Image: @Digital Eclipse

Digital Eclipse has made a name for itself over the last decade for delivering quality game collections like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection and 'interactive documentaries' like Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration and The Making of Karateka. So when it was recently announced that its next "Gold Master Series" project was primarily focused on the work of the game-making genius Jeff Minter, we couldn't help but pay close attention.

The aptly titled Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story is scheduled to be released this month on March 13th across Nintendo Switch, Xbox consoles, PS5/PS4, Steam & GOG, and will pack 42 titles from 8 different platforms. This includes some of Minter's classic games for the ZX81, Vic-20, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Atari 800, Atari ST, and Atari Jaguar, as well as a demo of Attack of the Mutant Camels '89 for the unreleased Konix Multisystem. So we chatted with Chris Kohler, the editorial director at Digital Eclipse to find out why Digital Eclipse picked Minter for its latest project, what players can expect, and more. You can read our conversation with him below:

Time Extension: To start, could you tell us how the idea of the Gold Master series and these interactive documentaries first came about?

Kohler: So, let’s see. When I joined the company back in 2020, there was already a project that was in the works which was The Making of Karateka, which was basically like an interactive documentary-style release of Jordan Mechner’s 1984 debut game Karateka. And it was a different sort of prototype and in a different sort of state. And then basically what happened is Frank Cifaldi — now the founder of the Video Game History Foundation — left Digital Eclipse to do the Video Game History Foundation full-time. So there was sort of a gap or a space to be filled with the person who was going to be coming in and doing all the historical research and the writing that went into this game collection.

So when I was handed the Karateka project, I was like, ‘Okay, let me take this all the way back to zero’ and I started reading Jordan Mechner’s journals because Jordan kept a journal of all the things that he did as was making this game in college and I was going back to all of the materials that the Strong Museum of Play had in their collection. I was looking at all of that kind of stuff and it very quickly became apparent that what we could do was a very deep kind of chronological dive into the full Making Of this game and really explain to people how this very interesting game was made.

So we were working on that and we were doing things like Ninja Turtles the Cowabunga Collection for Konami, or the Blizzard Arcade Collection for Blizzard. And both of those were what Digital Eclipse was known for in terms of taking very deep dives into the history of the games, but they were still fundamentally in the mould of a retro collection — a retro collection being, ‘Here’s some games over here and here’s some bonus content to go along with those games.’ But with the interactive documentary and The Making of Karateka, it was like, ‘Let’s not show the games up front. Let’s show the games in the moment in the timelines when the game is finished. Let’s show the prototypes before that. Or let’s show other games the person was working on that led up to it.’

So the idea was that by the time you got to the game itself, you were emotionally invested because you had seen all of the work and all of the labour and all of the ingenuity that had to go into making this game that was in front of you. So hopefully we were kind of changing people’s minds, because I think if you don’t already have that nostalgic attachment to something and it’s in a retro collection, if it’s like ‘Here’s this old game you’ve never heard of, play it and have fun’, it’s just more difficult I think to get people to get onboard with that versus if you sort of made them a fan of it by telling them about it, why it exists, and why it is so cool.

So we were working on that with The Making of Karateka and then we got the Atari 50th Anniversary project and Atari wanted something different because there were already collections of Atari games. And fortunately, we had already been doing a lot of this work on this interactive documentary concept for Karateka and so we applied that to what we did with Atari. So Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration was the first interactive documentary that actually came out.

That worked out great and then we used all of that labour that had really gone into finishing Atari 50 [on Karateka]. And then at the same time, we were conceptualizing because we knew we were going to do stuff with Jeff Minter and it just made a lot of sense that Jeff Minter would then follow the same pattern and thus we could produce essentially a series: The Gold Master Series.

Time Extension: It makes sense to a lot of British people why you would want to make an interactive documentary about Jeff Minter. But for those who aren’t familiar with his work — why Jeff Minter? Why did he stand out?

Kohler: He’s a fascinating guy. He’s a true original in the games industry and somebody who has been doing exactly what he wants to do – more or less – for the last 40 years. A lot of people know the name, Jeff Minter. Certainly, just looking at America — where I grew up and where I live now — if you’re a video game nerd, you’ve probably heard about Jeff Minter but it’s really very closely associated with Tempest 2000. Because that was the one. And even then, not a lot of people have even played it because it was on Atari Jaguar.

