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June 25, 2017 9 min read
I want to take some time out of my day to talk to you about our lord and savior Jeff Minter.
When VR headsets were first announced, I was smitten. Since I've been a little kid farting around the house pretending in I was a videogame instead of playing "house" (the house, not the doctor) I dreamed of what virtual reality would be like. And those dreams were largely based on CG cartoons off of YTV and movies like The Lawnmower Man. I never really thought about the simulation aspect of VR, the proverbial holodeck from Star Trek that would let me live out a fantasy simulation, probably involving beautiful women in goat masks and barrels of ketchup. And while I'm sure Jeff Minter of Llamasoft can probably relate to the goat masks at the very least, I don't think that is what he had in mind long ago when virtual reality was a fantasy, back in the eighties and nineties when he was making such games as Attack of the Mutant Camels, Llamatron, and Sheep in Space, a Defender clone where you play as a sheep and have to periodically land in a pasture to eat fucking grass, which is just about the most mind-bogglingly cutest thing I have ever seen in a video game. Jeff Minter has been making games since he was a kid, most of them with a curious fascination with cute farm animals. And they are if nothing else unique. But they are also goddamn great a lot of the time.
Jeff Minter probably isn't known too well in North America. His games have always been somewhat abstract and obscure, starting with the Sinclair ZX80, an amazingly cheap Z80 microcomputer from the mind of Sir Clive Sinclair, inventor of cheap home computers and this fucked up looking three wheeled electric Mr. Bean-ass lookin' car which was obviously a big hit since everyone is still driving them everywhere all the time.
His biggest claim to fame was always Tempest 2000 on the Atari Jaguar. He worked closely at the time with Atari, who in recent times being the absolute trash bin of a placeholder company that they are nowadays, threatened to sue him over similarities between one of his newer games TxK which resembles Tempest quite a bit, but which is still one hundred percent his original concept and creation. (the cunts) Tempest 2000 was the Jaguar's biggest hit; despite having interesting hardware, the unfortunate Jaguar sort of came out at the wrong time and was generally mishandled as a platform. It also had a controller shaped like a chewed up arse. After Tempest it seems like Jeff went back to playing in the shadows, perfectly happy marching to the beat of his own drum without involving himself in too many endeavours involving big, faceless gaped maw conglomerates.
The later results of this action were the bizarre Space Giraffe for Xbox 360 arcade and much later on Steam, another game that at first feels like Tempest but is very different in its mechanics, and which is also something of a psychadelic visualizer. And Space Invaders Extreme for the DS and PSP, a game you probably didn't play, and what a fucking shame if not; it was a brilliant recreation of Space Invaders gameplay at a much faster pace which felt almost like a music game similar to Rez. Apart from video games, Jeff Minter is known for his work in visualizers, dating back to the days of the Commodore 64. if you have ever played music on a computer or video game system and enjoyed the visualizer functionality, the chances are that Jeff Minter's influence had something to do with it. His most beloved seems to be the one on the Atari Jaguar CD, a flop of a toilet shaped waste disposal unit that never worked properly and that no one ever fucking used since the console sold like complete crap and everyone was probably sick to fuck of dumb FMV games by the time it was released. Nevertheless, many people took inspiration from it, and he later developed the Xbox 360's music visualizer as well.
That brings me to the recent PSVR release, Polybius.
If you feel like you've heard of Polybius before, you are probably also aware of that Pokemon cartridge that gave kids siezures, slenderman, or a dozen other "creepypasta" hoaxes that were spit out of the perpetual meme-grinder. Polybius is a bit of a myth in the gaming community, referring back to the golden age of the arcade when real men had mullets and beards and too much free time, you could get a piece of ass if you were good at Burger Time, and some kids apparently fell into comas and siezures while playing a mysterious arcade cabinet that popped up in middle America, apparently used to monitor brainwaves or something for the FBI. The machine dissappeared as quickly as it emerged according to the legend some guy made up half way through a fistful of cheetos, and has never been seen or heard of since. You can read about the details here, and it's pretty fun stuff, if not a complete waste of time and likely without a kernel of actual truth behind it past the fact that a game might have been in development with the same name but was shelved, maybe because arcades were starting to tank around the same point. But who the fuck knows, really.
Jeff Minter's Polybius, then, is no more a replication than it is a love letter to the idea of what Polybius was meant to represent; a game embodying the mood of the 80's, the escapism of staring into a screen full of blaring sound and colorful abstraction made to do little more than cynically extract quarters from children and adults alike, but which many people really embraced due to the inherently nihilistic nature of the certain failure that went along with playing them. Old arcade games are not fun because they are hard. They are fun, AND hard //insert shitty dick joke here later, DON'T FORGET!!!// and it is the abstraction itself which I find Jeff really understands makes them appealing despite living in a world where any chump-ass can pull up Unity and instantly make something resembling a rough approximation of the real world albeit chock full of obnoxiously placed recycled assets. Polybius will not extract any data from your mind for use by government officials (that I know of), but its constant barrage of "subliminal" messages and seizure inducing light shows might just put you in "the zone" that the Men in Black were apparently looking to simulate in the stories of what the original Polybius was meant to do.
