Jeff Minter, international man of gaming mystery, is back in action. If you’ve never heard of him, the 60-year-old has been in game coding and development, and seemingly happily off his rocker since 1979. Going by the moniker ‘Yak’, Minter cut his teeth on the Sinclair ZX60 in the early '80s, going on to form his own development studio, Llamasoft.
Having won a loyal following over the years thanks to visually disarming, aurally arresting and crudely dazzling arcade game score challenges, Minter is probably best known for Tempest 2000 (1994), a launch title for the Atari Jaguar that remains the system’s best exclusive. Its unique hallucinogenic style and breakneck urgency has gone on to define much of his output since, from Space Giraffe to Polybius, leading to the unsubstantiated but common inference that the programmer dabbles in psychedelic drugs.
Akka Arrh was originally a 1982 unreleased arcade prototype that appeared for the first time in the recent Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration. Despite being technically unfinished, if you took time to figure out the process of defending two separate platforms from invaders and bombing certain sections to spit them back into the borders of the screen, it offered plenty of score-based intrigue and reflex strategising. Now, the game has been recast in Minter’s recognisable style: vibrant multicolours and bleeding effects, vector pylons, a mish-mash of angular, primitive objects, explosive pixel fireworks, and absorbing score-based gameplay.
As much a visual party as Tempest or the PS Vita's TxK (2014), the camera tracks a platform in a slightly dizzying manner as you direct a crosshair at 360 degrees of enemy fodder. The primary aim of the game is to manage and defend the platform by dropping bombs onto it from a centrally positioned ox's head. Uniquely, it focuses on conservative play rather than all-out blasting, requiring you to be precise in identifying enemy formations and motions, before bombing the platform to produce a shockwave that expands in concentric ripples. Each enemy caught in the shockwave in turn sends out a mini-shockwave, and for big scores, you want to carefully time bomb usage to create chain reactions. One good bomb can lead to a huge string of detonations as enemy processions blindly meet the radius, consecutively extending the destruction and score multiplier. Pragmatic bomb and bullet usage, then, is key, because anything left over at the end of a stage is worth a tidy additional bonus.
Things become more interesting from the sixth stage onwards and downright frenetic by the ninth, limiting the range of your bombs to different zones, as well as altering the shape of the platform itself. It pushes you to get creative with your bullet usage and pinpoint enemies that release faster shockwaves for an occasional urgent cleanup. Power-ups start flying in everywhere, easily snared by running your crosshair over them; and while it takes a while to recognise what they all do, they're still indispensable for survival. In later stages, you really need to have a handle on everything that’s going on in tandem to effectively manage the action and protect yourself from threatening collisions.
Following the original 1982 prototype, there is an added dimension to the gameplay where you defend two platforms at once. While the upper is where the majority of the action takes place, the lower platform is occasionally invaded by intruders. A message will appear, signalling that your pods are at risk of being stolen, at which point you can rush downstairs in a far flashier visual movement than the original title’s static image switching. There, you rotate a cannon to blast away would-be invaders, before climbing back to the upper level to continue your bombing run. While defending the pods is essential, as losing them all ends your game, they can also be gradually recovered by a good stage performance.
These mechanics are Akka Arrh’s meat and potatoes. The rest is down to reflex, precision and timing, keeping you in the game long enough to progress through increasingly frenetic and adrenaline-fuelled stages. Slowly, it adds variables to the stew: enemies that require shooting with bullets rather than bomb deployment, and others that fire back or morph their attack behaviour when hit. You get between-stage updates to let you know if your bomb efficiency is good via text-based messages, and there is a fair bit of help on hand to indicate how your scoring is panning out too.
It’s a title that features Minter’s staple panache and customary Britishness; klaxons going off, esoteric musical accompaniments, and “lovely” robotic voice cues feeding an aural motion. But, it’s also more convoluted than some of his other works. Unlike Tempest, where the premise is self-explanatory and it reveals new tricks with each successive stage and power-up, Akka Arrh takes a lot more initial fathoming. Even with the tutorial, you will come away with some confusion about bomb stock, power-ups and bullet ammo, which can be topped up by shooting down certain enemy types. In fact, while it seems natural to start by unloading bombs, on the early stages you just need to drop one or two and then sit around doing little but observing the chain effect as it snares incoming enemies. Likewise, using your cannon ammo should be equally restrained, pinpointing enemies that provide top-ups and then carefully placing shots slightly ahead of their trajectory to tag them.