Jeff Minter
Jeff Minter in his home office — Image: Digital Eclipse

With Atari 50 — which brought Jaguar games to commercial retail emulation for the first time — we were able to introduce a lot more people to Jaguar games because the Jaguar emulators that were available online prior to Atari 50 didn’t really work all that well. So even if you wanted to play, you really couldn’t — unless you wanted to buy reasonably expensive hardware. But then that is sort of the same thing with a lot of Jeff’s earlier games. So a lot of people, their knowledge of Jeff Minter sort of starts with Tempest 2000, but he literally made dozens and dozens of games before that was released.

He was really cranking them out in the ‘80s and ‘90s but they were generally all for computing platforms that were very popular in Britain but may not have been popular elsewhere. And fundamentally, even if you want to download a cassette tape image off the internet and pop it into an emulator, there’s a ton of friction between you and actually playing and enjoying that game. So what we can do is we can make it so, you know, you can press a button and instantly be playing a game from the ZX81 where ordinarily — even if the file is somewhere on Jeff’s website — it’s just so difficult to do. And so, that’s really exciting!

Tempest 2000
Tempest 2000 — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

But really, to answer your question, why Jeff Minter? I mean, our studio head Mike Mika has known Jeff for a long time. He’s been in the industry for a long time and Jeff was one of the first people he met. Jeff was really nice to him and helped him out when his career was starting. And I think they’ve just been looking for something to do together for a long time. And as soon as we could do that — as soon as Digital Eclipse was self-funded and we could do stuff in-house — we kind of just jumped at that opportunity.

Time Extension: It would be interesting to hear — what were some of the main takeaways you had while researching Jeff's career over the past 40 years?

Kohler: When I got into it, I just realized there was another beautiful, fascinating story about somebody who loved games, was inspired by games, and made games because he loved them and wanted to play them.

So one of the first games he played and sold was this ersatz version of Centipede for the ZX81 and he made it having never played Centipede. He had only seen screenshots of Centipede in video game magazines and he looked at them and thought, ‘Oh my god, this game would be so much fun’ but there was no Centipede machine around the countryside in the UK where he was living at the time.

So he was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to make it myself.’ So he goes home, sits at his computer, and makes it himself, but he makes it in such a way that he doesn’t really understand a lot of the game mechanics because he was literally looking at screenshots in a description. So there are some things in his Centipede that he sort of missed like the ship doesn’t move up and down. He didn’t know the ship moved up and down. And again, if you don’t have that knowledge, we tell you this story in the game because when you understand that and then you play Jeff’s version of Centipede, it’s so much more interesting to know where it came from and why he played it.

But fundamentally, this is a guy who just made games because he loved games. And so, that is sort of the story that runs throughout this thing. And there are just so many games that he made that are very interesting games that just never got officially released outside of literally him making the game, putting it on a cassette tape, and mailing it to people in the UK. Those are literally the only people who have official copies of these games.

So not just Jeff Minter, but computer games’ history is just such a rich mine of art that never really got its due because consoles became so dominant and pushed out the platforms of the microcomputing era. They are also more difficult to bring back in collections or archival releases like this because it’s just so much more work. I mean, an NES game maps to a Switch controller but with a computer game you’ve got to do a lot of backend work and you kind of really have to understand how it works a lot more to be able to put together a version that’s going to run on a Switch.

It’s just going to be very cool to have this stuff out there. And the other really important thing is that Jeff owns all these games because as a point we make he is just an indie developer through and through. He never "sold out".

So, I mean, we’re going to have ZX81 games on your Switch or your PlayStation or your Xbox or your PC. We’re going to have Commodore Vic-20 games that you can play on a PlayStation. We’re even going to have the Konix Multisystem, which never even came out at all. The hardware doesn’t even exist, as far as I know. I don’t even know of anybody that has one. But we’re actually going to emulate Attack of the Mutant Camels ’89 for this system that never came out and you can play that on your Xbox or your Switch or your computer. It’s just going to be very cool to have this stuff out there. And the other really important thing is that Jeff owns all these games because as a point we make he is just an indie developer through and through. He never "sold out".

There was a period where he went to work for Atari and then he was like, ‘You know what, this is not me’ and he went back to the countryside of Wales and that’s where he stayed because he’s like, ‘I cannot work for the man. I’m not a good employee for people.’ You cannot tell Jeff to make something. He’s either personally passionate about it or it is simply not going to happen.

Time Extension: Is there any one game going through this collection that maybe you didn't know about or that struck you as particularly surprising or novel?

