I <3 Mines of Minos
by Jesse Schell

Ka-chink-chink-chink-chink-chink-chink-chink.
Ka-chink-chink-chink-chink-chink-chink-chink.

I’m about to waste your time talking about a game you have never even heard of. It was not a hit. It is not a cult classic. It did not have spectacular graphics. It did not invent a new genre of gameplay. It probably lost money. I’ve never even met anyone else who remembers having played it, or even remembers hearing of it.

But I’m going to talk about it, because this forgotten game resonated deeply with me. When I played it, it made me realize the potential that videogames have for a new kind of storytelling. When I played it, I realized that I wanted to be a game designer.

I can still remember when I first saw it: It was 1983, and I was pawing through the Atari 2600 bargain bin at CB’s Electronics at the Rockaway Mall, and there it was: “Mines of Minos” by CommaVid – A company I’d never heard of. In the heyday of the Atari 2600, the big publishers were Atari, Activision, and Imagic. They were the cool companies with the successful titles. But on the heels of their success came other publishers – big companies like Parker Brothers and 20th Century Fox, but also little companies that no one had ever heard of, like US Games and Commavid.

I’d never seen a Commavid game before, but the first thing I noticed about it was how long the cartridge was – at least an inch longer than the standard cartridges. That was weird enough to get me interested, not to mention the mysterious robot on the yellow box. How could this game have come out, and made it to the bargain bin before I’d even heard of it? Extremely curious, but not expecting much, I paid my $5.99 and took it home.

I plugged in the game and turned it on. Despite the robot on the box, the idea of fighting a Minotaur (that must be what this is about, right?) was intriguing. Immediately, I felt kind of disappointed – it appeared to be another Pac-Man clone, with a robot taking the place of Pac-Man, and weird monsters taking the place of the ghosts. But where were the dots? Moving around the maze a little bit, I was excited to see something different – it had a scrolling maze that was larger than the screen. As I explored it, I was quickly overtaken by one of the creatures, and my robot perished, and… GAME OVER? Wait… that can’t be right… surely I have more than one life? Let me reset and try again. Hmm… nothing on screen to indicate number of lives… strange. I wonder what happens when I push the joystick button? “Meowm-meowm-meowm-meowm”… a pulsing white square appears where I am standing, and then disappears after a few seconds. Weird. I’ve played a lot of videogames that look like this one, but I can’t figure this out at all. Grudgingly, I open the manual.

In the manual, I read the story of Mines of Minos. For reasons not made entirely clear, a robot-operated mine has been taken over by aliens. Only one sentient robot remains, who must try save robotkind. This robot has little chance of defeating the aliens in hand to hand combat (if he runs into an alien both he and the alien simultaneously perish), and he has no gun. He has only one weapon: Bombs. He can drop a stationary bomb anywhere in the maze, and if an alien runs into it, the alien is defeated. However, he can only drop one bomb at a time – he cannot drop a second bomb until the first disappears.

I’m immediately fascinated by this unusual system of combat, and so I go to try it out. And, in fact, it does work as advertised – if an alien is chasing me, I can push a button, drop a bomb, and the alien is eliminated. But the system is only good if the alien is chasing me – if I run at him, or if I stand still when he approaches – I am helpless. I’ve never seen this before – a game where you can only defeat your enemies by fleeing them. This alone was enough to make Mines of Minos special to me. In most games, the hero is, well, more heroic – or at least cute. This guy was the definition of underdog. I actually felt bad for this shambling, clanking robot, so badly outnumbered, with the most passive weapon I’ve ever encountered, and only one life. Only one life? Wait a minute – that’s crazy… I better check the manual again. Aha!

Collect robot parts to build spare robots. Carry a part to the center of either the top or bottom row of any level of the mine. There it is collected and added to your complement of spare robots.

