Jeff Minter. Or Yak the Hairy. And Llamasoft. All three different and yet all are one. One of the veterans of the software industry, this is his story....
Anyone who knows much about Llamasoft knew that for much of its life it was based in Tadley, Hants. However the young Jeff had his education in Basingstoke. It was two freak events whilst at school that led along the path of greatness. First of all a school trip to Southampton Zoo put him in touch with all things furry and he fell in love with them. Secondly whilst at 6th form college he happened across a PET, this being Commodore's early machine of the late 70s. In front of it sat another guy playing what seemed like a crude video game. Minter asked the guy where the game came from, to which the reply came "Oh, I typed it in". And so Minter's life changed forever.
The road to video playing however was not paved with gold. His first job was cleaning offices at a fork lift truck factory in 1978, and this included the toilets, yuck. He saved up for his first video game console (probably an Atari VCS) with the money he earned. He worked over the summer at a farm, but it was boring because there were no beasties.
After that he tried his hand at going to university. Despite being on a physics course, he spent most of his time mucking about with the computers instead. Not surprisingly he got kicked out! Then he got onto a polytechnic course that would have led to a more computer orientated degree, but unfortunately he got seriously ill after a few months. He therefore had to drop out and lie down for a few months. Deciding that maybe fate had prevented him going to study, he tried programming himself.
The first machine Yak wrote for was the old ZX81. Most of the games he wrote are lost in the annals of time, but some did get remembered. There was a breakout type game called Deflex, and a version of the popular 3D maze game of the time. Yak worked a bit with a company called DKtronics, using a graphics ROM and designing graphics. His 'big' game was a version of Centipede, using this ROM. Others followed including a version of Space Invaders. Unfortunately Minter got rather pissed off at DKtronics, and still curses that name today. Essentially the bloke who ran the company was selling rip off copies (ie. not paying Minter any money) and then his cousin, or some relation, started up a company called KDtronics, and sold the game as well! Not pleased! Hence after being screwed repeatedly, Minter created Llamasoft.
The name was particularly appropriate as although Yak was unusually attracted to many animals, llamas were his favourite. Indeed, later on he was to adopt them at local zoos. As Minter put it, the company was formed to sell software, and llamas are really soft.
The first game from the new company was a crude version of Defender coded for the VIC20. Minter was a huge fan of Eugene Jarvis games, and his most famous creation seemed ideal inspiration. Instead of humanoids, the player defended tiny llamas, and so the game was named Andes Attack to be geographically correct. In time small ads were placed in computer magazines of the day, and in due course sold a correspondingly small number of games. Time for something bold thought Minter. He hired a small table at a Commodore computer show, and armed with a beaten up VIC20, a TV set and 100 copies of the game, wondered if he'd sell anything.
Two things happened that day. One thing is that all the games got sold within the first day of exhibition. The second was an approach from a businessman representing Human Engineering Software (HES) from the States. In time the game got transferred to ROM and sold overseas. Sadly the cute little llamas were removed at HES' insistance and the name of the game changed to Aggressor. The game did fairly well and Minter was thankful for some monetary input. In due course more games were coded and more money was received. One particular game which took a week to code seemed to impress the guys down the local computer club. Based on Centipede, this was hard blasting all the way, known as Gridrunner. The start of many games involving pseudo sci-fi plots, usually to do with the Terran (that's us cheer hooray!) battle against the might of the Zzyax / Irata (spell backwards!) empires (boo hiss!). Minter sent it to HES in the States.
Letting people know you like their software is one thing, but being told at 4 in the morning is another! Nevertheless this happened to Minter when the self same HES representative told him they loved this new game and it had been keeping them busy for the last 8 hours or so. In due course the game got to the top of the US software charts. However the money received did not escape the scrutiny of the Inland Revenue! Tired from all the hard work, Minter flies off to Peru for a holiday.
Unfortunately the distribution in the US did not last long. A few games were sold and did quite well, although not as well as Gridrunner. Then HES decided to change the type of games they sell and no longer wanted the shoot-em-ups produced by Minter. C'est la vie. Llamasoft lost its US distribution and the name of Yak was soon forgotten in that country. Not that it was life threatening, the UK market was taking off and the Commodore 64 had just been launched.
