Since being about 8 years old, I’ve wanted to meet Matthew Smith. Not just any Matthew Smith would do, though. It would have to be the one that wrote Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy on the ZX Spectrum.
Yes, THAT Matthew Smith, and not the writer of Jamie and the Magic Torch. (Although I’m sure he’s nice too!)
That man is responsible for making me into the computer-obsessed guy I am today. If you add together the total hours I must have spent during my youth, playing Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, you’d be looking at a good few months. I played his games for hour upon hour, every evening after school and every day during the school holidays. He wrote what were, in my opinion, two of the best games on earth.
Parts of his life sound completely fictional, as though they could be lifted straight out of a weird comedy film plot. He has written many games; Manic Miner was his first massive hit but it didn’t leave him with much money. The money he did make went towards buying 6 TRS-80s costing £3000 in the hope of starting a programming company, but the machines were obsolete within 6 months. He could only program games at night, because whenever his mum put the kettle on during the day, his computer would go off. He went missing for a few years and a website was launched to try to track him down. It turns out he went to Holland, where he lived on a commune, and worked as a bicycle repair man amongst other things. He was deported from Holland in October 1997 after the bar he was in got raided and returned to England, where he went on to program Scrabble for the Gameboy Color.
Over the years, a few small things have prevented me contacting him. He doesn’t use facebook, myspace or twitter. He doesn’t have a “contact me” website. People who do know his whereabouts are all, quite rightly, reluctant to divulge his whereabouts.
In fact, he could well be one of the least easy-to-find people ever.
So when news broke that he was making a rare public speaking appearance in Manchester, to talk about his life and his games, I got really giddy. I headed Manc-wards and, with the help of Retro Gamer writer Paul Drury, managed to grab 10 minutes of Matthew Smiths time to ask him a few questions.
I took a seat with Matt, Paul Drury (Retro Gamer) and Mike Mason (Cubed3.com) and passed Matt the beer I’d promised him.
“So, Matt, the first game that you produced was Delta Tower One on the TRS-80, which was a Galaxians clone in 4k. How did you get a Galaxians game onto a machine that small?”
“It was probably 16k.” Matt looks upward, thoughtfully. “I dunno, it might have been 4…”
“It’s not an easy game to get into a small machine though?”
“Well, there’s not a lot of graphics to worry about. The way the graphics were done on the TRS-80 were, like, a space invader was 3 characters. So only 3 bytes.”
“None of the 8×8 UDGs like on the Spectrum?”
“Nah, it was all predefined blocks.” says Matt, referring to the old ASCII graphics. (where a *O* shape would have been a space invader, and not the worldwide recognised graphics in use nowadays.)
“I don’t remember seeing that many TRS-80s games,” I noted, referring to DT1. “Is it true they sold them from a catalogue, and the catalogues were phone directory thickness?”
“Yeah, I suppose nowadays it’d be like the iStore.” says Matt, “You’d just download them.”
“They weren’t type-ins, were they, in a massive directory?” I asked, referring to the TRS-80 catalogue.
“Nah, they printed the whole catalogue with just a list of games you could buy, and sent it out every month. I think it cost 50p. Must have been a hell of a lot of paper. But I don’t know how many people were getting the catalogue.”
“Then after Delta Tower One, you went onto the ZX Spectrum, and came up with Styx. Now I liked Styx, because it was like having three games in one. There was like a band across the top, one across the middle and one at the bottom, so it was like you got three different games for your money.”
“That was a bargain!” he laughs. “You only had a third of a screen for each section, though. I suppose if you only had a third of a screen, you’d only need a third of a monitor,” he pondered. “Yeah, it was one of those ideas that was originally meant to be a scroller, but that didn’t happen… so….” he fades out.
“But again, that was only a 16k game, so even worked on the cheap spectrums!”
“I developed that for a bit and just thought, yeah, lets just bung it out. You could sell any old tat for that little magic period!”
