I simply don’t have much time to play games anymore. Perhaps it’s symptomatic of being ‘grown up’, but it’s just as likely due to the fact that I have too many other interests that take up my time. But I should come clean – I still play games a lot, just not many that the ‘mainstream’ gamer folk do. I refuse to partake in online SHMUPs or MMOs, not because I don’t like them (I do!), but that’s a time sink I’m not willing to invest in. I buy several dozen boxed games a year…and most sit unfinished. I have literally hundreds (if not thousands) of games for a couple of dozen consoles and computers neatly positioned in my games room wanting for some attention. Despite all of this, the vast majority of my gaming is done on my phone and most of it on the run. There are hundreds of games sitting on my iThing waiting for attention. Sorry, not today. Tomorrow’s not looking good either…
Perhaps that’s why over the last few years I’ve found myself gravitating towards retro styled games be they on console, computer, or my iStevePhone. Sure, I’ll play games with a long and involving story, and I still love modern games, but for someone who’s been playing games since the Vic 20/Atari 2600 days, retro games generally win out. Five minutes here or there, just like the old days. But I am increasingly more discerning with what I play – I won’t waste my time on rubbish games. Poor control, lack of ‘in the zone’ gameplay, no intensity means no love or attention from me. Over the years one company has consistently produced games that gel with me and that’s Llamasoft. My appreciation of Jeff Minter’s games has been a slow burner that’s grown and developed into something of a passion over the last twenty five odd years…
Although I was several years late to the party and missed some of their earlier games, I’ve been a fan of Llamasoft games since the mid 1980s. Firing up the games Gridrunner and Attack of the Mutant Camels on the Commodore 64 provided cheap and fun thrills as a youngster. They were also a pretty stereotypical introduction to what Llamasoft are about; shooting, arcade-like games on home hardware, and lots of ungulates (look it up). Oddly enough, neither of these two games were anywhere near the top of my games of choice at the time (Gridrunner was 180 odd ‘blocks’ and took aaaages to load on the 1541 disk drive), though they both possessed that ‘one more go’ appeal and sense of humour that Jeff Minter (aka Yak) is renowned for. Jeff is the creative force behind Llamasoft (and was the sole coder until recent years). Since those heady C64 days, I found my interest revived during the mid 1990s by a chance happening upon an Atari ST magazine that had a special feature about the Atari Jaguar. I retroactively discovered a number of Llamasoft games for the Atari ST (after finally purchasing my computer *after* buying the magazine). During this period, Llamatron (ST) and Tempest 2000 (Jaguar) sucked more gaming time out of my ‘study time’ during my university years than I care to think about. I’ve since followed the progress of Llamasoft and bought numerous pieces of hardware (an ST, a Jaguar, and an Xbox 360 amongst others). Not solely for the Yak’s games, but they were a pretty good bonus. I’ve played most Llamasoft games over the last 20 odd years and have generally ‘dug’ the gameplay of most of them regardless of whether I was good at them or not.
You might be asking yourself ‘Llama-what’ or ‘Jeff-who’. At the risk of repeating what’s been written numerous times over the years in print and on the web, here’s an abridged version. Young Jeff learnt to code games on old computers. He’s mostly famous for creating arcade inspired shoot-em-ups on many platforms over the years (Vic 20, Commodore 64, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, Atari Jaguar, Xbox 360 and PC amongst others).
Most Llamasoft games involve furry beasties and/or manic gameplay and/or trippy graphics with mad pixelated explosions. Games to look out for include Gridrunner, Hellgate, Hover Bovver, Attack of the Mutant Camels, Matrix, Ancipital, Sheep in Space, Batalyx, Iridis Alpha (8-bit computers), Super Gridrunner, Defender II, Llamatron: 2112, Revenge of the Mutant Camels (16-bit computers), Tempest 2000 , Defender 2000 (Atari Jaguar), Deflex, Hover Bovver 2: Grand Theft Flymo, Gridrunner++, Gridrunner Revolution (PC) and Space Giraffe (Xbox 360 and PC) amongst many others. Llamasoft are also well known for developing a range of ‘light synthesisers‘ from the 8-bit days up until now. Think funky graphics to play along to music (or stuff that automatically plays along to the music). Look for programs such as Psychadelia (8-bit – official site link), Trip-a-Tron (16-bit – official site link), the Virtual Light Machine (Jaguar CD and Nuon – official site link) and Neon, the swishy graphics accompaniment to your music that runs on the Xbox 360. Interesting, *you* can ‘play’ Neon with up to four people controlling what’s on the screen. Got a 360? Click here for Neon’s instructions.
