Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 9    April 1999

Y2K: Yak 2000

Examining Jeff Minter's Jaguar Games
in a Somewhat Timely Fashion

by Chris Federico

It's easy to blame the Jaguar's sadly short shelf life on the Tramiel marketing motif ("Whatever we put out there will sell. Besides, the word MULTIMEDIA is on the box"); but as Adam pointed out to me during a coffee-booth discussion about the system, Atari was broke by the late '80s anyway, which best explains why the company's eligible early-'90s entry into the 32-bit arena (with a partially 64-bit console, at that) didn't get the push it needed to buy it a ride down the mainstream. Many of its games were superior among their peers, but they were too few sticks of dynamite to make a big enough explosion to rupture the outer layer of the gaming world. There were too many game developers whom Atari didn't pay to ensure that the shinier pile of nuggets didn't tower above the fools' gold, and of course far too many metaphors.

Iron Soldier, Cybermorph, Alien vs. Predator and two enhanced and expanded old arcade coin-ops, Tempest 2000 and Defender 2000, are all among my favorite video games of all time -- and I've played hundreds and hundreds. [Feb. 2012 interjection: Wow! A Jaguar article from before I first played Doom! It's interesting reading prose from the standpoint of not having known what kind of obsessive "favorite-ness" I was in for...] Those last two games were programmed by a Mr. Jeff Minter, a.k.a. Yak, a British coder and garage-entrepreneur who'd founded the famous yet erratic Llamasoft, a one-man company that had leased 8-bit games to bigger corporations. His love of hoofed mammals resulted in a humorous, somewhat demented twist in most every game he made. He was also responsible for an astonishing public-domain version of the Robotron: 2084 arcade game called Llamatron, shareware versions of which he released for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST.

How do Yak's games hold up a few years after their appearances, now that we're upon the actual pinnacle of the century? Did they really improve upon their original arcade counterparts? Grab that large but comfortable Jag controller and let's have a play. (I'm warning you: I'll kick your ass.)

Tempest 2000 was released in 1994 to much acclaim. In fact, it's probably more responsible for moving the Jaguar units that did sell than all of the other available games combined. There hadn't been a single home-console version of Atari's Vector classic Tempest available (I'm not counting the IBM) since it had appeared in 1981, and attempts at bringing it to the 8-bit universe, like Electronic Arts' Axis Assassin, fell far short. Add to this the fact that the revamp really was incredible, and compound it with a handful of raving reviews, and you can understand why most early Jaguar patrons picked this cart up along with their actual units.

As with Defender 2000, a superiorities/inferiorities comparison between this game and the original is rendered nearly moot by the provision of the actual "classic" Tempest on the main menu as an alternative to the new program. The coin-op is superbly rendered, but the so-called Classic Tempest suffers a little in two areas where Classic Defender doesn't. The player's perspective -- the "camera" -- follows his gun around the perimeter of the playfield, albeit from a distance that allows all of the tubes to remain constantly on the screen. It's still annoying. You can choose to freeze the playfield in place to get a more authentic experience, but the "camera" zooms very far back for some reason, making it difficult to see what you're shooting at. Also, coin-op Tempest featured a rotary knob that delivered quite a large part of the game's stimulating feel and addictive player-power appeal. The Jaguar controller is among the best ever made for any system, but regarding a game like Tempest, one has to admit that arrow buttons just don't feel as cool as a small wheel that you can spin violently.

Except for these elements, though, Classic Tempest brings back the arcade game vividly, and it's quite a thrill; and Tempest 2000 itself provides over-the-top, excessive action that engages players at any difficulty level, and even presents a rigorous "Beastly Mode" after all of the normal levels have been completed (a nearly impossible feat in itself -- thank you, thank you). This toughens the enemies and cruelly slows your blasts down a bit.

In addition to its fresh spectacles, extravagant explosions and numerous colors, Tempest 2000 adds two main, beneficial elements to the original idea: imaginative new baddies and ass-saving power-ups. The Super Zapper was always that one bail-out for when you reached the threshold of panic, the monumentally relieving button-slap that turned you from a trapped mouse to an omnipotent god -- very briefly, of course. This Smart Bomb equivalent remains useful in Tempest 2000, but now serves as a meantime refuge while the player waits for one of the enemies he's vaporizing to bequeath a power-up. The most useful are the enhanced laser and the ability to jump. This latter supplement has saved me countless times from being snatched by one of the invariably abundant Flippers that reach the perimeter and clink around it with no good intentions.

