For those of us who’ve been playing computer and console games since the eighties, Jeff Minter is a legend. Anyone who cut their gaming teeth on a Commodore 64 will have put in serious hours on the likes of Gridrunner, Attack of the Mutant Camels and Revenge of the Mutant Camels, and even those of us of the Spectrum persuasion will have come across one or more Llamasoft games. Throughout the years, right up until Tempest 2000 on the ill-fated Atari Jaguar, Minter has stuck to certain themes: fast-paced arcade gameplay in the style of the pioneering shoot-em-ups of Williams and Atari dressed liberally with quirky humour and characterised by a peculiar obsession with llamas, sheep and other hairy mammals. Since working on his early light-synthesizer, Trip-A-Tron, his games have also been known for their psychedelic visuals. This in turn led to Minter’s work on the trippy visualizations built into the Xbox 360 media player.
This isn’t just a quick history lesson. All of this has a bearing on Space Giraffe, Minter’s Xbox Live Arcade debut. First, while the game’s instructions are unequivocal in stating that Space Giraffe is NOT Tempest, it does have a certain amount in common with the Atari classic. You control one abstract vector shape – the Giraffe – which shifts left and right along the edge of a tube or chute-like 3D playing field. Other abstract shapes move along the tube’s grid lines towards you, and you unleash a constant stream of bullets at them to stem off a catastrophic collision. We’ll get to why this is NOT Tempest later. Secondly, Space Giraffe still displays Minter’s offbeat, surreal and distinctly British sense of humour, and – as you might be able to tell from the name – it is packed with references to Llamas, Sheep and other hairy ruminants.
Finally, to say that Space Giraffe is psychedelic is a bit like suggesting that, say, Pete Doherty has dabbled with drugs on occasion or that the Beckhams are mildly interested in publicity. It’s blindingly, aggressively, headache-inducingly psychedelic. If Tempest 2000 was Tempest on acid, this is Tempest 2000 on the sort of psychotropic substances that even the most hardened raver – or Pete Doherty – might think twice about touching. Every shape and line is covered in a vivid, neon glow, while waves of glowing plasma and odd textures bask in the constantly moving background. Every now and then an image might flash up, almost subliminally, and as you move and shoot, explosions and energy pulses will dazzle your vision for a second. There are times when weird post-processing displacement or blur effects are used just to give your eyeballs a hard time. In the meantime, the soundtrack blasts out trance instrumentals as a multitude of oddball sound effects splurt out over the top. On a big, high-definition screen and with a decent set of speakers, there’s a small risk that the whole Space Giraffe experience might temporarily transform you into a dribbling, slack-jawed buffoon.