One of the primary issues — and the one that had us scratching our heads for a while — is that, bizarrely, the game’s default controls tie both bombs and bullets to a single button. Pausing and heading to the control options allows you to separate your armaments across two buttons, and is something we recommend configuring from the off. Elsewhere, there are online leaderboards and trophies, adding an absolutely essential competitive social dimension, as well as difficulty settings and several modes that allow you to restart from specific stages with differing bonuses. But, while absorbingly enigmatic, the curve involved in grasping the game’s full possibility may be perplexing for Minter fledglings.
Those not discouraged by the initial hump, however, will likely find something quite liberating in its more complex setup. Once you’re in the midst, shockwaves producing shockwaves, wiping out wave upon wave of adversaries with varying behaviours, the score tally firing at you as you zip between platforms to stay in the game, it does reach that deep, cognitive fissure that’s so integral to Minter’s work. One can’t help but think, though, that perhaps Akka Arrh’s modern revision is slightly restricted by the blueprint on which it’s based.
As irreverent and disruptive as one has come to expect from the mind of Jeff Minter, Akka Arrh is a game that, rather than based around all-out cattle space warfare, requires a certain level of restraint to wring the most from its scoring potential. Learning to dally with its diverse and ever-changing threats is almost mathematical, but still liberating and rewarding to overcome. It may struggle to appeal in the long-term in the same way as Tempest or his recent Polybius, owing to its slightly less absorbing construction; and those uninitiated in Minter’s unusual thought processes may find it altogether abstruse. Nevertheless, it certainly earns a rightful place in his catalogue of psychedelic, slightly barmy, and altogether addictive score-based challenges.
a new minter is always a time of a little celebration! yeah!
I love Jeff Minter shooters and wish more of his stuff was on Switch.
No Llamasoft title will ever top Polybius in VR. 👁️👁️
What a beautiful game. I'll definitely be playing this for the interactive visual experience.
This looks insane will definitely give it a go I still play TxK on ps vita
ZX-60? Now that is a very retro computer i was not even aware of!
Can't wait to purchase this game. Whether Minter does drugs or not is complete hearsay, all I know as a gamer who grew up with his games is that he is an amazing developer - period. point. blank. that's all we need to know. he's made over 50 games on just about every video game generation, on almost every system you can think of, from the Spectrum computers to the Atari ST, Nintendo DS, PS Vita, Atari VCS, PS5 and beyond. his legacy is astounding. if you haven't played Tempest 2000 on the Atari Jaguar itself, not in emulation, or gems like Polybius, you're missing out. His games are amazing, and I can't wait to play Akka Arrh on my Atari VCS AND Nintendo Switch. I have an in depth look at the dev on my YouTube channel, Ballistik Coffee Boy, if anyone would like to stop by to see it. Not wanting to self plug, just inform. He's such a visionary. (We also owe gems like Tetrisphere on the N64 partially to his genius, as it was slated to be the sequel originally to Tempest 2000, called Phear, before it was sold to Nintendo back in Atari's dark days.) A link to the dev spotlight video for Jeff Minter on my channel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01m8goO3sCo
Thanks for the review I loved the way you wrote that, and I'm hoping my score for the game is higher as a Jeff Minter fan, but I also hope that my bias doesn't blind me lol
@Grumble Thank you for reading! Much appreciated.
As a Minter fan it will certainly please you, and a 7 is an admirable score. The only small point of note is that the entry-level for understanding this one is higher than many of his others. It takes an extra level of work. Regardless, when you do first fire it up, remember to immediately pause and change the button set up to operate with two buttons rather than one. It doesn't really function well on its defaults.
@Grumble which game did Minter make for Nintendo DS? And how exactly was he involved in Phear/Teteisphere? As a lifelong gamer both of these claims ...raised my eyebrows.
I've only just started it but am in LOVE.
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