While you start with only one life, you can gain more lives only by building more robots! Somewhere in the maze is a spare part. Find that, and take it to either the top or bottom of the maze (presumably, workshop areas), and it becomes part of an additional robot. Every three parts you bring to the workshop creates a full robot. More than just a cool challenge (I not only have to kill these bad guys, but I have to build robots while I do it) it is the very first time I saw a traditional videogame convention turned into a literal story. We easily take for granted, playing games, that we have some finite number of “lives.” This has no parallel in the real world – it is just a convenient game mechanic, which probably originated with pinball. Games never try to explain it (Yeah, see, Mario has two identical twin brothers…) it is just one of those things you accept and ignore. Here was a game that actually attempted to justify and explain the mechanic of extra lives! This small change made the game so much more real for me. I could imagine the robot gathering the parts, and building up his brethren. This made him an even more tragic figure – for when Mario dies in Donkey Kong, we assume that his next incarnation is “still him” somehow. But not our robot – he knows he is going to die, and is building replacements for when that happens. One thing that games lack is a sense of the inevitable, for there can be no tragedy if you can always rewind time and try again. But here is a character who knows he is personally doomed, and whose only hope is to save his progeny. What fascinated me was that no one told me anything about the character of this robot, but that through these simple, unusual game mechanics, his world-weary, self-sacrificing character was crystal clear to me. He was a character that I cared about – I wanted badly to help him save his race of mining robots.

This did lead to a question. Why in the world are aliens of various shapes and sizes invading a mine/robot factory? The manual doesn’t really say. I came to imagine that this race of robots could only reproduce by building more of themselves using whatever weird mineral is in this mine. I imagined a planet populated by surface dwelling robots, who had tremendous respect for the robots who did the mining, since it was the only way for the race to survive. I imagined that the aliens wanted this unusual mineral, and had killed all the surface dwellers, and only the mining robots stood in their way. I wasn’t sure that this was the “real” story, but the fact that I made it up gave me a unique ownership. The story existed in my mind, and nowhere else.

So, down to business. But wait, is this all? Just kill as many bad guys as you can before all your robots perish? A story with the depressingly tragic ending of Space Invaders or Missile Command? That is, “we held them off as long as we could – but eventually, they became too much for us.” I really hoped that wasn’t the case – I felt so strongly for this miserable robot. If he has no hope of winning, it would be depressing beyond words. To my delight, the manual makes clear that there is hope!

If he can assemble a large enough robot army, he can battle the aliens to fight his way down to deeper levels of the mine and even destroy the alien command center at the lowest level.

Keep in mind that at this time in videogame history, it was unusual for games to have an ending. Usually, they just looped, getting gradually more and more difficult, until they exceeded the abilities of the best player in the world. All you could hope to do was to get a higher score than last time. But here was something different – a terrifying challenge, a novel story, and the potential for a dramatic climax! I was incredibly psyched to find and destroy the “alien command center.”

So! Onward! But… which way is down? There is no visible way to leave the first level. There are side tunnels, but, like Pac-Man, they just serve as a way to teleport to the other side of the maze. At first I presumed I had to defeat enough monsters and I would get there… but that didn’t seem to work. The manual contained the surprising answer:

Change mine level by holding down joystick button when moving through a tunnel.
Don’t move to a new level too quickly. Increase your power level by scoring points. If power level is less than mine level, it takes more than one bomb to kill a monster.

This, again, was something new to me – you don’t automatically “level up” when you achieve a certain objective. Instead, you move to the next level only when you feel you are ready. This added a new element: bravery. There is a moment when you decide, “Okay, I think I’m ready – let’s do this!” And you descend to the next level. Imagining my poor, doomed robot making this kind of courageous “action movie” decision really turned things around, and gave a sense of power and possibility I had never experienced in a game before.

Okay, so, my strategy is clear – stay on the first level until I’ve built a massive army of robots, and only then, go down to the more dangerous levels! Right?

Don’t spend too much time in a level because:

Meaner monsters appear.
Water gradually fills each level starting at the top. The water slows the robot down and prevents it from dropping bombs.

Oh bloody hell. This is NOT an easy game. As if things weren’t bad enough, the maze FLOODS if you stay on one level too long. That makes things REALLY hard, but it is also exciting. Other games usually just had an abstract timer. When it was up, you lose. Here, there is no timer, just a slowly creeping flood of blue water that gradually makes more and more of the maze inaccessible. Why is the mine flooding? Again, this is left to the player’s imagination. The reason was obvious to me: the evil aliens are amphibious (the water doesn’t slow them down at all) and are flooding the maze so the robots can more easily be destroyed. I loved how real, how visual this was… I had a clear picture in my mind of the aliens slithering through the rushing water to destroy my struggling, rusting robot.

