Back when video games were young and dinosaurs ruled the earth, I recall that one fine day an old chum came to visit. Having tethered his pteradon, he dashed up the drive way carrying a strange black box and demanded access to my television’s rear. Despite fearing that my idiot lantern was about to be molested, I let him have his way...
...And thankfully rather than being an early form of teledildonics, that black box of tricks turned out to be was the ill-fated Sega Saturn and what he had to show me was the father of the RTS genre, the original Command & Conquer which he memorably described as “like playing with Airfix toy soldiers again... But the best thing is you don’t have to do all that tedious tidying ‘em away afterwards!”. Needless to say I was very soon hooked again on video games, and the release of the sequel Red Alert was a major factor in buying my first proper PC, and so without that game you might not be here today reading this rambling introduction.
However aside from commanding miniature plastic armies, my favourite toy was Lego. These incredibly painful to stand on in bare feet building blocks* dominated my childhood – a Lego set was one of the earliest Christmas presents I remember, and the huge crate of bricks it eventually became was the last toy to be resigned to the darkness of the attic.
Now there have been many games over the years, including the original Command & Conquer, that have in some way recaptured the love of building stuff that Lego used to deliver. However despite the extensive world building offered by many titles down the years, none have quite completely captured the joys of those multi-coloured plastic bricks, even games bearing the Lego name. That is until the dawn of Minecraft
WARNING! Reading further may lead to you never getting a single damn thing done ever again!
And I take no responsibility for loss of earnings, health issues, relationship break-downs, or any other resultant conditions or circumstances stemming from becoming a minerholic after reading this review...
So with that dire warning and ad hoc legally binding agreement in place, now read on...
To quote its maker, "Minecraft is a game about placing blocks while running away from skeletons. Or something like that”.
What? That’s not sold you already? Oh alright...
In my previous musings on video games, I remarked on my worries that as the hardware wars progress, with bigger and flashier consoles flooding the market on a regular basis, that little attention was being paid actual gameplay, and that the imagination and creativity of blokes hammering out code in bedrooms that spawned so many classic titles over the years was being lost in a fog of corporations and a mire of massive development teams. Indeed it would seem to appear that increasingly modern games are simply retreads of old titles in new and gaudier clothes; fifth hand ideas and concepts tarted up with graphics many times more advanced than their sources but often delivering a fraction of the gameplay of their grandfather titles.
However Minecraft is a glorious return to the days of independent development – it’s wonderfully imaginative, utterly immersive and serves up hours of fun. It’s the creation of just one guy - Markus Alexej Persson, or Notch as he is known to minecrafters the world over. It’s a sandbox game that has been released online - www.minecraft.net - which you can play in your web browser, or if you buy it, download and play offline. And even though it’s not actually finished yet, already the game is becoming something of a phenomenon.
Minecraft comes in two flavours Classic and Alpha. Classic is available to play for free online and is an early incarnation of the game. It’s missing a lot of the features now in the current version Alpha, but it does give you a taste of what it’s all about, so do go and have a look for yourselves!
On your first look at the world of Minecraft Classic, if you’re not into retro-gaming you may well wonder what all the fuss is about as the graphics look somewhat primitive. But once you start wandering about a bit it all starts to make sense – it’s like rambling through a brand new world made from Lego; it’s colourful and slightly surreal as everything is made from blocks including the shining square sun but utterly charming.
You have an inventory of different blocks and items to build with. A left click with the mouse lets you dig by destroying blocks in the landscape and right clicking places a new block or item. Now although there are no enemies to fight or stuff to harvest and make, it is tremendous fun just messing about trying to build something. A simple pleasure to be sure, but after a few hours of arsing around attempting making a house and generally having a whale of a time, I was warming up the old credit card to get the full version Alpha.
Now Alpha, again the game randomly generates a world composed of blocks and you are free to explore, build and generally muck about to your hearts content. There are no missions, levels or any of that bobbins – you are completely free to do as you will. Of course, as the game’s title suggests, there are great caverns beneath the earth to discover and forgotten dungeons filled with goodies to loot and baddies to vanquish.
But unlike Classic, in this world you have to collect all the blocks you need, so you have to harvest wood, hunt animals, make tools, dig for ore and make all kinds of gadgets and items. However in Alpha the perpetual sunny afternoon of Classic is gone and there is a day and night cycle... And at night the monsters spawn; giant spiders and zombies that reckon you are tea, vicious skeletons that will turn you into a pin cushion with their deadly arrows, and the dreaded creepers which sidle up to you and explode, not only killing you but blowing up everything nearby.
"Sod off! I'm trying to build an aqueduct!"
