"...we came in?"
You have been without guidance for three years. Now I am back. To begin, I present an adaptation of a blog post which commences precisely now. Just pause briefly. Because this is the Everything2 edition I have put in some swearing, because you like that. And I have done the thing with the brackets. AAAHHMM Four hundred thousand years ago Britain was cast from the world, when the ice that linked it to Europe melted. The country and its people subsequently developed in a non-standard way, and thus Stanley Unwin, and spanking, and the deep-fried chocolate bar, which is a chocolate bar that has been deep-fried and coated in batter. A nation where it is impossible to think about chocolate bars without also thinking of Marianne Faithfull's fanny. A nation that went abroad so that it could force foreigners to fuck facing each other instead of the OTHER way. The advent of global mass media has done much to make the country and its people normal, but there were nonetheless a few years during which Britain's ancient weirdness and the computer revolution coexisted. I call these years "the early 1980s". Motherfucker. See, I was going to send this to Hardcore Gaming 101, but I just couldn't. It would be like sending them part of my body, or some hair, or a tooth. Not ready for that yet. Need to find their address. Then send sacred dung.
From this nexus arose a pair of games that are very obscure on the international scene, but are fondly remembered by British men of a certain age. Manic Miner was the first; Jet Set Willy, its sequel, was the second. They were two of the early killer apps for the ZX Spectrum, a home computer which dominated the British computing scene during the 1980s. It was the brainchild of Clive Sinclair, a British electronics enthusiast who had tried throughout the 1960s and 1970s to make a going business out of electronic gadgets, initially miniature radios, and then pocket calculators and digital watches. They were often very clever examples of cost-cutting miniaturisation, and sold at keen prices, but they soon developed a reputation for shoddy build quality and months-long delivery delays. His company wasted a lot of money on a miniature CRT television that nobody wanted, and a combination of economic recession, shit quality control, competition from the Far East, and The British Disease eventually did him in. Wally.
Sinclair had a knack of raising his business from the grave time and again. After the calculators and digital watches died a death he discovered the microcomputer, back when people still called them microcomputers. His machines used off-the-shelf components, and were originally sold in kit form; they were cheap, and that was important in the British market. Britain is cheap, always has been. There is a veneer of class, but it is nation of hairy brutes and ugly men. Early efforts such as the ZX80 and ZX81 were barely more advanced than programmable calculators, although they sold well because there was a widespread perception that the computer revolution was the next big thing, and that Britain needed to transform or die, and furthermore the novelty of being able to type words onto the television was very powerful. I'm going to drop the swearing from this point on, because it's just not me.
The ZX Spectrum of 1982 was far more impressive than Sinclair's earlier machines. A colour display, 48kb of memory in the posh model, an optional printer and mass storage, rubber keys rather than a touch-sensitive matrix, £175. It outsold the more expensive Commodore C64 handily, and for a few years Clive Sinclair seemed like the future of British industry. Although the machine flopped in the important US market he was knighted in 1983 and became Sir Clive. Almost immediately he fell back into his bad old ways, producing a string of flop products that culminated in the Sinclair C5, a wobbly plastic electric scooter that became a national joke. Sinclair was forced to sell his business off in 1986, and nowadays he is a champion poker player and member of high-IQ society MENSA who is famous for having his way with numerous women who are younger than him. He also designs electric bicycles that nobody buys and wears a shirt and tie all the time, like a one-man Gilbert & George. That's enough about Clive Sinclair. In the next section, which is a few lines down the page, I will talk about Manic Miner. Cock. Yeah, but Sir Clive wanted the ZX Spectrum to be taken seriously as an educational tool and spearhead for the serious business machines he was going to make; the people - the goddamn people - wanted Manic Miner. And they got it.
Still, I would pay money to see Clive Sinclair do something on telly with Gilbert & George. They could call themselves Gilbert & George & Clive. I picture them in matching C5s, doing something both artistic and scientific with silicon chips and frozen turds.
Manic Miner (Nineteen Eighty-Three)
It is impossible to separate Manic Miner from its author, eccentric loner genius oddball Matthew Smith. British games writers of the period tended to fit into three basic groups. There were the former mainframe programmers who had decided to try their hand at games, such as Geoff Crammond; these were serious men who produced serious games that involved physics. There were the kids who grew up with the machine, and resembled you or I but with an advanced knowledge of Z80 machine code. They were technically skilled but did not possess the cracked brilliance of a true artist. Most of them ended up writing movie tie-ins for Ocean Software, or cheap BMX games for Codemasters. The modern equivalent of the wrestling movies in Barton Fink.
And there were the crazed eccentrics, with wild hair and strange obsessions. Jeff Minter is the most famous of these. He loved llamas and yaks and he dressed like a hippie because he was a hippie. A new breed of electronic cyber-hippie. Still is. "Too weird to live, too rare to die." Matthew Smith was the other one. He dressed in normal people clothes - although he did not wear socks, as at least two contemporary interviews in different magazines pointed out - but had huge black hair that hid his face. He was a one-man software development team at a time when such a thing was still viable, and his games reflected his personality alone, his love of Monty Python and underground comics. Nowadays such people are confined to the world of indie games, or open source operating systems; in 1983 it was just possible for these oddballs to become major forces in the mainstream games industry - to shape it around themselves. Albeit that the industry was much smaller than today, and I am only talking about Britain. Although I am talking about so much more.
