Written by  :  Ashley Pomeroy (233)
Written on  :  Jun 10, 2006
Platform  :  ZX Spectrum
Rating  :  4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars

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Take a shine / to Manic Mine / ur

The Good

Manic Miner is a platform game for the 48k Sinclair Spectrum. It was inspired by a contemporary Atari 400/800 title called Miner 2049er, which was in turn based on the arcade game Space Panic, perhaps the first platform game of all. Manic Miner was more sophisticated than either title. It had collapsing floors, laser beams, a wide variety of enemies, and jumping! Space Panic did not have jumping. Manic Miner was not available for the 16k Sinclair Spectrum, and it was one of the best reasons to upgrade.

Manic Miner is a key step in the evolution of the British/Spanish platform game, although it is quite obscure outside Britain and Spain on account of it only being available for the Sinclair Spectrum. It was however widely converted to other platforms during the 1990s, although most of these conversions improved the graphics and added scrolling, which tarnished some of the game's appeal. Nowadays it is commonly available as a Java applet, or freely-downloadable from Worldofspectrum. I believe there is a conversion for the Game Boy Advance.

Modern platform games - perhaps a contradiction - are not like Manic Miner, although portions of its gameplay style are present in the Tomb Raider series. Specifially, Manic Miner is a hybrid platform/puzzle game, in that it is not about reflexes and skill, it is instead a test of pattern memorisation and the player's ability to accurately perform a sequence of moves to a timeline. Each screen has a route, a pattern that must be memorised. You have to pick up a set of keys before you can exit (thankfully, you don't absolutely have to collect the keys in a set order), and there is a tight time limit.

Nonetheless Manic Miner is a classic of the genre. It was programmed by one man, an eccentric oddball called Matthew Smith, who had a strange sense of humour lifted from 1970s underground culture. He was a mirror of Jeff Minter. His games contained references to the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and I have no doubt that he inhaled the leaf of the hemp plant. Manic Miner has a level that satirises the Skylab crash; there is a level in which you are menaced by chomping toilets. There is a parody of Donkey Kong. The baddies are penguins, performing seals, poison bushes, Ewoks, and indescribable blobs. Each level is generally a riot of colourful animation. The opening theme tune is deliberately out of key. The in-game soundtrack is a beepy rendition of "Hall of the Mountain King" by Edvard Grieg. The game has three sound effects. When you jump, there is a beepy crescendo. When you die, there is a chirp. It is a horrible sound. And there is a crushing Monty Python-style boot when you really, really die for the last time.

For such an early platform game Manic Miner is surprisingly sophisticated. There are the aforementioned collapsing platforms. Bugs drop from the ceiling. There is a level in which mobile mirrors deflect a laser beam. The baddies move back and forth on set paths, although the Skylabs crash down from the top of the screen. None of the baddies chase you, although one moves to block your path once you have collected all the keys.

Manic Miner does not support OpenGL. The game was also converted for lesser computer platforms such as the Commodore 64. It is not right for you to play Manic Miner on the Commodore 64.

The Bad

Manic Miner was a classic even when I was young, in the sense that it was written about in the specialist press but no longer sold in the shops. In the 1980s computer games had a tiny shelf-life, even vaunted masterpieces such as Elite and Jet Set Willy, and by the time I first played Manic Miner in the late 1980s it disappointed me. The gameplay is based around memorisation, and it isn't very entertaining. It's like a Rubik's Cube in this respect, in that there is a thrill to finishing it, but it's not belly laughs.

Years later I have in fact memorised most of the levels, and it is fun to whizz through every now and again, just as it is fun to play Doom every now and again, although Manic Miner is less fun than Doom. Many people have fond memories of Manic Miner, because it reminds them of being young. I doubt that real-life young people would enjoy Manic Miner today.

The Bottom Line

Manic Miner was followed by a sequel, Jet Set Willy, that is even more of a classic. Whereas Manic Miner takes place in a set of single-screen levels, Jet Set Willy took place in a large, flip-screen mansion. It was fiendishly hard, but you were free to wander around. A generous time limit lifted much of the pressure.

Manic Miner seems very dated nowadays. The puzzle/platform gameplay style was killed off by Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog, both of which had more of an emphasis on reactions and skill (in this respect the Tomb Raider games were a throwback, perhaps because they were British, rather than Japanese or American). In its day Manic Miner was as influential as The Matrix or Robinson's High Juice. It was followed by a flood of imitators, such as Mutant Monty and Monty Mole, perhaps because this style of game was relatively easy to program. I want to point out that Maniac Mansion has nothing to do with Manic Miner.

There were greater and more entertaining platform games for the Sinclair Spectrum. Head Over Heels is perhaps the best of the lot, although it is an isometric game. The ultimate evolution of the Manic Miner gameplay style was Auf Wiedersehen Monty in 1987, which is great fun played in 128k mode with infinite lives turned on.