened to be the final poor soul who basically had to lead THQ as their CEO through bankruptcy. So the moment I read about it, I immediately hit up Jason and said, Hey, did you know that you own parts of the Turrican rights back in Germany. He was like, I had no idea, but sure if you want it then make us an offer. And that's exactly what we did.
With the rights secured, Eggebrecht was approached by the head of Strictly Limited Games - a self-confessed Turrican superfan. "He said can something finally be done with Turrican," says Eggebrecht. "Then, of course, can we do a new Turrican? Well, we'll see about that... But first, we can at least bring Turrican back and show the Americans what they missed with the Amiga versions, and show the Europeans what they missed with the SNES and Mega Drive versions. That got the whole ball rolling, and then with the 30th anniversary of course coming up here we are, finally."
Turrican Flashback, which launches next week on Switch (with a surprise PlayStation 4 release last week) brings together four of the games - Turrican, Turrican II: The Final Fight, Mega Turrican and Super Turrican - with a few mod cons besides. The controls have been re-mapped, should you not want to have to press up to jump, though of course the option to keep things untouched is there. There are filters and wallpapers, and a light amount of supporting material. "Unfortunately we didn't find that much, but we basically sent out a beacon to everybody who worked on the games," says Eggebrecht. "It's maybe less than people were hoping for, but on the other hand, I think we really got everything."
What really matters, though, is the chance to play these games again - and to see how their urgency and action hasn't dimmed at all over the years. "When we did Turrican 1 and Turrican 2, it was just for the heck of it," Eggebrecht says of the original's appeal. "It was super organic, there was no elaborate planning around the level design, about game mechanics and everything that you would do nowadays. But because the games were so self-contained and so small - it was all iterated and basically you just went for it, right?
"A lot of the games from back then were really born out of tech experiments. Turrican 1, for example - Manfred Trenz started it on the Commodore 64, just having the ambition to figure out a game which scrolls in all directions, and throws around a tonne of large objects and has these huge levels. That was the ambition and that was the game design because it technologically had never been done. The ambition was to solve this tech problem. And then the game design and the actual game that came afterwards.
"Coming back to it having made games for 30 years, it's strange because you suddenly start analysing it to death. I guess that's the George Lucas syndrome, right? When he went back on Star Wars, he started fiddling - and I understand him a lot better now. Looking at the old games, you immediately feel the urge to tinker as this wasn't really perfect, and this wasn't really perfect, but then you need to step back and say, wait, that's the charm of it. I've resisted that urge, basically."
Turrican Flashback is a neat little package that shows off the series in its prime, and of course it begs the question of what's next. Factor 5 returned to the series a small handful of times, exploring the potential of what it might look like in 3D. A Space World demo debuted alongside what would become Rogue Leader.
"It was a spiritual successor to Turrican called Tornado, which was basically attempting the whole Turrican-style free roaming levels in 3D," says Eggebrecht. "We got to the prototype stage, but then at the end of the day Nintendo basically said, we don't think with your team size you can handle that - we were pitching that as a first party game. And they said, we really, really need Rogue Leader for launch - the only game that they knew at the time which would potentially make it for launch was Luigi's Mansion. So we said let's put Tornado on ice, and it never really came back off it. That demo is unfortunately, as far as I know, completely lost, because that would have only worked on a prototype GameCube and certainly early prototypes of Flipper and Dolphin."
Another attempt at a 3D Turrican came in what would be the final days of the original Factor 5 with a PS3 demo titled Cyclone: The Eternal One. "It was a white box," says Eggebrecht of the 2009 effort. "So it's not very pretty, but it has the whole gameplay elements and everything in there. I think the whole thing would have been super cool. We couldn't get a publisher at the time to pony up the money for it - although we were pretty close. And suddenly we were out of money and the rest is history."
So what of the future? With Factor 5 back there's every chance Turrican could make another return, in some shape or another. There's the catch of course that we all have day jobs at Epic," says Eggebrecht. "It's awesome in the first place that Epic even allows us to do these little extra things on the side. Realistically, the one thing which we'd love to do is a 2D Turrican, if this is really successful - a modern 2D version of Turrican. I don't think I would want to go back into 3D as that's quite frankly not something which really excites me anymore.
"But a really nicely done 2D one, which would include the ability for people to do their own levels, similar to Mario Maker. I think the typical pitfall that you have, you have a different memory as the original makeup as the fans who experienced it, and they might want, especially with the Turrican games, it's tricky, right? The first two Amiga Turricans, the original ones, feel vastly different than, say, Super Turrican 2, which was clearly an homage to the Japanese design style.
"How do you cater to that? That's always the problem. So I'd love to do something where everybody on the team does our version of what we want do with it - and in all likelihood it will probably feel like one of the old games - but then we also put in all of the tools for the fans. That would really excite me - and then I play a level that I've never seen, or somebody does a weird tweak or a mod which just basically does something completely new with the whole thing - that just blows my mind."