January 2, 2007 6:04 PM | Simon Carless
The second of my unreleased pieces that's been hanging around on my hard drive for a few months now, this piece on the amazing nooks and crannies of Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner fandom was originally produced for 'Transmissions From Imaginary Places', Jim Rossignol and Kieron Gillen's anthology of game writing for O'Reilly.
Unfortunately, due to editor changes and general shenanigans, the book ended up getting cancelled even after it had been solicited, so my piece got sadly orphaned. Tim Edwards over at PC Gamer UK saw it and asked me to do a couple of pages on my favorite JSW/MM mods, which was duly published in Issue 165 (September 2006) in the following form [PDF link] - reproduced with PCG's permission, thanks!
But the original piece was much longer and more detailed, so I've decided to reprint it here. It basically discusses the history of Matthew Smith, legendary early Spectrum programmer, and the amazing efforts of the JSW/MM modding scene in re-imagining his games, particularly focusing on Andrew Broad, whose efforts to create new games out of Smith's ancient masterpiece are just insanely weird and cool.
[Also, having grown up with Smith's games, and being allowed to be a little more informal for the book, I think this piece has a little more 'soul' in it than some of my more reporterly meanderings. Which is good.]
The Gospel According To Matthew Smith
by Simon Carless
'As it is written in Col 3: Row 4 - "No-one shall enter the Kingdom of God except by way of the Banyan Tree."'
- AutismUK, comp.sys.sinclair, November 15th 1997
Forget what you think you know about the creator of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy and his legacy. Sure, Matthew Smith is one of the most cultlike figures in the history of video games, with his borderline psychedelic mid-'80s Sinclair ZX Spectrum platformers still beloved today in Europe, Furry Freak Brothers references to the fore. But it's not only about him. It's also about what happened when he left. When Matthew was gone, departed for years in the wilderness, the Syd Barrett effect kicked in. And, from conspiracy theories to magical proteges, nobody would ever be the same.
Togas And Motorcycles
But wait - let's step back for a second. While Manic Miner and its sequel Jet Set Willy are known and adored by Nick Hornby-esque UK game geeks, we're aware that to non-Europeans, all this magenta and cyan Spectrum nonsense can confuse mightily. So, where did this all start?
The hero of this piece, Manic Miner, is a platform game made by the 17-year-old London-born, Liverpool-dwelling Matthew Smith, released in 1983 by British software publisher Bug-Byte for the ZX Spectrum, and re-released that same year by Software Projects. It consists of twenty bright, carefully defined single screens to traverse and grab objects from, operating under an 'air supply'-based time limit. Each screen plays out a little like Shigeru Miyamoto-designed arcade classic Donkey Kong (indeed, there's a 'Miner Willy meets the Kong Beast' screen partway through your odyssey.)
Manic Miner features a loopy plot about long-lost robots mining the interior of the Earth - technically, it was pretty darn good for 1983, and it ended up being officially converted to a number of other computers, including the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64. But most of all, it was inventive in terms of gameplay mechanisms, cunning in the precisely plotted routes needed to navigate through levels, and had wonderfully borderline-surreal visuals ('Eugene's Lair', a tribute to fellow programmer Eugene Evans, featured a giant 'Eugene' smiley-face sprite, flapping-seat toilet enemies, and oddly warped cube pick-ups). It's the stuff cults are made of.
Jet Set Willy, however, was a whole other kettle of fish.
'There were rumours that Matthew Smith was a figment of the Liverpool computing mass psyche, or merely a clever code name for a Tandy computer. There were rumours that Matthew Smith didn't really exist, and that if he did, then Jet Set Willy didn't and wouldn't.'
CRASH - ZX Spectrum magazine, May 1984
Dr. Jones Will Never Believe This!
It's interesting that even Matthew Smith's first game started the oddest rumors about what or who he actually was.The next would only fire the rumor mill, especially given the borderline psychedelic leanings of Manic Miner. Released in early 1984 for the ZX Spectrum, after an extremely long (by early '80s standards) development period of 8 or 9 months, Jet Set Willy's plot starts with Miner Willy basking in the lap of luxury, thanks to the riches gained from his previous game. However, after one particularly frenzied party at his deluxe mansion, his housekeeper Maria puts her foot down, and Willy must collect all the items the partygoers have discarded, before finally making it to bed. The game's manual helpfully explains: "You should manage O.K., though you will probably find some loonies have been up on the roof and I would check down the road and on the beach if I was you. Good luck and don't worry, all you can lose in this game is sleep."