And since then? There’s a bunch of cracking retro-inspired Llamasoft titles available on iOS (Apple Store Link). I’ll write more about some of these in the near future. This rundown of the history of Llamasoft is intentionally very abridged, so here’s a couple of links to check out if you’re interested:
- The official Llamasoft site: http://www.llamasoft.co.uk/. Of specific interest is the softography page.
- The Llamasoft archive, with downloads of most of Llamasoft’s previous releases from the 8-bit days through to now. An absolute treasure trove with a number of surprises to be found. If you haven’t played any of these games, fire up your emulators and get downloading. Now. http://www.llamasoftarchive.org/
- A two hundred odd page book of Llamasoft history (yet it’s still considered incomplete!). It’s a great read: http://minotaurproject.co.uk/YakImages/AHistoryofLlamasoft.pdf
- YakYak, an eclectic and, sometimes, video game focused forum where Jeff posts: http://www.yakyak.org/
I might not have time to play games as often as I like these days, but when I do I make sure that they’re fun, humorous, frenetic and memorable (bonus points if they’re retro and/or retro-inspired). You could do much worse than to have a crack at some of Llamasoft’s releases, be they old or new.
To round this article out, here’s some images and YouTube videos of my favourite Llamasoft moments from over the years. These are just some of the many Llamasoft games worth firing up with the original hardware (or an emulator if you must).
Attack of the Mutant Camels is somewhat like The Empire Strikes Back on the Atari 2600, but instead of AT-ATs you face off against dromedaries. The video featured here is from the Atari computer version which is graphically superior to the C64 release.
Andes Attack, a Defender-alike, is more famous in its 8-bit incarnations, but my favourtite is the Atari ST version. Think Defender with dromedaries. This game uses mouse control which, once adapted to, provides the player with more precise control than with a keyboard or joystick. That doesn’t mean the game is easy – it’s not. I can’t get more than half a dozen levels into the game. Of course, that could be because I’m rubbish at it.
Llamatron: Robotron + a more friendly difficulty curve + cool bonus items + great audio + humour = a game that surpasses on Robotron in my humble opinion. The release of this game basically demonstrated Shareware as a financially viable means of releasing games.
Revenge of the Mutant Camels: It all makes perfect sense right? This is from the 16-bit version, but there’s also 8-bit versions too.
Hardcore for the Atari ST (and Amiga?) was incomplete and only ever released as a five level demo. It’s a shame that the game wasn’t completed as the demo is great fun, not to mention completely bonkers.
Tempest 2000 won several ‘game of the year’ awards in 1994. When I initially played it in good old Gamepower Blackwood, I was marginally underwhelmed (as were some at Atari who believed it didn’t push the Jaguar far enough!), but the music and gameplay sucked me in and I’ve spent innumerable hours playing it since. The gameplay still holds up well to this day. Check out this ‘making of’ article (in PDF format) from Edge Magazine by clicking here.
Tempest 3000 is a game that unfortunately very few people have had the opportunity to play. I only recently acquired a Nuon (extremely obscure and somewhat rare piece of video game playing hardware from around the year 2000) so I haven’t invested much time in this one yet. Yes it’s Tempest again, but for the time it looked amazing. Gameplay-wise it hasn’t quite gelled with me like Tempest 2000 or Space Giraffe, but I’ve been told by many that it’s definitely an evolutionary improvement on T2K. I must play it more then.
Gridrunner++ for PC and Mac. One of the many, many variants of Gridrunner from over the years, it is a fantastic little game. Though there are newer versions for the PC (which I haven’t played much) and iOS (which I’ll be writing about very soon), this one is still available to buy. Highly recommended.
What? Another damn Tempest game? It is…sort of, on the surface anyway. Space Giraffe, and Xbox 360 and PC release, has a big twist on the genre where you’re actually encouraged to let the enemies reach the rim so that you can ‘Bull’ them off. It’s a bit of a ‘Vegemite game’ in that some love it and some hate it. Those that hate it obviously have no taste. In my opinion it is superb – a truly modern incarnation of the graphical, sound and gameplay elements that define Llamasoft games.