The Hal Junior series

Minecraft review

including quick-start guide

If you're my age you probably grew up with an Amiga (hack-spit) or an Atari ST in your bedroom, spending long nights bathing in the radiation from the el-cheapo Thompson colour monitor. Dungeon Master (DM) was the be-all and end-all of absorbing games in those days, leaving computer gamers jaw-dropped much like Knight Lore on the earlier Sinclair Spectrum. (See, even then we were suckers for 3D.)

I still play DM and the sequel, Chaos Strikes Back (CSB), using an Atari emulator. There's something pure about those games, the way the torches and food gradually run out, the way you can use objects in ways that were never intended. E.g. raising a steel gate, waiting for the bunch of skeletons to attack, then gleefully hitting the button so the metal gate would continually slam into them from above.

It's been a long time, but I've finally found an experience which harkens back to those classics: Minecraft. Even the fonts and item screens look similar, and if you told me the designer had never played DM or CSB I'd be stunned.

The Dungeon Master inventory screen

Note that I said 'experience', not 'game'. Minecraft, in its current form, is all about exploration, building and survival. Mine for resources, craft them into objects and building blocks. Get it? It's completely freeform with no farmboys destined to be kings, no evil wizards to be defeated, and absolutely no rings of power.

The thing is, there's so much to do you can never get bored. Take the world: it's generated randomly when you start a new game, and it's immense. (You thought space was big. Space has nothing on Minecraft.) Minecraft worlds are two to the power of oodles in size and if you hit Google for 'Size of Minecraft world' you'll see figures that will make your eyes bleed. For example, I saw one stat saying it would take a hundred thousand human lifetimes to explore one world, with the size of the data files running into a petabyte or more.

That's taking it to extremes. Fortunately, Minecraft only maintains saved data for the parts of the world you've seen. Even so, the game will easily chew up a gig of ram as it's running, and I kept getting 'Minecraft has run out of memory' errors on my system even though I have 4 gigs. I run Windows 7 64-bit, and I found that installing the 64-bit version of the Java JRE and running the game from the commandline was the answer:

start "Minecraft" /MIN /B "C:\Program Files\Java\jre6\bin\javaw.exe" -Xmx1024M -Xms1024M -jar "X:\Minecraft\minecraft.exe"

Using the 64-bit version of java on a 64-bit machine really made the game run smoothly.

(Obviously you need to change the last bit to wherever you have minecraft.exe). Running it with 'start' meant the cmd window closed immediately, rather than littering up my desktop.

Once in Minecraft, use F11 to switch between windowed and fullscreen, and press F to adjust the 'fog' distance until your frame rate is acceptable.

So far, so good. It's running, but what do you do? Use WASD and walk up to the nearest tree, then hold down the left mouse button. The character will wave his arm to a chorus of 'tok tok tok' sounds, and then part of the tree will disappear in a pixellated puff. There's a 'pop' sound, and if you press E you'll discover a chunk of wood in your inventory. Left click to pick it up, then left click on the crafting area (the 2x2 grid). To the right you'll see a little icon representing 4 planks. Click that, and the wood will be converted into this new resource.

Now place two planks in the crafting area, one above the other. The results box will show 4 sticks, which are the basis of many items in the game. (You can stack items in the inventory and crafting area to convert multiples.)

For example, to create a wooden pick you place 3 planks across the top of the crafting area, and … but wait, it's only a 2x2 grid! That's right - in order to build anything you really need a workbench, aka crafting table. Place four planks in the crafting area and move the resulting crafting table to your lower row of inventory slots. Now press Esc and scroll the middle mouse until the crafting table is selected (the border is thicker around selected items.)

Now aim at a floor tile in the world and right-click. The table will appear, and you can right-click on it to open the 3x3 crafting window. Time to get busy making tools! (I'd gather some more wood first, converting it all to planks and then half the planks into sticks.)

First, make an axe. Place one plank top centre, one to the right of it, and one below that one. Next place a stick dead centre of the 3x3 grid, and another below that. Congratulations, you just made a wooden axe. It's about as useful as a paper wetsuit, but it'll speed up wood gathering.

Next, make a sword: One plank top centre, another below, then a stick at the bottom.

And a pickaxe, for rocks: Three planks across the top, two sticks down the middle (a T shape)

Finally, a shovel: One plank at the top, two sticks down the middle.

You don't need 9 pieces of stone. Crafting only takes what it needs.

If you want to make more durable versions of these tools, gather some cobblestone and use that everywhere you used planks in the recipes above. To gather cobblestone, take the pickaxe and lay into the nearest exposed rock surface. Hint: it's bone white, not yellow. If it's yellow, it's sand, and you should use a shovel. (If you use the wrong tool for a given job it wears out faster. Didn't your grandad teach you anything!?)

By now it's probably night-time, and a roaming zombie or exploding green thing has probably killed you. Never mind, you'll respawn right next to the starting position, where you can gather your scattered belongings and set about building shelter. I'd find a cliff made out of dirt and dig in three or four blocks. Then turn around and place the blocks (select in the inventory, right-click) to build a wall. Shut yourself in until daylight - and don't forget the roof!

If you managed to find a piece of coal you can craft it on the end of a stick to make a torch. These last forever, and can be stuck to walls, trees, etc.

Break a roof tile now and then to see whether it's daylight yet. That's when it's safe to venture out.

Now explore - and prepare to spend days building your dream home :-)

Sunsets and sunrises are even better

Paddling my little boat around

Whoops ...

About the author: Simon Haynes is the author of over 25 novels. He also designed and created yWriter.

Stay in touch!

Follow me on
Facebook or Twitter