Many of Llamasoft's early C64 games were versions of VIC20 hits, but rewritten to utilise the extra features of the machine. Laserzone was based on having Zzyax enemies attacking on two axes and you controlled two laser cannons to counter the threat. Its sequel Hellgate had enemies and cannons on all four sides of the screen. Matrix was the sequel to Gridrunner, which was much the same with a few extra surprises thrown in like zap cannons, deflectors, diagonal attacks and attack cameloids. These last enemies were worth 106 points for some strange reason. The reason being that over in the States there was a radio station that played Minter's kind of music, and it was called KMEL106. It was the liking of camels that led to Minter's most famous game.
Attack of the Mutant Camels. Or Advance, depending on which version of packaging you had. It was actually started before Minter converted Gridrunner in early 83, but got halted because of that. Anyone who has played Parker Brothers VCS game Empire Strikes Back will know what this is all about. The camel sprite looked like two men in an animal costume, and the scrolling was really jerky because Minter didn't know where the scroll registers were! Nevertheless it didn't stop the game becoming a huge seller, and a focal point for the rest of his games.
Which leads to Hover Bovver, the world's only lawnmowing game. Control Gordon Bennett in his attempt to mow his garden whilst avoiding the attentions of the dog, his neighbour and the gardener. If you thought Minter's games were weird to begin with, this tops the list for originality. And it ain't half playable still. The idea came from a stay at a Birmingham farmhouse which had immaculately mown lawns and lots of hedges. It also features a title tune, and back in 1983 there weren't many of those. The music was composed by friend and playtester James Lisney, who also worked on some of Jeff's later games.
Yak was having much fun with all this and in early 84 decided to give the gamers what they wanted; the sequel to AMC or Revenge. Much like Terminator 2, the camels were on Earth's side after their programming was altered by psi scientists. Jeff noticed that multi-screen games were the 'in' thing at the time, and hence gave Revenge 42 different attack waves. Most of which were created whilst on holiday in Crete, and involve everything from Australian skiers, sheep, BT, CND and Space Invaders. Totally manic action. It was also noteworthy for two other reasons. Firstly it introduced scrolling credits, from which the whole basis of demo messages sprang up, and got widely copied. Secondly it was the first UK program to use a fast loader, but for safety's sake only one side of the tape used it!
Still obsessed with Defender and all things fluffy, Minter released in mid 84 Sheep in Space onto the unexpecting world. Much like Sensible Software's later game Insects in Space, there were two planet surfaces and a myriad of things to kill. But not protect. Unlike Defender, the idea here was to destroy carriers that stole energy from power stations. This energy was used to charge up a planetbuster, when the charge got too large then the buster would detonate destroying the planet. It features many strange enemies, one of which, the Ancipital, was to feature in a later game. The game also had the interesting feature of treating the sheep as living, in that you had to let it feed every so often so it wouldn't die.
Yak was happy and intrigued by the division in gamesplayers. Some just didn't plain like the strange themes of his games, whilst others loved it. As Minter put it, they were sort of hardcore Llamasoft followers, almost like a cult.
In due course Minter got round to designing Ancipital. But in the meantime, a mate of his Aaron Liddament converted Metagalactic Llamas Battle at the Edge of Time (whew!) to the C64 from the VIC. It was the only Llamasoft game not written by Jeff. It was also the last pure shoot-em-up, one screen with more and more aliens type scenario. From then on it had to be tunes, scrolling, a zillion screens and hyper-hyper presentation.
Jeff had enough problems writing Ancipital late 84 without having to worry about the above. The abused creature of the title was now on Earth's side attempting to knock out a Zzyaxian weapons facility. There are 100 rooms to clear by means that must be discovered, keys to unlock doors and goats.... rather a complex blaster cum arcade adventure. Minter was rather unhappy with the stereotype games had sunk into: smooth scroll, pretty tunes, pastel graphics and the such. Ancipital was fast and mean, blasting all the way, graphics over black with heavy stroboscopics, and drum rhythms instead of tunes. One game you have to play to understand really, it's my favourite Llamasoft program. Tricky and very rewarding, if only to see what fevered thoughts Minter had for screen designs.
