As the results of the General Election are coming in now here in the UK I was trying to think of a classic game to review that was related to politics.. ..in the end I couldn’t. There are loads which relate to war, but none (that are any good) to politics, particularly those of the UK. So, as I was reflecting on what has happened politically during my lifetime my thoughts turned to the miners strikes in the mid 80’s and my decision was made.. ..there was only one game to talk about today – the seminal ‘Manic Miner‘!
Written by Matthew Smith and published by Bug-Byte in 1983 (a year before the start of the strikes), ‘Manic Miner‘ is a platform video game, probably one of the best. It is the starting point for the adventures of miner Willy, who would go on to become a household name in the mid 80’s.
Smith and several other ‘kids’ (in his own words) used to hang around their local Tandy store in Liverpool playing with the computers and in doing so he met several fledgling computer industry pioneers and got into coding games. There were a couple of these ‘kids’ groups in Liverpool at the time; Smith recalls that Eugene Evans was a member of the other group. Evans would later also go on to find fame with Imagine Software as well as being the star of one of ‘Manic Miner’s levels!
The first game Smith wrote was a clone of ‘Pacman‘, but was never released as the company soon folded.. ..mainly because one of the other coders in the company had blatantly ‘ripped off‘ Alligata Software’s ‘Defender’ clone ‘Guardian‘ (only changing the copyright message), leading to a legal challenge.
Smith wrote his first commercially released game ‘Styx’ in six weeks on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum that was loaned to him by Bug-byte. Upon completion of the game he was allowed to keep the machine, which he promptly painted metallic green.. ..oh yes, they also gave him £300k!
With some of this money he went on holiday to Italy, brought a red notebook in which he designed all the levels to ‘Manic Miner’. Upon his return to ‘Blighty’ he coded the game in a mere 8 weeks. He coded it mainly at night.. ..maybe as a result, the design of the some of the enemies is ‘trippy’ to say the least.
‘Manic Miner’ was an instant hit and things looked good for the Smith/Bug-byte collaboration. But Smith had plans of his own:
”it wasn’t particularly a falling out, I just had business plans of my own. Initially, I was going to be — we were going to start Software Projects as a publishing company, but I was going to leave Bug-byte with Manic Miner. Because I had an agreement, they were going to publish it, and they were going to pay me. But they were a bit slow with their money, and I was young and impatient — and I was a business rival by this time of course. It was very nice to be able to publish it ourselves and keep all the money, so I took it off them. That’s… I wouldn’t say there was any massively hard feeling over that, although they were sore to lose their cash cow”.
As a result of this Smith formed his own software company, ‘Software Projects’ and ‘Manic Miner’ (as well as its successful sequels) were re-published under the new label.
When initially released on the ZX Spectrum in 1983 it achieved many firsts and was quite revolutionary. It was one of the first games on Sinclair’s platform to feature in-game music as well as sound effects (thought impossible at the time), had high re-play value (again, rare at the time) and made excellent use of colourful graphics which made good use of the famous ‘colour/attibute clash’. Smith also cleverly used the ability of the ZX Spectrum to alternate background and foreground colours automatically without software attention to make the loading screen ‘animate‘.
The in-game music was achieved by alternating the CPU cycles between playing individual ‘beeps’ and the game itself. This makes both the music and the gameplay stutter slightly, but not enough to negatively affect either. The in-game music is In the Hall of the Mountain King from Edvard Grieg‘s music to Henrik Ibsen‘s play Peer Gynt. The music that plays during the title screen is an irritatingly screechy arrangement of The Blue Danube.
There are twenty caverns for the player to guide ‘Willy’ through, within are objects to collect. Once all of the objects have been collected a portal activates, which will take ‘Willy’ to the next level. However, a limited supply of Oxygen, which depletes as soon as the level starts, confounds your task.. ..as do all manner of curiosities – ranging from telephones to robots. These enemies are described in the cassette inlay as “…Poisonous Pansies, Spiders, Slime, and worst of all, Manic Mining Robots…“. They move along predefined paths at constant speeds. ‘Willy’ can also be killed by falling too far, so the timing of jumps etc. can be critical to prevent fatal falls or collisions with the enemies.
Extra lives are given for every 10,000 points scored. The game ends when: (i) the player has no lives left, or (ii) all twenty caverns are traversed and ‘Willy’ escapes the mines to a life above ground.
There are differences between the original Bug-byte releases and the later Software Projects re-release:
(i) The copyright scroll text is changed;
(ii) The Bug-byte cheat code was the numerical sequence “6031769” – based on Matthew Smith’s driving licence. In the Software Projects version this changed to “typewriter“;
(iii) In ‘Processing Plant’, the enemy at the end of the conveyor belt is a bush in the original, whereas the Software Projects one resembles a ‘PacMan‘ ghost;
(iv) In ‘The Warehouse’, the original game has threshers travelling up and down the vertical slots, rotating about the screen’s X-axis. The Software Projects version has ‘Penrose triangle‘ (the Software Projects logo) sprites instead, which rotate about the screen’s Z-axis;
(v) In ‘Amoebatrons’ Revenge’, the original Bug-byte Amoebatrons look like alien octopuses with tentacles hanging down, whereas the Software Projects Amoebatrons resemble the Bug-byte logo – smiling beetles, with little legs on their side;
(vi) Changes to the code meant that a new POKE was required to gain infinite lives.
There were numerous ports of ‘Manic Miner‘ to other machines, mainly retaining the excellent game play, but somehow not having the charm of the ZX Spectrum original. A special mention should be made of the SAM Coupé version, programmed by Matthew Holt which retains the pixel-perfect play of the ZX Spectrum original, but avoids the colour clash and as a bonus adds an additional 40 levels!
If you are a platforming fan or simply want to give the genre a try there are some essential games to play.. ..’Super Metroid‘, ‘Prince of Persia‘, ‘Super Mario‘, ‘Pitfall‘, ‘Jak and Daxter‘, ‘Crash Bandicoot‘, ‘Earthworm Jim‘, ‘Castlevania‘ to name but a few.. ..but ‘Manic Miner‘ also makes the list, it is a bona fide classic.. ..if you only ever play a few ‘platform’ games in your life, make it this one of them!