Talking about Llamasoft games can often be a bit like trying to describe a recipe, and the studio’s first iOS title, Solar Minotaur Rescue Frenzy – the beginning of an entire App Store series, apparently – is no different. Minotaur Rescue’s mechanics may evoke ideas from Asteroids, Defender, and even good old Spacewar!, yet it still feels distinct, refreshing, imaginative, and original. (And, if you’re new to the developer, it will probably feel terrifyingly confusing at first, too.)
It’s a typical Jeff Minter game, in other words, and, as the Llamasoft founder has mentioned on his blog, it’s a design that’s been partly formed by repeatedly asking the question: What Would Eugene Jarvis Do? Although the triangular ships, boosty movement and tumbling space rocks suggest that Asteroids’ Ed Logg might be the strongest inspiration, when Minotaur Rescue settles into its rhythm, its fondness for bouncing players between the impulse to rescue and the imperative to destroy is distinctly reminiscent of the Jarvis ethos that created the Williams coin-op classics like Robotron: 2084.
For such a tight little ball of ideas, there’s a lot going on. An arena shooter at heart, Minotaur Rescue sees your auto-firing ship breaking apart asteroids before they fall into a gravity well at the centre of the screen. The gravity well is a sun – albeit a rectangular sun – and if it swallows enough space matter, it will eventually turn into a black hole, sucking things in even more powerfully and forcing you to really battle to stay alive. Meanwhile, some of the asteroids contain huge rainbow-sweatered Minotaurs, which, if collected, will allow you to upgrade your cannons. Simple, really.
With shots to curve, a wraparound screen to get to grips with, and a delightfully slippery sense of physics to battle against, it’s all wonderfully challenging. There are plenty of nuanced opportunities for showing off – collecting Minotaurs just before they hit the sun rewards you with more points, for example – while multiplayer options on both iPhone and iPad add a welcome element of social comedy, and a range of other modes provide smart variations on the central theme.
Ditching the standard approach to virtual joysticks, Minotaur Rescue offers a touch-anywhere control system, allowing you to move your ship around by swiping at any free space on the screen. It can take a while to get used to – for the first few minutes, you may feel eerily detached from your own craft, and it’s better to boost forward in gentle spurts rather than fling yourself around endlessly – but when it finally clicks, it’s a joy to use, allowing you to move with real precision, threading yourself around obstacles and zeroing in on targets.
A showcase for the new Neon 2 engine, the game is cheerily spectacular to look at, too, and, as with Llamasoft’s recent under-appreciated classic Space Giraffe, it’s astonishing how many moving elements end up on the playing field without the slightest hint of slow-down. Above all else, however, Minotaur Rescue is a timely reminder of just how much the term “arcade” has changed its meaning in the last few years. This isn't arcadey because it's a small project (even though it is) or because it's simple to get into (it isn't). It’s arcadey because it attracts you with garish prettiness and then proceeds to show you it doesn't think very much of you. It’s arcadey because it gives you something bright and sugary and yet bitterly hard to master. It’s arcadey, ultimately, because you have to earn its respect.
Jarvis would approve.