In the latter part of the 1980s and well into the ’90s, turning popular movies or television shows of the day into a video game was pretty much a no-brainer. Indeed, companies like Ocean would eventually turn a large portion of their production over to licensed games, and this wasn’t necessarily always a bad thing as some genuinely excellent titles came out of these deals. Back in 1985, however, licensed games were still in their infancy and many companies, eager to jump on the bandwagon, picked up some pretty strange licenses for conversion to the 8-bit computers of the day. A lot of the time these projects ended in complete disaster due to the unsuitability of the source material, but just occasionally, often against all odds, one of these deals actually paid off and produced something genuinely worth playing.
One such licensing oddity was ‘Minder’, a hugely popular ITV comedy/drama throughout the ’80s starring George Cole as dodgy geezer Arthur Daley and Dennis Waterman as the titular minder, ex-con Terry McCann. Set in and around central London, the show followed Arthur and Terry as they attempted to make a living by wheeling and dealing on ‘just about’ the right side of the law, with Arthur’s over-confidence usually landing him in a series of comedy scrapes which Terry then had to help him out of.
The show in its original form ran for over ten years and in 1985, when DK’Tronics picked up the license to produce a game based on the concept, it was at the height of its popularity. On paper it was a great deal and the company must have been fairly confident that the name alone would bring the sales in regardless of how the game turned out. What programmer Don Priestley produced, however, was something quite unique.
Rather than fall back on the standard arcade-action genres of the day, Minder instead chooses to focus solely on Arthur’s business activities. You play as Arthur himself and begin the game with £2000 and a lock-up full of random goods, and your job over the next two weeks of game time is to amass as much money as possible. You accomplish this by trading – selling your initial stock might earn you a few quid but if you want to get anywhere fast you’ll need to secure a regular supply of new items which you can then sell on for maximum profit.
The game’s interface is mostly a series of static pictures, presenting a view of your current location and a number of picture frames which fill in with portraits of other characters who may be around at the time, each cleverly caricatured using the game’s photofit-style character generator. The game itself then plays like a simplified text adventure, with a small number of commands at the bottom of the screen allowing you to direct Arthur from place to place to conduct his business. Arthur knows a number of dealers who he can visit to try to cut deals, and if all else fails he can stop in at the Winchester Club and see who’s around. Terry is on hand (once you can track him down) to fetch and carry stock, and to provide muscle if you suspect you may be heading into trouble.
The most unique part of the game is the trading interface. When dealing with prospective buyers and sellers you enter into a text-based conversation with them, which you conduct by typing Arthur’s words in the show’s iconic Cockney dialect. Your goal is to haggle the price up (if you’re selling) or down (if you’re buying) without annoying the other guy so much that he cancels the whole deal. Reach an agreement and you have to pick up or deliver the items within a certain period of time or the transaction is void, and with Terry often hard to track down and any number of deals on the cards at any one time it can often be quite hectic trying to keep on top of what needs to go where and when. On top of that, there is a chance that some of your stock consists of stolen goods, meaning the police could confiscate it from your lock-up or come down hard on the dealer you sold it to. If your buyer is on the receiving end of this then they’ll refuse to do business with you again or (if you’re particularly unlucky and don’t have Terry along for the ride) punch your lights out, putting you in hospital and losing you valuable days of trading.
The main game loop is fairly simple, but it manages to not only be immersive and involving, but also at times quite exciting. While its text-based parser may be showing its age somewhat and the game itself could have been improved by the addition of a few extra features (mostly a better way to keep track of your inventory without having to return to your lock-up every time), it’s still a remarkably compelling experience even today. Spend half an hour getting to know the mechanics up front, grab a pencil and some paper for keeping notes and you can quite easily lose yourself in the game for hours; that rush of excitement when you manage to offload a dodgy shipment of computer games to Arty Page for three times what you paid for them never gets old (even if it means you have to remember to avoid him for the rest of the game in case he punches you in the mouth).
Unfortunately the press and the public didn’t seem to agree. Despite featuring on the front cover of Sinclair User and earning a 4/5 score in the same issue, the game didn’t exactly set the charts alight. Crash awarded it a lukewarm 75% the same month, with reviewers complaining that it was fiddly to play and overly difficult. Ultimately not even the tie-in with the much-loved show could save it and the game quickly sank, never even resurfacing as a budget re-release in later years.
Sadly, DK’Tronics stopped producing Spectrum games not long after Minder’s release. Don Priestley went on to bigger and better things (including the utterly brilliant Trap Door for Piranha) but for me this is right up there among his best – a hidden gem which sadly never received the attention and praise that it so thoroughly deserved.
Ultimately, Minder was very much a product of its time. Had it happened a few years later with another company it’s more than likely it would have ended up being a lighthearted platform beat-em-up like so many other licenses, and although that might have worked fine (and may have proven more palatable to the games-buying public) it’s hard to imagine it being as original and fascinating as the version we actually got. It may not have been the huge success DK’Tronics wanted, but for me the game demonstrates superbly that if you’re prepared to think slightly outside the box it’s possible to turn even the most unlikely of ideas into a clever, compelling game.