The Minotaur Project Feature
Players: up to 4 dependent on game
Tested on: iPad 2
Jeff Minter has been designing games for thirty years, and it is the early 1980s that has inspired his new series of iOS games. The aim of The Minotaur Project is to produce games with the aesthetic of the 8 and 16-bit era, with short development times helping keep the ideas fresh. There have been a magnificent eight games so far, three of which are remakes of old Llamasoft titles and five originals.
The games have similar features, including Game Center achievements. The ability to resume a best score (based on the level reached and the number of lives remaining) is excellent. That also makes a “pure” score – starting from level 1 – feel special. The minotaurs themselves pop up as enemies or bonuses to be rescued. In many of the games sound plays an important part, alerting players to bonuses and what is happening (for example, a new wave of fruit-carrying enemies appearing in Five A Day). iCade compatibility is also included, giving an authentic arcade experience for the vertically oriented games. And while it may sound counter-intuitive for shoot ‘em ups, firing is automatic in most games. This makes success more about skill and movement rather than the rate of pushing the button.
Genre: Arena shooter Players: 1
Jeff took a gamble and released his Atari ST homage to Robotron – Llamatron – as shareware. His loyal fan base responded with glee, and this was one game he was eager to return to. The control method relies on two points of touch, and can be configured for left or right handed play. This determines which side the moving and firing controls are on. The Minter staples of strange sprites and oddball sound FX are definitely in play. Endurance mode challenges the player to last as long as possible with just one life. There are another four styles of play to choose from. Normal has all the power-ups available (including some new ones), Assisted gives the player an indestructible Helper droid for extra firepower, Simplified fires automatically and Hard has only the original power-ups from Llamatron. Humour is present in the strange enemies, the 16-ton weight (straight from Monty Python) and the fictional back-story about the Cattle Electronics console…
Genre: Shoot ‘em up Players: 1-4
Melding elements of the Atari VCS version of Asteroids and the classic Spacewar’s black hole at the centre of the screen, this game is all about gravity and rescuing minotaurs. Throw in a recreation of classic Atari cart Combat and there is added value. Running on the fictional Ataurus machine, up to four players (two on iPhone, stroking corners of the screen to move their ship) can take part. The main game is Solar Minotaur Rescue Frenzy. The player must destroy the asteroids and rescue the minotaurs trapped within. Rocks falling into the sun will cause it to grow, eventually becoming a black hole that drags everything in (with a bonus to the player for escaping). Catching minotaurs gives bonus points (increased the closer the minotaur is to the sun when caught) and raises the ship’s firing rate. Three shields help protect the ship and are replenished at the start of a new level. Deep Space Minotaur Madness removes the sun to be closer to Asteroids, but both modes feature nasty UFOs that shoot at the player or drop mines. Survival mode again gives just one life to reach as far as possible. Tanks has up to four shooting each other for points in a choice of mazes, while Jets sees two teams of three planes seeking dominance.
Genre: Puzzle Players: 1
This is another remake, dating back to the Spectrum. The gameplay is all about deflecting a ball using mirrors to pick up the many objects onscreen, the trick being that the mirrors rotate when the ball has hit them. There are two types of mirror, added to the level by tapping the icons at the bottom corners of the screen to make them appear and immediately deflect the ball. The player can go from the start or return to a previously reached level, and the local scores are compared to the global best as you play. Picking up objects (from oxen to telephones to bananas, many of them Llamasoft favourites) increases the multiplier that steadily counts down. Should it reach zero, the ball evaporates and the level must be attempted again. To increase the complexity, some objects are repelled rather than attracted to the ball, breakable walls have to be knocked down and bombs explode to blow up walls and mirrors. The sound effects are minimal but quite soothing, mainly consisting of piano chords as the ball hits the mirrors.
Genre: Platform Players: 1
This is the first ever platform game to come from the Llamasoft stables, inspired by an Atari 2600 homebrew game called Man Goes Down. The lady goat jumps upwards through levels themed after classic games, eating grass to reveal bonus items and “kissing” the waiting male goats. This results in a trail of kids, which can knock out enemies but are reduced in number when the mother collides with an enemy. Other pick-ups let the goat fly or become invincible, while the mushrooms have an unpredictable and often psychedelic effect. Touch controls are simple left/right movement and jump as the platforms continually scroll up; the player must avoid falling off the bottom, which ends the game. Records keep track of the height, objects collected and kids born (with the maximum flock size also noted). And once the player has climbed through the ten levels, there is the added challenge of making it safely back down…
CAVERNS OF MINOS
Genre: Shoot ‘em up Players: 1
This time the alchemical properties of Thrust/Gravitar and Skramble have been combined, paying homage to an old Atari game, Caverns of Mars. The tricky vertical caverns filled with guns and force fields have to be negotiated with care to find the hidden object the mothership (a floating giant ewe) requests the player to retrieve. Fuel is replenished by shooting the fuel dumps, shield energy by rescuing the minotaurs (who award a bonus for a soft landing). Control is simple movement and thrust. The layouts become more complex and the return journey harder as more enemies are launched to thwart progress. The choice of four different ships defines the difficulty levels, and cleverly they evoke more nostalgia. The ships are based on designs from Thrust/Gravitar, Lunar Lander and Space Taxi, with the “pointy ship” requiring swift rotational controls. The funny quest objects and the off-the-wall sound intrigue the player and draw them into a tough challenge.
