I admire pretty much anyone capable of making a game. I know there are lots of tools out there that make it much more accessible than it once was, but for me, game makers still work a certain form of magic.
I particularly admire those who have been making games since the early days of home computing, in many cases directly programming the computer’s hardware using machine code in order to wring as much power out of those poor beasts as possible.
And I especially admire Jeff Minter, who was doing this back in the days of the 8-bit Atari, and is still going strong today.
For the unfamiliar, Jeff Minter is an English game designer who has remained fiercely independent and committed to doing things his own way ever since the early 8-bit home microcomputer era. His games were typically technically impressive twists on popular arcade formulae rather than being completely original, but the fact they were always infused with a massive amount of personality made them enormously memorable for anyone who experienced them.
And what a personality. Minter has long been obsessed with and kept a variety of weird and wonderful creatures ranging from the humble sheep (whom he livestreams feeding Digestive biscuits to every morning on Twitter’s Periscope service) to llamas, camels and goats. Indeed, this love of animals typically plays a key role in his creative works, and since the very beginning he has released his games under the label “Llamasoft”.
Over the years, Minter developed something of a habit for attaching himself to “underdog” hardware that he found fascinating but which was, in most cases, doomed to failure. His most intriguing projects in this regard were his work on the never-launched Konix Multisystem — which, had it ever come to fruition, would have been the only home console available with an arcade-style moving seat as well as a controller that could transform between flight yoke, steering wheel and handlebars — and the spectacular failure that was the Atari Jaguar, where he made Tempest 2000, an update of the classic arcade game and one of the few Jaguar games that was actually good.
In more recent years, Minter was responsible for the music visualiser on the Xbox 360 — a natural evolution of his “light synthesiser” software packages that he began experimenting with on the 8- and 16-bit home computer platforms — as well as the visualisation aspects of Taito’s Space Invaders Extreme, but he longed for a return to the good old days when he had complete control over his own creative projects and was able to release them at his own pace.
He decided to explore the then-budding smartphone game market on iOS, and planned a loosely linked set of games known as the Minotaur Project. The common thread between all these games would be that their mechanics would be designed in a similar way to classic games from the 8-bit and early arcade era, but they would be unconstrained by the technology of the time. Ultimately the project yielded six games in total, but Minter became frustrated with the rise of free-to-play games, increasingly obtrusive monetisation models and nigh-impossible discoverability on mobile, and eventually decided to pull out of that market, describing it on Twitter as being like “the scene of a mugging”.
For a while, the Minotaur Project games were all but lost, since Minter did not update them for 64-bit versions of iOS, and as a result they were pulled from the App Store for no longer meeting Apple’s requirements. Fortunately, Minter had planned ahead and made the code for the games suitably portable, making future Mac, PC and console versions a distinct possibility, even if he never wanted to touch mobile with a barge pole ever again.
With the rise of new and exciting but niche-interest technology such as VR, Minter found himself once against intrigued by the possibilities of doing something a bit different from the norm. In 2017, he and his partner Giles Zorzin released Polybius — named after the legendary “game that doesn’t exist” — for PlayStation 4 with extensive PlayStation VR support, and it caught the attention of Nine Inch Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor, who asked to use its distinctive, stylised visuals as the basis for the music video for Less Than.
In 2018, the Minotaur Project made a comeback on Steam, featuring enhanced versions of Gridrunner — the game Minter has ported and remade more times than anything else from his back catalogue — and GoatUp, a platform game based on the ZX Spectrum and its contemporaries. Rather than straight ports from iOS, however, this first “volume” of what was now known as Minotaur Arcade adopted some rather peculiar visual effects — and, like Polybius, was clearly intended to be experienced in VR.
Now, that first volume of Minotaur Arcade is available to PlayStation 4 players, making these unusual and highly addictive VR arcade games available to a much wider audience.
The version of Gridrunner in Minotaur Arcade vol. 1 is a solid adaptation of the iOS version, featuring early ’80s arcade-style visuals and sounds. In Gridrunner, you control a spaceship that is tasked with destroying the titular creatures, which proceed down the screen much like the eponymous foe from Atari’s Centipede series. All you have to worry about in this version is avoiding getting hit by things; firing is taken care of for you.
Gridrunner isn’t a simple shooter, however; there are some mechanics to learn and familiarise yourself with. Probably the most important of these to get your head round are the “X-Y zappers”, which move along their respective axes of the grid and, at regular intervals, shoot something. The one which moves across the X axis at the top of the screen occasionally fires a beam that, after a brief telegraph, engulfs the full height of the grid, while the one on the Y axis fires out glowy things that, if left unattended for too long, hatch into bombs, giving you even more things to avoid than you had already.
There are a variety of power-ups to collect in Gridrunner, most of which provide your ship with more firepower in different directions. One allows you to shoot in front of and behind yourself, for example, while the most sought-after turns you into a nigh-invincible star of death, firing in pretty much every direction and ripping through enemies; just don’t get too overconfident, because those X-Y Zappers can still get you!