And you will, indeed, likely lose sleep, since there's no way to save your game, and the items are strewn across 60 fiendish, interconnected rooms, each of which has a unique name and skewed style. From the infamous 'The Banyan Tree', with its evilly embedded tree enemies and ground saw, through the very battlement-like 'On The Battlements', all the way to the rope-tastic Pitfall-like gigaswing of 'We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg', there's an almost unprecedented diversity of beautifully designed room layouts to explore. The average player would have to practice again and again just to get past certain tricky combinations of rooms, meaning that Spectrum owners were continually commiserating with each other over, say, their inability to complete 'The Tool Shed' without losing a life.
Actually, the aforementioned 'We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg' was infamous for another reason too - the 'Attic Bug'. If you'd visited 'The Attic' in the original, unpatched version of the game for the Spectrum, and then entered that room or others such as 'The Kitchen', you would lose all of your lives immediately. This was actually due to incorrect sprite data, and, combined with a couple of other bugs (unreachable items, incorrectly placed wall blocks), the original release of the game was impossible to complete. Fortunately, publisher Software Projects released four official POKEs (inputtable 'hacks' that changed data in the Spectrum's memory) that made the game finishable. But - an epic game that's so hard that it's not actually possible to complete? A little more window dressing to add to the legend.
'Isn't [Jet Set Willy] a bit like a waking nightmare?... Most of the game was planned under the influence of alcohol and written under the influence of other noxious substances.... I s'pose there's not much sex in JSW. Maria's a bit on the stocky side and as for Esmerelda, she just zaps you when you go to touch her. Originally you were going to have to take her to bed - and then she'd kill you.'
- Matthew Smith, Your Sinclair, February 1986
There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop...
And then, as if by magic, after two of the most important games in the history of the ZX Spectrum, created more or less entirely singlehandedly, the mysterious Matthew Smith just disappeared. Gone. Or so the legend goes. In fact, it wasn't quite as easy as that - it never is. But the fact is that, although titles such as an expanded Jet Set Willy II appeared in the market, Smith never again released a retail game.
He came close, though. But the Smith-penned follow-up title to Jet Set Willy, called The Megatree, presumably continuing Miner Willy's tumultuous story, never actually made it to market. The closest we will now get to seeing the in-development portions of that game, which may or may not be related to another possible sequel named Miner Willy Meets The Taxman, is what was revealed by now-defunct UK game magazine Retro Gamer, which bought a number of the original source discs in an eBay auction in 2004.
After that, there was the amazingly monikered Attack of the Mutant Zombie Flesh-Eating Chickens from Mars (Starring Zappo the Dog), which nearly came to fruition back in 1987, and even had full-page advertisements in the UK's Crash! ZX Spectrum magazine, but never actually surfaced at retail - though a later release named Star Paws was vaguely based on a game being developed in parallel to it. A mock-up version of the game packaging for 'Attack...' was infamously found in a charity shop in Merseyside in the late '90s - but no cassette with the finished game on it, alas. And after the non-release of that particular game, Matthew Smith really did vanish from view. And the legend of the Manic Miner creator grew even further.
Now, we do actually have an ending to this part of the story. Since Smith finally made a partial re-appearance into public view in the last couple of years, we actually know where he went. In an interview at the Screenplay festival in Nottingham, England in early 2005, Smith explained that he simply quit the video game industry in 1988 to pursue factory work. He explained: "I worked for food-processing factories, I've been on production lines like laying bunches of flowers for supermarkets." After that, it was away to Holland to a commune in 1995, where he lived until he was deported back to England in the late '90s for failing to keep his residency papers in order. After that, he got a website and eventually, people found him again - the prodigal returning to the fold, the geeks eager to embrace him.
But while Matthew Smith was away, in the wilderness, he needed someone to carry on his work for him. And his fans came out to play...
'Hey! My dentist is called Matthew Smith and he hums "Hall of the Mountain King" as he does my molars!!'
