“To be honest, I’m fucking tired of doing some of my best work and getting back next to bugger all,” tweeted a very frustrated Jeff Minter (right) this morning. “It’s crushed the spirit out of me. Some days I just wish I’d done something, *anything* except this, and that’s a shit way to feel after you’ve invested 30 years in something.”
As someone who has been gaming since the early ’80s, this was heartbreaking to read. My countryman Minter and his company Llamasoft have been fixtures in my gaming life for as long as I can remember — titles such as Attack of the Mutant Camels and Hover Bovver were among the earliest games I played, and his “light synthesizer” titles such as Colourspace and Trip-A-Tron helped show me that computers were more than just gaming machines — they could be instruments of artistic expression and pure creativity, too. I whiled away too many hours than I’d care to count just messing around with Colourspace in particular, imagining what the abstract psychedelic patterns on screen might represent — it was an oddly relaxing experience that was unique at the time, and still isn’t something you see all that often these days.
Minter’s career has been long and prolific, and while you might not call his toiling away in relative obscurity as “illustrious,” or “high-profile” as some other developers who have been around for a similar period, he’s certainly been present and played an important role throughout almost the entire history of computer and console gaming. He was also a developer willing to take risks, jumping aboard intriguing but commercially doomed platforms such as the Konix Multisystem, Atari Jaguar and Nuon “enhanced DVD” technology, and was always willing to try and push things forward. He never lost sight of his beliefs and ideals, however — even today, the majority of his games still incorporate a wide variety of ruminants, particularly camels, sheep and llamas, and he’s refused to compromise his principles even with the growth of the free-to-play and in-app purchase movements.
It’s this latter issue which has played a contributing role in the frustration he expressed today. His iOS games, which we’ll talk about in detail in a minute, are all high-quality pieces of work that are great fun to play, feature well thought-out touchscreen control systems and don’t attempt to scalp the player with nickel-and-dime in-app purchases at every opportunity. They remain true to his retro roots, with self-consciously old-school graphics and sound, but make full use of the enhanced graphics-pushing power of modern smartphones to create games that are both “retro” and visually-impressive in their appearance simultaneously.
And yet if you’re to take a look at the App Store charts on any given day, these games will likely be nowhere to be seen, pushed out of the way by dodgy knockoffs of console titles, gameplay-free “social RPGs” that haven’t advanced since Mafia Wars and shallow, tedious timesinks that require you to do nothing more than idly tap on the screen a few times every hour. There really is no justice.
Minter is far from the only developer to have expressed frustration with how difficult it is to get noticed in the overcrowded market of the App Store, but his anguish is particularly heartbreaking due to his long and dedicated career in the industry. He has always worked hard to provide experiences that are fun for the player first and foremost, and which provide him with a living as a secondary concern. He regularly rails against social and mobile games that are heavy on the in-app purchases via his Twitter feed, believes that games should be “pay once, keep forever,” and also has very strong beliefs that very few developers are doing touchscreen controls well. And he’s right about all these things.
In appreciation of a genuine living legend, then, here are some links to his iOS games. If you have an iPhone or iPad and are looking for something fun to while away the hours with — and probably make you laugh in the process — then you could do far worse than show your support for the “Llamasoft Ox” and check these out.
Caverns of Minos
Caverns of Minos is Minter’s homage to a classic Atari game, Caverns of Mars – itself one of the earliest examples of a vertically-scrolling shoot ‘em up on home computers. Caverns of Minos sees players descending into a variety of increasingly-perilous caverns in an attempt to rescue trapped minotaurs and then get back out safely. It features an interesting implementation of difficulty — changing the difficulty setting actually changes which ship you fly, with more difficult ships having more complex control schemes to deal with. The default Caverns of Mars ship is the easiest to handle, while the ship from Asteroids (or possibly Thrust) is the hardest, as it demands the player rotate and thrust to move rather than simply sliding from side to side.