The original Gridrunner on 8-bit platforms had fairly abstract graphics, but subsequent ports brought plenty of that distinctive Minter personality to the fore. Minter has never been a provocateur per se, but he has always held strong opinions that he hasn’t been afraid to express through his work. He always does this in an entertaining, non-obtrusive manner, however; the second level of Gridrunner is called “Cameron’s Huge Mistake”, for example, and sees you shooting down Union Flags emblazoned with slogans, presumably an expression of his frustration with the interminable “Brexit” situation — something which I’m sure pretty much everyone can get on board with at this point.
More recent Minter games — including those found in Minotaur Arcade vol. 1 — typically incorporate a wide variety of cultural references, usually in the form of sampled sound effects drawn from a wide variety of sources. In Gridrunner’s case, these range from classic arcade game bleeps and burbles to Fluttershy’s “Yay” from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic; somehow Minter has always managed to get away with this sort of thing in his games without running into any copyright issues, and playing “spot the audible reference” becomes an extremely compelling metagame in its own right after a while!
This sort of thing is taken to a whole other level in Gridrunner’s companion in Minotaur Arcade vol. 1: GoatUp.
In concept, GoatUp is a fairly simple platform game. You control a goat, and you need to go up — in this case, up a cylindrical tower. You achieve this by moving along platforms and jumping. As soon as you start moving, the screen starts scrolling, and you need to keep heading upwards in order to avoid being swallowed by the void.
As you move along platforms, you will score points for them. Initially this is presented as the goat eating grass, but as the game progresses and you proceed through a variety of environments — more on that in a moment — you’ll also be doing things like painting floors, breaking bricks and all manner of other things.
As you move around, you’ll reveal various items, and these are where the majority of your points come from. There are 40 different items in total to collect, many of which are cultural references of varying descriptions — although the first is just a ham sandwich from Tywyn Wharf station. As you progress through the game, you’ll be picking up ZX Spectrums, dragons from Adventure, lumps of cake (specifically, that delicious-looking strawberry shortcake that is in every anime ever), British road signs, 3.5″ floppy disks, rhinos “in the wrong colour palette” and all manner of other things. Just seeing what weird and wonderful items you’ll be able to grab next is a big driving force in GoatUp.
Scattered throughout the levels are various other goats. Running into one of these impregnates your goat (who is female, it seems) and, after a short pregnancy, she will start to get a kid following her in a trail, up to 9 kids long if you play particularly promiscuously. These serve two functions: they’re effectively “lives”, since you lose one if you run into an enemy and get knocked off the tower if you don’t have any left, but they can also be used as a means of attacking the various foes.
By “whipping” your trail of kids behind you into an enemy, you can defeat the enemy and score big points. And as you progress up the tower through the various environments, you’ll find additional ways of dealing with enemies, too.
Ah yes, those environments; while things start pretty straightforwardly with grass-covered platforms, the second environment takes you into a cylindrical recreation of Miner 2049’er for Atari 8-bit, complete with authentic sound effects and objects you can collect to defeat the radioactive enemies.
This is followed by a level themed after Manic Miner on ZX Spectrum, and subsequent areas pay homage to everything from Jaleco’s City Connection (complete with irritating music any time you touch a cat — though here, in a display of solidarity in the animal kingdom, they confer invincibility and allow you to defeat the hordes of Honda Cities racing around the platforms rather than killing you) to Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Atari 8-bit classic Montezuma’s Revenge.
GoatUp is a constant journey of discovery, and if you grew up with any of these games, it’s impossible not to play it with a huge smile on your face. The game becomes increasingly frantic and hectic as you progress, but it never feels so chaotic you can’t see what’s going on; the incredibly tight and snappy controls really help with this side of things.
Both Gridrunner and GoatUp work brilliantly in VR, primarily because neither of them are trying to do anything too fancy. Essentially all the VR mode is doing is making for a more immersive experience, since both games simply place you sitting a short distance away from the playfield rather than trying to put you “in” the action. This means you can look around to see what is going on, and the game frequently flings things out of the screen at you in 3D just to emphasise the depth aspect; this never feels overdone or gimmicky, however — it’s just a reminder that yes, you really are playing these ridiculous games in VR, and it’s massively fun.
Gridrunner’s unusually shaped and curved playfields look particularly good in VR, while the scale of the tower you are climbing in GoatUp is emphasised wonderfully when you are able to actually look up to see where you’re going and down to see where you’ve been — before it disappears into the void, that is!
Both games are simple but immensely addictive. They’re a perfect example of Jeff Minter doing what he has always done best: taking straightforward, ’80s style arcade game concepts and providing a unique, modern technological twist on them. They’re also great VR showcase games; since they’re both so easy to learn, they’re games ideally suited for introducing new players to the possibilities of VR without overwhelming them or risking motion sickness.
Oh, and the whole thing fits in about 50MB. How many games can you say that about these days — let alone two-game bundles?
I’m just delighted that not only is Jeff Minter still making games, he’s bringing back some of my absolute favourite works of his. If the rest of the Minotaur Project’s grand resurrection is as good as Minotaur Arcade vol. 1, I am very much on board, and very happy I own a PSVR.
Here’s looking forward to Caverns of Minos and Super Ox Wars!
Screenshots in this article are from the PSVR mode. The games can also be played on a regular TV.
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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