New iOS Game: Caverns of Minos

It’s a new year, and just about a year since Llamasoft started releasing iOS games; so what better way to celebrate it than with another new Llamasoft game.

The new game is called “Caverns of Minos”. All finished now, I am just about to submit it to Apple (only waiting on OF approval) so if all goes well it should be out by the end of next week.

Caverns of Minos is a true Minotaur Project style game. This time it’s been done in the style of the old 8-bit Atari home computers, and specifically echoes the style of one of the best known games on that system, a game called Caverns of Mars.

Caverns of Mars was basically a vertical scrolling variation on the Scramble theme. The player had to fly his ship down through twisty caverns filled with rockets on ledges (which never actually launched) and fuel tanks that could be shot to refuel the ship in that crazy logic that 8-bit games always had.

There were sections full of little rockets and fuel ships you had to carefully shoot your way through, and laser gates that flickered on and off and got on everybody’s tits, and eventually you arrived at what looked like a big skyscraper.

At the bottom of the skyscraper was a bomb which you landed your ship on. Landing there armed the bomb and then you had to fly out the cavern before it blew up. If you managed to get out then it was on to the next, more difficult cavern.

Caverns of Mars was notable because it was a slick-looking game that was actually incredibly simple and made great use of the Atari’s graphics hardware. For all that the game scrolls very smoothly not a lot is actually moving. Basically there’s one player sprite sitting over a scrolling tilemap and a couple of missiles for bullets. Everything that moves apart from the player ship and bullets is simply part of the background tilemap. The rockets never launch so the tilemap never needs to have stuff moved around inside it. The laser gates switch on and off by simply redefining a single character. There’s actually next to bugger all going on with the CPU, yet the game looks and plays very polished and smoothly. It’s a really nice, elegant use of the Atari’s hardware. You can watch it in action in this video.

Now as you know, the point of the Minotaur Project is not simply to clone old games. There has to be a mashup of game styles in there, along with plenty of minotaurs in rainbow jumpers. But with what could one mash up good old vert-scrolling Caverns of Mars?

Yup – Lunar Lander.

I’ve always liked lunar lander style games. One of the most ancient genres in all of gaming, Lunar Lander goes back a long way. The idea is a simple one – using only rotate and thrust buttons you have to guide your lander to a safe landing on the Moon. The Atari coinop version pictured above is quite a posh version of it, with vector graphics and a rotatable ship. There were many home computer versions of the game, and the Vic-20′s “Jupiter Lander” is one that I remember fondly.

This simplified the game in that the lander didn’t actually rotate. The main thruster always pointed down, and you had side thrusters to impart lateral motion. When you got close to a landing zone the screen zoomed in to give you a close-up view of your final approach.

The bar on the right hand side was basically a variometer. You had to land with your vertical velocity in the yellow zone or else your ship would blow up. The gentler your landing, the higher bonus you could get.

I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of games where a delicate touch on the thrusters is required. Another favourite of mine did include a rescue mission – the very excellent “Oids” on the Atari ST.

If someone isn’t doing a good remake of Oids for iOS right now then something is not quite right in the world. And if someone IS doing a remake please please please PLEASE God make them do it with decent controls and no awful onscreen joypads.

On the Commodore 64 lovers of thrusting were well served by Space Taxi, which again had the simplified lander model with the main thruster always pointing down and left and right thrusters for lateral motion (it may even have had a top thruster for slowing down, can’t remember now).

Space Taxi didn’t have a rescue mission so much as a business model, in which you scored points for ferrying little Commodore 64 dudes from place to place in a sequence of increasingly bizarre screens whilst trying not to kill them by landing your taxi on them or crashing while one of them was in the cab.

Anyway. So I love me a bit of thrusting, yes I do, and how exactly shall we go about mashing thrusty goodness up with a vert-scrolling Scramble clone?

Like this!

The title screen looks authentically 8-bit-Atarian, albeit with a slightly wiggling ship that would have boggled the very mind of a coder back then. The ability to wiggle sprites was at that point years in the future. Wiggling spaceships were something we could only dream of!

The simplest spaceship is a replica of that one from Caverns of Mars. Pick that one while you’re learning since it responds nice and smoothly to the controls and has stronger shields than most of them, so it can stand a bit of smacking around and occasionally getting caught in a laser without immediately blowing up.

The first thing you’ll see upon entering a cavern is the Mothersheep.

I didn’t want to do the whole setting-a-bomb-and-blowing-up-the-entire-planet thing like in Caverns of Mars. For one thing it’s a bit excessive blowing up a whole planet. What about all the poor innocent little creatures and peoples’ mums who would perish in such a huge retaliation? At least I hope it *is* a retaliation and not a pre-emptive strike. And also I really don’t like sections of games with tight time limits. It’s a sucky way of adding difficulty.

