Trace the classic Windows game Minesweeper far enough back and you reach Mined-Out. I spoke to creator Ian Andrew about the making of this brilliant puzzle game. This feature originally appeared in Retro Gamer issue 124. You can subscribe to Retro Gamer here.
THE MAKING OF MINED-OUT
Chances are that if you bought a PC with Microsoft’s Windows operating system in the early nineties, one of the first games you played would have been called Minesweeper. A devious puzzler, it involved clicking on squares in a tiled grid and determining the location of the hidden mines thanks to the numerical clues given. Racing against the clock to get the best time added a stiff challenge to the concept.
Yet the origin of Minesweeper can be traced back many years, possibly even to the Sixties, with logical guessing games one of the few genres that could be implemented on computers of that time. With the advent of video gaming proper in the Seventies, it apparently took until 1983 for the idea to be expanded upon, not only in terms of gameplay, but also graphically.
Ian Andrew began his short programming career with a simple snake game on his first computer, a ZX81. Like most, the limitations of that machine’s graphical display meant the real excitement was reserved for the ZX Spectrum with its ‘full colour display’, larger memory and faster processing capabilities. Ian casts his mind back to how he stumbled upon the idea for Mined-Out. “I think my thought process went along these lines: I noticed that the control of the screen from basic was basically blocks of eight by eight pixels. Thinking about what type of game I could make with blocks, I had the idea to ‘move through them’. But that was no game, so I wondered what would make that a puzzle of some kind?” Ian pauses, reflecting on the next step in the evolution of what would become Mined-Out. “So I thought, why not make the blocks invisible? And how can I give clues to stop it being random?” The result hit the young programmer like a bolt from the blue. “Proximity! Eureka!”
The object of Mined-Out is simple. The player must traverse each blank screen under which lay an increasing amount of hidden mines with the ultimate goal being level nine and rescuing the hapless annelid Bill the Worm. After each move, the game helpfully tells you how many mines there are on the adjacent spaces (no diagonals here, this is basic after all!). As you progress, the game adds female worms who can be rescued for extra points as well as additional hazards such as a mine-layer (self-explanatory) and a bug, essentially a mine on legs. And perhaps most deviously, from level six, your path disappears, leaving you just with your memory to rely on as to where behind you is safe. Clearly Mined-Out is the product of a nefarious mind. “The game quickly evolved,” says Ian, “and I wanted it to be commercial. So I knew it had to ‘progress’ and have variety. I kept adding features to later levels to keep it interesting for as long as possible.”
Mined-Out took Ian Andrew about three months to program, in between running his picture card shop in Reading. “It was not a problem. I ran the mail-order business and shop during the day and programmed in the evenings. I love multi-tasking.” Despite being overall very pleased with the game, the limitations of basic frustrated Ian, in addition to his own shortcomings. “Better sound and graphics would have been great but the latter was never my strong point and I had no idea how to.” he admits. Programming in basic almost meant a two colour per block limit and being unable to conjure the dark art of machine code resulted in the game being much slower and less stable than Ian would have wished. Nevertheless, for a first time effort he was extremely satisfied and, after spotting an advert for games by popular early publisher Quicksilva, swiftly despatched Mined-Out to them. “I sent it in and they accepted it,” he says matter-of-factly, “and I went and signed the contract at their offices and met the partners.” As one of the premier software publishers in 1983, Ian feels he was lucky to choose Quicksilva. “I loved them. They were enthusiastic, talented, successful and honest. Some other publishers seemed not to give developers such a fair deal as they did for me.”
Quicksilva ensured Mined-Out received reasonable exposure and also released the game on the BBC, Electron, Oric and Dragon 32, the latter two versions programmed by Ian Andrew’s brother Chris. With a proper keyboard and faster processor, Ian feels it’s a better game. Despite this, the Spectrum version was a moderate hit, which surprised the young coder. “I was taken aback when I heard it was a hit, because it wasn’t written in machine code like many previous chart toppers. I was very pleased and it was a huge buzz from having a hit game. I seem to remember receiving several cheques for a few thousand pounds each, maybe totally over £20,000 in a year which was a lot of money 35 years ago, especially to a 22-year old!” he recalls with a smile.
Eventually, the success of Mined-Out would have a more profound and long-lasting effect on Ian Andrew. The money he made from the game inspired him to enter the software market himself and create the famous Incentive label, that would go on to release several iconic games and programs on the 8-bit computers, such as the Graphic Adventure Creator and Freescape series. Unsurprisingly, he has fond memories of Mined-Out and the influence it has subsequently had. “It would have been nice to have had a credit on Minesweeper,” he grins mischievously, “yet I still think that is a more frustrating game than Mined-Out due to the way that you are forced into making random decisions that could instantly result in game over. With Mined-Out you NEVER had to guess – you can always find another way and deduce a route. That was the beauty of the game.”