Around this time (early 1985), the legendary Zzap!64 magazine was created, and in its infinite wisdom invited Jeff to contribute a page or two. Minter had given several interviews prior to that slagging off one of the programmers of the day Tony Crowther. Much to do with Crowther's programs being similar to each other. Strange though.... much the same could be levelled at Minter. Anyhow that passed over. Minter started ranting on about software piracy and something that was beginning to affect Llamasoft, distribution. According to Jeff it practically killed off Ancipital. The demand was there for the game but hardly anywhere was stocking it. This was to present problems in the future that did get resolved somehow later.
Also in Zzap's first edition was a review of Minter's latest game Mama Llama. It was a similar sort of game to Revenge, but you controlled a Kildroid to protect a family of llamas. The Kildroid did not shoot but you had to work out how to use it on each screen successfully. The game was laid out in a 10x10 grid (much like the later game Revenge 2) and you could select which stage to play next. However the reviewers (Julian Rignall, Gary Penn and Bob Wade) rather crucified the game. Minter had been sending out regular newsletters to fans (called Nature of the Beast) and he just HAD to let them know what he thought of the magazine. To quote "The mag is okay, not brilliant, bit too much like Crash for me, reviews reading like they were written by 12 year olds for 12 year olds. Although they haven't sunk to Crash's depths of describing stuff as 'brill' yet". The result was that Minter's column was dropped after Issue 3 and much apathy remained. Indeed Llamasoft had two full page ads in Issue 4 proclaiming the views of other mags who had liked Mama Llama.
However the nature of the games market was changing, companies were getting bigger and more serious, seeing that there was money to be made in software. Llamasoft was in a bit of trouble. Minter decided to get other companies to market his games, the first of which was Batalyx from Ariolasoft, released just in time for Xmas 85.
This game was more like a collection of subgames to which completion would result from playing through all of them. These subgames included AMC2 (more camel bashing), Cippy on the Run (Ancipital meets Sheep in Space), Hallucin-o-bomblets (Asteroids meets Newton) and others. Very slickly presented and polished, this was a marked contrast to Mama. Indeed Rignall, with a wry smile, said it was "Hyper brill, okay twelve year olds?"!
It seems Minter and Zzap!64 were on speaking terms once more. In so much that Jeff was invited to take part in a programmers' challenge (with Andrew Braybrook, Tony Crowther, Chris Butler and Archer Maclean) and won. And he only just lost out to Rignall in an equivalent Zzap! contest. More importantly though, he was given space to write a diary of his latest game, Iridis Alpha, during the summer/autumn of 86.
That game was, putting it bluntly, very strange, and rather hard to explain. Again it featured two planes of play, and you teleported between planes. Each plane had its own score and energy levels. The basic idea was to collect energy from shooting aliens and dump it to the planet's core. The ship under control (called Gilby) would explode however if it gained or lost too much energy. And like many other games, the way of getting energy from the aliens varied on each level and planet. Much to say you have to play it to understand it all, and even then you may not! And it also had a pause mode for its pause mode. Heavy blasting, fast action shooting, great game once you know what you are doing!
Even with that, and Jeff's tinkering on the 16 bit machines, he was still losing money. He teamed up with Atari UK and sold some stuff through them. He even moved down to South Wales for inspiration, booze and to be closer to fluffy animals (especially a sheep called Flossy). But times were getting hard....
So much so that Llamasoft's last two games for the C64 were released by budget house Mastertronic. Even so, the quality was still there for everyone to see. The first was Voidrunner in early 87, the last in the Grid trilogy. Here you controlled a set of four ships whose movement and formation varied from wave to wave. As before the droids attacked in batches at different stages and positions on screen. Simple yes, but a tremendous blast all the same.
And the other? It had to be Revenge 2 in late 87, much like its prequel but with so much more. Better control, weapons to buy, crazy sounds and stage selection were just some of the improvements. It's a shame Minter decided to stop writing on the C64. The machine still had a lot of future in 1987 but he decided to shift to the ST/Amiga, write Light Synthesisers and freak out.
