Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story Review – It Really Whips

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story Review - It Really Whips

Watching classic game collections grow from mere assortments of games you may (or may not) know to celebrations of their creators and their legacies has given me a lot of joy over the years.

Leading this new wave has been Digital Eclipse ever since they brought Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration to our computers and consoles back in 2022. They’ve followed that one up with the Gold Master Series, which aims to do for computer and video games, what the Criterion Collection has done for cinema.

Joining the first instalment on Jordan Mechner and the creation of his breakout hit Karateka, is this new one focusing on veteran British developer Jeff Minter, and the early days of his studio Llamasoft.

Llamasoft Screenshot 1

As expected with Digital Eclipse’s interactive documentaries, the main focus is to tell a story, specifically that of Llamasoft’s first decade or so. That story chronicles how Jeff was inspired to start making games in the late 1970s, and closes with the development and release of Tempest 2000 in 1994. Though I wish things carried on beyond this time frame, it results in a strong narrative conveying the highs of Llamasoft’s successes during the mid 1980s leading into Jeff’s experimentation with light synthesisers, before the lows of the early 1990s as the British industry shifts around him.

This is once again presented with an assortment of media – primarily from photos taken at various events, mixed in with scans of manuals, advertisements, boxes, magazines and development notes of games both released and unreleased.

To cap it all off, there are video features taken as offshoots from the upcoming “Heart of Neon”, a documentary which celebrates Jeff’s career within the increasingly corporate games industry.

Llamasoft Screenshot 2

I’ll admit, whilst it’s right that this documentary focuses on the breadth of Jeff’s career, I do miss those features which dive right into the deeper moments of game creation. This was one of The Making of Karateka’s highlights, but it also contrasts with Jeff’s process in these earlier days, which is more informal, and less focused on creative or technical innovation.

As for the games themselves? Based on what was popular in the UK at the times, the games on offer cover a spectrum of complexity – from simple (and I do mean simple) takes on popular arcade games, to more refined and experimental efforts. This is where a large part of the charm of this collection comes into play – being able to sample some of the earliest examples of Minter’s work, as primitive as they may be.

Llamasoft Screenshot 3

Alongside his many hits (including games with names like Sheep in Space, Hover Bovver and Llamatron amongst others), you’ll also get one unreleased game: Attack of the Mutant Camels ’89 for the Konix Multisystem. Sadly it’s only a prototype, but even a cursory play can show you of its potential had history not taken the course it had.

It’s also joined by a remastering of Gridrunner which takes the Commodore 64 adaptation, and applies modern graphics and audio to it. I’ll admit, I preferred playing the original version over this, if only because its tilted view made engaging enemies at range a little trickier than I’d have liked.

Llamasoft Screenshot 4

The piece de resistance here for me is the inclusion of his Light Synthesisers: Psychedelia and Colourspace. These packages are the first steps towards the visualisers we have in modern music players, but more exciting being they’re interactive! While the original documentation for these are present, what I found to really help in understanding them is the custom interfaces Digital Eclipse added, letting you tune settings from more conventional menus, instead of pecking about on the keyboard as you would have needed to should you be enjoying them in their original forms.

These are an important part of Jeff’s career, and I’m glad they’re been included here amongst the games.

Llamasoft Screenshot 5

When it comes to chronicling gaming history, there tends to be a focus away from the days of home computing to focus more on arcade and console gaming, and for me that’s the main draw with Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story. It’s a chance to show those curious about gaming history a side that’s rarely explored, particularly with a little British flair, instead of using them as the crutch of a joke as most commentators would do.

For those familiar with Llamasoft’s more recent titles, it’s a chance to go back and see the growth in Jeff’s design sensibilities from those incredibly limited platforms and how they lead to some iconic works.

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story was reviewed on a PS5 console with code kindly supplied by the publisher.

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