“Something that has bothered me for years and years on Manic Miner,” I confessed, “in The Central Cavern, the first room you start off in, there is just 1 baddie. It’s a yellow clockwork thing.” Matt nods. “When we were young, all my friends and I used to refer to it as ‘The Honker’ because it had a honking nose.” I gesture a big nose shape, on the off-chance that no-one is aware how a big nose looks.
“Yeah, yeah!” Matt laughs and sits forward. He obviously likes the yellow creature! “I think it’s very ‘Yellow Submarine’. There are a couple of different bits to it, and different things, but it IS Yellow Submarine-y!”
“So if you had to allocate a name to it, what would you call it officially?” I enquired, hoping he would put an end to the years of uncertainty I have lived through.
Matt adopted a very thoughtful leant back pose….. “Well, I kind of thought of a …..erm……erm……… it’s a ‘Snapping Robot’, because it’s got the key in the back.”
I sit back and sigh, relieved the 25 year mystery is solved and I can now sleep easily.
“Why ‘Honker’ though?” Matt asks me.
“It had a massive nose, and ….. I was only 8 or 9 at the time.” I confess. My earlier big-nose gesture must have been rubbish.
“That’s one of the benefits of not allocating names to these things,” Matt adds, “people can make up their own names.”
“Now, the in-game music… Did you ever find yourself humming it over and over again in your head, every day and every night, until it slowly took over you entire life and found it’s way into your dreams all through your childhood?”
“Oh, I did.” I bow my head, as though I’ve let out a deeply humiliating secret.
“There are various therapies you can use…” he reassures me.
I continue, “Most of the games on the Spectrum had a few beeps but they were, on the whole, silent. Manic Miner was one of the first games to have continual music throughout the game. I mean, that’s quite an achievement?”
Matt doesn’t verbally respond to this. Instead his demeanour seems to change and he sits upright, as though he is very proud of the fact that a game that he created is still recognised as one of the first ever Spectrum games to accomplish in-game music throughout. He smiles, and I continue.
“There are some seriously scary things in Jet Set Willy, aren’t there?” I ask as I lean forward.
“Errr….. Like what?” asks Matt, unsure where this is going.
“Spinning razor blades?”
“Yep.” he nods.
“Monks, with extending noses?”
“Yep.” he smiles and nods again, as though ticking off the evil things from a big list in his mind.
“A massive Satan head?”
“….yep…” he giggles and nods.
I was preparing to ask him if he was an evil child, but Matt interjects.
“I should have put some wasps in there too!” he declares.
Matt confirms, “Wasps! You wouldn’t believe how many people are scared of wasps! And moths!” he adds, excitedly.
“Moths?” I repeat for clarification, but beginning to sound like a bad echo.
“Yeah, moths flappin’ about. And clowns!”
There was a communal “oooooh!” fear noise from everyone around the table as the mutual thought of clownophobia spread.
Matt continued, “I’d have put a fox in there too if I’d have realised how many people were frightened of them!”
“Speaking of scary” I added, “the first time you go into the chapel, and you see that massive Satan head jabbering away, Jeysus man! That is one scary image!”
“Well….. John Carmack had half a nun chained to a wall in one of his games…” he smiles wryly.
All too soon, my time was up. I said my thank you and shook his hand.
“Oh, before I go,” I asked, “Would you mind if I take a photo of you drinking, to prove I bought you a beer?”
“ ’Ang on!” he said, immediately picking up his drink. He held his beer up and adopted a posh drinking pose. Patiently, he waited in this pose while I got my camera out, turned it on, and snapped a shot.
July 19th 2009 – Matthew Smith drinking beer!
July 19th 2009 – Matt signing Retro Gamer posters
July 19th 2009 – Matt Smith and Paul Drury posing before some gaming shinanigans!
Oh, and did I ask him to sign my copies of Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner? Of COURSE I did!