However there has to be a reason for going into the cavern in the first place, and coming back out again, so in the absence of a bomb there’s the quest to please the Mothersheep. She basically asks you to go and fetch her the cavern’s particular treasure. You then fly down to the bottom of the cavern, suffering the slings and arrows of all the nasty crap I put down there for you and also rescuing as many minotaurs as you can along the way, then bring it back to the Mothersheep at the top of the cavern to end the level.

Take a few moments to get used to how the ship handles. For all its vertical-Scramble trappings remember this is basically a gravity/thrust game. The screen doesn’t scroll at a set rate like in Scramble and the original Caverns of Mars. You use the Thrust button to control your rate of descent, and left and right move you left and right as per usual.

This area will look reasonably familiar to people who have seen Caverns of Mars. Of course our ship is a little more beweaponed than the rather weedily armed original, which was constrained by not having very many player missile graphics and the programmer really not wanting to do too much with the 6502 at all for generating graphics. Crap on the ground is also not constrained to remaining there as in the original and as you progress through the levels you will see stuff performing a variety of launching, firing and exploding type operations.

Notice that there are minotaurs in rainbow jumpers everywhere. These gormless but lovable beasts are of course there for you to rescue. You can land on any flat surface and if it’s near some minotaurs they will grunt gratefully and enter your ship in a cloud of love hearts. There are a few things to remember about picking up minotaurs:

- The smoother your landing is, the more impressed the minotaurs will be. Impressed minotaurs mean large bonuses!
- Picking up minotaurs increases the multiplier for everything else that you do. Therefore it would benefit your score to always pick them up as soon as you see them.
- However, picking up minotaurs also replenishes both shields and fuel. There may well come a time when you are limping back to the Mothersheep all battered and torn after a lengthy battle through the cavern, and if you picked up all the minotaurs on the way down there’ll be no way to get extra fuel and shield on the way out. So it behooves you to leave some strategically placed minotaurs through the cavern as you go down so you have some emergency supplies for the way back.

Sometimes a particularly smooth landing will impress a pony.

Here we are arriving at the bottom of the first cavern. It’s extremely easy so I expect everybody to make it here safely. Pick up the red heart to get an extra life, and the cavern treasure here is an old spaceship – I wonder what game that’s from?

On the flight back out to the Mothersheep you may expect to meet a few extra obstacles. Nothing terribly awful, just a few extra things to spice up your life a bit.

The caverns, of course, get gnarlier as you go on. Here you can see a bunch of tempting minotaurs in a laser pit. Do you have the courage necessary to nip into that hole and make them grunt with pleasure? Or will you leave them there alone with their horns?

The original Caverns of Mars had but 5 caverns. We have a bit more than that – 21 caverns in all, some of them quite commendably gnarly indeed. You also get 4 different ships with which to traverse the caverns and you’ll find that with each ship the challenge of the game varies. All caverns and all ships are yours, by the way, with no extra purchasing necessary. No in-app panhandling from Llamasoft, no siree!

The next ship up in difficulty is our old friend from the Vic-20, the Jupiter Lander lander.

Now this ship is a bit of a mixed bag really. It’s very nice and floaty to fly, and it’s the easiest of all the ships to ease down for a nice, soft, pony-impressing landing. However it can be the very bugger to get through the lasers unscathed. You’ll be cursing my name and species when you try for the first time to pass through that triple laser field there with the Jupiter lander. It’s not too bad once you get a feel for it but it’ll take you a few goes.

And you’ll be wanting Brian Blessed’s advanced masters’-degree-level swearing dictionary to hand by the time you reach this level in that ship. Bloody lasers.

The next ship is the taxi. We’ve covered it in weapons and given it the capacity to contain a smegload more minotaurs than the taxi in the Commodore 64 game. It’s actually a pretty nice ship to fly when you get used to it – a bit twitchy, but nicely nippy once you’re settled in. Pity that it does tend to rattle around like a pinball if you smack into anything and the shields aren’t the strongest. And don’t even think of getting any part of it in a laser. The side shooters, however, are a godsend in some levels…

If you want a nice, stiff challenge that’ll put more hairs on your chest than on the chests of the very minotaurs that you’re rescuing (I assure you those chests are pretty well furry, under those rainbow jumpers) then simply select the pointy ship.

Unlike all the other ships, which have been of the simplified kind with lateral thrusters and the main thruster pointing straight down, with the pointy ship we have the proper “rotate and thrust” control action. This makes navigating the caverns way more difficult, and landing to pick up minotaurs properly tricky, as you have to land on your tail fins. However it’s very satisfying to use this ship once you get used to it, and it is probably the most well beweaponed of them all. It’s a proper challenge and just one of the many ways to fly the delicious caverns of Minos!


Well that’s pretty much it. Controls as per usual are excellent, split left/right on iPad and top/bottom on iPhone. iCade is supported and the game plays really nicely on that. Each ship has its own leaderboard. Price is tier 2 and the game is worth more than that. But I’ll never ask you to pay more than the initial price.

See you soon on the leaderboards then :) .

Oh, here’s a video of the gameplay too :) .


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