When you die you respawn and there are no limits to the amount of lives you have. Now some might say that this effectively takes away any challenge, but believe me dying is to be avoided. You see, when you die you drop all the equipment and goodies you’ve gathered, which is a major pain when you’ve worked for ages to create some high quality armour and diamond tools and are loaded to the gills with precious materials. Usually most of it will be lying at the site of your death to pick up again but it is a major headache to reclaim it if that location happens to be far away from the fixed point where you always respawn and/or in an area crawling with monsters.
But while the assorted monsters provide the necessary degree of challenge for a good game, the real fun comes with the creativity. To begin with, a tremendous amount of imagination has gone into the game design, such as a very clever system of crafting different items by combining them in different patterns on a 3 x 3 grid in the inventory. And in terms of gameplay, it’s great fun to try out different combinations of things to and see what appears. But also the game really fires your own imagination – once you get your living arrangements sorted out, do you want to go exploring, delve into dungeons, start farming or perhaps build a giant statue of Homer Simpson?
The genius of Minecraft is that you can do all these things and more. It combines the best elements of RTS, god sims, first person shooters and RPGs but also manages to be a canvas for your creativity. And almost equally addictive as the game itself is looking online at what other people have created in their blocky Edens. YouTube is awash with videos of folk showing off their endeavours - for example, here's a fellow who is building a 1.1 scale replica of the New Gen Enterprise! Impressive stuff to be sure but this team project - a recreation of York Minister in Minecraft - is even more breath taking. Check out these shots - here's an exterior view and this is the choir and altar inside. However to see really see the full beauty of this epic Minecraft construction, check out this video that shows it's construction and tours the finished edifice. It is truly incredible what wonders you can create in this game!
One word of warning however, Minecraft comes with no instructions and you will need to regularly consult the Minepedia wiki to identify items you’ve found or things you’ve encountered. However I’m sure that eventually the game itself will incorporate a tutorial and tool tips. So then, when starting out I would recommend checking out this First Night Survival Guide.
Also if you want to see the game in action and gains some handy advice for how to play, I highly recommend watching SeaNanners' series of Minecraft videos on YouTube. Not only are they are wonderful introduction to how the game plays and a great source of tips, they are also highly entertaining, and often hilarious.
Dawn chez Moon
As I said earlier Minecraft still isn’t actually finished. However it is still fully playable, with the updates being tweaks and additional fun stuff. For example, a major update was released this Halloween which along with adding the ability to make jack-o-lanterns out of pumpkins, introduced a whole other dimension, the Nether to travel to via magic portals. This spooky realm is the Minecraft equivalent of Hell - full of new strange creatures and resources.
And if you do buy Alpha, all subsequent updates and upgrades are free. But as the game is still being developed, Minecraft is currently going for half price which is just under a tenner. Now this is an absolute bargain, but in all fairness, it will still be a steal at £20 when it’s finished.
Why? Well it’s simply the sheer amount of time you can lose playing this game – these days most big name games are often only delivering 20 or 30 hours of gaming before the story runs out. But with Minecraft, as it’s a sandbox game, the only end is when you’ve decided you’ve had enough, and oh boy do you get a lot of game time out of Minecraft - I’ve only had the purchase version for four days and already I’ve had well over 30 hours of gameplay out of it and I’m still just getting to grips with the basics of the game!
But aside from delivering the very best value for money, Minecraft is just an absolute joy to play. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that over the years increasingly mission and level based games often end up uncompleted in my hands for the simple reason that after a while the game just starts to become more a chore than a fun challenge. Let’s be honest, often in a shooter or RTS you end up wishing they’d just ditch the *ahem* story line, which seems to involve each progressive level becoming more of a massive pain in the arse, and just let you play with all the toys in the game world.
But Minecraft let’s you completely off the leash, with the great god Notch giving you a world of your very own and saying ‘Go ahead, play!”. You make your own story in this game, and whether it turns out be a tale of being the architect of wondrous castles, a farmer, a delver in the dim secrets being the earth’s crust, or even a landscape artist, it’s never anything less than complete fun.
Call me cynical but the bigger the games market becomes it seems the less game content we are being delivered - as games studios always have their eyes on flogging you an expansion pack or a revamped version the following year. Minecraft feels like a return to the simpler values of old – born of a desire to create a fun filled game that you can happily play with for weeks rather than just a handful of hours. And this desire to simply make an excellent game shines through in the myriad ways you can amuse yourself in a world of brightly coloured blocks.
In short, Minecraft is a real triumph of rewarding gameplay over flashy gimmicks, and proof that one man with imagination is still more than a match for bloatware titles made by vast development teams. It’s also a massive victory for independent development and distribution. But perhaps best of all Minecraft is a gigantic win for gamers everywhere.
* ”Put your slippers on!!!” – my Mum, virtually every day when I was a nipper
JIM MOON, 22th November 2010