- Dave T God, comp.sys.sinclair, June 25 1996.
If you want to talk about the world of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy modding - creating new art out of Matthew Smith's old art - then sure, there are plenty of proponents. But there's only one Andrew Broad. Now a 30-year-old programmer and researcher with a PhD in Computer Science from Manchester University, he was making entirely new games out of Manic Miner and building his Manic Miner Screen Editor starting way back in 1991, before the Internet (and in particular, his manicminerandjetsetwilly Yahoo! Group) united the modding community into a glorious whole. And, if you look at the top five most audacious, complex, odd, and thematically diverse Matthew Smith-based re-imaginings of the past 10 years, then Andrew probably created at least four of them.
It's not necessarily one specific part of Andrew Broad's new games that shock, though. No, it's a combination of strangely diverse parts. Since each original Manic Miner adaptation can only be twenty single, non-scrollable screens in length, it turns into a wonderful opportunity for an evocative triptych. Firstly, it's the theming. When games are modded, you can generally expect a certain range of subjects - the inevitable superhero character models, or perhaps a scatalogically inclined hack with the main characters replaced with pixelated genitalia. Hilarious.
But Broad starts - _starts_, mind you, with a perfectly precise re-imagining of Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' for Manic Miner, released in 2000 - complete with screen names mirroring the book's chapters, such as 'Riddles in the Dark' and 'An Unexpected Party', of which it's explained: "You begin in Bilbo Baggins's hobbit hole, on the night when the dwarves descend on him (thirteen of them in the book, but Manic Miner only allows four)." The Jet Set Willy embroidering of 'The Lord Of The Rings' is even more spectacular, as Broad explains: "My idea was that The Lord of the Rings would map quite nicely to Jet Set Willy as the former has 62 chapters and the latter has 64 rooms [including 4 unused rooms in the original], so there is a room for each chapter in the book, plus a bonus room..."
And indeed, we have an intricately imagined standalone room named after each chapter of the books, and Broad hacked the innards of the Jet Set Willy engine with help from the community so that you can play different Lord Of The Rings characters in different rooms, from Frodo through Gandalf to Aragorn. He even riffs wittily on the 'Master Bedroom' in the original Jet Set Willy, with Frodo meeting the Eye of Sauron (substituting for Willy's housekeeper Maria) in a bonus room - if you've collected all 256 items, then the Eye will disappear, and you can throw yourself delightedly into the fire of Mount Doom to complete the game.
Buddha, Party, Truman
And from there, well, it gets weirder, but somehow more satisfying. How about a Manic Miner game based on 'The Buddha Of Suburbia' - not Hanif Kureishi's Whitbread Award-winning novel, but David Bowie's soundtrack album for the BBC Television adaptation of the book? Broad does that in his early work 'Manic Miner: The Buddha Of Suburbia', which includes ten screens named after songs from the soundtrack. He even changes the title screen and in-game music to merrily beep Bowie's music, and designs the modded title to sport suitable enemies, including kneeling, floating Buddhists.
However, 'Manic Miner: The Buddha Of Suburbia' isn't afraid to include other diverse elements, however, including 'Screen for Monica Seles', which includes knives as well as rackets and balls, and, according to Broad, "was written in 1994, after the Stabbing (30th April 1993) and before the Comeback (29th July 1995)", symbolizing his since-realized desire for tennis champion Seles to return to her sport. This illustrates Broad's diverse loves, which include, in his own words, "personal experiences, dreams, television, computers, tennis (particularly that of Monica Seles), religion... and music - particularly the works of David Bowie", which punctuate his next few deeply strange releases. In fact, both of Broad's titles in his time-traveling Kari Krišníková series, 'We Pretty' and 'Goodnite Luddite', reference these continuing focuses - the fiendishly complex 'Goodnite Luddite', which exploits many technical tricks never before acted upon before in a Jet Set Willy title, "is set in the distant future, when Selesianity (the worship of Monica Seles) is an established religion", something the author has been known to wax lyrical about outside his video game adaptations.
