I May Not Know Art… ASTRO-BOVINE SPECTACULAR


Most gamers will have encountered Jeff Minter’s work in some form or another. For those of us who owned Commodores, Amstrads and Spectrums, he’s the reason we stayed indoors playing tripped-out shooters where bovines and camelids exploded into a shower of rainbow pixels, instead of going outside to do horrible things like socialise, and manufacture Vitamin D. If, on the other hand, you’re too young to have played a game that came on a cassette (cassettes were like small video tapes, and video tapes were giant plastic boxes with movies inside) you might be more familiar with Minter’s work on the seizure-inducing Xbox 360 audio visualiser. Either way, he’s exactly the kind of auteur whose work embodies the indie game spirit, and that’s why his new iPhone/iPad game, Minotaur Rescue, is the perfect title to begin this series with.

Behold! The thrill and excitement of Minotaur Rescue! Er, to be honest it kind of loses most of its charm if you slice out a single frame. This all looks much more fun in motion.

Minotaur Rescue is an arcade shooter in which you – a flimsy spacecraft with a single cannon on the front – must avoid the gravitational pull of a collapsing sun while accumulating points by blasting enemies and asteroids, rescuing any minotaurs that happen to appear from within. There are other variant modes to play through – and if you fire Minotaur Rescue up on an iPad and you get to play an even more insane four-players-on-one-screen version – but the basic game is the same throughout.

If that sounds mental, it’s because you’ve never played a Jeff Minter game before. This really is par for the course. Indeed, Minotaur Rescue slots so closely alongside such quickfire greats as Sheep in Space, Llamatron and Attack of the Mutant Camels, that you can almost imagine that it was coded at the same time they were. Graphically, spiritually, this is a retro game in every way.

That ethos is both a strength and a weakness. Since the 80s, game design has changed. Players expect different things – not just in terms of depth and variety, but in the way the game interacts with them. If modern games are a slow, building dialogue between two mutually interested parties, Minotaur Rescue is like a drill instructor with a megaphone screaming into your face while you attempt to do press-ups in the mud. If there’s a learning curve, it’s only because the Earth isn’t flat. You will die in this game. You will die a lot.

Get used to seeing this screen once every 27 seconds.

In fact, you will probably die 5 or 6 times before you figure out how to move your ship effectively using the controls, and then you’ll die another 5 or 6 times while you learn how to stop. Meanwhile, as you’re trying to figure this out, the game continues around you, oblivious to your plight. Learning to aim is tricky, not least because the sun’s gravity deflects your bullets. The screen wraps, leaving you constantly disoriented, and your ship never stops shooting, meaning you’re constantly distracted by sprites flying left and right that you may or may not have had something to do with.

If this were an arcade game, that would be almost satirically unforgiving, but because it’s on the iPhone, you can replay it for free. And the more you play it, the better you’ll get at massaging the game’s fiddly controls, at learning how to navigate the physics, and at surviving long enough to score a few points. Games are short, fast, and frantic, and your only goal is to do better than the last time you played (or than the others on the OpenFeint/Game Center scoreboards). It is, in that way, just like the old days.

The thing is – if we wanted to play Defender, or Space Invaders, or Missile Command, those games are still there. And if we want to play a fiendishly-difficult modern version, Geometry Wars already covers that, and does so with a better control scheme. The likes of VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy manage to be unforgiving without being frustrating. The only thing Minotaur Rescue really brings to the table is its own sense of humour – which is fine, because Minter’s personality is enough of a reason to play the game as any – but it won’t be enough for everyone.

One thing that’s impossible to fault, though, is the game’s aesthetic. It’s pure retro genius in every way. Glitchy sound effects, charmingly blocky sprites, and an entire rainbow of bright colours erupting around you, combined with a modern framerate and hazy visual effects – it’s nothing short of beautiful. If you wait on the title screen, you even get to see a Scientology-baiting backstory, as well joke-packed credits and instructions screens. It feels like the work of someone who puts care into every aspect of their game, not just the bits that’ll make it sell.

I played a four-player game with one hand to make this screenshot. It was, in many ways, more fun than playing the single-player version.

At the most charitable assessment, Minotaur Rescue is a game that plants the retro gaming flag right in the future and dares you to come and have a go. It’s the kind of game that assumes you already want to play it from the moment you fire it up, and makes you work for the chance to. But there’s the rub. I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore. Games – particularly iPhone games – are seen as short-term and disposable. Minotaur Rescue is neither of those things. It wants to be sat in an arcade, played back-to-back by addicts with an ever-decreasing supply of 10p pieces. Nostalgists and enthusiasts will certainly lap it up, but between unintuitive controls and a lack of originality in the mechanics, it’s unlikely to ever find an audience beyond that.