Will going handheld bring in the bacon and more importantly, the love?
Cast your mind back, if you will (and if you're still able), to the early days of home computing. For a while, if you wanted to play videogames, you either went to the arcades (or any surrogate home of an arcade game... chip shop, taxi office etc.), or if you were lucky, you could play in the comfort of your living room, through the likes of a Grandstand or Binatone Pong variant, or an Atari, Colecovision or Intellivision.
These things were all manufactured by giant companies. There was very little indie spirit involved (although to be fair, Activision's rebellious game-makers clearly blazed an indie trail, at least to begin with). It was when affordable home computers started appearing on shelves that everybody started getting in on the act, and bedroom coders became superstars. That was all it took... one enterprising kid to learn the code of the machine of his choice, and he'd rattle out a load of games in short order, and usually at prices that were affordable to their peers.
One such character was Jeff Minter. Inspired by the games at his local arcade and on home consoles, he'd originally bang out games based around the likes of Centipede or The Empire Strikes Back. But unlike many of the imitators of the time, he'd add many innovations of his own... partly, no doubt, to avoid litigation (other, less savvy coders would merely copy the latest arcade hits in the hope of a quick buck) and partly out of a desire to make games that his heroes, the likes of Eugene Jarvis, might enjoy.
It was a winning formula, and his software house Llamasoft gained quite a notoriety for producing quality, adrenalin-charged shoot 'em ups at prices that suited the pockets of the era's market... schoolkids. The Llamasoft and Minter names were made on the VIC-20 and Commodore 64, with a stream of off-the-wall titles delivering arcade-style thrills, but with their own personalities.
“Is that a Llama? Or a Dog? Just shoot it and shut up”
In time, as we know, home computers were phased out in favour of the PC, and games consoles came to the fore. And as a result, games got more expensive. It became harder for the indie programmers to compete, with games costing millions to develop and market. There was always shareware on the PC, of course, but many of the old-school programmers were either swallowed up by the mighty software houses... or got proper jobs.
Indie gaming has had a real resurgence of late, though. With the likes of Steam and XBLA/XBLIG allowing mass distribution of games by, well, anyone, “bedroom” coders have sprung up again in huge numbers. And now there's another platform where the indies can have real success... iOS.
The potential there is massive. Apple's iDevices are in more hands than you could count on a GigaWing score table, so if you can make so much as one game that goes viral on there, you're quids in. It's obviously easier said than done... who really knew that Angry Birds would take off the way that it did?
“Nope, not even when it's still - no idea what's going on”
Jeff Minter has spotted the potential, and has turned Llamasoft's gaze toward the Apple devices. Cranking up what he has named “The Minotaur Project”, his aim is to make quality arcade games at pocket money prices... as ever. And in fact, these games are even cheaper than Mastertronic's were back in the day... remarkable, when you think about it. The question is, how well do they work on a touchscreen phone? Let's take a look at them and find out.
Jeff Minter's brief with his Minotaur Project is to make new games on new machines, but in the style of old classics. And as soon as you load up Minotaur Rescue, you can see where his inspiration came from. Chunky, Atari VCS asteroids float across the screen, just dying to be blasted. But the game's not quite as simple as that...
In the middle of the screen is a sun. It pulses away brightly to itself, minding its own business. The trouble is, that sun has gravity, and as gravity tends to do, it pulls in anything that gets close. Asteroids, minotaurs, your ship... all will fall foul of Isaac Newton's greatest discovery, should the opportunity arise. Hang on a minute... did I say minotaurs?
Well, yes. It turns out that minotaurs have this terribly bad habit of getting lost in space. That's why you're up there in the first place... to rescue as many of the hairy, previously-mythological, rainbow-jumper-wearing critters as possible. So get those rocks smashed to bits, get in there, and get those horned beasts to safety, pronto.
“Johnny had been at the drugs again. This isn't Blue Peter”
If you tried to pitch that to a big software house now, you'd get laughed out of the office. And yet, ideas like that were the staples of home computer gaming, and nobody thought they were ridiculous, as long as they were fun. Minotaur Rescue takes Atari VCS Asteroids, Space War and Minter's own recent Gridrunner Revolution, scrunches them all up and throws them back out all mashed together as one glorious shooting game. The swipe controls were no doubt designed for an iPad, but I have absolutely no problems with playing the game on my iPhone and having a great time with it. For just 69p, it should be nestled snugly on any compatible device.
If you took a poll on which Jeff Minter game people most wanted remade, it wouldn't be any of his VIC-20 or Commodore 64 games... it would be his Atari ST classic, Llamatron. Itself an homage to one of the real arcade legends, Eugene Jarvis' Robotron: 2084, Llamatron was a pioneer of the shareware concept and remains much-beloved today. So it might have come as something of a surprise to many, to learn it was to be remade for the iThings...
