Spinning the High-Octane 45RPM Single of Minotaur Arcade Volume 1

The world of iOS is an amazing place to be if you can score a solid hit.  For the thousands of others trying to grab a little attention on the storefront, though, it’s a significantly-less positive experience.  Llamasoft tried its hand at small but high quality mobile arcade-style gaming with a series of nine titles developed over two years collectively called The Minotaur Project.  While the games reviewed well and fans loved them, the terrible discoverability on the storefront led to a series that was creatively robust but financially destitute.  After leaving iOS for TxK on Vita, Apple updated the iOS environment and rendered the entire series (plus countless other games) unplayable, and that was the sad, lonely death of The Minotaur Project.  For a while, at least.

Jeff Minter had some down-time after Tempest 4000 was done on the gameplay side of things and put his hand toward reviving The Minotaur Project from the dead.  The first step was to create a new engine that takes sprite-and-tile based games and converts them into voxels, and step two was to rebuild the games to make them bigger and fancier than they were before.  Due to being smaller in scope than games like Polybius or Tempest 4000, the games are being bundled two to a release, and the first one out the gate leads with Gridrunner and Goat Up.  It’s a bit like the video game version of a single, with the A side being the guaranteed hit of a new(ish) entry in one of Llamasoft’s most popular series and the B side getting something a bit more experimental.

Starting on the B side, Goat Up is Llamasoft’s first platformer.  You play as a goat jumping up a slowly-sinking circular tower, eating grass on the platforms wrapped around the outside and uncovering bonus-point collectables along the way.  Each stage of the tower has different themes, usually pulled from early gaming history, with thematically-appropriate enemies making life difficult on the platforms.  Every once in a while there’s also a billy goat wandering about and meeting him is one of the keys to survival.  Touch the billy goat and there’s a biologically-inaccurate kissing sound to indicate that you’ve just gotten pregnant, after which eating grass and collectibles makes the mama goat slowly fatter until the happy moment of birth.  The kids follow along behind acting as both lives and offense, taking out any enemy they touch and sacrificing themselves when the mama goat gets hit.  It’s…a complicated relationship far outside the scope of an arcade platformer to explore in all its intricacy.

As you work your way up the tower it goes through changes with each stage, adding new wrinkles to the gameplay.  The starting level just has grass and slowly wandering bulls, but soon you find areas where the ground falls away if you walk on it too often, or bridges that disappear after you cross them but give a nice bonus or tiles that slow you down and speed you up.  All the while you keep going up, grazing all the way while searching out the next billy goat to grow the family a little bit larger as the enemies strolling across the tower platforms get faster and more numerous.  Amidst all of this the items you pick up keep changing, and not only does the game let you know how many out of forty you’ve found so far, but each one has its own fun little description when discovered.  Goat Up is a weird, cute little platformer that makes a nice counterpoint to the intensity of Gridrunner.

Gridrunner is the lead on Minotaur Arcade and easily the one I put the most time “testing” into.  The series has always been Llamsoft’s version of Centipede from the first entry back in 1982, and while it’s gone in all sorts of directions over the years, this is the most like the original since Gridrunner 2: Attack of the Mutant Camels.  Or at least it starts that way before layering on one mutation after another until the chaos reaches points undreamt of in the Commodore 64 days.  Two untouchable enemy ships called the X and Y zappers cycle across the left and top of the grid, with the top one sending a row of spikes down one of the lines and the left ship taking that as a cue to shoot a mine.  The mines slowly decay until they let loose a missile that drops straight down the grid or you can shoot them away like the mushrooms in Centipede.  Meanwhile enemies drift in from the top of the screen, marching left then right as they snake their way down.  Shooting the head is best because it causes the next enemy in the stream to march straight into the following bullet, while shooting the middle breaks the enemy-chain in half and now you’ve got two half-size chains to deal with.  Each destroyed enemy also leaves a mine behind, cluttering up the play area even more than it had been.  Meanwhile the X and Y zappers are always on the move, making it so you can’t just methodically clear off the enemy lines one by one.  Fortunately enemies drop regular power-ups and this is where advanced play kicks in.

Power-ups come in several different styles, stack together and grant a moment of invincibility on pick-up.  While grabbing an “!” may just clear off bullets in the surrounding area, when the screen is packed and you’re trapped in a corner, that half-second of freedom when you can ram your way clear is just as valuable as the more firepower-focused upgrades.  Power-ups only last for a few seconds before they wear off but getting a multi-shot plus fast-fire will coat the entire grid in hundreds of your bullets, almost guaranteeing survival.  Other enemies like the rainbow-towers grant short-term upgrades when you clear them off the board, but they don’t come with the free moment of invulnerability so have to be approached with a bit more caution.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve snagged a super-fast four-way shot only to move straight into a zapper-line and blow the advantage.  It doesn’t help that, on revival, your shots are slow until you kill a few things, at which point they not only pick up speed but also add a reverse-firing bullet for as long as you keep chaining enemies together.  By the time you’ve hit level 30 (of 100) the screen gets crammed with a good variety of enemies running in different patterns, mines no longer sit still but rather drift across the screen, the enemy-chains move in new and more complicated patterns and the ever-changing perspective on the grid as you advance from one level to the next keeps finding interesting ways to wrap itself around your brain.

All of this is made more intense is you choose to play in VR, which while unnecessary, is an incredible way to play.  In Gridrunner it’s basically transforming the entire game from something you see to a place you inhabit, with particles flying everywhere as the chaos explodes around your eyeballs.  It’s particularly fun to hit Pause, which freezes the action and all effects and lets you look around to your heart’s content, plus adjust the distance of the grid or Goat Up’s tower from your eyes.  While the “immersed in an arcade game” effect is less pronounced in Goat Up, you can still look up and down, plotting a better course while keeping an eye out for the next billy goat.  As an added bonus it’s much easier to find “the zone” inside VR, thanks to its effect of eliminating the distractions of the outside world.

With all the effort put towards polishing the old iOS games to a new standard, it’s easy to forget that The Minotaur Arcade Volume 1 is an experiment.  If it does well then expect more of this type of thing from Llamasoft, interspersed with games in a more modern style like Polybius.  The current plan is to release MAV.1 and see how it goes, first on PC and then PS4 and with full VR support for each version, then get to work on the rest of the Minotaur Project games if it does well with an eye on creating a few original projects after that.  It would be great to get Caves of Minos, Super Ox Wars and Minotron 2112 back, not to mention my personal favorite of the series, the Time Pilot-inspired Five A Day.  The poor things deserved better than to be lost on a system that’s frequently more meat grinder than game platform, and with a little luck and attention, they should be able to live again and roam free in greener pastures.