Broad followed this up with a Manic Miner mod, 'Ma jolie', which he describes in his release notes as: "The hardest MM/JSW game ever written, and the hardest that I ever intend to write!" It includes, among other things, a tribute to the kids' TV show Teletubbies, an attempted autostereogram ("those patterns of seemingly random dots in which you can see a hidden 3D image", as Broad explains), and a single room called 'Semi-Perilous Light' that he suggests will take even the most expert players at least 2 hours of continuous retrying to complete, and is almost certainly the most tricky Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy room ever created.
Next up was a long-awaited trip back to the main Willy mythos with the two-part 'Party Willy', which was released in "the year of Jet Set Willy's china anniversary", and has a deliciously invented plot which involves guiding Willy home after a drunken night out for the first half of the game, following which "Willy is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder which makes him agoraphobic". In the indoor-only Part 2, you must seek absolution for Willy's sins so that he can marry Maria in The Chapel, and his long-suffering housekeeper will let him consummate their marriage. Rooms include a spoof on David Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive', featuring Maria, Esmerelda, and Kari Krišníková, a tribute to British children's novelist Enid Blyton, and a room themed around Itchy & Scratchy creator Chester J. Lampwick, whom Broad says "reminds me very much of Matthew Smith in the way that he invented something great, but was screwed by an unscrupulous company and disappeared for many years." At least one of the other rooms in 'Party Willy' expands the Smith mythos, with 'Tulips in Amsterdam' referring to the rumors that the original Jet Set Willy creator was planting flowers in Holland during his time incognito.
Finally, Andrew topped it all off with 'Manic Miner: Neighbours - Allana Truman', a tribute to a female, Star Trek-loving character from the popular Australian soap opera 'Neighbours'. Broad explains, in a version of the game that mirrors the soap opera plot, and presumably updates classical myth: "In this game, you play Lance Wilkinson. You have to perform seven labours to win Allana, and then solve the rest of the plot so that you and Allana can go to America." Thus, each room is themed around some aspect of the Neighbours soap opera story arc, with Lance forced to retrieve master tapes of classic American sci-fi shows and convert them to video, make a low-budget sci-fi movie, and finally raise enough money to leave the country with his love - all in cleverly converted Manic Miner form. The final challenge in 'Manic Miner: Neighbours - Allana Truman' involves Lance searching for thier lost plane tickets and getting to the exit portal graphic for the room - a taxi that's taking them away from Ramsay Street forever. This is almost certainly the only game mod ever based on a soap opera plotline - and further illustrates Broad's marvellously tangled mind.
'Last year when I was in a small town outside Tulsa I called into a Burger King and there, SHOCK, was Elvis serving burgers and whistling 'Blue Suede Shoes'. I immediately told Elvis that I knew it was him! He admitted the truth and agreed to show me around.
Matthew Smith was working on the fries. He was very bitter that no-one ever mentioned 'Birds & Bees' and concentrated on Manic Miner (Elvis told me he'd go a bit wobbley [sic] if you hummed any tune from Fiddler in the Roof, so I had to refrain.)'
- James Rowan, comp.sys.sinclair, Jun 25 1996
A Cast Of Millions...
Broad and his Neighbors-themed shenanigans aren't the only talented Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy modder around, of course, though he may be the oddest. Some of the top picks from the current mod scene from fan Daniel Gromann (aka 'Jet Set Danny') include Fabian Alvarez, aka Adban De Corcy, who has produced games including the delightful 'Willy's Afterlife', in which Willy is skeletal and Maria's equivalent is Uriel the Archangel, as well as Herve Ast's relatively new, stylish game Jet Set Willy in Paris. In addition, particularly cited is the pioneer Richard Hallas, whose mid-'80s work 'Join the Jet-Set!' was a partial catalyst (alongside friend Adam Britton's games) for the re-appearance of the modding scene in the late '90s.
But Gromann mentions Andrew Broad first, commenting of his incredibly detailed work: "I have spent many frustrating but delightful hours struggling with [Broad's games], and learned a lot about the features (including the so-called quirky ones) of the game engine in the process." The trailblazing Andrew Hallas, on his homepage, also mentions that Broad has designed "numerous impressively-designed JSW games which present virtually insurmountable difficulties for the player". Not only do Broad's games present a near-obsessive level of detail, many of them are almost too difficult for even the hardcore players to deal with, on top of the frighteningly, obtusely specific subject matter.
