Yak to the Future

Congratulations! You’re living in the golden age of videogames. Except it’s not really an age – it’s more of a continuum. For the first time since the blocky birth of our favorite digital art form, we’ve come full circle. A potent combination of nostalgia and digital distribution is breathing new life into games that were previously confined to the history books. Even old duffers who haven’t played a game since they thumbed some coins into a Space Invaders cabinet 30 years ago have received a second chance.

In your web browser, on your cellphone, on your Wii – arcade-style games are invading again, ready to snag casual gamers and lead long-serving veterans on a trip down memory lane. Why is this return to twitchy gameplay so exciting? Because it means the Sacred Llama Prophecy may finally be fulfilled. The mighty Jeff Minter will return in his luxuriant-haired glory and lead us to psychedelic salvation! Are you ready for the ascension of Yak?

In the beginning, there was Yak
If you have any interest in videogames and their provenance, you’ve probably heard the name. Minter – although he prefers to go by his high-score handle “Yak” – was one of the original breed of British 8-bit coders who jumpstarted the entire U.K. games industry from their bedrooms in the early 1980s. Some of these self-taught zealots flared furiously, then faded – such as Matthew Smith, the fevered mind behind Jet Set Willy. Others leveraged their initial notoriety to launch major development companies, like Richard and David Darling of Codemasters. In a fledgling industry that started at a frantic pace and hurtled forward with each technological leap, the choice was simple: adapt or die.


The young Jeff Minter took adaptation seriously; his early games were reskinned versions of arcade titles (we would now call them “classics,” but at the time they were cutting edge) that swapped out frustration in favor of wacky fun. His shaggy reimagining of Defender – a VIC-20 shooter called Andes Attack – replaced the besieged humans with llamas, an incongruous use of livestock that would become a Minter hallmark. Of course, the man who christened himself Yak didn’t have a monopoly on wigged-out game concepts – Jet Set Willy tasked you with tidying up your mansion while being pursued by killer jelly – but no other 8-bit coder pursued their own whimsical obsessions with such glee. Pulsing dromedary shooter Attack Of The Mutant Camels was followed by Revenge Of The Mutant Camels, which saw players abruptly siding with the embattled beasts of burden.

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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.)


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.

Minter’s working relationship with Microsoft seemed to be blossoming, and there were rumblings that he was working on something new, a pseudo-sequel to his paradigm-defining Tempest games. The explosion of mass-market, low-spec platforms – led by cell phones – and an upsurge in casual gaming meant that the arcade era was being celebrated (and ransacked for ideas) like never before. And the success of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved on Xbox Live Arcade showed that even hoary old twin-stick shooters – like Minter’s beloved Robotron 2084 remix Llamatron – could be relevant and commercially successful. The snake had swallowed its tail; the parallax Defender starfield seemed to be in alignment. Could it time for a thrilling Minter comeback? I prepared to kneel before the might of Space Giraffe.

But like many reborn evangelists, I’d perhaps gotten a little overexcited. Space Giraffe was – and is – an outstanding tube shooter, an enthralling game that demands to be decoded through play, the better to intuit tactical subtleties strewn among the strobing visual chaos. There are sight gags, sound gags and probably subliminal gags. It is a prime slice of frazzled Yak. But despite being extremely well-reviewed, when it was released on Xbox Live Arcade in August of 2007, it failed to find much of an audience beyond the converted. (When Space Giraffe was outsold by a flaccid remake of Frogger, Minter vented in an uncharacteristically bitter blog post – thankfully, he now seems back to his chillaxed self.) A subsequent PC release further bolstered the game’s copper-bottomed critical reputation, but it hasn’t yet broken out as a tangible hit.


A Yak’s Progress
If Space Giraffe now looks like something of a false dawn, I haven’t lost faith. After forsaking Minter for so many years, I’m now convinced that the wider world will eventually come around to his peculiar point of view. The fact that he’s managed to interact with the wider game development community without sacrificing his signature style – or abandoning his musky, snuffling, furry muse – deserves great respect.

Llamasoft’s next release will be Gridrunner+++ (although the final title is yet to be confirmed), the fourth iteration of one of Yak’s earliest games that itself harked back to Centipede. Might this be the one that truly hits the sweet spot of our collective gaming lizard brain? There are other portents, other cosmic omens if you care to look for them: Llamasoft has supplied a custom visualizer for Space Invaders Extreme, a 30th anniversary edition of the hallowed classic due for release on Xbox Live Arcade later this year. The prospect of Minter’s trippy visual voyaging in combination with the undisputed arcade mother lode feels like another step towards an improved gaming universe. Surely every Yak has his day?

It might be Gridrunner+++, it might be Space Invaders, it might be some other crazy project that currently only exists as an inkling in Minter’s beautiful mind (or possibly his beard). However it reveals itself, I’m certain that Jeff Minter holds the answer gamers have been looking for, even if no one’s entirely sure what the question might have been. And before you dismiss me as a rambling soothsayer, blinded by tie-dyed nostalgia or a suspicious love of livestock, remember: Thanks to that media visualizer inside every Xbox 360, there’s already some latent Yak sorcery just waiting to get out. All it needs is for enough of us to release the beast.

Graeme Virtue is a freelance writer based in Scotland. He is co-founder of indecipherable naan-fanboy blog Trampy And The Tramp’s Glasgow Of Curry

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