When I get round to writing my personal history of videogames it’s going to have some telling omissions that I’ll have to write around. Like the Playstation; every iteration thereof. I had a go on a few of them at ECTS 1995 and really didn’t like the controller at all. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before. Didn’t stop me working on Official Playstation for the end of its run or reviewing plenty of PS2 games for Gamesmaster; apart from that, though, the Playstation for me has been something that happens to other people.
Then there’s pretty much the entire 16-bit era. I simply wasn’t paying much attention at the time. The sequence went: Amiga and ST came out, I couldn’t afford either, I went to university and continued being unable to afford either. The only videogames I touched were the arcade games in the student union. I was sort of aware that the 16-bit era was happening, but only in the vaguest terms. The first 16-bit anything that I got was a 2nd gen Sega Megadrive, and the only actual 16-bit computer I ever spent any time with was a friend’s ST, home to Starglider 2, Carrier Command and quite an impressive mod version of Pump Up the Volume. Consequently there’s a whole swathe of gaming history that I only know about in a second-hand kind of way; thankfully the entire era seems quite short on bona fide classics that didn’t subsequently make it onto consoles or PC, one way or another.
Jeff Minter’s Llamatron did make it to the PC, but not in especially great shape, and it wasn’t until the 21st century that I really became aware of it and got to play it (sort of) properly, on a PC emulating a balls-out, top of the range ST, with dual joysticks. It’s Robotron – a lightning-fast arcade game of destruction and rescue, risk and reward – put through Jeff Minter’s brain, taking the second-hardest arcade game of all time, putting his own stamp on it and coming up with something clearly closely related to the original but impossible to confuse with it. Robotron’s frantic, incessant and punishingly difficult, designed partly to consume lots of coins in an arcade context. Llamatron’s designed for a home context and is consequently less incessant, paced with longer games in mind. You can read Jeff’s thinking behind Llamatron here. I have plenty of time for both titles; Robotron’s great for diving into for a few random games, while Llamatron’s something that I’ll leave alone for a long while before coming back to it and putting a lot of time into recharging my skills to the point where I can complete it without using a continue and then get a decent distance into the second, much harder, round.
Minotron is Llamatron rebuilt for iOS and, carrying on the Minotaur Project theme of games with an aged console theme, it’s given a bit of an Intellivision flavour. Not the extent of Minotaur Rescue’s Atari VCS stylings, but there’s enough in there to spark long-buried memories in anyone who once owned an Intellivision, me included. It’s a gaming in-joke that most people won’t get; a coat of retro gloss on a game that’s already retro as fuck.
The name and central character have changed, but Minotron basically is Llamatron, and it succeeds despite, rather than because of, being on iOS. The controls are cleverly executed, with whichever digit first touches the screen being interpreted as movement, and anything after controlling direction of fire. The idea is that you can swap sides and ensure that your hands are never obscuring your position. I like the idea but my brain doesn’t; it’s a little more cross-dominance than it cares to handle, and instead I play it completely wrong, using my left index finger exclusively for movement and with a steadily thickening callous to show for it.
And I’m demonstrably better than you at it, so there.
So, movement feels pleasantly analogue while the firing remains resolutely eight-directional. Which is fine; it’s actually a good combination that works well. The problem is simply that no matter how clever the control system, the game’s still trying to recreate a joystick-based experience on a touchscreen, and it’s always going to come up short in that respect. It’s a matter of trying to overlay one paradigm on top of another; you can get a close fit but you’re unlikely to get a perfect one.
This leaves Minotron feeling, to me, a little unsatisfying. Unlike Minotaur Rescue it’s not an iOS-focused title that’s inspired by classic arcade titles; it’s a retread, plain and simple. One that’s bolstered by the addition of new play modes and power-ups and assists, yes, (oh, and a resume best option, which is the game design equivalent of deciding that cocaine isn’t quite cocainey enough, and inventing crack instead), but one that, if you’re familiar with Llamatron, is unlikely to surprise you at any point.
It should be an easy sell to gamers of a certain age since it’s such a close remake of a much-loved 16-bit classic. Conversely, I can’t see it appealing at all to people who don’t remember the original. Looks were never Llamatron’s strong point; it has a visual style inspired by the mid-1980s school of 8-bit games populated by wacky sprites, and this remake features almost exactly the same graphics. In the overcrowded marketplace of the App Store, that’s it fallen at the first hurdle, and that’s before you get to the fact that it can be a bit difficult at times and features a control system that assumes you’re not an idiot. Frustratingly the world appears to be oblivious to its existence, with virtually no press coverage to speak of. Go on, type Minotron into Google and see what comes up. Actually, don’t. It’s depressing. “Did you mean: monotron?” I don’t even know what a monotron is. (Now I do. To be fair that looks quite good. Gah.)
What makes this especially annoying is that despite its flaws and despite my moaning, I still think that Minotron’s better than the vast majority of games on iOS. It doesn’t sell itself at all well, and hand on heart it’s not as much fun to play as it is with proper joysticks on a big PC. It just isn’t. But on the other hand, it’s a real game with proper controls that sits well on iOS without much in the way of compromise. I can now play a close enough approximation of one of my favourite games on my iPad without leaving the sofa or having to cock around with joysticks or emulators or any of that, and it cost me just over a quid. A quarter of what the original cost in old money, 20 years ago.
For fuck’s sake. Just buy it, okay?