Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Manic Miner (ZX Spectrum)

Manic Miner ZX Spectrum loading screen
Today I'm taking a brief look at classic platform game Manic Miner, prequel to the slightly more infamous Jet Set Willy, and still fairly notorious in its own right. It'll be 30 years old this year and has been ported across to a dozen systems so far, from the C64 and BBC Micro to the Game Boy Advance and Xbox 360, though I'll be playing the original ZX Spectrum release because it's the most genuine article.

Most of the time I'm playing these games blind, but I have to admit that I know a bit about this one already. Manic Miner and I go way back. Though I never did get past the level with those damn toilet monsters, so If I can just manage that then perhaps I'll feel like I've actually achieved something.

WARNING: The game over screen flashes like crazy. Do not stare directly at my inevitable game over screen gif. In fact, it's a ZX Spectrum game so it's probably best to not look at any of the screenshots at all.

Manic Miner ZX Spectrum title screen
Damn that's painful to listen to, it sounds like someone murdering The Blue Danube. Classic Speccy sound hardware isn't known for being kind to the ears, but you could get more pleasing sounds than this out of a power drill.

Okay the scrolling text says keys Q to P are left and right and the entire bottom row is jump. Well that's one alternative to redefinable keys; just make half the buttons on the keyboard do the same thing so the player can press what they want.

Manic Miner Central Cavern
Okay the game's a platformer and I play as Miner Willy (or the ghost of Miner Willy, looking at him) as he raids a mysterious mine in search of treasure. Which basically means I've got to steer that little grey man down there around a single screen at a time, collecting all the flickery keys and avoiding pretty much everything.

Yep unfortunately every single thing down here is harmful to him, even the air itself. You can't see the AIR meter go down on this short loop, but if I hang around too long in game he'll soon run out of time and suffocate. The floor is his one and only ally, and even that can't be trusted to hang around for long.

The gameplay's pretty straightforward, the game only has three buttons after all (left, right and jump), but that doesn't mean it's easy to get around. Fortunately I've got this particular level permanently burned into my memory, so I can pretty much make it through on autopilot.
  • First I had to fight my natural instinct to jump over the collapsing floor as I would've ended up poking my head up through the platform above and headbutting that green bush, which Miner Willy is apparently fatally allergic to.
  • Then I had to leap over the yellow clockwork toy thing patrolling back and forth on the conveyor belt. Unfortunately Willy can't steer his jump once he's airborne and he can't stomp on enemies, so screwing up the timing here is an instant fail.
  • Once I'd reached the top ledge I had to grab the keys floating next to the stalactites, with two perfectly timed leaps. The punishment for misjudging a jump... is death!
  • Finally all that was for me to do was to collect the last two keys without walking into the bushes like an idiot and then I could backtrack through the level to the flashing exit waffle on the bottom right. Simple!

But then I went and mistimed the jump off the wall on the way back down. Miner Willy only has so much horizontal momentum in his jump before he starts dropping straight down, and with the yellow bastard getting closer every frame my fate here was sealed.

The penalty for failure: I lose a life, the level's reset, and have to do it all over again from the start. Only properly this time.

Donkey Kong Jr. (NES)
Manic Miner might not seem so impressive now, but to give it some context when it came out in 1983 the most advanced platformer you could get on consoles was maybe the port of Donkey Kong Jr. on the brand new Japanese Famicom, and even that stuck you on a single screen at a time. So it wasn't that far from the cutting edge of home gaming,

Plus it was the very first game on the ZX Spectrum to have in-game music (a beepy cover of In the Hall of the Mountain King playing on a loop... forever). Thankfully it's also the first game on the ZX Spectrum with an option to turn the in-game music off.

Level two is the same deal except with snow shoes or tennis rackets or whatever instead of keys. I still have to grab them all to unlock the exit though because... he's planning on ebaying them later maybe? The penguins endlessly pace back and forth oblivious to my presence just like the yellow thing on the first stage, so they're absolutely predictable if I'm paying attention.

Okay, the last ping-pong bat is in that tower of collapsing floors. I can fall down, grab the item, then drop five more levels and stroll into the exit. I just need to be careful to time it right so there isn't a penguin under my feet on the last drop.

Or I could just jump into the exit from the top of the level like some kind of roguish action hero type. Damn, I should have thought up a quip for this, something ice related perhaps...

Oh shit I just remembered the game has falling damage!

Manic Miner The Menagerie
Actually I can fall as far as I want as long as I land in an open exit. Apparently they're some kind of portal or teleporter that instantly re-materialises me to another sealed room in the mine complex (somewhere with a bit of air left in it if I'm lucky). I'm still trying to figure out the ostriches though.

The top floor of the Menagerie is pretty straightforward, I need to make three perfect jumps in a row here without hitting ostrich nor spider along the way. But that's all collapsing floor from here to the far wall, so I only get the one shot at this.