An interesting type of power-up is a bonus-round toggle: It only appears after you've gotten most all of the other possible enhancements. Grabbing three of these warp power-ups enables you to play the bonus round after you complete the current screen. There are three of these rounds, depending on what screen you've been playing, and they each offer a five-wave jump and multitudinous points if you reach the end. All three are quite beautiful graphically, but sluggish and lackluster game-play wise. I usually deliberately miss the next marker or bend in any of these stay-on-the-trail rounds to get back to the actual, infinitely more arresting game itself.

All of the old enemies are here, but there are interesting new ones: Mutant Flippers are a lot more aggressive then their older relatives; Mirrors reflect your blasts back at you, necessitating a shoot-and-dodge strategy, and take several hits to wipe out; Demon Heads explode and shoot horns at your blaster when you kill them; and UFOs fly above your gun instead of approaching from the distance like everything else. These late-game nasties require the jump power-up to obliterate, a condition that highly successfully works the jump feature into the new game at a level of innovation beyond even that power-up's very useful early-wave appearances.

So Tempest 2000 is mostly fantastic, and it's quite addictive; it never lets the player take a breath. But there's a couple of things that make it more tedious than it might have been, and these aspects concern Yak's flair for spectacle, which I touched upon earlier. The demonstrations of graphical savvy go a bit overboard, and wind up being detrimental to the player's enjoyment of the game (or my enjoyment of it, anyway).

First of all, there's this thing that you're supposed to look forward to acquiring called the AI (Artificial Intelligence) Droid. When you grab the power-up that makes it appear, it flies around far above the perimeter of the playfield, shooting everything for you. I don't want something playing my game for me. All it really does is make it hard to see what's coming at you; once you discern your next target, the Droid's already on it and your game has changed to a dodging test.

Visibility is the mark of my next gripe, as well: Whenever you get an extra life or grab a power-up, huge congratulatory words fly out from center-screen and grow to fill the entire view for a couple of seconds. As anyone who's played Tempest (and especially 2000) knows, even just seconds of obstructed sight can determine whether you live or die. Being a video-game veteran from way back, I can certainly handle a lot of things going on at once; but to have my vision completely blocked by unnecessary showiness diminishes the experience. Throw in the stupid '80s slang -- "Excellent!" "Yes! Yes! Yes!" -- and the annoying "Super Zapper recharge!" voice that concludes each wave, and you have a game that (while certainly being reminiscent of the era in which the original first flourished) consists in part of unfortunate, aggravating moments that would have strengthened the game in their absences.

1995's Defender 2000 has two utterly debilitating problems, one of them being a returned nuisance from Tempest 2000: At least 90% of the time, your ship is assisted by a smaller vessel (yep -- another AI Droid) that plays most of the game for you. If you shoot a Lander that's kidnapping a Humanoid, your "friend" flies ahead and rescues the captive for you. He even deposits it back onto the planet surface. He helps you kill bad guys as well, and basically does everything except turn the game off and cook dinner. It takes away from what would be a fun Defender enhancement with neat, new enemies -- if it weren't for the player's perspective on the playing area, which concerns my second complaint.

For Tempest 2000, as with the "classic" remake on the same cartridge, Yak decided to make the "camera" follow the player's blaster around the playfield. This isn't too inhibiting, because it's not really a close-up; the corridors simply shift around a bit to follow the player's movement, even though it's understood that they're actually stationary. During some waves, however, the bumpy angles of the battle area prevent seeing very far to the left or right, which results in death more often than it should.

This "follow-the-player" view utterly ruins Defender 2000. If you want to keep the planet surface in sight, you have to go without seeing most of the sky. That's right: The screen scrolls up and down in addition to the usual side-scrolling. This means that your Humanoids and any aliens creeping below you are lost to view while you're taking care of things up in the air. This also means that it's very easy to fly right into an adversary at any time, since the scanner isn't very precise -- and keeping yourself from flying too fast and colliding with enemies takes up most of your time, forestalling any strategies that might be put to use instead. I don't even play Defender 2000. I think I've tried it out a total of five times in the year that I've owned the cartridge. It's a shame, because one of the new enemies, the Lander-Launcher -- its function obvious -- adds an interesting twist to the concept of wave-clearing.

But Classic Defender is as exhilarating as Defender 2000 is cumbersome. This adaptation of the old coin-op alone was worth getting the cart. Everything's perfect, and you get the same adrenaline surges and alternating feelings of power and panic when you play this translation. The graphics look exactly the same, the mechanics feel exactly the same, and although they seem a little faster than before, the explosions are all just as glorious.

