39 years. 39 years of trying to beat maybe the greatest game that has ever been made. And it still eludes me. Yes I’m not the greatest at video games, but it just shows the playability of Manic Miner that I keep returning to try. Every death is your fault, there are no cheap deaths, well apart from the Solar Power Generator but I’ve never managed to get there without a POKE so that is going to be a treat for another day.
But let’s go back to 1983 and I can’t remember how I got a copy of Manic Miner. Games were a rare treat, I had played Thro The Wall to death on the Horizons tape that came with my 48k Speccy, had skied down some slopes after braving the busiest road in the world in Horace Goes Skiing, navigated what I now realise was a Pac Man clone in Hungry Horace (I never saw an arcade as a kid) and stomped on some spiders heads in Horace and the Spiders, why were all my first titles Horace games?
This was stuff I hadn’t seen before in a game and I loved it.
But then Manic Miner arrived in my possession, and it’s hard to explain now how revolutionary some of the things in it were, a loading screen that animated, music during the game, this was stuff I hadn’t seen before in a game and I loved it.
I never paid any attention to stories in the past, and I am not sure if there was any real story to Manic Miner apart from collect stuff on the screen and get to the exit when it starts flashing before your air ran out, signified by a depleting bar at the bottom of the screen, and to be honest it didn’t need one.
There is no gentle introduction to the game either, thrown into the first screen it does not take it easy. In an interview with Matthew Smith he explained the first screen was his “test screen” and as such was much harder than a lot of the initial levels. There are tight gaps to jump into to avoid the one hit killer plants (everything apart from the Solar Rays in the game kills you in one touch), a patrolling enemy that requires a leap over his head, keys to collect that are dangling off a instant kill spike. Brutal!
Talking of enemies I literally couldn’t tell you what the first one was in the Central Cavern, but the British humour of Matthew Smith is riddled throughout the game, you’ll encounter killer toilets, telephones, Ewoks and other killers straight out of a crazed mind.
There are only 3 controls; left, right and jump. And they are perfectly responsive and predictable, which you will need as many gaps require absolute pixel precision. Some platforms will crumble away when stood on and falling from too great a hight kills you. Basically everything wants you dead.
Graphics are colourful, and smooth. No scrolling here, it’s just a single screen for each level, but they are beautifully designed, and this is where Manic Miner really shines. The level design was unbelievably tight and clever, similar to the feeling you get playing World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros it has that feeling of just being perfectly crafted. A perfect playthrough of a level at least in the early stages will have the optimum enemy movement and it feels so satisfying to breeze through a level.
The sound however is where modern me can clash with child me. Let’s be honest, having sound in-game was revolutionary for the time and as a kid I loved it, today I can also be impressed by the technical way it was achieved (constantly alternating CPU time between the music and the game which also made the stuttering effect if you want to know) but you will turning down the sound after just a few minutes play.
To keep returning to a game for almost 40 years I imagine will never happen again
Playability and addictiveness though are off the chart, there is a reason when I fix a ZX Spectrum Manic Miner is the first game I load up on it. As mentioned before, it’s hard but never unfair. Each level is completable with practice (I have done with the level select) but putting them together into one playthrough has always escaped me, but I will succeed.
To keep returning to a game for almost 40 years I imagine will never happen again. As much as I love The Last Of Us or Red Dead Redemption II I just don’t see myself playing them in 2050, but as I reside at the Sunny Meadows Care Home I still think I’ll have a Spectrum Emulator and a copy of Manic Miner. Will I have completed it by then, probably not.