When Broad is asked about this, he freely admits that he loves playing with Matthew Smith's mistakes and quirks of the engine he created, something that puts his level of pure expertise even further above his fellow Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy modders, commenting: "What makes these games particularly attractive to me is that there are many quirks in the game-engines, such as the way that if you jump through an isolated wall-block at the correct angle, you go slap through the floor below! I love discovering these quirky features, finding unintended loopholes in games, and deliberately exploiting them in my own games."
Welcome To The Future
But that isn't all - how many other modders do you know who have lists of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy mods they're going to make in 2016? Andrew Broad does that. He explains via email, modestly: "The previews on my website are my main way of keeping track of them. I like to release at least one game a year, on a date that marks the anniversary of something special." For example, referencing his original plans to make Jet Set Willy game mods for each of C.S. Lewis's classic seven-book series comprising The Chronicles of Narnia, Broad comments on his webpage: "I'm still trying to decide which seven years to release them. I might use 2010-2016 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the books, or possibly 2007-2013." (Since then, he's changed his mind, aiming for a 128-room conglomeration of the best parts of the books, to be possibly published "some time in the late '00s.")
Other plans include 'Manic Miner: Outside', based on David Bowie's 1995 concept album, and 'Jet Set Toy', which would have a plot based on a dream Broad had in 1992 in which: "Willy goes on holiday with Maria and Esmerelda to a remote island off the UK, and stumbles across a terrifying secret..." Other vague concepts include the PG Wodehouse-based 'Jet Set Willy: Blandings Castle', 'Manic Miner: Masquerade', based on Kit Williams' enchanting early '80s illustrated puzzle book, and even 'Jet Set Willy: The Bible' (in which Christ's resurrection and ascension to heaven "would correspond to Willy running to the toilet at the end of the game, with Maria corresponding to the rock that barred the tomb.")
The Golden Path
What makes Andrew Broad, in particular, alongside the few and the proud Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy modders, quite so enamored of a pair of games that, after all, launched in 1983 and 1984? If you consider what the majority of other 'mod scene' mini-communities are built around, with the exception of a few of the dedicated fellows over at Atari Age who are doing basic modding of Atari 2600 games, Manic Miner is by far the earliest, simplest video game still being worked on in earnest. Why do people even care any more?
Andrew Broad has a theory for why people are still playing: "Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy have exquisite game mechanics. There's an elegant simplicity to the controls... You know exactly how far you can walk to the edge of a platform without falling off, and the pixel-based collision-detection for guardians means you get to weave your way through them at close range." This loving description comes as close as possible to explaining why people adore playing the games, no matter whether they're playing the seminal Matthew Smith original or a gloriously odd Andrew Broad embellishment. There is no uncertainty in the way that the cheekily pixelated Miner Willy behaves. It's all about precision, and precision plus thematic inspiration equals enlightenment.
That the minor implementation mistakes of a toga-wearing 17 year old boy genius should be discovered, exploited, and turned into fiendish game features by a spectacularly focused PhD computer scientist over 20 years later is somewhat of a miracle. That the son should share the logical leaps and the pinpoint eye for detail of the father is even more of a miracle - Andrew Broad is creating derivative works, from the same skewed mental state as the original creator, that live up to the original, a rarity in this fading, badly photocopied society.
Ask any Elvis fan whether he wishes that the King was watching, from afar, and he will likely agree. Perhaps Matthew Smith returned from the wilderness so that he could watch his legacy live on in the eyes of others. Or perhaps he just returned because his work permit ran out. But Andrew Broad cares, and his gang of motley modders care, and in this era of the long tail, there is always, but always, somebody who cares. Fame is fickle, but great art lives on forever. Especially when it involves lavatories with flapping seats and Selesianity.
'There is not enough land. True communists are people who live in communes, villages, tribes. I'd like to live like that, but always with the communications we've got. There should be an end to cities. Cities should have walls around them to keep the city in.'
- Matthew Smith, Sinclair User, December 1984.
[Many thanks to Andrew Broad, Daniel Gromann, Retrogamer, RedKeyRedDoor, the 'Where Is Matthew Smith?' website, and all others who helped in the making of this article.]