I had this game installed on my machine for a long time before I decided to write a review for it. And I didn't have an intention of writing about it, but a small observation I made during playing made me want to.
But first a small detour, namely: my history with Llamasoft games.
The first game I ever played from Lllamasoft was Attack of the mutant camels back in the late 1980s. In my memory it was one of the first arcade like, or arcade quality, games I ever played on a home computer (another one would be River raid but for different reasons). The action was fast and hectic, flashing visuals with animated backgrounds and huge things moving towards the player at great speeds, sound effects that were boomy and gave a whole sense of urgency... One easily gets overwhelmed while playing this game - it's probably the first time in my life I experienced getting into the zone. This especially happened to me after a few levels and during the level warping sequence.
Even in such an early attempt for a game one can definitely spot the amount of craftmanship that goes into Jeff Minter (and Giles of course, but back then Minter was solo) games. Given the technical limitations of the platforms he had at hand, the results were way above par: he knows what makes arade games tick and why they are fun and he is able to distill that into his games.
The second detour I'd like to make is Llamatron on the Atari ST.
This really deserves many posts instead of simply a couple of paragraphs, so I'll restrain myself into saying that the same points apply as in Attack of the mutant camlels: this is clearly the work of a man that has played hours of Robotron, discovered what makes it fun and addictive and sat down and spent many hours tuning the gameplay into making an even better game than the original (in my humble opinion of course!). Shooting that fractal with the border flashing with each hit and that psychedelic sample playing, that was again one times I remember myself zoning in and letting my reflexes take control of the actual playing while my mind drifted elsewhere.
Of course, simply copying a game in verbatim is always boring and the developer(s) end up feeling it's more of a chore than of something creative and fun. One must also bring something of his (or her) own to the table. And Llamasoft really bring personality into their games:
- Cultural references: in their recent game such as this one or Polybius for example one can spot sprites from 80s arcade games, spectrum tape loading sounds, the C64 font, Atari logos, speech synthesisers, etc etc
- Silly sound samples: try dying in Llamatron or getting an extra life for example. Or mooing samples instead of enemies dying. And many many more
- Humour: Notice that first screenshot? "Yak the hairy?" How many developers described themselves in such a silly way back in the 80s? Also, Pink Floyd bouns!
- Very British humour: Raining in Llamatron (with the obligatory unbrellas to stop the rain!), subliminal messages to buy Jeff a cup of tea, Brexit commentary (their latest games)
- Gameplay refinements: This is of course the most important bit. The games would still be fun to play without the above things, but this is what ties the whole package together. I'm one of the people that tried playing the original Robotron way after being exposed to Llamatron. Let's say that I really wasn't that thrilled with Robotron. And rightfully so: Robotron was designed to be a coin pumper, so the average player's life expectacy had to be around 2-3 minutes or less. Llamatron on the other hand was a really different experience. Minter probably realised that the original was way too hard so he blessed the player with tons of extra lives and weapons. Weapon powerups especially weren't random for the most part, they were usually designed for the specific level.
That's all fine and great and I could go on for a long while, but let's jump cut from 1991 to 28 years later, i.e. today. Computers get crazy fast but always feel kind of slow because people keep raising the bar of what they expect to see in audio and visual fronts. But Llamasoft just keep their specs as low as possible in their games. Result: they have pretty much infinite processing power and can throw gajillions of pixels on screen at the monitor's refresh rate without the hardware breaking sweat. What can we expect?
Recently I was gifted with a copy of Vasara collection. It's a bullet hell shooter.
I don't have a problem with bullet hell shooters, but I really suck at them. However, weing the person that I am, I decided to give it a go a couple of times. And got my butt handled. Hard. I made some progress and got to the first stage boss, but didn't have the energy to proceed further. So I exited the game.
But the experience left me craving for some more shooty action. So I scanned my desktop icons for something similar to play, and I noticed Minotaur Arcade Volume 1. "Yeah, I'd go for some Gridrunner right now" and ran the game and started playing.