Minotron: 2112 is very faithful to Llamatron, except for one obvious thing: you control a Minotaur instead of a Llama. Other than that, it's all present and correct; each level takes place in a self-contained, single-screen arena; you have to save a number of unwitting creatures (beasties here, rather than The Last Human Family); there's a range of power-ups to be collected, making life a little easier; and rather than shooting the robots of the original Jarvis game, you have to blast more traditional objects, such as telephones, televisions and rolls of toilet paper...
Control methods are a feature of Llamasoft's iOS games, with each one being built specifically for each game. You do come to appreciate that kind of effort, and it makes the games that much easier and more enjoyable to play than a standard fixed joystick and buttons. In Minotron, the first thumb you plonk down is your movement “stick”, wherever on the screen it may be. Your second thumb is your fire button. It's a pretty simple concept, but it works very well in practice and means that you're likely to stay alive a fair bit longer than you might with just twin sticks in the corners.
“Great. The Robotron machine is fucked again”
Minotron: 2112 has tons of manic blasting action, with laughs coming from both the absurdity of the enemies and the imaginative sound effects. Levels are short and games can be blasted through quickly, making this ideal for short bursts. Again, it doesn't really suffer when played on the small screen, so it can be recommended to anyone with a compatible device. Costs a bit more, though... £1.49.
Next to get the iOS treatment was Deflex, one of the very earliest Minter games. Deflex sees a ball moving around the screen in a straight line, and it will only deviate from its course if you stick a paddle down in its way. Paddles bounce the ball at 90 degree angles, so it takes a fair bit of planning if you want to be as efficient, and therefore as high-scoring as possible.
You might have gathered from that description that Deflex is a puzzle game. I don't usually get on with puzzle games, and indeed, Deflex ties my meagre brain in knots. For some reason, I never can figure out which of the two paddles I'm supposed to place, meaning that I send the ball careering in the opposite direction to where it should be going, taking my points-scoring potential with it.
And yet, the points-scoring element is what brings me back. Deflex has masses of high-score tables... one for every level, in fact, along with total scores. And the fact you can play any level you've beaten at any time makes it very accessible, even if you are a cack-handed moron with a brain unable to comprehend even The Daily Star's crossword, let alone the puzzle mechanics of this type of brain-bender.
“What's so funny? Hey, look at me when I'm talking to you”
I also find it quite soothing, as the game plays plinky-plonk piano every time the ball hits any kind of object. Very nice. I could do without the monged-out jarring graphics and obscure in-jokes, though... sometimes, simple really is best, and I doubt if anyone that doesn't visit Jeff's inner sanctums would have the faintest idea why L. Ron Hubbard's head pops up. Still, it's a nice diversion, is Deflex, and if you have any love for the puzzle, you'll likely get your £1.49's worth out of it.
If you go back through the thirty-plus years of Llamasoft's back catalogue, you'll notice something... they never released a platform game. And why would they, with so many things to be shot? Still, it's something that was destined to be put right, and put right it was with iOS release number four, GoatUp.
The object of the game is to get the goat, which you control, up to the top of the tower, and then back down again. That's eeeeeasy! Well, no it isn't, actually. The path to the top is a long and arduous one, and things get in your way.
Actually, the biggest obstacle comes from the platforms that form the path to the top of the tower. At first, they're pretty wide and plentiful, and you can land your goat on them quite happily, have a bit of a run around, eat some grass and pick up some hidden treasures. But as you progress, they get smaller and further apart, and you'll need some pretty nifty mountain goat-esque leaping skills to stay on track. And you'll want to stay on track, because if you fall off and down a gap, it's game over.
That seems like a harsh penalty, but that's the game mechanic. Without that fear to keep you on your toes, you'd just slack off and bludgeon your way to the top. Knowing that one false move means death keeps the game honest. But it is annoying if you're doing well and you make a slip... to help, you can find and “mate” with goats, with any offspring produced trailing colourfully behind you, with you being able to use them to knock any pesky varmints from their perches.
“It's Nebulus innit”
GoatUp feels quite a lot like Rainbow Islands to me, with the screen constantly scrolling to catch you up and an absolute mountain of hidden goodies to find. The tower in the background brings Nebulus to mind, and then as you progress you find yourself jumping through the history of platform games, with platforms and enemies from the likes of Miner 2049er and Manic Miner making appearances. For a first attempt at a platformer, GoatUp is a good one, and well worth the £1.49 asking price.
