Whatever happened to the 'JD Salinger of gaming'?

Matt Smith invented Manic Miner for ZX Spectrum … then disappeared

Of all this year’s 80s revivals, the reappearance of the ZX Spectrum is the most eagerly awaited. At least, it is among middle-aged geeks who get a warm feeling just thinking about its tactile rubber keys and fuzzy sprites.

Launched by Sir Clive Sinclair in 1982, the home gaming console sold a million, inspired a generation to program, and hit the start key on the British games industry. This month, two Spectrum replicas are being released, in the shape of the crowdfunded Vega handheld and a full-size unit from Elite Systems.

Those who had one of the originals will know that the defining game of the speccy was Manic Miner. Released in 1983, the fiendishly difficult platform game featured a miner called Willy, who was assailed by poisonous pansies and chomping toilets. At the time, this was groundbreaking stuff.

Manic Miner still has fans worldwide, and, just this year, Ed Miliband eulogised it, describing the day he completed the game as “a pretty important moment”. Yet few people are aware that Manic Miner was the creation of a 17-year-old whizzkid from New Brighton in Merseyside, called Matt Smith, who has since become something of an enigma.

Manic Miner, which was created by Matt Smith.
Manic Miner, which was created by Matt Smith. Photograph: Public Domain

In the early 80s, Liverpool was at the epicentre of the nascent entertainment software scene. Programmers such as Smith were treated like rock stars – and, like many rock stars, their royalty cheques quickly disappeared into thin air.

After his early success, Smith’s productivity slowed to a crawl; whereas Manic Miner had taken him just eight weeks to develop, its sequel, Jet Set Willy, took eight months. The final game in the proposed trilogy never appeared at all. Its working title, Miner Willy Meets the Taxman, is often thought to hint at some of the other issues he was dealing with.

Tired of all the pressure, Smith dropped off the gaming radar. In the early noughties, a website appeared titled Where Is Matt Smith? as anxious fans attempted to track down the JD Salinger of programming. Fans eventually traced him to a commune in Holland, where he was engaged in factory work. Two decades on, the lost legend of gaming is back, living with his mum in Wallasey.

Matthew Smith, who created Manic Miner.
Matthew Smith, who created Manic Miner. Photograph: From Bedrooms to Billions

Elite owner Steve Wilcox laments an unfulfilled talent. “He’s unique really. So smart, but so untogether. He could be a significant star if he wanted. I’d love to see him do more, but I’ve no confidence we’ll ever see another game, sadly.”

Manic Miner’s reputation, meanwhile, has never stopped growing. Its economy (the Speccy boasted a mere 48K memory) has put it on the syllabus for degree-level computer-gaming courses.

Smith has since conducted a handful of interviews. In one that can still be seen on YouTube, he concludes: “Five years ago I was a washout. Ten years ago, I was history … Now I’m a legend.”

With the relaunch of the ZX, maybe Smith will find a new generation of fans.

Mike Pattenden

The GuardianTramp

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