R.I.P. Jack Tramiel

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , ,

When I was a teenager, nothing in this world mattered more to me than my Commodore 64. School became something that just got in the way of my game time. My heroes were not rock stars, or film stars... they were the reviewers at ZZAP! 64, still the best computer magazine of all time. Or the programmers who made such awesome games: Andrew Braybrook; Jeff Minter; Archer MacLean; the guys at Sensible Software; even musician Rob Hubbard. The Commodore 64 has meant more to me than any other possession I have owned. It's part of my soul.

I didn't spare a thought as to how that Commodore 64 ended up in my possession, save for the fact my parents had bought me it for Christmas (which, whether they knew it or not, made them the most awesome people on the planet that Christmas Day). I certainly didn't think for a moment about the people who had designed and manufactured the thing. Why would I? I didn't want a job with them. I just wanted to play games.

I never had any interest in programming, as such. I think that's always been beyond me. Still, the Commodore 64 was the first machine that inspired me to so much as dabble. The first such instance was probably much the same as yours. I'd go into Boots with my mates, and there's be a few computers running in their display. We'd sidle up to the Commodore 64 and type:

20 GOTO 10 

And once we hit the Enter key, the message would infinitely scroll down the screen, and we'd run out of the shop laughing, hoping to avoid a clip from the security guard.

Later, inspired by the ZZAP! lads, I actually programmed, using much the same instructions as the infamous Boots message, an entire catalogue of reviews of the games I owned. I separated them by genre and wrote reviews in the ZZAP! style, with the same categories of ratings and my own personal comments. Somewhere, in a north-east landfill, lies a Boots C15 cassette with that program on it.

Since those days, I've always fancied being a games writer. It's why I love writing for Way of the Rodent, and it's why I've got this blog. I even have thoughts of writing a book about computer games. And it all stems from owning the Commodore 64.

The main man behind the Commodore 64 was Jack Tramiel, and he died this weekend. The videogaming world owes him an awful lot, as do I.

Gridrunner (iOS)

by PaulEMoz in , , ,

Less than a month after the release of Caverns of Minos, Jeff Minter and Llamasoft are back with an iOS update of one of the Yak's early classics... Gridrunner.

Back in the day, and we're talking thirty years ago here, programmers of home computer games would routinely rip off existing arcade games, creating inferior clones in the hope of making a quick buck. Jeff Minter was one notable name who decided this wasn't good enough. Sure, he loved those arcade games like the rest of us. But he didn't want to merely copy those games. Instead, he took their influence and added his own stamp to the games he loved, and in the process created some of the most memorable and challenging games of the 8-bit era.

No, it's not the latest Cave game. Refreshingly, they're your bullets dishing out the death.

One of his most well-known and successful games was Gridrunner. Taking an obvious cue from Centipede, the addition of moving lasers at the bottom and left hand side of the screen added a different dimension and ensured you were constantly on your toes. Gridrunner was originally released on the VIC-20, but such was its popularity that it saw release on the Commodore 64, 16-bit computers and PC and Mac, each time evolving as it made the leap in time.

Its latest version, Gridrunner Revolution, was quite a long way removed from the original game, and you can see its influence in Llamasoft's first iOS game, Minotaur Rescue. But for iOS Gridrunner, Jeff Minter has gone back to its roots and to his love of classic arcade games. The result is an unmissable shoot 'em up treat.

Everything must die.

The object of the game is to shoot things, last as long as you can and get as high a score as possible. How's that for uncomplicated? And that's what you'd expect of a game with this lineage.

It all seems easy enough at first... those Centipede-esque enemies are short and slow, and they trundle down as cannon fodder. Even those bastard lasers are fairly benign at this point. Oh, and just to note... the vertically-firing horizontally-moving laser has cleverly been switched to the top of the screen, so as not to be obscured by your controlling finger. Very thoughtful.

That's a big laser. You just might be a match for it, though.

After just a few levels, though, things really get ramped up. The Centipede-droid-train things get longer and faster, and more and more enemies make appearances, and you really have to concentrate on what you're doing if you want to survive. With each level the action gets more intense and you're given a real adrenalin rush. Luckily, pick-ups can furnish you with a variety of impressive weapons, with firepower to frighten even the bravest of foes.

As if this mighty effort wasn't enough, we're treated to a history of Gridrunner. Included for your 69p are the original VIC-20 and Commodore 64 versions of the game. You'll have to figure out how to unlock them first, though... The VIC-20 version feels a little cramped, with fat graphics hogging the screen. That's not to its detriment though... quite the opposite in fact, it gives the game a frantic feel.

Just like a KitKat, chunky is better.

This is lost to a degree in the 64 version. You'd expect it to be superior, but the wide open spaces make the game feel a little empty and not as much fun to play as the VIC version. Still, getting both of these for free (or for 23p each, if you want) makes for terrific value.

This iOS version of Gridrunner is pure Zone gaming at its finest. Once you're locked into the grid, you're going to be stuck there for the rest of the day, pushing and nudging your best score just that little bit higher. It might be bad for your health, but it's good for your gaming soul.

Pretty colours + laser death = joy.

Get yourself comfortable, crank up the volume and press start. Once this thing is going full-tilt, you could be forgiven for thinking you were standing in the middle of an arcade in the early Eighties. Gridrunner is a glorious celebration of arcade shoot 'em ups. I've downloaded it, played it until my phone charge ran out, given my eyes a break while my phone recharged and now I'm back on it again. iOS-sential.

