or Why The iPhone Is The New Amiga, Part 17.
Minotron 2112 was released today (at the time of writing an iTunes or App Store search for "minotron" doesn't bring it up, but if instead you search for "llamasoft" it's there), the second outing for Jeff Minter's game-in-a-month Minotaur Project after the flawed but fun Minotaur Rescue.
(Which incidentally is apparently about to have many of the issues raised in the WoSland review – or "moaning", as Mr Minter refers to user feedback – fixed in a just-submitted update.)
Minotron is an iOS version of one of Llamasoft's most iconic titles, the 1991 Amiga/ST/DOS classic Llamatron. It's not a straight port so much as a re-imagining, with many new enemies, power-ups and features, but it's still got 100 levels of Robotron-homage to slaughter your way through, as well as all the stuff you've come to expect from a Jeff Minter game.
It's doubtful WoSblog has too many readers who've never played Llamatron, so we'll be focusing mostly on what's new and interesting in Minotron, and the big one is the control system. iThing owners will be familiar with the problems inherent in bringing "traditional"-style games to a device with no physical buttons, and many different approaches have been tried in the twin-stick shooter field, of which our favourite remains that adopted by the quietly excellent Geofighter – Light Wars.
Minotron's solution is one that's highly inventive, but only partially successful. There are no fixed virtual pads onscreen, and the controls have a temporal aspect as well as a physical one. The game doesn't go out of its way to explain it (it's buried in the middle of a long, difficult-to-read brainspew of text under "Info"), but it's a clever idea.
The first time you touch the screen, Minotron interprets that touch as being your steering. Hold your thumb down and your minotaur moves around, firing automatically in the last direction it was told to (or due right if it's the start of a new game). Your second touch – normally with your other thumb – is registered as an aiming one.
Swipe up and your beastie will fire upwards until you swipe another direction. You don't have to keep your second thumb on the screen – for reasons that will become apparent in a moment – which means you're minimising the screen area covered by your hands. Next comes the clever bit.
Should you release your first touch, the game goes back into movement-detecting mode. The effect is that if you're moving with your left thumb, and you then release it and hold down your right thumb, your right thumb instantly becomes the movement controller and you can now swipe with your left to aim your shots. The advantage, obviously, is that you can perform the switch whenever your minotaur is about to disappear under the steering thumb, so you're never obscuring the action.
It's a smart, imaginative concept, but in practice it has some problems. For example, it makes it very hard to stand still – because the only realistic way to achieve that is to lift your thumb off the screen – and in a game that tends to have an extremely busy playfield, being able to stop and spray fire around yourself in multiple directions is a vital ability when you need to clear yourself a bit of breathing space, ie always.
Another concern is that the game seems to get a bit confused by the method itself sometimes. On a fair few occasions my mino just seemed to run out of steam, even though I hadn't lifted my thumb, and I was left floundering around flapping my digits desperately trying to get one of them to register as the movement stick while the minotaur ran on the spot like a mime artist wedged against an invisible wall.
Commendable though the thought that's gone into the control system is, it would have been nice to have a couple of more traditional options supplied, eg a conventional dynamic virtual stick on each side of the screen.
That's pretty much it for bad stuff, though. The rest of Minotron 2112 is more or less unalloyed delight, from the splendidly neo-retro graphics to the unending parade of classic-game references (Manic Miner is particularly well-represented, from Willy himself to keys and mutant telephones), and nowhere is that delight more evident than in the superb metastructure.
There's a veritable cornucopia of options when it comes to how to play the game, and there should be one to suit just about everybody. The default Normal game boasts all the new features that have been added in the 2011 version, and also borrows one of the best things from Minter's fantastic XBLA title Space Giraffe, namely the "Resume Best" option.
How it works is that the game records your best performance for every level. If you've cleared Level 11 with two lives left and 110,540 points, for example, then when you get killed you can choose to start from the beginning of Level 12 with that same number of lives and points. But you can also, should you desire, go back to your best position on any previous level.
Let's say you'd actually lost three lives on that best-ever Level 11 run, and in getting to it had cleared Level 10 with five in the bank and 82,000 points. If you wanted, you could start your next game from there instead, ie at the beginning of Level 11 with five lives left and 82,000 points. And so on.
The genius of this system is that it gives anyone a chance of bludgeoning their way through to Level 100, while always providing hardcore players with a way to improve their scores and distinguish themselves from the bulldozer merchants, even after they've finished the game.
But there's more to Minotron than Normal mode. The next step up is Hard, which only permits the power-ups that featured in the original Llamatron. On the other hand, if you're a bit of a wuss you can play in Assisted mode, which provides you with an indestructible AI droid (as seen in other Minter games).
And finally, the even more cack-handed can play Simplified, in which both firing and aiming are handled automatically, with the player only having to worry about moving and staying alive.
This does of course elegantly get around the problems with the controls (and Simplified's auto-aim does a mostly immaculate job of threat-prioritising), but it feels a little bit like playing in cheat mode. Still, the game separates its (OpenFeint) high scores out according to which mode you're playing, and also maintains separate Resume Best data for each mode, so it's not like you're telling anyone any lies.
For quite a few people – and I suspect I may well come to find myself among them – Simplified will end up being the mode of first choice, particularly on the smaller iThings (and more on that in a moment).
There's one more way to play, too. All of the above modes also include an Endurance option, which is a one-life survival game always played from Level 1. It's perfect for a quick and simple blast, and it brings the total number of game permutations to an impressively comprehensive eight.
Minotron 2112 has really gone out of its way to be player-friendly. Apart from the lack of control options, the only thing about it that can be a little galling is that it's sometimes hard to make out what's going on amidst the mayhem of action and shader effects. (Which are also the reason this is a 3rd-gen-hardware-and-above-only release, like Minotaur Rescue. Bad luck playing a port of a 20-year-old Atari ST game on your 2nd-gen iTouch or iPhone 3G.)
For that reason it's again a considerably more satisfying game on iPad – especially in the non-Simplified modes – and like its Minotaur Project predecessor it's admirably a Universal release, meaning that you get the iPod/iPhone and iPad-native versions together for a single purchase.
Slightly more dismayingly that price is 100% higher than Minotaur Rescue's, but at £1.19 it's very hard to argue that you're being short-changed. Llamasoft could have easily dodged the criticism by making separate iPhone and iPad versions for 59p each, but if nothing else this way is more honest.
A large percentage of Minter's devoted fanbase would have bought this on day one at almost any price, and it's hard to blame him for taking advantage of the fact. Given Minotaur Rescue's modest sales, Minotron may well also prove to be a niche game that doesn't reach out too far among the unconverted masses, so he may as well grab as much cash as possible from the core audience while he can.
I hope that supposition proves to be wrong, though. Minotron 2112 is a considerably better game than Minotaur Rescue, and it thoroughly deserves to sit at the top table of iOS twin-stick shooters and enjoy all the success that status implies.