Retro Game Designers: Matthew Smith

First of all, who is Matthew Smith? Matthew Smith is the author of two video games universally considered the best ever made for the ZX Spectrum in the 80s: Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, sales champions and with converted for over 10 different machines.

Matthew Smith il programmatore di Manic Miner e Jet Set Willy su

Matthew Smith created Manic Miner all by himself, in the house where he lived with his parents in Wallasey, England, before reaching 21 years of age. His first computer was a gift for Christmas 1979: A Tandy TRS-80 with 4k of memory. For the parents that gift was a liberation, because Matthew did nothing but ask for it every single day in the previous six months.

Matthew Smith il programmatore di Manic Miner e Jet Set Willy davanti al suo primo computer su

Starting from that Christmas day, Matthew spent all his free time learning programming languages, completely self-taught, taking advantage of the few books available on the subject. At 16 he left school, because, he said, they didn’t teach anything on computers. Essential for his training were the activities that the local Tandy dealer organized in his store on Sundays.

To bring young people closer to the use of computers as a productive tool, in fact, free programming courses and competitions were organized, to which Matthew participated, creating small arcade-style games, which had bizarre settings and characters invented by him and his friends. After all, there wasn’t much to do on the long rainy afternoons of the English suburbs.

It was precisely during these Sunday meetings that Matthew met other young programmers, who between one game and another addressed him to Liverpool’s Bug Byte, a newborn software house that wanted to produce and distribute games for the 8 bit systems of the time, in particular the Zx Spectrum, which was the best-selling computer in England in those years.

Manic Miner di Matthew Smith su

And that was how the Manic Miner project was born: The Byte Bug wanted at all costs a Donkey Kong-style game, which at the time was a worldwide success in arcades. Matthew proposed instead to create a platform with a fixed screen, with 8 or 16 levels (which would later become 20), inspired by the Atari Miner 2049er game. To work on the project, Matthew received a Zx Spectrum on loan for use, in exchange for designing three exclusive games. The first, Styx, was ready and earned him the first 3000 dollars, which he squandered in record time.

Schermata iniziale di Manic Miner di Matthew Smith su

In August 1983, after eight weeks of programming, Manic Miner was complete and ready for distribution, at a competitive price of £ 5.95. The commercial result was an incredible success. Crazy levels and very difficult to overcome, which required study and pixel precision for every jump. A graphic section made up of absurd monsters, born from the mind of a sixteen year old boy (and therefore from the worst of your nightmares), few lives and no chance to continue. And if all this were not enough the game had a continuous and anxious background music which, instead of making you throw the Spectrum against the screen, had the strange effect of making the games even more hypnotic and stimulating.

La Cassetta e la cover di Manic Miner su

On the music we need to spend a few more lines. Manic Miner has the distinction of being one of the very few Zx Spectrum software to have a background soundtrack playing during the game action. Indeed, before Manic Miner, it was considered technically impossible to obtain these results. This is because the small Sinclair CPU was not powerful enough to handle the on-screen elements and audio at the same time … at least until the arrival of Matthew Smith.

But back to his story. At the time the contracts signed between programmers and software houses were on the verge of naivety. Only a few lines on white paper. No penalty. Most of the terms agreed with word of mouth. And so it was, after the success of Manic Miner, Matthew decided to start his own business by founding a software house, Software Projects, abandoning the Bug Byte on the spot.

La schermata inziale di Jet Set Willy di Matthew Smith su

Following the old principle that says “a winning horse cannot be changed”, Matthew Smith immediately started programming the sequel to Manic Miner: Jet Set Willy. Designed to be bigger and more complex, the game turned out to be a real programming hell.

La Storia di Jet Set Willy di Matthew Smith su

Distributor pressure to get “the new commercial success” did the rest and Jet Set Willy ended up on the store shelves in 1984 still full of bugs, including one that made, in some situations, virtually impossible to complete the game. To those who asked for explanations, Matthew replied that it was all wanted, a particular game mode that “made the game more engaging”.

Despite its shortcomings, Jet Set Willy darted to the top of the sales charts, remaining number one for many months and making his programmer, and the newly born Software Projects, well-known and above all with substantial earnings.

La Storia di Jet Set Willy di Matthew Smith su

But success was a double-edged sword for Smith. The popularity (and the money) he reached so quickly were difficult to manage, especially for a twenty year old boy. Reckless and generous, he quickly squandered all his possessions between trips, gifts to friends and, unfortunately, drugs. Especially drugs. After a while, these became a serious problem that seemed impossible to come out of.

The subsequent Software Projects game was to be the final chapter of Willy’s saga, entitled “Willy Meets the Taxman”, to be developed no longer on Zx Spectrum, but directly on the Commodore 64. After only three months of work, the game was abandoned.

In 1987 some newspapers reported the news that Smith was working on a new project with a simple and immediate name: “Attack of the Mutant Zombie Flesh Eating Chickens From Mars”. But even this program never saw the light.

In 1988 Software Projects closed its doors, without having produced any new games. Matthew Smith disappeared. Entire online communities began to wonder what had happened to him, where he had taken refuge. A website dedicated to him “Where’s Matthew Smith?” was even opened to collect reports from the most disparate places on the planet.

Witnesses vowed to have seen him in a commune in Amsterdam preaching peace and universal love, calling himself “Matt from Earth”. Others have met him, still in Europe, as a bewildered owner of a mechanical workshop. Others saw him as kindly worker of a canned fish factory near Liverpool. To those who spoke to him about computers, he never disdained any confused talk about his past life as a rich programmer, preferably in front of a beer (offered for free).

In 2000 he suddenly reappears on the Internet with a confusing email to a website, in which he said he was very surprised and pleasantly impressed by the media attention he received by the community.

Memorable will remain the message left to a journalist, who learned of his return, interviewed him first, hoping for some deep message for all those who had followed him and remembered him all these years.

“I wish I’d been sober in the morning more often” he said.