My online chums Alan Pope and Martin Wimpress have started a fun new streaming retrogaming channel, where they challenge each other to play a classic 8-bit game on a ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. The conceit is that Popey is a fan of the Spectrum but has to play the C64 version, and vice versa.
In the first episode they selected 2 platformers: Bruce Lee and Manic Miner. Both of these are favourites of mine and I was disappointed to hear that Wimpy didn’t have much fun with the diminutive Miner Willy. He criticised the sound and game design. He was, of course, very wrong. Manic Miner is about as close to platforming perfection as has ever been achieved.
The game was written by Matthew Smith. He wasn’t a prolific games author and appears to have had a lot of chaos and difficulties in his life. Manic Miner shows, though, that he has a streak of genius and rigour which belies the disorder which seems to surround him. From the innovative branding of the attribute-flashing loading screen, through the discordant tones of the synthesised 2-channel organ of the title screen, to the interrupt-driven musical accompaniment of Grieg playing concomitantly with Willy’s first onscreen paces; this gentleman was pushing the Z80 and ULA to levels far beyond his peers. The game engine is sublime. Animation is smooth, controls are responsive and collision detection is right on target.
Where the game really shines, however, is in the level design. Each of the 20 compact little screens have been tightly scripted to throw new challenges and gameplay ideas at the player. Central Cavern brings collapsing platforms, a freakish animated antagonist, a moving walkway, environmental hazards and at least 2 deceptively difficult jumps. Moving on to the Cold Room we’re subjected to multiple enemies with timing-critical paths and the first glimpse of the game’s dark sense of humour (assuming the player hasn’t already been subject to being crushed by the Monty Python foot in the game over sequence). The Menagerie introduces a long run-and-jump combo and the Uranium Workings multiple complex jumps. But Eugene’s Lair is the first truly iconic screen. I’d argue there are more confrontations, misdirections, jokes and twists built into that single level than are found in the entire ZX Spectrum canon prior to the date of release. From there, the glorious innovations just keep coming in the Vat, Bank and Landing Bay. All the screens are difficult – the penultimate level almost impossibly so – bar the final, 20th, cavern which leads to Willy’s home. I’ve never made it the whole way without cheating, so it is rather fortunate that Mr Smith had the foresight to add a cheat code.
Whilst later platform games were more glamorous, I don’t think any of them packed such a tight engine with such tight level design. I still play this game regularly and suspect I’ll continue to do so for the rest of my days. Turn the sound off and give it another chance, Wimpy! You might be pleasantly surprised.