Manic Miner: Matthew Smith, Mystery and Miner Willy

Manic Miner's hero - Miner Willy

Miner Willy. No really that’s his name.

In a nostalgic conversation about gaming it is unlikely that ZX Spectrum fans or even retro gaming fans in general, won’t mention the brilliant Manic Miner.

Manic Miner was one of the first games I ever played; maybe it was the actual first! (It’s hard to remember – I was only 4 or 5 years old at the time). In around 1983 when I was given my Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k, I got with it, this now legendary game on cassette.

Manic Miner Screenshot

Manic Miner’s iconic first level “Central Cavern”
(image via Wikipedia)

Loading it up (as with all Spectrum games) felt like it took an eternity, but as all fans will agree it was well worth the wait. It’s vibrant colours, the repetitive music (it was the first ever ZX Spectrum title to feature in-game music), the surreal characters and levels, the tight hi-frequency sound effects and sweeps; all of this drew you in and penetrated your mind. It was 2D platforming psychedelia.

Manic Miner’s creator..

It’s hard to believe that when a 17 year old Matthew Smith coded (in 6 weeks) and released this game in 1983, that it would enter gaming culture as one of the most referenced retro platformers of all time.  Next of course (and I’ll save this for another blog post at another time), came the brilliant and equally as memorable sequel “Jet Set Willy”.  These title’s surely would cement Matthew on the path of game development success for years to come; well you would think so.

MATTHEW SMITH on TRS-80 on Megatree

Creating history fueled by Coca Cola
(Image via

Not long after these plastic boxed cassettes were flying off the shelves to sit in the tape deck’s of most 8-bit gamers; Matthew seemingly vanished.

There was much mystery surrounding what happened to Matthew.  In a world where people were reporting sightings of a long deceased Elvis – reports of Matthew Smith sightings were also not uncommon and each theory of his fate more bizarre than the last.  Years later thankfully Matthew turned up alive and kicking to take his seat in gaming history.

I implore you to seek out and play Manic Miner (preferably on an actual ZX Spectrum, but at least on an emulator), if only to play and beat the first level “Central Cavern”.  Take in the sights, feel the disintegrating section of floor disappear from beneath your pixel feet and take a ride on the cleverly done conveyor belt.  Listen to the sound of Miner Willy jump and descend; listen to the chip-tune version of the very recognisable classical piece “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg, repeat over and over again (it will stay with you for a long time).

To expand on the folklore, here is a short video and interview from the show “Thumb Candy” which briefly covers the story of Manic Miner and delves in to what happened (or what may have happened) to the eccentric and almost mythological programmer, known as Matthew Smith.

via YouTube

  • Paul Davies

    I loved all the rumours about what had happened to Matthew Smith. I particularly like the fish gutter story!

    What classic game too, many memories from my childhood and highly addictive. I have also recently completed it – though through emulation and with the use of save slots – but hey, I count that as valid!

    I remember when I had it on the Speccy and having the beginning of the game recorded over on the tape but it only being the loading screen part missing and then making my own loading with the Randomize USR 223255 ( or something like that!) command included and then the game loading! Was well chuffed with myself after that! Highlight of my programming (ahem!) ‘career’.

  • the guy is a legend. end of story.

  • Irish Sweetness

    Some games are now developed with budgets of 200 million dollars I hear. To think that Matthew came up with MM and JSW in his bedroom on a Tandy is genius to me.

  • Irish Sweetness

    Some games are now developed with budgets of 200 million dollars I hear. To think that Matthew came up with MM and JSW in his bedroom on a Tandy is genius to me.

    Matthew – I just wanted to say that people like you are the true geniuses of the industry. A kid in his bedroom created something that other kids in other bedrooms became addicted to, at the dawn of a new age. The age of information. You were right at the heart of it, creating art that massive companies, years later, cannot imitate no matter how hard they try. Hats off to you, and thank you. Long life and happiness to you.

    A fan.

    15 POKE 23692,255 ;o)

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