Games like Polybius represent what I always felt the digital world would be like: full of basic polygonal shapes, psychadelic colors, the same sorts of 70's science fiction schlock that people now seem to be embarrassed was ever our conception. Even newer movies like Tron feel more like they are poking fun at this aesthetic at the same time they are celebrating it, but I think there is something to be said about abstraction and how interesting it can be in a digital playground. If I want real life, I can go live it anytime. If I want to go to another planet and shoot giant space camels, or fly through a tunnel at 1000 miles per hour while shooting at errant spheres and floating neon cows, I'll play a video game.
Polybius firmly cements itself in this aesthetic and makes no apologies that it is an arcade shooter from 2017 if the "golden age" of games never ended. We never got even as far as Super Mario Bros. and we certainly never made it to the age of the puke-tinted military shooter. Whatever computers and game systems and machines we continued to build used slight variations of VIC chips and 6502 micro-processors, and all we were ever able to artistically muster up was a vague representation of some familiar shape or object. Slightly better with polygons, of course, but not far removed from the bizarre creativity of the Galaga's and Pac Man's of the day.
VR is still pretty divisive. It's encouraging to see "VR Cades" popping up everywhere, but I still feel like they are a work in progress. We don't really know what the fuck we're doing with the technology yet. I have the shame of admitting I don't yet have a headset to play Polybius on, and that the best way to play it has been sitting super close to an eye searing 50 inch television, a poor mans emulation. But Polybius is exactly the sort of game I envisioned would be popular whenever VR headsets finally became a realistic prospect. A game that feels like the world a computer itself might dream up if it was forced to create the idea of three dimensional space. Exactly the sort of game I have been clamoring to buy a headset for since the things were conceived, car simulations and jerk-off games be damned (I'm dehydrated enough as it is on a regular basis, I don't need that in my life.) The gameplay is as straightforward as it is; you fly through various tubes and shoot at the things in front of you. Occasionally you will fly through gates which will increase your speed and help you get through the tubes faster at the risk of dying more easily. And every few levels or so a new mechanic will be introduced to mix up the action, but there isn't much to it other than that. And despite being so basic, I feel like I have put more time and thought into it than any other game I've bought in the past few months simply because it feels so genuine compared to other games embracing a "retro" aesthetic.
Look, I'm no hater of the "8 bit" aesthetic being shoved down our throats like so much delicious, wonderful tripe. Games like Shovel Knight are the wet dream of a guy my age who grew up playing Mega Man. But some of them feel derivative, or like they are missing the point. I know for a fact game development is one of the most difficult challenges artistically, in the programming world, and otherwise, so I'd never accuse a developer of being cynical enough to spend literally hundreds of hours creating something with the sneering intent to extract money out of enthusiasts of retro gaming. Except maybe for the fuckhead behind the Coleco Chameleon, a wretched piece of vaporware with a fake tech demo that fooled literally no one, and was generally a bad idea to begin with. (a console system in 2017 with no sort of upgradeability, using a proprietary method of software distribution...what the actual fuck? Sign me up.) But the point remains, looking like an old game for the sake of it, even when that aesthetic does nothing to prop up the mechanics of your game in any real way and is just there for the fuck of it? Well, it's getting a bit long in the tooth. And it's nice to see that we are slowly creeping away from that automatic tendancy.
Jeff Minter's games don't express that vapid intention in the slightest. Despite the last three of his major titles, TxK, Space Giraffe, and even Polybius to a degree feeling like a very similar experience the Tempest's of the past, they also feel inventive and fresh in their presentation, or at the very least push the envelope of this "Mintervision" aesthetic I am having such trouble extrapolating. All from a man who lives on a farm and plays with Llama's all day, and who has always stuck to his guns when it came to creating product unique to his vision (except maybe Defender 2000, but there were reasons that turned out to be so-so, and none of them seem to be the fault of Minter himself.) The fact that Polybius is a PSVR title, and that it feels so much like an old arcade game seems perfectly fitting for what VR really is; an unsure foray into a new world where everything is so experimental and new, where there is uncertainty about the hardware being developed for, and where we are just really discovering what this platform will evolve into. Maybe in five years, VR won't be a thing at all, fizzling out just as fast as the big wooden quarter guzzlers that came long before it.
Polybius is not a perfect game, it's not for everyone, and I feel like only a small handful of weirdos are really going to appreciate what it is and what it represents. But it's another solid mark on Jeff Minter's cow and sheep scribbled white board. I find the man himself as interesting as the games he produces, almost stubbornly devoted to his own style. His journey from kid genius programmer creating his own company to Atari lovechild (and then arch nemesis apparently: again, cunts.) and now, in the present day, still making exactly the sorts of quirky stuff he is known for but doing it on a brand new, uncertain platform is endearing and inspiring. And I hope more people discover and love Polybius. It is firmly nestled in the VR section of the Sony Store, so it's likely to be overlooked, though it is reported to coming to Steam later this year. But I feel like games like this and the folks like Jeff who make them should be bought. I was going to say "celebrated", but actually fucking buying them is ultimately the most important thing, though I think Jeff might be too humble to really admit that. Also, I love his Twitter feed. It's mostly pictures and videos of his llamas.
I like llamas.
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