God Save the Queen

God Save the Queen
Yak to the Future

Graeme Virtue | 14 Apr 2009 12:30
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If you tracked down a game from Llamasoft - as Minter christened his one-man coding house - you knew you were in for a trip. Gamers think Richard "Lord British" Garriott is eccentric because he spent an eye-watering amount of Ultima loot to be shot into space - but did he ever conceive a game called Metagalactic Llamas Battle At The Edge Of Time? These early Llamasoft titles had an almost pagan energy, and there was something truly gnarly about the way Minter harnessed such basic logic machines to create swirling, surreal experiences. He innately understood the emotional rush that even the most basic videogames could unlock. Yak wanted to transport players to the Zone, that mythical place where input barriers to a videogame melt away and you feel like you're inside it, controlling your starship, missile base or camel with your thoughts alone. (Don't just take my word for it - in an absorbing Google Tech Talk from 2007, Minter plays through some of his earliest efforts and outlines his gaming philosophy. You can watch it here.)

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One step forward, two steps Yak
With his trailblazing 8-bit catalogue, Minter was already a cult hero by the mid-'80s. But as the gaming landscape changed, he wandered down a few blind alleys - for a while, it seemed Yak was only making great games for doomed consoles. His supercharged Tempest 2000 - so impressive that most people assumed that Minter must have created the original Tempest - was the only decent game available for the ill-conceived Atari Jaguar. While hardly anyone played it, it has since spawned its own devoted cult as one of the great "lost" videogames. In the late '90s, Minter developed a sequel, Tempest 3000, for a DVD player/console hybrid called the Nuon which was commercially DOA. Later, there was the envelope-pushing GameCube project Unity - based heavily around Minter's experiments with input-responsive light synthesizers (an area he pioneered in 1984) - which never came to fruition.

As the cannily marketed PlayStation rose to prominence, Minter became largely irrelevant to a new generation of style-conscious gamers who favored sleek Wipeout craft over shaggy llamas. The U.K. games development landscape had also long since shifted; there seemed no natural place for a one-man development team. Even to those that had grown up hypnotized by his mind-bending games, Yak suddenly felt like a relic, like Your Sinclair or the British Empire: something to look back on fondly while acknowledging its time had passed.

Yak too soon
If any of this bothered Minter, it didn't show. He'd settled in Wales with some real-life livestock to complement his pixelated herds. After his stint working in-house with doomed Atari and, briefly, Peter Molyneux's Lionhead, he was truly independent again. A buoyant, fiercely loyal community of online fans kept his psychedelic legacy alive, and he was free to pursue his own eccentric visions. The intricate light synthesizer he'd originally devised for Unity was repurposed in 2005 as part of the Xbox 360's media visualization hardware, which was roughly the time I sat up and took notice of Yak again.

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