I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve bought Jeff Minter’s Gridrunner: the original C64 version, Gridrunner++ and Gridrunner Revolution and the brilliant (sadly now defunct) iOS version. Yet when I realised that Minotaur Arcade Volume 1 had a new version out came the credit card again!
The aim of the Minotaur Arcade series is to bring some of Minter’s brilliant (but commercially unsuccessful) iOS games to Steam (and potentially other platforms). Each volume will contain a couple of titles, with Volume 1 offering Gridrunner alongside Minter’s first platform game, Goat Up.
In my view, Gridrunner is simply one of the greatest shooters ever made for home platforms. Enemies descend across the grid and you have to take them out. When you do, they leave behind a pod that (if you don’t shoot it) will gradually grow bigger and eventually fire a rocket down the grid. Throw in a couple of lasers at the top and left hand side of the grid, and you’ve got plenty to worry about! Whilst it shares a lot of its basic DNA with arcade game Centipede, it has enough different elements to feel like a completely different game.
Unlike some companies (EA Sports, I’m looking at you), Minter doesn’t just keep releasing the same game with minor tweaks; each iteration of Gridrunner is a genuine evolution of the concept. Whilst each version remains faithful to the original, they also incorporate new ideas which help to keep the game feeling fresh. Recent iterations have brought us power-ups, chained scoring and (in this latest version) geographical landscapes that affect the game’s physics (think Geometry Wars).
From a graphics and audio perspective, Gridrunner might not be much to write home about. The graphics (certainly when viewed as static images) are more towards the functional end of things. Don’t let that deceive you. Everything moves at a hugely impressive pace, with no slow down even when the screen gets incredibly busy (and it often does). The bright neon visuals are appealing, whilst the sound effects are raw and raucous – just as they should be in a game like this. And of course, it’s chock full of Minter’s off-beat sense of humour in terms of both enemy design and level names. It’s true the game can sometimes get so frantic that it’s tricky to keep track of where you/enemies are, and in particular, the topography can make the upper laser difficult to see. Once you get your head around things, though, this just provides strategic depth – it’s up to you to use the landscape to your advantage, so that you can see the lasers whilst taking out the alien hordes.
Critically, the game play is spot on. What initially appears a simple shooting game soon starts to reveal hidden depths, which you’ll really need to master if you want to get those high scores. It’s perfectly balanced, frantic and never less than fun. It’s a tough game but never unfair – if you die, it’s because you didn’t move in time rather than because the game played a trick on you. As such, it’s crushingly addictive!
If I’ve spent most time talking about (and playing) Gridrunner, it’s not because there’s anything wrong with Goat Up, the other game in this twin pack. Whilst I don’t find it as addictive as Gridrunner, it’s still a decent game. At heart it’s a platform game, but one that’s been filtered through Minter’s unique, creative mind. Starring as a goat, your task is to climb up a tower, using the platforms and avoiding enemies (think Nebulous with goats). If you disappear off the bottom of the screen, you die. For extra points, you should run your goat along the length of each platform (thereby eating the grass and uncovering hidden goodies. Oh, and there are some sheep you have to kiss!
It’s a lot of fun. In many ways, simpler and more repetitive than Gridrunner, but that won’t stop you playing it. The various gameplay elements come together well to create a challenging game that relies on a strong risk-reward element – you can just use the platforms to leap as high as you can, avoiding the bottom of the screen, but you’ll miss lots of goodies along the way which are essential to boosting the score. However, if you try and eat every blade of grass, collect all the hidden goodies and kiss all the sheepies, you get oodles of points, but an increased risk of death.
Goat Up is probably more instantly accessible than Gridrunner, but it feels a lot more challenging. On my first few games, my final score was pitiful and although they did improve the more I played it, my games never lasted very long. Now I know this has a lot to do with my utter incompetence as a gamer (something I’ve mentioned many times before), but with Goat Up (unlike Gridrunner), I never quite felt that practice was going to bring substantial improvements in my score and it didn’t hold my attention to the same degree.
That said, Goat Up is a diversion. The simple gameplay is instantly appealing; it’s fun (if occasionally frustrating) and on the (rare) occasions when I actually get a decent score, there’s a real sense of achievement. The more sedate pace of Goat Up is the perfect antidote to frantic blasting of Gridrunner and as such, the whole package is perfectly balanced.
It’s just a shame that there are a couple of issues that will probably stop this collection from selling in the numbers it deserves. The first is getting itself noticed in an over-crowded market. Existing Minter fans will lap it up, but it may struggle to attract new fans because (particularly in static screenshots), it doesn’t look anything special. In an age where (sadly) snazzy graphics count for more than solid gameplay, Minotaur Arcade may struggle to catch the eye.
The second issue is the price. Don’t get me wrong, £10 is a very, very fair price for two quality products and I was more than happy to pay it. However, in an age of 69p shovelware and free-to-play/ ad-loaded/in-app-purchase obsessed mediocrity, Minotaur Arcade will be viewed as “expensive” by too many people (who ironically will still be happy to part with another £45 for EA’s latest minor updating of FIFA). I really hope the collection sells well: partly because it deserves to; partly because I want it to be financially viable so that more Minotaur Arcade volumes are released, but I have my doubts.
That’s where you come in. Go and buy Minotaur Arcade NOW. It’s worth every penny (and if you don’t believe me, just take a look at its reviews on the net and Steam. Support one of gaming’s good guys and show that there is a market for quality, well-balanced old style shooters where gameplay matters more than graphics. Oh, and games about goats kissing sheep.