Kohler: As far as games that I never knew about before, it was like 90% of the collection. But, for me, I’ve been saying there’s this very wacky game called Headbangers Heaven, and the idea is you’ve got to get from the left side of the screen to the right side of the screen, grab a bag of money, and then walk back to left. And hammers are dropping from the top of the screen.

And it’s called Headbangers Heaven not because the main character is a headbanger who likes heavy metal music, which he is, but also because he’s a pain addict who enjoys getting hit on the head with “heavy metal” hammers. And so, you want to avoid the hammers, but also you want to get hit by them. Because if the hammers hit your arms or shoulders you die but if it hits you square in the head, your character’s pain meter goes up, which is good for him, and the score multiplier increases. Well to a point. Because if he gets hit by too many hammers, he will die. As will all of us. So it’s this fascinating little risk/reward mechanic.

So it’s very Monty Python-Esque. It’s also got this whole introductory sequence written by Jeff where you can hear Jeff telling you this whole funny, ridiculous introductory sequence about this character and the nature of the game you’ll be playing and the backstory of this character. It’s all in the game. But, just for every game, you can hear Jeff talking to you. You know what I mean? All of the little messages – As somebody says in one of the videos, it’s him in the game. It really is the work of an auteur.

Time Extension: As you mentioned before, Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story is going to feature a demo of Attack of the Mutant Camels '89 for the Konix Multisystem. Jeff also did some demos for the unreleased Atari Panther too. Did you notice any similarities between the work he did on the Konix and the Panther?

Kohker: So the Konix was based on a system from a company called Flare. The Konix was the Flare 1. And that was their chipset and their design for a console. The Flare II ended up becoming the Atari Jaguar. The Panther, I mean my understanding of it, was it was really closer to the Atari ST. So it sort of grew out of this idea of an Atari ST console. And then eventually, they decided to move away from that and just go with the Flare 2, which ended up becoming the Atari Jaguar. So that was kind of the relationship there.

I get this sense that he loved these underdog platforms with novel new ideas that might allow him to express something different than what else is on the market. Which is I think reflected in the Konix, or the Panther, or the Nuon (which he, of course, did actually release a game for)

But the Panther – I don’t think he spent or invested too many resources. But he still had this feeling of like, ‘Wow, all this work is down the drain.’ And then, it worked out really well with the Atari Jaguar because they were looking to revive different Atari franchises and he loved Tempest, so he was like, ‘I’ll do that.’ But then, again, after the Jaguar, he worked on the Nuon.

So again – I mean, I’m not Jeff – but I get this sense that he loved these underdog platforms with novel new ideas that might allow him to express something different than what else is on the market. Which is I think reflected in the Konix, or the Panther, or the Nuon (which he, of course, did actually release a game for). It was certainly the best game on the Nuon – Tempest 3000. And again, that would have been a bridge too far to try and emulate that, but I have a Nuon and I have Tempest 3000, so we brought them to the office and we set up capture equipment.

So there are some screenshots of Tempest 3000 that were pulled off a Nuon, so we can show you what that looked like. And we did some video capture of his VLM stuff too, because the Nuon has his Virtual Light Machine Mk. 2. Mk. 1 was in the Jaguar, and Mk. 2 was in the Nuon. So we actually set that up for some video capture basically. So you can see what that would have looked like.

The Nuon was a piece of technology designed by VM Labs that brought additional functionality to DVD players, such as the ability to play games — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Actually, it was hilarious because I brought in the Nuon and we set it up and we realized that in order to access the VLM, you needed the remote for the Nuon that I did not have because it is a DVD player. And fortunately, Drew Scanlon – our video producer – had bought a universal remote at some point and we were actually able to program it for a Nuon because it was a Toshiba Nuon player. So we were like, ‘Let’s try Toshiba settings’ and it worked! And we were able to get to the VLM, which is hilarious.

So we were able to do that. So yeah, basically, to come to the point, we try to represent everything whether or not we can emulate it and we do take you all the way up to the present day with Jeff’s release of Akka Arrh for the PC, which came out late last year or early this year. Everything is in there. So yeah, we try to be comprehensive in that way.

Time Extension: Last year, we did a feature on Jeff Minter's Unity, a cancelled project he was working on with Lionhead. Did you manage to capture any new footage of that? Because the footage that is out there is iffy.

Kohler: I know! I wish we could have. I believe we committed to using the iffy footage, which I do believe we included because we did want to show that as part of the evolution of VLM.

Jeff had some screens or some raw-like image dumps in the Llamasoft archives that he sent along, so there might actually be a screenshot or two that shows it in a little bit higher quality. But yeah, it would have been great if Jeff had sort of produced a GameCube and been like, ‘Oh yeah, here it is! Plug this in and play it.’ But that was not to be.

