Manic Miner wasn’t the first game I played on the Spectrum that dad bought home one day. That accolade goes to either Psion’s Space Raiders, a Space Invaders clone, or Thro’ the Wall, a really really basic Breakout game. To be honest, I don’t remember which it was, but it wasn’t too long before Manic Miner came along. On a Boots C15 cassette too, naughty dad eh?
In 1983 I was eight years old. Sam is now 8 himself. His gaming experience is completely different to mine though. By that age, I’d played things like Galaxy Invaders 1000, Mini Munchman and Firefox F7, very arcade like, but no platform games. Sam’s played such a range of games, from Yoshi’s Island 2, to the LEGO games, through to Marvel vs Capcom 3. What he hasn’t played though are many games that require literal pixel perfect timing and instant death- life bars are so much the norm now that dying immediately is going to be a shock to the system to him!
When I was 8, I spent most of my time in Manic Miner on the first screen, The Central Cavern. The second level is much easier, and the third isn’t as hard but there are a couple of jumps in Central Cavern that are a nightmare- specifically getting the key below the blue stalactite, which is above a disappearing floor. If you jump too soon, you miss the key and the floor goes, too late and you hit the stalactite and… die. We’re about to do a lot of dying.
Sam: I like the music on the title screen. It’s sort of anti music. Like what a robot would make.
Me: The music in these old games had to be made by something called a sound chip. They couldn’t just record peoples voices and put them in to the game and the same went for music. The first game I remember with sampled speech was Ghostbusters. Although if you hadn’t read the cassette to know it had sampled speech, you’d never know.
Sam: Wait, they did a Ghostbusters game? Why aren’t we playing that instead? This looks silly!
Me: This is how games looked! And trust me, Ghostbusters is a hard game. You’ll prefer this. Now shall I have first go to show you how it’s done?
I flex my fingers dramatically and pick up the Competition Pro joystick. It’s only been half an hour since I had it in pieces to reattach one of the microswitches. I proceed to take 3 whole goes to complete the Central Cavern. I’d been secretly practising too.
Sam: that looks hard. Why is there a clockwork person? Why would you find them in a mine? That’s silly. And why is there an air bar?
Me: That’s why it’s “Manic” Miner Sam. If it was full of rocks and the odd rat, it would be Sensible Miner, and Miner Willy would have a high viz jacket and a hard hat. The first half of the game would be about filling in risk assessment forms.
There’s a pause as we both laugh over the fact he’s called Willy. We’re good like that. Sam takes the joystick for a go. After last weeks failure to even get the game running, I’m suddenly nervous that his first proper go is going to be a disaster and put him off the idea forever. I’m not what you would call an optimist.
Sam: what’s the controls then?
Me: the joystick moves you left or right and the one solitary button makes you jump.
Sam: that’s it? Sounds easy.
It’s not. 15 minutes later Sam finally completes the Central Cavern. I’m impressed by his tenacity as much as his manual dexterity. I was worried it would be too hard and would put him off but he’s stuck at it and I’m a proud Dad. This project might just have legs!
Sam: YES!! (fist pumps, many of them)
Me: well done Sam! You’ve got one life left now, so the thing to bear in mind on the second level, the Cold Room is… ah…
The thing to bear in mind is the disintegrating floor, just to the right of the conveyor belt. If you let all of this drop without getting up onto the conveyor belt and then the platform above and to the right of it, it’s life over as you’ll be stuck on the bottom. Sam stands on the platform until it drops.
Sam: What do I do now?
Me: Now? Well you have to die and then I’ll do the first level for you and you can have a go again.
Sam: that’s silly. Where are the continues and the bonus levels anyway?
Me: it’s not that sort of game. The first game I can remember with a proper bonus level like you’re thinking about was probably Bubble Bobble, where you collect a magic door to go to a secret level.
There are probably loads of others before this but I didn’t get to play a huge number of games at the time, so I don’t know any better really. We play on for a bit, it turns out the Cold Room is really easy when you know to make the first two jumps quickly. We manage to complete the next level, the Menagerie too. We manage to play Abandoned Uranium Workings a couple of times but since we’re doing it “properly”, we have to complete the preceding levels to get there, and eventually things get a bit fraught. Time to quit while we’re still ahead.
Sam: I like the music. The graphics are a bit rubbish and it’s really hard!
Me: I think old video games have the best music. This, Bubble Bobble, Tetris, they have the most catchy tunes you can imagine. Anyway, how would you sum up Manic Miner Sam?
Sam: (long pause) I think I know why you read a lot of books when you were my age Daddy. Willy should be able to jump higher. Like on Central Cavern, he should just be able to jump up to the platform on the left from the first red platform below the green conveyor belt. Mario can jump properly. But I like the music and he’s called Willy, which is funny.
So that’s Manic Miner. Sam made it as far as I did without the judicious use of POKEs back in the day and I was impressed with his tenacity. The thing with games today is they tend to be about staying power rather than skill, infinite lives makes it a war of attrition to get through, rather than skill at what you’re doing. I’m proud that Sam managed to get through the first three levels of Manic Miner in one sitting, I think he’s levelled up.
Just wait until next week though, I’ll be taking him on at Way of the Exploding Fist!