At this point I should mention that I'm stuck in a rather hard level of the game (34) with only 2 lives left. I am fully aware that I should go back and replay a few levels so I can get to this one with more lives so it can become more fair. But I don't - I like the extra challenge (or unfairness) and partially I'm a bit lazy to go back. So a typical screenshot of this level looks like this:
This.... looks much busier and harder than Vasara, doesn't it? But even so I found myself playing this level over and over, probably for about an hour or so. I simply refused to let go. So while playing (and certainly zoned in) I asked myself "Why?". Why should I keep playing this level which I myself made extra unfair? Why was I filled with dread at the thought of starting up Vasara again and playing through that?
First possible answer was "because of Llamasoft loyalty". That is true to a small extent but it certainly isn't the main reason. I don't think I would force myself to play something I don't enjoy just because of the authors. After thinking about this for a bit I stumbled upon the answer. Namely, my memory is awful.
That doesn't explain many things, so allow me to expand: When playing games I often catch myself repeating the same errors over and over again, even when I repeat something a few dozen times. My memory refuses to kick in at the right moment and remind me to do something differently than my reflexes say. A large part of bullet hell shooters is memorising the enemy patterns, knowing which weapons to pick up, knowing where to position the ship and where to fire, endbosses weakness... the list goes on. That's not how I play games though. I want to rely on my skills in any situation the game might throw upon me, not just pre-recorded patterns. Couple that with that memory issue above and you got a recipe for disaster.
So guess what happens in Gridrunner then: the enemy patterns are predictable, as well as the rules they move (when they don't follow patterns). But the spawning place and time is random. There we go, if one is accustomed to bullet shoot hell games, most of that experience goes down the drain. So the game strips down to having to learn a set of rules for the enemies (which is never explicitly told to Llamasoft's credit), but then nobody knows know how each level will turn out until the actual playing happens. Every time it's a bit different. Of course one can play bullet shoot hell games like Gridrunner but one won't get that far. Losing a life on Gridrunner is they player's damn fault (or their skills), but not the player's memory (maybe only a small part of it can be attributed to memory). A small but really important point here: restarting a Llamasoft game is almost instant, which really helps keeping the same state of mind and not allowing it it cool down.
So, to make an analogy: Playing bullet hell shooters reminds me of having history exams at school, while playing Llamasoft games reminds me of having physics exams. I wasn't particularaly fond of the former, but by golly was I excited about the later. (incidentally this analogy was the what made me write this piece in the first place).
(Side note: it's true that for example Llamatron above relies a lot on the player remembering stuff about the levels, it is not the main gameplay mechanic! Enemies are still placed randomly around the level so nobody can really play it blindfold)
Here I'd like to stress that when I mention "Gridrunner" I could also mean "Txk", "Tempest 4000", "Polybius" or many other Llamasoft games. It's just that the realisation came to me while playing Gridrunner. By all means I would encourage people to go buy and play all of them. The payoff of reaching the last 4-5 levels of Tempest 4000 is astronomical. Polybius in its later levels is pretty much a light machine that incidentally has interactivity. If games like these do their job well, the part of the mind that interprets the audio visuals separates from the part of mind that controls the game and is able to enjoy the show as if it's an external observer rather than the player. These games really do their job well.
Yak and Giles demand a lot from the player. Getting into the described state requires lots of patience and persistance. Not many people are willing to do that, especially when they are used to being hand held by the game in every step and not having to think of themselves. But the few that invest time on Llamasoft games do indeed get it. I haven't had the chance to play the games in VR but they support that mode. I can only guess that what I wrote above will be intensified a great deal.
There's also Goatup in the package bundled with Gridrunner. That is also a good game that also shares a lot of the points discussed above. For such a low price the whole package is definitely recommended.
P.S. The Android versions of Minotaur arcade games are given for free on Llamasoft's page, really not a bad thing to load to your phone! Send a few pounds along their way too, you know it's a good thing.
Bonus reading: Jonathan Blow's classic (as far as gaming goes anyway) piece "In which I compare Space Giraffe to Ulysses."