And I fall down just as the ostrich passes overhead, missing me by millimeters! Ostriches don't really need floors you see; if you pull the ground from under them they'll just hover instead at the exact same height by flapping their wings. Little known fact.

You might be wondering how those sea otters can balance balls so perfectly on their nose when they should be suffocating or dying of radiation poisoning. Me, I'm more concerned about how I'm going to get over this tiny gap. It's not much of a jump at all, but I can't make any kind of jump with the ceiling right on top of my head.

I know, I'll get a bit of a run up, then hope my forward momentum carries me across. I think I've got a real chance here! (Flickering death animation screenshot coming up.)

Manic Miner Abandoned Uranium Workings
Nope. Either you jump or you don't jump, and with the roof so low here I can only fall. If I'd only managed to get just one pixel to the right I probably could've survived it too.

One more strike and I'm out, and a Monty Python boot from the heavens comes down to finish the job. Game over; no continues, no passwords, definitely no saves.

Back to the very start of the game then.

So it's even more annoying when I finally make it all the way back here, then throw all my lives away on a couple of easy jumps. All I had to do was press the jump button at the right time and he would've made the landing, but I chickened out and hit the button a split second too early, causing him to fall short. All the way to his death. 

Okay I'm going to need to sit and figure this level out or I'm going nowhere. There has to be an easy way to get all the keys and reach that exit box.

Right, I think I know what I'm doing here now. That ledge up there I keep falling off has to be a red herring; I can finish the level without ever going up there.

You know, I keep thinking of this as being a straight platformer, but it's a puzzle game isn't it really? A puzzle platformer requiring a precise plan. I can't just jump around blindly and hope to make it through with skill alone, as I'm just going to end up running out of time or getting myself stuck.

Manic Miner Eugene's Lair
Crap... I've reached the toilets monsters. Such an distinctly British enemy for a video game.

This is only level five, but it's the furthest I've ever gotten in the game, and I have no idea at all how to beat it. I mean sure okay, I can get over to the cube on the right easy enough...

But now that I'm over on this side of the level I'm kinda stuck. I can't just fall down the gap, he'd surely break his neck at the bottom, but if I try jumping back over to the left I'm either going to land on a bush or headbutt that near invisible purple stalactite.

It's a real conundrum.


A FEW RETRIES LATER.


Well I've made it down here instead this time, does this help me out at all? Well I'm pretty sure I can reach two of the cubes from here, but I still need that one in the top right.

I only managed to grab one cube in the end before accidentally tripping over a bush. One more mistake later and it was all over, I was kicked back to the very start of the game again to think about what I've done.


THIRTY THOUSAND TRIES LATER.


Aw come on, I was so close that time! After briefly checking youtube to learn what I needed to do on that top right corner, I had another go and this time I was flying through. Until just one slight little miscalculation near the end screwed up the whole run. I needed to be a few more pixels over for my jump to be sufficiently perfect.

Then I threw away my last two lives accidentally tripping over toilets and turned the damn game off. Fuck you Eugene, and fuck your lair.


I'm honestly surprised at how much I like Manic Miner considering that it's thirty years old and a pain in the ass, but it actually controls pretty well and plays absolutely fair so far. Enemies move back and forth, objects are an instant kill, collapsing floors collapse and conveyor belts push me along: this is all established right away in the first level, and then it's up to me to figure out what I'm going to do about it. There's no been no bullshit surprises up to this point.

It's kind of like the Super Meat Boy of 1983 in a way, making me want to replay levels just one more time to get them right, over and over again. But unlike Meat Boy, this then takes the level away from you after a few screw ups and then forces you to replay all the stages you're already done with instead. That's the biggest thing that puts me off the game really; I can't just hammer away at a puzzle using trial and error until I solve it, as I often get just three attempts and for each my time is strictly limited. Sure you can fly through levels pretty quickly when you've mastered them, but it's so easy to accidentally slip up a few times on easy jumps and lose all your lives along the way.

So I can't recommend it, but wouldn't want to put anyone interested off trying it either. It's an important piece of British gaming history... being a bit crap is surely part of the charm.


If you have any thoughts on Manic Miner, what I said about it, or just want to brag about getting further than Eugene's lair you're welcome to leave a comment.

2 comments:

  1. An absolute classic and even in hindsight still stands out as one of the best Spectrum games (in my eyes anyway). I never managed to make it past level 14 which was the Skylab Landing Pad. As you say, only having a limited amount of tries to work out a route before having to start over is a complete pain.

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  2. There was a sequel to this game - Jet Set Willy. I played some kind of a dos version with upgraded graphics not long ago, early 2000's. Instead of having linear levels it had a sort of open world where you had to collect all the items. You had a save feature in it, so I found it more playable than this version here. The whole map was huge and after circling the whole thing multiple times I gave up. I was maybe 3 items away from the goal. I think it was an awesome game, hard to explain why.

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