With a zap and an explosion of colored lights, I’m piloting a pixelated ship across a rocky planetary surface. I’m looking for my target. It’s approaching. It’s big. It’s… a giant camel.

If you’ve played any Jeff Minter games, this probably sparks a lovely memory. If you haven’t, let me introduce you to Jeff Minter. I didn’t even know about Minter’s games until maybe sometime in the mid-2000s when I played the PlayStation Vita and Xbox 360 games Space Giraffe and TxK. I knew about Minter’s Tempest 2000 for the Atari Jaguar system, and I’ve played his VR game, Polybius. But Minter’s catalog of indie games goes much farther back than that. And now, thankfully, there’s a way to discover them all.

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story, a whole playable documentary-meets-game-archive created by Digital Eclipse, is a lovely tribute to the indie spirit and weird variations on arcade gaming, and it’s full of sheep, camels and llamas. Available Wednesday for around $30 on PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, Steam and GOG, it feels like gaming’s answer to the Criterion Collection and I highly recommend it.

Digital Eclipse started making playable documentary-style compilations with Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, a great playable history of the storied publisher, and continued with The Making of Karateka (which I’m just starting to play). The Jeff Minter Story has 42 games, but some of them are variations or ports of the same game. This is actually fitting since much of his career is about variations on a theme or game. What I learned, watching his origins as a young programmer in the UK, inspired me. His work, which took existing games and varied them in strange new ways, then continued to play with the ideas over time, makes the titles seem to come alive as ever-evolving works in progress rather than distinct experiences.

This game also has tie-ins to an upcoming feature-length documentary about Minter called Heart of Neon, but has its own short documentary sections and documents threaded throughout. 

Jeff Minter video in a video game screen

You can learn a ton about Minter in videos and original design documents included in this compilation.

Digital Eclipse

I hadn’t played any of Minter’s early games before, but he was a legend in Europe in the early ’80s. His work appeared on the Commodore 64 and Vic 20, which I never owned, so all of this felt new to me. Yet the games echo games I’ve played before. Gridrunner, for example, is Minter’s take on Centipede, while Attack of the Mutant Camels is Minter’s variant on The Empire Strikes Back game I played as a kid on the Atari 2600. Then there’s Sheep in Space, which is like a bizarre variant of Defender; Llamatron: 2112 inspired by Robotron: 2084; and Minter also made his own version of Tempest (Tempest 2000) for the Atari Jaguar. 

Minter’s latest games, like Akka Arrh (which is on the Atari 50 collection), aren’t on here, and neither are some others like TxK. Rights issues apparently prevented some from being part of the collection, but at least those recent titles are easier to find. This Minter collection has all the deeper historic rarities and variations that could be really hard to pick up otherwise.

A 3D grid arcade game with enemies being shot at A 3D grid arcade game with enemies being shot at

Gridrunner, a game Minter revisits and revises many times over the years.

Digital Eclipse

The collective feeling of playing all of them is pure psychedelic weirdness: an arcade from an alternate universe, where familiar ideas reemerge in ways you didn’t expect, with added animals that just seem to be there (and maybe shoot lasers). There are also psychedelic “light synthesizers” whose purpose is to just fill screens with interactive, pulsing colored light shows.

I’m in love with this game compilation even existing, and it makes me feel the same way that a rare Criterion collection of short films from David Lynch does. Like the world has a bit more possibility, and oddness to explore. Popped into my Nintendo Switch, it’s already made my commutes stranger and better. And I’ve never been more appreciative that Jeff Minter exists.

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