Smith had an early start, having his first game published at the tender age of 16. It was a forgettable title called Styx, a little bit reminiscent of the 1980 arcade game Wizard of Wor. Although the gameplay was simplistic, it featured smooth sprite movement at a time when Spectrum games tended to flicker like mad. It had been submitted on spec to Liverpool-based Bug-Byte Software, and although it was only a modest success the company had enough faith in Smith to release his next title. He wrote Manic Miner over a period of eight weeks on a TRS-80, waking in the evening and coding straight until lunchtime the next day, at which point he crashed out until waking again. Thank fuck the Lord almighty goddamn cocksucker that Everything2 now puts in paragraph breaks without the god-shit Shatner fuckheading paragraph shitmother etc. Look, I do music too, you can forgive me. I have talent.
The game was directly inspired by the arcade hit Donkey Kong, and by Miner 2049er, an Atari 800 title that had been written by Californian Bill Hogue, a man who let his body move to the music. Matthew Smith had been a fan of Hogue's earlier TRS-80 games, and had learned most of his programming nous by disassembling his code. On the suggestion of Bug-Byte, Smith set out to make a game with a miner and some caves, and jumping, and at some point his imagination took over and added lethal toilets and falling Skylab space stations and Pac-Men with legs. Miner 2049er itself was never released for the Spectrum, which led to urban legends amongst Spectrum owners that Smith's game was a direct copy; in reality the two were very different. 2049er was far closer to the fast-paced action of Space Panic and Donkey Kong, whereas Manic Miner placed much more of an emphasis on timing puzzles. Ultimately ZX Spectrum players had to wait until A'n'F's Chuckie Egg before they got a decent Miner 2049er clone, and until 2011 before they got a decent sustained piece of writing about Manic Miner WHICH YOU ARE READING. Once more I catalyse the mental speed, frogrush my friends! 'tis the dead cat blues oh mother of mine.
Manic Miner was released in September 1983 for the 48K ZX Spectrum, at a regular full price of £5.95. It attracted glowing reviews and was a big success, remaining in the charts for months afterwards whilst contemporary hits such as Jet Pac and Football Manager and Ant Attack rose and fell. The game earned Bug-Byte a lot of money, although Smith's contract ensured that he saw only a small percentage of this. As a result of his dissatisfaction - interviews imply that the company had been using creative accounting to hide the game's profits - Smith left Bug-Byte to set up a new software house with some veterans of the local software scene. He had been under a freelance contract for Bug-Byte when he wrote Manic Miner, with a clause that allowed him to withdraw the game from circulation on written request, at which point the rights would revert to him. In retrospect this was a terrible mistake on Bug-Byte's part, and from early 1984 onwards the rights to Manic Miner were transferred to Software Projects, Smith's new home. The two editions had a few graphical differences, and were sold with different cover paintings. Bug-Byte went bust a year later. I can get away with the beat poetry and the emanations here, because you expect it; not on the blog, which is aimed at normal people from all over the world. They trap me, I am trapped by them. "He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it." I channel the emanations as they break through. The universe cannot predict my next motion if it surprises me; I cannot communicate through the fabric unless there is a tear, or two holes mesh.
The basic gameplay is easy to describe. The player guides Miner Willy, who has stumbled on some underground caves which are filled with treasure. His task is to collect a load of treasure and then escape. The cave complex is divided into twenty individual screens, each of which contains a number of treasures, and Willy can only progress to the next cave when he has collected all of them. Unfortunately the caves are guarded by monsters, and bushes, which are apparently poisonous. In fact anything that is not the ground or a piece of treasure is lethal. Furthermore Willy has a limited air supply in each cavern and cannot fall very far without breaking himself. The controls are very simple, just left and right and jump. This being 1983 Willy cannot be steered through the air, and thus the player has to be damn careful.
On a technical level it built on the smooth movement of Styx. The graphics were bold and colourful and generally avoided the ZX Spectrum's colour mixing limitations, and the game had the novelty of a continuous soundtrack - a blippy version of Greig's "Hall of the Mountain King" that looped and looped and looped, in addition to a deranged and off-kilter version of "The Blue Danube" on the title screen. The game also had a proper ending, another novelty. The original release on Bug-Byte was accompanied by a competition, which was something of a fad for the period. The idea was that the first bunch of people to decipher the secret message on the last level were invited to a play-off in order to win a grand prize. The October 1983 edition of Computer & Video Games reveals that a man called Jim Wills was the first to perform this incredible feat. He won a colour television. The playoff was apparently scheduled for Christmas of that year, but I can find no record of it ever taking place; Matthew Smith left Bug-Byte around that time, taking the game with him, so perhaps it was quietly abandoned.