Time Extension: Could you give some examples of what types of materials are included in the collection? To us, Jeff doesn’t seem like the type of person to keep design documents or meticulously plan things out on paper. Did you manage to find much in terms of early designs, etc?

Kohler: There were some, and a lot of it sort of came in towards the end because I think you’re right. For a lot of Jeff’s games, there probably never were any paper design documents. I think he would sort of sit down at his computer and just sit there for a week until the game was done. But in some cases, there certainly were some design documents, if he was away from his computer or it was easier to work something out on paper.

We have some pages out of an old school notebook when he was a teenager and he was like drawing Sid Vicious in his school notebooks. That was extremely funny, so we had to put that in.

I gather that a lot may have been thrown away or treated as disposable once the game was done. But he looked through to see what he could find and then it was up to us to categorize it correctly. So there were some cool things. I mean, there’s some stuff from Sheep in Space where he’s plotting out a sheep sprite on graph paper, and then there was maybe just a single piece of paper with a design for a never produced sequel to Hover Bovver, which is his lawnmower game. And that’s an interesting one to read because of some of the ideas that he had for changing that up. So that’s in there.

We have some pages out of an old school notebook when he was a teenager and he was like drawing Sid Vicious in his school notebooks. That was extremely funny, so we had to put that in. And so, basically, it was whatever we could get. There was not nearly as much as Jordan had saved meticulously from Karateka. But the nice thing is, again with the design of the timelines we have is we can slot it in in the proper place chronologically. It’s more difficult when you’ve just got, ‘Oh here’s a photo gallery of everything because it can be difficult to find what you’re looking for.’

Time Extension: In the announcement, Digital Eclipse revealed that the filmmakers behind the upcoming Jeff Minter documentary Heart of Neon are also involved with the project, supplying interview footage. How did they get involved in putting all this together?

Kohler: It really was a case of, ‘Oh well, there’s already somebody who has been making a documentary about Jeff for a very long time. He has probably interviewed all of the people that we could think to interview and probably has all of the footage and all of the discussions about Jeff’s games that we would even want.’

So it made a whole lot of sense to get in touch with the director Paul Docherty and say, ‘Hey, maybe we could do something together?’ So we ended up just working with him. So there’s like an hour of video featurettes throughout Llamasoft’s history and those featurettes are done with all of Paul’s footage, but he put them together especially for this. So when you’re watching those, you aren’t necessarily watching Heart of Neon. You’re watching like separate things he did and ideas because he had tons and tons of footage.

Heart of Neon isn't like a game-by-game recitation of Jeff’s career. Heart of Neon is really about the man. You know, it’s about the person. It’s about his connections with his fans throughout a lifelong career. But Paul had a lot of footage, for example, of specific things about like, ‘Oh, well, let’s talk about Gridrunner specifically. Let’s talk about ‘Mama Llama’ specifically.’ So it’s like we have video featurettes that are very focused on specific games and things. And, of course, it really just kind of takes you up through Tempest 2000. Then there’s a video that’s like Jeff’s life after Tempest 2000 just to bring it all together.

There’s even a video with Paul Docherty in it talking about the Heart of Neon documentary and like what makes it different than what you’ve just watched. So, ideally, people play this, get really interested, and then they’ll go and want to watch the documentary as well. Or, hopefully, the other way around.

Time Extension: Just as one last question, what do you hope that people take away from playing these titles?

Kohler: I think a lot of people are going to be playing them for the first time. So what I hope is that we put them in their proper context so that it’s not just a regurgitation of stuff that came before. But that they feel that they are learning something new that they have not learned before.

There are two groups. There are the diehard Jeff Minter fans that are posting on the Llamasoft forums right now and I hope that they enjoy the work that has been put into this. I hope that we can give them something new or maybe even a new perspective or just make it more convenient to play their favourite games on their favourite piece of hardware.

But then for the larger group of people who have simply never heard of Jeff Minter or whose experience is just limited to Tempest 2000 or a little bit of Gridrunner, we can show them why these games are so fascinating. And then hopefully, when they come out of it, they will be singing the praises of Jeff Minter – this very unique game developer – and be able to be conversant in that when they meet somebody else that’s never heard about it or wants to know about it. They would be able to do that just as you visit a museum, you walk through an exhibit, and by the end of it, you’re sort of like an instant expert on something that you may never have thought about.