You Should Play Jeff Minter's Games

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, September 16, 2011 at 9:00 am
I kissed a goat and I liked it. 

While everybody else I know has been playing Halfbrick's Jetpack Joyride (cool game, but murder on my eyes) I've been absorbed by Jeff Minter's GoatUp. It's a simple platformer with a goofy conceit. You're a goat named Patience hopping from level to level mowing through grass and hooking up with amorous billies. It's the best iOS platformer on the subject of animal husbandry. 

If you complain about games being all about Space Marines and sexism you should support weirdos like Jeff Minter. If you're all about gameplay (whatever that is) you should play Jeff Minter's games. And if you're a fan of psychedelia (who isn't?) I'm telling you: go play some games with the Llamasoft label on them. Here's why.

But first some background. Minter is old school. He's been making games since the early '80s -- programming for the Sinclair ZX-80, Commodore Vic-20 and Atari 2600. He has a thing for shooters, but his shooters are unlike any other shooters you've ever played. Minter takes a game like Tempest and goes completely off the rails with it -- making it a trippy (some would say unplayable (they're wrong) game of faith, skill, chance and firepower. Minter is a hirsute guy and he has a thing for beasties with cloven hooves. And based on his taste in music and visuals he's a bit of a throwback to the U.K. Acid House scene.

Already the dude doesn't sound like any other game developer out there. If there's a real iconoclast working in games this guy is it. But I don't expect you to buy the guys games just because you like the cut of his jib. You should check his games out because he's up to some really cool shit.

A second ago I alluded to Minter's Tempest clone Space Giraffe. You can read my review of the Xbox Live Arcade game when it came out to get a deeper understanding of why I dig the game so much. It is hard. It is trippy. And it is super cheeky. I will admit that, of the game's we're going to talk about, it is the least accessible. But if you're the kind of person that has neural receptors attuned to games like Rez you really ought to check it out

Lets say you don't have an Xbox. Gridrunner Revolution is a follow-up to Minter's classic Gridrunner++ and is available for the PC via Steam, where you can also grab Space Giraffe. In writing this article I just lost a good half-hour getting sucked into Grid Runner Revolution. It is a much more forgiving game than Space Giraffe. It helps that Minter goes easy on noobs at first, guiding you though the game's tutorial without throwing much danger at you. Still, the game is an eye-full. And among all the helpful tips are straight up trolls like, "If you can't see enemies look harder." I told you the guy was cheeky. 

It's Minter's most recent work that is the most exciting to me. This year alone he has released four games for iOS. And they're all really great at getting to the heart of what his games are about. The big gripe that people have with Space Giraffe is that you can't see what is going on. And they're right. Look at Minter like Obi Wan Kenobi. Damn right, with the blast shield down you can't see. Let's embrace the chaos rather than chafe at it.

On the iPhone and iPad the chaos embodies itself slightly differently. The enemy here is precision. Touchscreens just aren't as responsive as buttons and sticks. So Minter has been experimenting with games that embrace fuzzy touchscreen controls. And each of them feels like a tiny revelation about how games on this platform should play. 

Minotaur Rescue is Minter's take on Asteroids. You've got to shoot space rocks, avoid collision and try to save Minotaurs before they get sucked into a black hole. And here's the kicker -- you're not really directly controlling your space ship. You feather the touch screen, giving your ship nudges in different directions. Playing feels like flying by the seat of your pants

Minotron 2112 might be the most frustrating of Minter's iOS games because it tries to replicate the dual-stick shooters like Robotron 2012. There's way more opportunities to die and fail. But Minter is generous with extra lives and the ability to continue. So if you stick with this challenging game you'll eventually succeed. 

Minter's two most recent games are the most exciting because they're huge left turns as far as game mechanics go. Deflex is a puzzle game with a serious dexterity component. You've got strategically place angular flippers on to help ricochet a glowing orb around the board and pick up all kinds of weird objects like telephones and banana. Once you wrap your head around the way the game works it becomes a points game. You have to puzzle out the path that will score you the best multiplier then test your dexterity and wits to pull the maneuver off. 

And, lastly, there's GoatUp -- the weird goat breeding game I led off with. This game looks deceptively simple at first but there's a lot going on. Ostensibly you're really  just trying to climb. But you've got way more to think about. There's grass to eat. And when you mow through that lawn bonuses appear, but you've got to turn around to nab them. All the while the floor is dropping away urging you upward. On top of that there are male goats. When you kiss them and munch on some post-coital grass you spawn a kid who follows behind you -- serving as a extra lives and an offensive weapon. Eventually you'll birth a whole chain of kids behind you. And when that train of goats passes over an enemy it kills them. As the game progress it becomes a complicated dance of risk and reward. You're trying to stay alive, breed more goats, kill enemies, collect bonuses and crank up your points. The game is a blast and I'm obsessed with trying to beat Robert Ashley's impressive high score. 

Looking back on all these games you can see that Minter isn't just about experimentation and eye-candy. Deep down his games are about examining old game mechanics and futzing with them. He's a bit like a hacker who dismantles old video games, learns how they tick, then puts them back together in a crazy new way. Outwardly his games are loud -- they're visually busy and aurally noisy. Minter has a lot of fun throwing the sights and sounds of video game history back at us. But I believe there's meaning in his mess if you care to look.

Pretension +1 is a weekly column by Gus Mastrapa about the culture of video games. It sometimes takes the shape of a love letter

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