Genre: Shoot ‘em up Players: 1
Take Centipede, add the appearance of an early 1980s coin-op (released by Lambco – see what they did there?) and simmer with some frenetic gameplay. Stir in the VIC and C64 versions of Gridrunner to raise the value, cleverly activated by tilting the device sideways. Each grid sees waves of the basic enemy make their way down the screen, dropping pods behind them. Pods grow and eventually hatch into missiles that hurtle down the screen. Another major hazard is the Zappers. These two ships patrol the left and top sides of the grid. The vertically moving ship shoots more pods onto the grid from the left, while the horizontal ship pauses to unleash a vertical bolt of deadly lightning down the screen. Other types of enemies are added through the levels, including the Swarmers (shoot it to release the swarm of smaller ships, in homage to Eugene Jarvis’ Defender) and the giant pink Saucer. Fortunately defeated enemies drop power-ups, including the useful purple diagonal fire, smart bombs, the time warp that slows enemies down and the green power-up. This one swells the ship in size, making it invulnerable for a while and allowing the ship to “bull” (collide with) enemies and knock them off the grid – a technique introduced in Space Giraffe. Pure and Casual scoreboards will make the player want to play again and again in true arcade style.
FIVE A DAY
Genre: Shoot ‘em up Players: 1
The icon shows two bananas and an apple arranged in a smiley face, but this is not a healthy eating app. Instead it merges Time Pilot with the early 80s arcade obsession of using fruit as bonus objects. Flying over a background of atmospheric clouds, waves of enemies attack. Some bear fruit, which can be collected to replenish energy. Each wave also has an enemy type that tows a Minotaur – shoot the enemy enough times and picking up the minotaur unleashes a circular spread of bullets. The more fruit collected and towed behind the craft, the more potent the bullet spread. Failure to collect fruit or minotaurs in time sees them fall to Earth and become lost; it is important to try and regain fruit left floating after the ship runs out of energy. When enough enemies have been killed, the bullet-spewing mothership appears. Shooting or manoeuvring your trail of fruit to hit it can kill the boss. Few games have rewarded turning your back on an enemy this way. The game is split into days, with each day divided into five time periods reflected in the colour of the clouds/sky. Survive a day while collecting each of the five types of fruit and a bonus life is awarded. The ambient sound, as mentioned earlier, plays a big part in keeping the player focus on the game.
SUPER OX WARS
Genre: Shoot ‘em up Players: 1
Cross-breeding the vertical arcade classic Star Force with a Brazilian festival featuring red and blue oxen, there is also a modern flavour in its bullet-hell storms and the polarity feature. This is subtler than Ikaruga but does make for some variety in the gameplay, allowing the player to try out different tactics/colours on each stage and to go after colour-themed achievements. Entering each vertically scrolling level, ground targets and waves of enemies make their way down the screen. Shooting or collecting the blue or red elements switches the ship’s colour and bullets to that colour (based on the tug of war between the two bulls shown at the top of the screen). This determines which colour points are scored for. Staying in one colour for longer increases the number of bonuses you earn in that colour. Giant red hearts and large blue stars unleash a smart-bomb like effect, knocking out things as they fly off the screen. Small blue stars and little red hearts increase the player’s firepower by acting as short-lived drones, and also enhance the “colour effect”. In blue mode, player shots deflect enemy bullets and the drone stars fire upwards. In red mode, the ship itself repels bullets and the drone hearts create a heart-shaped protective cloud around the ship. End of level boss encounters (featuring disembodied parts of a bull) add variety to a delightful shooter weaving together old and new styles, and one worth practising to get further.
There can be no doubt that experience has helped Jeff and his partner Ivan (mathematician and programmer) shape these games, putting together interesting mechanics with smooth touch controls. (Tilt control is effective in Goat Up, less so in Five A Day on iPad). There is plenty of humour in all the titles – from scenarios to achievement names, to the bizarre level complete messages in Gridrunner and Five A Day. The psychedelic visuals and animals all hark back to the old days. But best of all is the feeling of progress and improvement that repeated play brings. There are no huge jumps in the difficulty curve, no insurmountable moments to frustrate.
For Mac and Android users, there is excellent news – work has begun on porting the games to OS X and Android formats. Gridrunner OS X is now available, along with a “lite” version for iOS. This adds a new Survival mode (looping through six levels with no bonus life) and unlocks the rest of the content with an in app purchase. Android versions will follow. And with all the Llamasoft releases being at the lower end of the App Store price range, there really is no reason not to try them out.
Shoot ‘em up fans should spread the news about these excellent games – there is long-term playability here at a bargain price. Puzzle experts should be all over Deflex, and Llamasoft’s first platform experiment is a tasty treat. If this was a stock prediction, the end would be two words – BUY NOW!