iPhone Game Review: Minotron: 2112 Reviewed by Tim Harvey
Jeff Minter is an interesting guy.
The patriarch of Llamasoft, a software company that has been around since 1982, has a foot firmly planted in the past. This is evident through not only his work on iOS titles, but also in Llamasoft's offerings for the Xbox 360 and PC. And let's not beat around the bush here-Llamasoft titles are not just inspired by retro titles from the Atari 2600, Amiga, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, but thanks to the pedigree of Minter, who often refers to himself in print as his old arcade cabinet handle, "Yak," they're more of a continuation of the titles found on the consoles of yesteryear.
The Minotaur Project, a banner under which Minotron: 2112 and Llamasoft's first iOS outing, Minotaur Rescue, in Minter?s own words seeks to: ?make new games in the style of old hardware, but with none of the limitations of the original platforms and a thoroughly modern heart inside giving gameplay sufficiently rewarding and involving for today?s players.?
Does Llamatron provide games that are in the style of old hardware? Absolutely. So much so, in fact, that some might challenge whether the ?thoroughly modern heart? part of Minter?s manifesto has also been provided. In some ways it certainly has been?if you?ve any doubt and you?re lacking an emulator, spending a few minutes with the newly released ?Atari?s Greatest Hits? testifies to that. It is, however, worth considering that Minter could take things a bit further with the modernity. On the other hand, with a game as engrossing and stylish as Minotron: 2112, should he?
(Spoiler: not really. This game pretty much rocks.)
At its heart, Minotron: 2112 is a remake of the grandaddy of the dual-stick shooter, Robotron: 2084. (While technically it's a remake of LLAMATRON: 2112, that game was based heavily on Robotron, so I'm taking the shortcut with that statement.) This is to say that it's an arena shooter in which one moves a sprite in any direction across a 2D plane, while aiming in, here, 8 different directions to shoot other sprites, collect powerups and, um, rescue animals. With a minotaur. Okay, so it's not an exact remake but as I said, at its heart the gameplay recalls Robotron, and the game shares its older sibling's simplified figure art and arcade gameplay. Also, if you play in the hard mode it has a similarly brutal difficulty, or anyway a brutal enough difficulty that you'll probably die early and often.
Departing from the original formula though, Minotron: 2112 offers a variety of other game modes, such as Assisted, in which you're partnered with a floating lamb's head, (I think), and Simplified, in which you need only concern yourself with moving your minotaur, not aiming at the baddies, which is done automatically.
Another departure, not only from the Robotron template, but the dual-stick shooter template as well, is the way the controls are handled. Rather than having two spots where you'd place your thumbs, left for moving, right for shooting, you will find that the first finger you place designates the direction you move in and the second designates the direction you shoot in. It takes some getting used to, but once you realize that this allows you to quickly re-position your thumbs on the screen as needed to avoid covering the action, and also that you can simple swipe your aim in one direction and then strafe around to shoot 'em all up, it becomes evident that this is a fairly ingenious way of organizing things.
Since the game is largely predicated on high scores, it's a boon that Game Center and Openfeint are included to see how you place worldwide and also to challenge your friends. I suppose this is one of the ways in which we can hear that "modern heart" beating, and I'm glad it wasn't missed. The same thing can't be said for more than a few of Minotron's more stylistically modern counterparts, and while I think competent, well-integrated online leaderboards of some kind should be something we can take for granted in our iOS arcade shooters, that isn't the case, so it's really worth tipping a hat to Minter and Llamasoft for making the effort.
From the moment you fire Minotron: 2112 up for the first time, it becomes immediately apparent that this is the area in which the game is most remarkable. I can only assume that those of you still reading at this point have come to terms with the screenshots; in fact, you're probably still reading because of the screenshots. Indeed, these graphics separate the men from the boys, perhaps in the most literal way that I've ever used that phrase. If you have fond memories of Intellivsion, you're in the right place.
By the way, you do shoot at things like peace signs, boxes of french fries, and coffee mugs in the game, just so we're clear on that and you don't start thinking that your coworkers may have spiked your coffee with LSD.
Honestly though, the screenshots do not do this game justice, mostly because it was built using Llamasoft's Neon 2 engine which does absolutely crazy things with light. I'm not kidding when I say that the first time I played this game for an extended state in the dark, it put me into a hypnotic trance. You might want to steer clear if you suffer from epilepsy, but otherwise I'm confident you'll enjoy the simulated feeling of having cathode rays shot directly into your brain.
The only area in which the game could have used some additional freshness is in the menus, which are a bit oddly placed and clunky. On the other hand, the weird logic you'll use when you navigate the menus is probably good preparation for what's to come.
Much like the graphics, the sound goes above and beyond in preserving the feeling that something very weird is afoot. While the game doesn't have any music, per se, it does include a vast array of fanfare, such as that six-note piece you'll hear a few times any time you're in a stadium watching a sports event which is always followed up with fans bellowing "CHARGE!" You know the one. You'll also hear a bit of Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," spoken bits from the likes of (I believe) Bart Simpson, Bill and Ted, and Tarzan, as well as others. Oh, and don't forget the array of animal noises.
It's weird. It also works really well.
In summary then, this is a really weird game for gamers from yesteryear. And it's excellent.
I think that it really does the retro style with some modern sensibilities blend pretty much flawlessly. It's worth noting that the weight is more towards retro style than modern appeal, however. If you want something old school and as trippy as a minotaur shooting peace signs while listening to Pink Floyd, then this game was made for you.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
Graphics: - 5 - The graphics capture the essence of the late ' 70s/early '80s remarkably well. Some people would crow at a perfect 5/5 for this game's graphics. I suppose if you have no idea what an Atari 2600 is, they rate more like a 1/5 for you. I think the divisiveness is perfectly fine, but taken on its own terms, this game's graphics are pretty much perfect.
Sound: - 4 - Maybe a bit over the top in some ways, but I think the sounds presented here work better than, say, techno beats would have. And hey, I like techno. I don't think the sound is as well-suited as the graphics, but I'm honestly not sure what I would have rather heard, so the sound is still getting a high score.
Controls: - 4.5 - There is a bit of a learning curve to them, but the controls are excellent once you've got them down, even if I'm too reptile-brained to always remember how they work. The simplicity of these controls may not be the most intuitive, but there is a bit of genius in that they should be intuitive. I'm guessing that in 100 years people will be genetically engineered to play all their dual-stick shooters with controls like this.
Gameplay: - 3.5 - Funnily enough, taken by itself this is the most uninteresting aspect of the game. I suppose that fact shouldn't surprise anyone considering it's based on the same thing that countless other games are based on. This isn't to say it's ho-hum or lacking, but the only really interesting thing going on with the gameplay is in dealing with all the new enemies you find, the powerups, and how you interface with the gameplay using the controls. It's quite good in this regard, but not quite great.
Overall: - 4.5 - I found myself struggling with this score. Gameplay tends to be the most important aspect of a game to me rather than graphics and sound, but despite the lack of truly amazing gameplay here, I think it?s important that readers realize I can?t give a higher recommendation of a game to people looking for something that really does ?retro.? That missing half-point is my way of pouring my 40 oz. on the curb in remembrance of those who were not looking for something retro.
If this were an album and I were reviewing it for Pitchforkmedia.com I?d probably rate it something like a 4.314. In the end I think it?s closer to the 4.5 than the 4 because it?s just so very worth experiencing.