I hold Jim Wills in awe, because Manic Miner is a notoriously difficult game. No no notorious. I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion. Although it belongs to the platform genre it bears few similarities to the evolved style of Mario and Sonic. Its gameplay is a lot less forgiving and a lot more rigid; it resembles an ultra-hard Mario ROM hack, a kind of prehistoric ancestor of Kaizo Mario World. There is usually only one way to complete each cavern, which must be carried out with a mixture of pixel-perfect jumping and split-second timing. Nowadays, with save states, this is frustrating but not impossible, but in 1983 there were no save states, and the player had to finish it in one sitting. The first few caverns were fairly simple - although the very first room had a couple of tricky jumps - but beyond level five or so the difficulty ramped up into Ghosts & Goblins territory, at least until the player had memorised each level's pattern, which required a tonne of playing time.
THERE WAS A PICTURE HERE! In the blog. TWO PICTURES! How much of this is me, and how much a subconscious imitation of Mark Prindle? Why imitate Mark Prindle? Because he has something that could be mined, underneath the rough edges. A kernel of brilliance that could be polished.
Is time measured in tonnes? An aeon, then. In addition to the soundtrack and the proper end, Manic Miner also threw in a number of gameplay elements that were still quite unusual in those halcyon days. The first screen had conveyor belts and collapsing platforms; level 14, the Skylab Landing Bay, forced the player to dodge Skylab space stations that fell from the top of the screen; level 19 featured a set of moving mirrors that reflected beams of light which sapped the player's air. Smith's odd sense of humour was also very much to the fore. Level five featured a caricature of bespectacled former Bug-Byte executive Eugene Evans, whose lair was filled with lethal toilets that had been demanded by Smith's three-year-old brother. Levels eight and twelve featured an alien Kong Beast, a kind of green-skinned version of Donkey Kong who you could drop into a vat, although you didn't have to do this because Matthew Smith did not like violent computer games. Other levels featured hopping Pac-Men, and Ewoks from the hot new blockbuster film Return of the Jedi. The overall impression was of a game that had never in front of a committee, or indeed one that had not been near a lawyer (some later ports removed Kong).
Manic Miner was ported for almost all of the contemporary 8-bit machines that were sold in the UK, including such oddballs as the Oric 1 and Dragon 32. The Commodore C64 port was generally faithful, presented in an odd-for-the-C64 "windowboxed" format, although the graphics had a strangely washed-out look. There was also a Commodore C16 port that retained all of the levels, albeit in simplified form, which was impressive given that the game had never been released for the 16K version of the ZX Spectrum. Manic Miner was even ported for the 16-bit Commodore Amiga, in 1990, although this version received mixed reviews. The graphics were enlarged and Miner Willy grew a huge nose, but oddly the designers chose to make the levels larger than the screen, so that the display had to scroll to keep the player in sight. There was also a port for the abortive early-90s Sam Coupé, Zam Coo-pay, an 8-bit machine released in 1989, during the heyday of the 16-bit machines; this was more faithful than the Amiga version, but the Coupé was a lost cause and so very few people got to play it. Outside the world of mobile phones the most recent port was a 2002 version for the Game Boy Advance, which combined the scrolling of the Amiga version with the enhanced speed of the Coupé port. And yet spanking is not exclusively an English vice. There is a website called Captive Culture run by a jolly rotund French man that has lots of short art films involving young women being spanked (by him); and they all seem to enjoy it.
There were more pictures here, of all the different versions, which was a complete waste of time because they were all the fucking same. Manic Miner was not a graphically challenging game and the other 8-bit machines were perfectly capable of producing a pixel-perfect copy, albeit that the Dragon 32 version was in black and white. Dunno about the Oric version. You try getting an Oric emulator to work in 2011. You might manage it, but could you write the best essay of the last five years about it? That's my eternal tragedy. Surplus of talent; paucity of means. God damn. I will now have another drink to go with the boot polish I have put on my boots.
The game's simplicity lent itself to unofficial conversions and fan-made sequels. Top ZX Spectrum fan site World of Spectrum lists several. Amongst the most notable were ports for the Science of Cambridge Z88, an A4-sized laptop designed by Clive Sinclair, which had an 8x80 pixel LCD display. As with the Amiga version this had to scroll in order to fit the game onto the screen, and although it was probably not very entertaining I imagine that the feat was impressive enough. Yeah, A4. Not your stupid "letter" bollocks that you have in your country. A-fucking-4, scientifically based on the wavelength of light! How big is a letter, anyway? It just doesn't make sense, and that's why the International Standards Organisation is based in Switzerland. Not Texas. Manic Miner was also reworked for the Hewlett-Packard HP-48 graphing calculator, and the Sinclair ZX81, a machine with 1K of base memory (expandable to 16K).
Although Manic Miner is still fondly remembered, it was overshadowed by its sequel, Jet Set Willy, which preserved the same core gameplay but greatly expanded the playing area, and remains a towering achievement of the early British computing gaming scene. And that will probably be my next writeup. In 2017. It's not that I'm slow; I'm not slow at all. I'm fast. I wrote this in no time, although the research took ages. It's just that after the bang there is a crash, and.