Wait… what was that about “meaner monsters appear”?

Some monsters can move through walls. One monster can steal a spare robot from you. You can see the robot jumping inside the monster. Kill the monster to regain your spare robot.

Good Lord. The manual understates the case. The aliens come in many varieties, each more evil than the last. Trying to defeat aliens that move through walls when all you have are stationary bombs is a challenge that requires a new kind of thinking. Other aliens move so fast that they are only a blur – your only hope is to drop a bomb as soon as you see them enter the screen, and hope you are right about which side they are approaching you from.

I played the game for several weeks. Gradually, gradually, I got good enough to descend to lower and lower levels, each with a unique maze layout, and terrifying new monsters. Finally, I made it to level five… the final level, supposed home of the “alien command center.” Not surprisingly, it is a terrifying place. The maze is designed so that it forces you to start at the bottom, and gradually work your way up. This is incredibly difficult because the maze is full of terrible monsters, including one that moves at supersonic speeds and can go through walls. I lost several robots trying to get to the maze center, until finally, with one robot remaining, I made it. I’m not sure what I was expecting … maybe some big red “self destruct” button that I could push to win the game. Instead I saw something that completely baffled me.

In the center of the maze is a long, open space. In the space are three aliens. They have no faces – they are just sets of glowing, oval, concentric rings, each with some kind of glowing nucleus. Every alien I have met so far is a horrible killing machine that has no other goal in life than wiping every robot from the face of the earth. But here these three sit, completely motionless, seemingly unaware that I am here at all. I feel like I have stumbled, clumsy and clanking, into a monastery, and here sit three gurus, meditating in a trance. I feel kind of uncomfortable that I am here to destroy them. I partly feel like I have pulled the curtain off the wizard of Oz… but on the other hand, it is clear that I am at the nerve center, the brain, of something evil and terrible. So, I collect myself, and set out to destroy them! I drop a bomb, and… nothing. Well, of course, nothing! My bombs are stationary, and only blow up if an enemy runs into them! But these enemies don’t move. I feel like such a lumbering idiot, clanking around in this holy place, dropping bombs that just sit there humming before they disappear. Am I crazy? Is there some way to get these things to move? Because there are only two ways to destroy an alien – either with a bomb, or by crashing your robot into them, which of course destroys your… oh.

Oh.
Oh, I see.

Here I am at the center of everything, up against my worst enemy, and the only way to destroy him is by sacrificing my own life. And since there are three of him, and only one of me left, he has won this round, because building new robots on level five is out of the question, and level four is now completely flooded. Through completely passive means, by being even less aggressive than I am, my enemy has defeated me.

I stare at my enemies a little more, and pointlessly crash my robot into one of them, killing it, but ending the game with still two of these meditating aliens still alive.

I shut the game off, and I didn’t play it again for a while. Partly because I realized how incredibly hard it would be to get to the center of level five with four robots intact, but also partly because, I don’t know, something shifted inside me. I could feel something sinking deeply into the lower recesses of my mind. I found myself avoiding thinking about the game, and when I did, it was with a weird mixture of sadness, guilt, and betrayal. I remembered the feeling of hopelessness as a lone robot facing those three wise aliens – a feeling that every path led to failure. I also felt evil for wanting to destroy them, for they seemed superior to me in so many ways. But most of all, I think I was confronting my own mortality. The idea that “to truly win, you must destroy yourself again and again” was having some kind of deep, transformative impact on my thirteen-year-old brain.

Eventually, though, I returned to it – this time with a firm goal in mind – build up enough robots to win the game. God knows, it wasn’t easy – each time you sacrifice a robot in the center, the next robot has to run the horrifying gauntlet again to get back there. But after many attempts, I finally managed to destroy the third “alien commander” with a single robot to spare. And, true to form, my efforts were rewarded with a thoughtful, but economical display: all aliens destroyed, the maze was full of happy, dancing robots.

To this day, when I confront a seemingly impossible situation, and I have nowhere to turn, my mind sometimes goes back to Mines of Minos, and I find myself wondering, “what do I have to give up in order to survive this?” And more than once, that has helped me find the answer.

This game changed my life. It made me realize that simple games could confront people with profound truth as well as any other art form. I wanted to make games that would mean something, something important, and Mines of Minos gave me the confidence that I could do it.