I recently bought the Williams collection Arcade's Greatest Hits for the Playstation. The games, as you know, are emulated directly from the original coin-op code. I highly recommend this release, by the way; it contains many interview clips that feature game designers, including Eugene Jarvis himself (writer of Defender). Anyway, playing the original version really emphasizes how well Yak did in programming it from scratch and endeavoring to make it look and feel the same. He really did a great job. Differences are minor: Wave to wave, the bad guys in his version take longer to speed up than in the original. But it should be noted that neither the Jag remake nor the Sony emulation provides a controller that comes close to matching the arcade panel. The mastery over the ship that's possible with the coin-op controls just can't be achieved with a joypad.

Both 2000 titles have extra games "between" Classic and 2000: You can opt for Tempest Plus or Defender Plus. The former never gets played on my console. It's not that it's a bad game; it's just that it's Classic Tempest with a couple of attributes from 2000 thrown in. It's schizophrenic, and I'd rather go to one extreme or the other, knowing that each is available. It features a simultaneous two-player mode, which is odd. The screen is split vertically, and each player sees the other at the distant end of the tubes. Deathmatch does not work with Tempest. I don't know how much more clearly I can put it.

But Defender Plus -- now, there's a video game! This option should have been called Defender 2000 instead. I don't know if you can really improve upon the original Defender, but if you could, this game would hit pretty close to the mark.

For one thing, Metropolis Digital's graphics are absolutely stunning, the centerpieces being the pulsing, translucent mountain range and the multidimensional star scrolling. Your ship maxes out at a blinding speed, and your laser is now rapid-fire (i.e. it keeps firing as the button's held down). This all allows you to race along and clear out baddies like you're ice-skating through soap suds (glancing often at the scanner, of course).

A wonderful new firing feature also figures into the terrific mechanics: If you hold down the button to fire rapidly, you can move your ship backward. Pushing opposite the direction you're facing usually reverses your ship, of course; but as long as the button's down in this installment, you can literally reverse, since you won't turn around until you let go of the button. This is especially fun when you've just demolished a Pod and a flock of Swarmers emerges. You can take out the whole group with a couple of circular sweeps.

You definitely need this capability for the toughest new enemy, the Big Space Station-Looking Thing. That's my name for it, anyway. I suppose that I should be more imaginative, but I'm keeping the name generic out of spite. The manual is absolutely terrible, and Defender Plus is reduced to three paragraphs. None of the enemies are explained; nor are the control features that I've disclosed. The brevity of the text probably has something to do with the fact that Atari saw fit to squeeze three languages into most of their Jaguar game manuals. At least other titles come with complete directions in each language; this book may as well not even exist.

Anyway, the BSSLT is really frustrating at first; as you fly over it unawares, it launches itself from its hiding place below the planet surface, giving you no reaction time before your ship is replaced by an impressive cloud of color. But what initially seems like cop-out bad-guy addition (one of my pet peeves, as you know) turns out to be an engaging, beatable super-enemy. All you have to do is slink along near the bottom of the playfield with the fire button down, being careful not to kill Humanoids, of course. No lurking BSSLT can escape your wrath if you hunt like this, and it adds an unexpected pensive quality to the formerly vigorous Defender scenario while increasing the urgency felt when you hear the cry of an abducted Humanoid: You can't just race recklessly to the scene of the crime anymore (at least during Wave 4 and above). The BSSLT also throws little hopping things at you, and these can take you right out if you're not watchful; they bounce back and forth at sweeping angles, and tend to slip past your peripheral vision.

Another fascinating new enemy appears after you beat wave 15 (or 16; I can't remember which, but I've done it a few times). A giant guy in a jet-propelled spacesuit zooms ruinously over the planet, ready to ram your ship to pieces. Like the BSSLT, this jerk requires several blasts to take out, but you can have a lot of fun obliterating him.

Defender Plus also features the hyperspace portal known as the Stargate, revived from the game called, oddly enough, Stargate -- Defender's 1981 arcade sequel. Flying into the portal either warps your spaceship halfway around the planet or brings you to the site of an abduction, if any are taking place. Flying into it with at least four Humanoids in tow warps you ahead as many waves as Humanoids you're carrying.

Speaking of neat tricks, entering "Ovine" as your name in the Defender Plus high-score table, and then starting a game by pushing the A button instead of B, will transform your ship into a giant sheep! You're protecting little llamas instead of Humanoids. Deploying a Smart Bomb renders a moo-like sound. While Flossie's thrusting (for this is surely a graphical depiction of Yak's favorite sheep), the exhaust egresses humorously from under her lifted tail. Flatulence Fuel? Do I detect a possible breakthrough for NASA here?

Entering "Nolan" (meaning Bushnell, one presumes) in any of the cart's high-score tables will give you a further option besides the three Defender games: Plasma Pong.

Overall, Yak and his graphic teams did amazing jobs. As long as he never comes out with Congo Bongo 2000, Jeff Minter, in spite of his tendency toward clones and conversions, is no sheep. -- CF