Buy Gridrunner for any iDevice from 3GS and onwards, for 69p.

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 2 - Minotaur Rescue.

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

If 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, then 2011 was the Year of the Yak. Programming veteran Jeff Minter turned his bearded head towards Apple's devices, cranked up his Minotaur Project, and Llamasoft turned out four new games. It was like 1983 all over again.

Of course, anyone with a knack for code could knock out four games in a year, but that wouldn't mean they would necessarily be any good. Of Llamasoft's games, three of them were genuine contenders for this list. The only one that wasn't, for me personally, was trippy puzzler Deflex. There's nothing wrong with that game, in fact I do quite enjoy it, but I'm not very good at it and, well, there were at least eleven games I enjoyed more.

Whooo, bendy bullets!

The other two games that missed the list were Minotron: 2112, an excellent reworking of Minter's Atari ST classic Llamatron, and Goat Up, the first ever Llamasoft platform game. Minotron is a twin-stick Robotron-inspired shooter that sees you blasting all manner of bizarre and hostile objects, including telephones, footballs, bags of chips and the like. Goat Up brought to mind Rainbow Islands, as it scattered untold amounts of bonus goodies your way as you leapt ever upward (and eventually downward). They're very good indeed, but I'll write separate posts about them at a later date.

But the game I chose to put on the list, the game that is not out of place in any way at number two, is Minotaur Rescue.

It's a hybrid of many games, is Minotaur Rescue. It looks just like the old Atari VCS version of Asteroids, if it was thrown into a Space War machine. And then had some of Minter's own Gridrunner Revolution added to it. At least three shooting games in one. Bullet-tastic!

That sun makes me want to eat a banana toffee. Or play Atari VCS PacMan.

One of the main strengths of Minotaur Rescue is the control method. The game uses an autofire method, which is the firing mechanism of choice for yer iDevice shooter. It really doesn't make sense to have a fire button on a screen, unless your game has an excellent reason for not using autofire.

Coupled with that, though, is the swipe control system. It's a little tricky to get used to at first, but once you master it (or even get mildly proficient at it) you'll be whizzing about all over the screen like it's second nature. It's a far better method than using a virtual joystick, certainly for this game, and adds an extra level of control that you'll find very welcome in time...

The object of the game, of course, is to rescue minotaurs. Actually, it isn't... that's just an element of the game, and a chance to earn stacks of bonus points. The object of the game is to shoot things and not get killed. Yes, it's that simple.

It's hard to control the stream...

Complicating matters a little is the sun in the middle of the screen. It pulses away happily to itself, unless you get too close at which point you'll discover it has its own gravity, and will destroy you if you get too close. As if that wasn't bad enough, it'll destroy anything else that gets too close. Uh-oh.

That means that you have to manage its size as you play. That's easily done... destroy all the asteroids and pick up all the minotaurs before they get swallowed up, and all will remain well and relatively unthreatening. But it's inevitable that you'll miss some...

You can, though, use the sun's gravity for your own good. The gravity also affects your ship's bullets, so you can position yourself on the screen in such a way that you can bend your bullets around the sun to destroy asteroids. Learning how to do this effectively is beneficial but not hugely important (at least, not on the small-screen version - I haven't played it on the iPad)... there's not much that's that far out of reach and that you'll need to destroy urgently.

Check me out, with my million points!

Causing further problems are the enemy craft that sporadically appear and try to kill you. At first, you're only attacked by UFOs from the original VCS Asteroids. But as time goes by, others join the fray... a Star Raiders TIE-Fighter-esque ship, a Defender Baiter, Combat jets... all will weigh in with attempts to destroy you. If you've played any of these games in the past, they're likely to bring smiles to your face as they're having a go at you.

Failure to keep the sun from expanding will see it turn into a black hole, and then you're really in trouble. Black holes swallow everything in sight, and you'll have a giant problem just keeping yourself out of there. It reminds me a little of the end of the world in Defender, where only great skill will see you extending your game.

Once you've got got to grips with the control system, the first few levels of Minotaur Rescue are quite simple. Luckily, Llamasoft's excellent tried-and-tested level select is available, and you can choose your starting point up to any level you've previously completed, picking up your previous best score once its completed. It's a brilliant way of making sure you don't get bored with the early levels once you're good at the game, and should be standard in all new arcade games.

This is a different kind of Combat...

As a package, Minotaur Rescue is fantastic. For 69p you get two versions of the main game (default game Solar Minotaur Rescue Frenzy and Survival), plus Deep Space Minotaur Madness (a different variation on the main game with no sun), Tanks, and Jets. Tanks and Jets are Minter-arranged versions of the games from Combat with eye-melting visuals and subtle gameplay refinements...

Minotaur Rescue is a true star of the App Store. Llamasoft's aim to recreate new arcade games in an old style has been perfectly realised with this title. It's great for a quick blast, or if you want to sit down for a long session of minotaur rescuing. It plays tremendously well, is always enjoyable and rarely frustrating... and it's cheap. If you've got a current generation iPhone/iPod Touch or an iPad, you should really give it a try. Although Llamasoft titles don't appeal to all, if you click with it you'll have a fantastic time. Surely 69p is a small gamble for the amount of fun you could have?

Minotaur Rescue is a Universal App.