US: 5 Jan 2011
If one were to look at the indie gaming scene, one might be forgiven for thinking that a wormhole had opened and sucked one back to the 1980s. There is a return to sprites and blocky pixels and even in a great many cases to chiptune music. There’s probably a lot of reasons for this return to simpler looking games, such as the reduced cost of art assets, the ease of working in more familiar territory, a feeling that simpler graphics mean a “purer” gaming experience, and plain nostalgia for the games of one’s youth. Whatever the reason is, I am completely on board with this trend.
I confess that a great part of it may be nostalgia on my part. I (mis)spent a large portion of my youth on my grandfather’s Commodore 64, playing various games that may or may not have been obtained completely on the level. For a long period of time, up until my aunt and uncle gave me and my other siblings an NES, the Commodore 64 was all that I had in terms of computer entertainment. How then could I possibly not have a soft spot for a game like VVVVVV, which looks and sounds like it came right out of the Commodore 64 era? It helps, of course, that VVVVVV contains some of the most fiendishly satisfying gameplay that I’ve encountered in the past year (VVVVVV also happens to contain some of the most frustrating gameplay that I’ve encountered in the past year, but that’s another story).
This brings me to Minotaur Rescue, an iPhone/iPad release from the good people at Llamasoft (basically just Jeff Minter) who birthed Space Giraffe on the Xbox Live Arcade when the 360 was in its infancy. It is part of a larger push by the company called the Minotaur Project that aims to bring the style of games from older, retro systems to a modern audience. Minotaur Rescue (or more accurately Solar Minotaur Rescue Frenzy) takes the concept of Asteroids and adds a simple wrinkle to the mix: the presence of a sun. Specifically, this is a sun that will grow more and more powerful and dangerous the more that asteroids drift into it. Eventually, it becomes a black hole, dragging the player’s ship into it. Beating levels restores your ship’s shields and restores the sun’s gravity to a more manageable level.
The gravity mechanic, by the way, is probably what’s made this game the thing that I have played the most in the past month and this has been a month in which I paddled into the waters of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, picked up Dead Space with a mind to beat it to prepare for Dead Space 2 in good conscience, and also finally got around to snagging a copy of Costume Quest (a lovely game in its own right). All of this entertainment (brand new and shiny next generation entertainment, even!) and I’m playing a slightly modified Asteroids clone, busting minotaurs out of asteroids and rescuing them because, well, that’s the name of the game. I haven’t even played the other game modes that are available because I doubt very much that anything could match the simple beauty of that core game mode. There’s a vanilla Asteroids mode that isn’t as engaging because without the added peril of a collapsing sun, it just doesn’t seem as engaging.
It’s these small additions (an expanding gravity well and minotaurs) to a simple formula that make the game worth playing. The controls just involve swiping your finger where you want to go, and the more that you swipe, the faster your ship flies. The ship itself is constantly firing, so the only thing to worry about is where your ship is going. The danger, of course, is that if you gain too much momentum, your ship will have some difficulty changing course—not only that, but if you get too close to the sun, you’ll find yourself frantically swiping in order to escape the gravity well. It’s a mechanic that works very well, in that it has lead to some good moments of sheer panic on my part as I watch my intrepid ship struggle and inevitably fail to get clear of the sun. The feeling of relief that comes with a narrow escape is enormous, only to be offset by the realization that my ship is about to smash into an asteroid.
Of course, the best part about the game is in its roots of an arcade game. You can pick it up and put it down easily. I’ve spent as little as five minutes on a session, and it’s on my iPod, which is almost constantly in my pocket, so it is pretty easy to see why the majority of my game playing time goes to it. Its graphics are simple but with the little visual flairs and vaguely psychedelic effects that any fan of Jeff Minter’s work would be familiar with. As a game to play during one’s small moments of free time, this is a hard one to beat. It is simple, elegant design, and it also happens to scratch any nostalgic itch one might have for the games of yore.