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[Review] Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story

Posted on March 18, 2024 by in Reviews, Switch eShop

Llamasoft The Jeff Minter Story review

System: Switch
Release date: March 13, 2024
Developer: Digital Eclipse
Publisher: Digital Eclipse

There have been some outstanding documentaries about video games released over the past few years, chronicling the development of major games like Psychonauts 2 and The Last of Us at a level of transparency that is quite rare in the secretive modern industry landscape. And while I adore these types of projects, what better way is there to experience a slice of gaming history than by playing through it? Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story is the latest attempt at an interactive history lesson from developer Digital Eclipse, and this project focuses on telling the story of the rise of the studio behind classic score-chasers like Gridrunner and Tempest 2000. This package compiles over 40 of Jeff Minter’s programs – not all of them are games, interestingly – alongside a swath of video interviews and documents to pore over. While I didn’t find every piece of the package inherently interesting, overall this a great glimpse into the mind of one of gaming’s earliest avant-garde developers, and there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way.

You may be asking yourself, “Who is this Jeff Minter guy and why should I care?” If that sounds like you, there’s a good chance we’re from the same generation. Llamasoft’s most widely popular games hit their stride in the eighties and early nineties, running on now-ancient platforms like the Commodore VIC-20 and the 8-bit Atari systems. There have been more recent releases from the studio – just last year, Llamasoft released Akka Arrh on all platforms – but if you’re not a frequent flier when it comes to this brand of arcade shooters, much of this will feel new and unfamilliar. For me, my first experience with a Llamasoft game was the PlayStation Vita title TxK, which is a very faithful modern adaptation of the Tempest games, and an absolute blast to play. Considering how well that game has aged, I entered my playthrough of this compilation fairly open-minded, hoping that some of Minter’s earlier works would resonate with me in a similar way. Fortunately, a lot of it did – even though I don’t share Minter’s fanaticism for wooly mammals (a recurring theme in many of his games, for reasons this title gradually explains).

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story review

While it’s totally possible to jump into whichever included game the player chooses at any point, the best way for unacquainted players – and history buffs – to experience this compilation is by navigating through its chronological timeline. I was delighted by how effectively Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story replicates the sensation of strolling through a museum. Major milestones in Minter’s career are laid out along the top of the screen, and each one brings something new to experience. Most often, this is some form of game, but there are also a decent number of clips from a documentary about Minter called Heart of Neon. If your curiosity is piqued, more often than not there’s plenty of other material to dig into. You can view 3D renderings of the box art for each game and there are full scans of every instruction manual, too. Some games and prototypes are accompanied by random design documents and notes from Minter; the player can also read through multiple issues of Minter’s now-defunct newsletter, magazine interviews, game reviews and more.

It’s admirably in-depth, although how much of it is interesting is, of course, subjective and highly variable. I would definitely recommend reading through at least some of the manuals and newsletters, because not only do they often provide helpful tips for playing the games, but they also reveal quite a bit about the type of game designer Jeff Minter was and is. I enjoyed learning about the growth of the video game industry through the lens of a man who by-and-large had little interest in the pursuit of profit-first commercialization, at least according to the voices included in this package. Almost every presentation of Minter and his projects feels very candid, genuine, and more interested in painting a picture of what game development was like from his eyes than anything else. Eventually I grew tired of reading very similar – and lengthy – documents over and over again, but that’s because by that point I felt like what I had already explored had given me enough context about Minter and his life to tie in with the playable games. In other words, the information is delivered effectively, but some of it can be dry, and engaging with all of it is far from necessary. The included documentary footage helps break up the experience, and it’s nice to hear some other perspectives from industry old-timers about Minter’s legacy. As someone who produces videos for a living, it’s not a particularly exciting or well-shot documentary and a lot of its information is repeated in other forms across the rest of the package, but overall I enjoyed the included clips.

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story review

Of course, the main attractions in Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story are the games themselves. The overall variety is solid – in between the heavy hitters like Gridrunner, Attack of the Mutant Camels, and Tempest are a ton of oddball experiences worth checking out. I definitely found a few surprises that I ended up enjoying quite a bit, from the politically-charged City Bomber to the delightfully absurd Hovver Bovver (a game about mowing your lawn using a mower stolen from a neighbor). There are a few prototypes included, and even some non-game experiences; one of Minter’s passion projects were his “light synthesizers”, which were essentially very early interactive music visualizers. Many of the games in the package can be picked up and enjoyed with relatively little information, but there are definitely a few complex games included that will have you grateful the manual is included, like Ancipital. Even for the rare handful of games where I found myself uninterested in trying to overcome a particularly nasty learning curve, I ultimately still enjoyed learning about them just for the sake of trying something new and weird.

The more I sampled, the more I began to appreciate how the changing technology allowed Minter new opportunities to realize his creative visions. Then there’s Gridunner Remastered, which is exactly what it sounds like – a fully visually remastered version of one of Minter’s most defining games. Playing this enhanced version is particularly cool because the game is running on the same code as the original Gridrunner, as if to reiterate the point that Minter knows how to design tight, frantic and fun arcade shooters that feel just as enthralling today. I would have loved to see more games in this package get this treatment too, and hope we can see similar remasters in the future, even as standalone game releases.

I appreciated many of the other include options, like the various screen filters and aspect ratio options. Some games also have a helpful rewind feature that’s articularly useful when learning the ropes of a new game, although I wish it was included across the board. I also wish there were more accessibility features included for visually-impaired players. There’s a lot of awfully small text in many of the documents, and even when I zoomed all the way in, there were several instances I found some of it hard to parse. There are multiple prospective solutions to this issue, even something as simple as having a plaintext transcript against an opaque background, so I feel this is a pretty big oversight for a package so dependent on reading. I also didn’t notice any colorblindness options, and while I’m not colorblind myself, some games like Llamatron have enemy sprites that are already difficult to spot against the noisy backgrounds if not for their colors, so I could see this being an issue for some players. My biggest complaint with Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story is that it’s only a partial history, and essentially ignores any game released by Minter after 1994. There are some technical reasons for this, mostly that emulation is difficult – and I understand that – but the unfortunate reality is that 30 years of game releases aren’t explored in this package beyond being mentioned in a timeline of Minter’s gameography. To Digital Eclipse’s credit, this compilation is still a wonderful attempt at game preservation, and it ensures that some very hard-to-find games are now accessible on a wide range of platforms. But when so many of the games included here are ports or sequels, it’s a bit of a shame that the team wasn’t able to include a more comprehensive selection of Minter’s work.

The Verdict

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story is a compelling example of how the history of video games can be preserved in a playable form while also delivering context surrounding the development and release of video games through multimedia. Llamasoft’s strange, surreal games remain at the very least interesting – the classics included in this package are excellent, and even the more offbeat and obtuse experiences are fun to play around with for a while. The extra flavor of the various accompanying documentary clips, game manuals, photos and other visual aids do an incredible job of making it easy to care about Minter and his journey into game development; they provide an insightful glimpse back to a time when games were made in a matter of months rather than years, and when even a strange shooting game about llamas could become a cult hit. While the package is hurt a bit by neglecting to explore the full history of the studio, ultimately the selections included in this interactive documentary compilation were educational and fascinating enough to motivate me to seek out more of it. I hope that other teams see this release and use it as a model for how they can gamify and preserve the industry’s history, and anyone with an interest in how games used to be made should definitely check this out. And at the very least, it’s probably the best way to play Gridrunner and Tempest 2000 on the go, which is never a bad thing.

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

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