It's hard to think of a name that divides opinion quite like Jeff Minter's. To some, his creations are beautifully blended homages, crafted by the loving hands of an old master. To others, they're the emperor's new fixation with retro for the sake of it. From either stance, the other side is considered wrong to an apocalyptic degree, and yet perhaps, like many of Minter's games, the answer lies more within a mixture.
Caverns of Minos is Llamasoft's fifth entry in its Minotaur Project, conceived to highlight the simple pleasures of retro gaming while removing all the irritations of the day - unstable sprites, stuttering hardware and the like. This particular release is a tribute to Caverns of Mars from the Atari 8-bit era.
The idea is that players descend into the depths of a cavern to gather a series of items ranging from a pair of pants to biscuits. Once they're reclaimed, the journey is reversed and these items have to be delivered to - what else - a sort of inter-dimensional sheep that hovers at the top of the screen.
The caverns are increasingly complex, and so while the game begins with a gentle descent, requiring delicate use of your spaceship's thrusters to glide safely to the objective, later levels demand you clear debris and navigate precisely through fenced-in spaces - all the while avoiding contact with walls, leaping llamas, other enemies and their errant bullets that damage your finite shield.
Also dotted throughout each cavern are the now-familiar minotaurs which, when collected, award bonus points at the end of each trip. Fuel canisters familiar to Scramble players litter the landscape too, offering up some ever-helpful juice to see you through to the journey's end. There are four different ships available, and where one may be more responsive in movement (yet have a lower shield), another offers greater firepower at the expense of manoeuvrability.
If there's a frustration with the game then it's in the need to acclimatise yourself to an occasionally awkward control system, particularly on iPhone or iPod Touch where you'll need to swipe along the bottom of the screen to steer while applying pressure on the upper half to provide thrust. It's just too easy to obscure the action at times. Mastery of the controls on these platforms is by no means impossible, but the iPad is where the game is best enjoyed.
It's also true that there is a predictably "random" collection of farts, grunts and My Little Pony samples in the soundtrack, but even the most cynical players should emit a comical yelp of panic when swarms of Galaxians make their debut, roaring into the screen and demanding dextrous finger-work to dispatch with cannons. Asteroids also make an appearance, along with roving lines of Space Invaders.
If you've played and recoiled from any of Llamasoft's previous iOS efforts, there's nothing about Caverns of Minos that will convert you and - let's be honest - you probably stopped reading after the first paragraph anyway. But those who know exactly what they want from a Minter game will find everything they hoped for in this latest iOS release. For them, it's another fine tribute from the old master.
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