So far we've had a spacey shoot 'em up, an arena shoot 'em up, a puzzle game and a platform game in The Minotaur Project. What would we find with game number five? Well, we got Caverns of Minos... a game very much in the style of the old coin-op, Lunar Lander.
That's the gameplay aspect of it, but equally as inspirational was a game that I've never heard of, and Atari computer game called Caverns of Mars. If you look that one up (or indeed, go to the Llamasoft website entry ) then you'll see that it was a bit of a Scramble clone, except that it scrolled vertically.
Now, I don't like Scramble, and I don't like Lunar Lander. So how would I get on with Caverns of Minos?
Surprisingly well, as it happens. I find both Scramble and Lunar Lander excessively difficult, but Caverns of Minos is more forgiving. And even if it isn't, there are four difficulty levels, so if you're struggling, just take it down a notch. Unless you're struggling on the easiest difficulty level, in which case, you're just a bit shit.
Anyway, in a less-than-serious twist, the objective is to descend to the furthest depths of each level to retrieve an item for the giant sheep's-head mothership. It spins and hovers and radiates hearts and stuff in a manner not too dissimilar to the disembodied head of Katamari's King. Very strange. Anyway, it wants you to bring it things like cheese, pants and fantastic savings, in that traditionally mad British way.
“Look. Rescue them. Where? What do you mean where? They're minotaurs wearing multicolour jumpers for fucks sake man. Yes, of course I mean them”
It's good to have an actual objective, other than just getting somewhere. And after a while you'll find you need to strategise on your way down... there are Minotaurs to be rescued (of course), and as these replenish fuel and shields, you'll need to leave some for the trip back up, or else you'll be stranded.
Caverns of Minos is a fairly low-key release compared to the others... there appeared to be less fanfare around it than you might expect. But it's a good, solid game, and the four difficulty levels should ensure that you're playing it for a fair while. Again, you're certainly getting your money's worth at £1.49.
Less than a month after the release of Caverns of Minos, Jeff Minter knocked out iOS game number six. And it's a game that Minter fans were very familiar with... Gridrunner.
Gridrunner has seen many releases over the years, on many platforms. Starting on the VIC-20, it saw appearances on the Commodore 64, 16-bit machines, PC and Mac. Its latest incarnation, Gridrunner Revolution, saw it veer away from the formula somewhat, to the point where although it was a fun blast, it didn't bear much resemblance to the classics of the past. For the iOS version, Jeff has taken it back to its roots, and he's dragged it into an arcade while he's at it.
The game sees you controlling a ship that hovers above a grid. To the left and at the top of the grid are indestructible lasers, which are constantly patrolling the borders, firing intermittently as they go. Centipede-like droids make their way down the grid, and you must destroy them all before you can move onto the next grid.
It doesn't sound like much, hearing it like that. But the proof of the pudding is in the blasting the living shit out of it, and that's where Gridrunner excels. Although it's undeniably inspired by Centipede, it is most certainly its own game in terms of playability, throwing all kinds of elements into the mix to breathe all kinds of new life into it.
“As long as he had his ring of bullets Barry felt safe from the blobs”
Once you get a couple of levels in, and get locked into the grid, you'll find yourself truly in The Zone, that elusive gamespace whereby everything else around you might as well not exist. Enhancing the effect are the game's sounds... taken from a number of classic oldies, if you light a cigarette and leave it burning as you play the game, you could quite easily imagine you're in an Eighties arcade. It's loud, it's brash and it's glorious. I've heard that people have issues with the controls, but other than a little confusion in my first game I've had no such problems. Once you've got to grips with the system, it becomes second nature.
Gridrunner is the culmination of a year's work from Llamasoft, and it most certainly is the icing on the cake, with a cherry and chocolate sprinkles too. What, you want ice cream too? How about if you got the VIC-20 and Commodore 64 versions of Gridrunner in the package too? Because you do, and all at the bargain, knockdown price of 69p. It's unbeatable value, and a must-have for any self-respecting shmup fan.
You could be forgiven for thinking this was a paid advert for Llamasoft, or the ravings of a demented fanboy. It's really neither. I've always taken Jeff Minter games at face value, and I've enjoyed some and been happily indifferent to others. Some, I still haven't played to this day. But I have to say, I've been really impressed with Llamasoft's efforts on the iDevices.
Jeff Minter's been in the wilderness a little bit lately. There have been forays onto ill-fated systems, well-meaning efforts that have divided opinion and attracted negative press, and the occasional mis-step. But it seems as though he's found his niche now, and settled into a productive groove. If the last year is anything to go by, with six very good releases in that time, then the future for gamers and Llamasoft alike is surely as bright as the graphics in their games. Now, where's Ancipital iOS?