All this though didn't stop the steady erosion of wealth acquired during the 'Golden Years'. Yak wondered if he was losing it. Seeking a new direction, and inspired by the success of the Master System and NES, he tried to get in on the ground floor of a new state-of-the-art game system. A Welsh company called Konix were developing a new game console based on a design by a bunch of Cambridge developers known as Flare. Minter developed a game, AMC 89, for the system, investing 7 months and five grand. Konix run out of money and the system crashed and burnt before it got to the market. Minter is annoyed.
Atari UK announce they were producing an advanced game console named the Panther based on a design by a bunch of Cambridge developers known as Flare II. Minter began to develop a game. After two months, something happened inside Atari and the Panther is discontinued. Minter is annoyed and skint.
Minter realised that Llamasoft was in serious danger of going out of business. His latest ST game, Llamatron, was coming along nicely, in fact he felt it was probably one of the best games he's produced. Frustrated that it is impossible to get a game distributed, no matter how good, without selling your soul to majors, Minter decided to try a new, and in the UK at least relatively untried, method of distribution. Shareware. Give the damn game away. Ask for a quarter of the usual price, and give away an extra game should anyone bother to pay.
The Yak is surprised. ST owners paid up in their droves, and although the money was insignificant compared to the old days, it was enough to keep him above water. Minter settled down to write some more shareware, drink lots of tea and in time was approached by Atari, US this time, to write a game for their new 68030 machine, the Falcon. He was allowed to develop an extremely llama-orientated game called Llamazap, full of camels, sheep, cows, goats, and of course llamas. Minter enjoyed working with Atari, and that they gave him the freedom to write a game in his style.
And then, one day, the Yak heard about a radical new system that Atari were producing designed by a bunch of Cambridge developers called Flare II. Apparently this system was the reason Panther was axed, and it was orders of magnitude better. In due course, Minter was sitting in front of a prototype system in Sunnyvale. The Yak tested it. Yak liked what he saw. The console is marketed as the Jaguar.
With a heavy heart, Minter decided that the best thing to do in the current situation is to move out to America. Having said goodbye to the UK and Flossy the wonder sheep, he settled in California. In time, Minter began work on a game for the new console. However he wondered if the relatively stagnant console user would understand anything he wrote involving fluffy creatures. In a world of company controlled output and unimagination, would what he wrote just be discarded as being too different? All thoughts that Minter pondered on. Perhaps it would be safer to leave the llamas out of this one. Devoid of a few ideas, Minter thought about heavy blasting games from far back. One stuck in his mind, especially since Atari were responsible for it in the first place back in 1981. Tempest.
Anyone who has no idea on Tempest (and I expect there are quite a few), here's a resume. You controlled a blaster at one end of a web. Enemies appeared at the other end and progressed towards you. The simple object was to blast everything to kingdom come. The web varied in size and shape from round to round. The enemies came in many forms. Flippers travelled from one corridor to another. Spikers produced impenetrable spikes launching missiles at you. Pulsars moved between corridors but could electrify the corridor they were sitting in. With all those and many more, the original was a hectic blast. Yak gave an 'original' version along with his update. This included powerups, more enemies (Demonheads, mirrors, UFOs), stroboscopics, vector explosions, warps and a tremendous rave soundtrack. And so was born Tempest 2000, and very well received it was too. Shame the console wasn't, but that's another story.
Devoid of imaginative third party software (or any for that matter) for the Jaguar, Minter begged Atari to let him update another coin-op for the machine, this time Defender. And in turn Minter produced a superb new version of the game so many others had tried to follow. In the true course of tradition, it featured power ups, new enemies, huge explosions, slick gameplay, and yes, a brief appearance from some camels and llamas! Work finished just before Xmas 1995, in time to get it out and allow the Yak to have some well earned rest. It had all come full circle since Llamasoft published Andes Attack all those years ago.
But of the present what now? Minter amicably parted company with Atari not long after completion of Defender 2000, and is currently working on something hush-hush secret. Minter himself is not giving anything away either. Presumably we will all have to wait and see....