The Minotaur Project philosophy
What is the Minotaur Project philosophy ?
Minotaur Rescue is the first Minotaur Project game.
Like many who grew up during the dawn of videogaming time we have fond memories of the old games from that era. Although no doubt primitive by modern standards there was a certain charm about their low-rez aesthetic.
These days it's easy for players to revisit these old games through the use of emulation. However quite often when we do, we find that many of the old games, although charming, do not hold the attention as well as we hoped they might.
The reason is due to the same kinds of limitation that imposed the primitive graphic style of the games on the designers back then. Mainly lack of memory and the inability to do much more maths than just addition and subtraction without having to wait for next Wednesday for the answers.
VCS graphics, for example, may have a certain blocky charm but the system' other limitations are near crippling. We all remember games with sprites that flickered horribly, or where the designer struggled to make something playable with hardly any freely available movable objects and very little RAM.
And yet miracles were wrought by awesomely skilful designers who through prodigious feats of programming managed to wring out of the old thing games far more advanced than even the system's designers thought possible when it was made.
The Minotaur project arose during a time when I was spending a fair bit of time playing old games on my own collection of retro machines. Quite often I'd play for a few minutes and then move on to the next. It's sad but many of the old games don't really satisfy any more. The limitations we forgave and overlooked back then are all too apparent now.
And yet, I love the style of some of those oldies! I've thought before it'd be fun to code up something on one of the old beasts, and even got as far as doing a bit of VCS kernel programming for fun. It certainly is a lot of fun, but to produce a whole game would take quite a long time, and I would run into the same limitations and problems as the old designers had.
Then I thought: why not make some new games in the STYLE of the old games, but using modern hardware? By doing that I would be free to choose the things that genuinely were charming about the old games, but leave behind all that nonsense about sprite flicker, amnesiac amounts of memory and CPU chips with the mathematical ability of a wounded stoat.
In fact we'd be free to do whatever we liked whilst still providing players with an aesthetic that will hopefully still produce a nice nostalgic glow.
Another reason doing such games appeals to me is because it'll put a bit of fun back into my development life. Project turnover back then was pretty fast and you'd generally get several projects done per year. These days it's much more of a long slog with projects often taking a year or more to complete.
The iOS platform with its apps seems also well suited to this kind of game where one isn't necessarily seeking out some epic adventure that'll take hours to play - quite often you just want a bit of simple, fun, arcade-gamey action.
I needed to get something together to show at R3PLAY, a retrogaming expo in Blackpool, and so the Minotaur project was begun.
The goal of the Minotaur project is 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.
We've begun in the VCS-era and this first game is presented on the entirely fictional 'Ataurus TVC 2605' which uses primitive graphic shapes but allows for an effectively unlimited number of them on screen, and also for some fullscreen feedback effects. Things that would have been entirely impossible back in the day.
The ATAURUS boot screen.
I took the liberty of giving it the character screen from a Commodore PET, because let's face it, text was never a strong point of the VCS and its brethren, and in the spirit of iscarding the unnecessarily ugly parts of the retro experience I thought at least a PET screen would be better than VCS text.
What I have retained is the primitive shapes from back then. With no prospect of being able to attain realism, games from that era were starkly abstract and pared down, and in that simplicity there was a kind of eloquence. Rather than there being an arrow on a radar representing our ship, the arrow WAS your ship. It gave games a kind of enforced 'cyberspatial' aesthetic; one was very much aware of dealing with virtual objects in a synthetic world. Realism obviously has its place in modern gaming and I wouldn't be without it, but for some kinds of game the feeling of playing in that pure, abstract world, directly manipulating the symbols that represented the pieces of the game design, is often rather lacking.
Oldschool style but no limits.
It is that 'pure abstraction' aesthetic, enforced by the hardware limitations of old game systems, which led to creations like the iconic film TRON and the classic abstract 'cyberspace' representation you always see in hacker films.
The fact that so many games try to look like Geometry Wars, a game whose look was designed specifially to evoke the sparsely abstract games of old vector systems, shows that there is still a desire of players to play once more in that pure, symbolic space, deliberately far from any thought of realism.
Of course we can present that abstraction much more cleanly and beautifully than the old systems could. Everything can be smooth and pure, with no flickering or juddering sprites. We can even impart a delicate glow to the scene, allowing objects to leave persistence trails as if limned in phosphor glow.
Game Over should always look pretty.
Whereas in the old days players were forced into the abstract space at gunpoint by hardware limitations, now we can revisit the place at leisure, explore it better, and perhaps buy a nice little holiday construct by the Game Grid.
Each of us has fond memories of the vehicles that took us there, back then - for some it was the VCS, for others a Vic-20, or an Intellivision, or a Speccy.
If people like what I've done with the VCS-era look here then I'll expand out and do more Minotaur project games in the style of other systems. Blinged-out VIC-20 anyone? Intellivision 3000? The Speccy from a parallel universe where Uncle Clive came to dominate the entire computer market, and where everybody drives C500s, where the QL has real qbits in, and where games are played on the Universal UltraSpeccy?
I think it'd be a lot of fun to imagine such machines, and then to write games for them! And that's what the Minotaur project is about.
As for this first Minotaur project game, I've tried to imagine what a designer back then might have come up with if he had access to my fictional 'Ataurus TVC 2605'. It draws inspiration from various games of that era (and one from way before that era, MIT 'Spacewars' which is actually older than I am!) to create a composite whole which is, I hope, pleasantly evocative of oldtime favourites but enough of a new game to stand on its own merits.
The spacecraft themselves are the pointy coloured arrows which featured in many a space game of that era. The challenges are inspired by a bunch of different games - the sun and gravity well from Spacewars; rocks as obstacles like in other games of that era; attacking saucers that hinder your ongoing solar defence mission, failure in which results in the sun turning into a black ole, creating a gameplay event that dangerous and chaotic but survivable; mining/collection objective; having to grab entities before they fall into the sun - I've been trying to think as a designer of the day might have thought, coming up with a design through a balance of influence and creativity to hopefully produce something new-yet-old and fun to play even for today's players.
The iPad even allows us to revisit the time when 'multiplayer' meant 4 joysticks plugged into a VCS or Atari 8-bit, thanks to multitouch and having a sufficiently large screen to just about allow 4 players to have a bit of control surface. Hell, it'll work on an iPhone too but by the time 4 players have their fingers on the screen I doubt you'd be able to see any of it, so on iPhone I limited the number of simultaneous players to 2.
I've really enjoyed making this - it's been quick and fun to do (the actual gameplay was done start to finish in a month) - there's other infrastructure that takes a bit more time but once that's done and we have a viable framework that gets through the submission process then it'll be quick and easy to do many more of these Minotaur project games.