Caverns of Minos is available now for $0.99. Grab it here.
Deflex is a gorgeous game in which you have to navigate a ball around various obstacles to collect all the items on a level. You can’t control the ball directly, however; your only controls allow you to drop diagonal “walls” on the playfield at the ball’s current location, which causes it to bounce off at a right-angle. Each time one of these deflecting walls is hit, it reverses direction, too. It’s a challenging game that takes some getting used to, but the dreamlike graphics and beautiful procedurally-generated soundtrack make this a good one to play before bed. Fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – of whom Minter is one — will appreciate the hidden references to the show. Yay~
Deflex is available now for $1.99. Grab it here.
Five A Day
Five A Day is a curious top-down shoot ‘em up vaguely similar to arcade classic Sinistar. You control the ship from the 16-bit versions of Gridrunner (yes, I’m quite pleased I recognize it) and fly around in all directions defeating enemies, collecting fruit and minotaurs and eventually defeating a boss to move on to the next time period of a day. Ending the level with at least one piece of fruit in tow contributes towards your “five a day” count — lampooning the popular initiatives that people should eat at least five pieces of fruit and vegetables per day — and ensuring that this chain remains unbroken until five levels are completed with fruit in tow rewards the player with an extra life. Five A Day features gorgeous visuals and an immensely relaxing background soundtrack — one to play with the headphones on for sure.
Five A Day is available now for $1.99. Grab it here.
GoatUp initially appears somewhat similar to the popular but simplistic mobile platform games such as Doodle Jump and Sonic Jump. Rather than forcing the player character to continuously jump, however, GoatUp instead uses a constantly-scrolling screen that you have to ensure you don’t fall off, and you have control over both movement and jumping. The aim is simply to score as many points as possible by eating grass, mating with other goats (with your offspring acting as a “shield” against enemy creatures) and collecting hidden items. It’s a very simple game but enormously addictive, as all good score-attack and mobile games should be.
GoatUp is available now for $1.99. Grab it here.
Unlike many of Minter’s other iOS titles, Gridrunner is a remake of one of his previous games rather than a homage to one or more classic games from other developers. The game is a top-down shooter vaguely reminiscent of Centipede, but a variety of increasingly-ridiculous powerups make the on-screen chaos reach hilarious levels before long. In a nice touch, turning your iOS device sideways switches the game from its modernized mode to the original version seen on 8-bit home computers back in the early ’80s.
Minotaur Rescue is a game which can be played by up to four players on the same device. It’s somewhat reminiscent of what Asteroids would be like with a gravitational pull mechanic — you have to destroy rocks, rescue the minotaurs who were confined within and ensure as few things as possible hit the sun in the middle of the screen — including yourself. The physics-based element of the game adds an interesting twist to the shoot ‘em up gameplay — by firing near to the sun in the middle, you can effectively bend shots around corners, though you have to be careful not to crash in the process! The game also includes modernized versions of classic Atari VCS multiplayer games to play with friends.
Minotaur Rescue is available now for $0.99. Grab it here.
Minotron wears its influences on its sleeve. An update of Minter’s own Llamatron game, itself an update of arcade classic Robotron, Minotron is a chaotic top-down arena shooter in which you take on increasingly-huge hordes of enemies while attempting to save sheep, llamas and numerous other creatures from the enemies’ evil desires.
Minotron 2112 is available now for $1.99. Grab it here.
Super Ox Wars
Reprising its role as “thing that shoots everything else,” the ship from Gridrunner makes another appearance, this time in a curious shmup where you have not one but two different scores that represent your support of two warring oxen. The more you support a single oxen — represented by collecting items of the same color — the greater your firepower, but collecting an item of the opposite color causes you to start gaining favor with “the other side” instead. Attaining high scores and survivability demands that you try and stick to one color as much as possible. It’s an interesting twist on the “polarity shooter” idea, and a great shmup to boot.
Super Ox Wars is available now for $1.99. Grab it here.