Matthew Smith - International Computer Programmer of Mystery
Matthew Smith was a megastar during the heyday of the Speccy, and that is no exaggeration. No British programmer at the time had as much respect, success and column-inches as he did, and his games were, and still are, considered benchmarks of quality. In fact there were even rumours at one time that he was just a code name for a computer or team of publishers, in order to increase Manic Miner's legendary status! Always a mysterious character, Matthew seemed to vanish in around 1990, and speculation was rife among his fans in the emulation community. His status was elevated to that of missing celebrities such as Lord Lucan, and his whereabouts were a hotly discussed subject on newsgroups and websites.

Recently, however, Matthew has resurfaced with his own website, and has given me his first on-line interview. As a companion to it, here is his story, including contributions from people he worked with, and fans of his games. (Note: The interview material was gathered when Matthew was still a "missing person", and this article is a bit smaller than initially planned 'cos all the speculative stuff is redundant!). )

Matthew Smith was born in Surrey, but grew up in the Liverpool town of Wallasey. As a youth in the he was interested in electronics, and soon got into the new home computers that were coming out in the early years of the 80's. By 1983, at the tender age of 16, he had a three game contract with Liverpool software house Bug-byte, and the first game he made was called Styx. Not the most impressive of game, it featured a man with a laser gun, who had to travel through a one screen level, and kill the Grim Reaper. It was Matthew's second game, however, that cemented the legend.

Manic Miner was a game loosely based on the Atari hit Miner 49'er. It introduced the world to Speccy icon Miner Willy. The surreal humour was almost unheard of in computer and video games so far. The traditional little green men aliens that had populated most games so far, MM was full of kangaroos, penguins, toilets, and a huge bouncy version of rival programmer Eugene Evans. It's hard to imagine this causing a stir, when we're used to the bizarre humour of games like Earthworn Jim, and the uncomprehensible weirdness of most Nintendo and Squaresoft games, but the relatively tame craziness of Manic Miner was enough for people to question Smith's mental state! What really caught people's eye, though, was the technical innovation that Manic Miner showed.

There were a few things you couldn't do on the Speccy, or at least that's what people thought. One was flicker-free graphics, and the other was continuous sound. But Manic Miner contained all of these, as well as a massive 20, fixed-layout levels. To top this the pixel-perfect gameplay was terrific. At the time it was the most impressive title around, and it sold very, very well, making Matthew Smith pretty rich.

"When Matthew wanted to show me what graphics he had created when he was working on Manic Miner, I suggested that we wire up the phones directly to the Spectrum's tape leads," remembers Chris Cannon. "Because we were so eager to try it, we simply sliced the ends off the leads and spliced them directly onto the phone microphone and ear piece wires. It worked a treat. Eugene from Eugene's Lair was first transmitted electronically across two dodgy phone hook-ups from the Wirral to Bootle, by Mat saving the screen memory and me loading at the same time!"

"If there is one true classic then Manic Miner is it," says Keith Ainsworth, maintainer of Retrogamer fanzine. "If you compare it to the others of the time you'll see how far ahead it was. Great graphics that were animated. Continuous music plus sound effects. Plenty of screens and pixel perfect challenging game play. What more could you want?"

After the success of the game, Matthew left Bug-byte along with one of it's founders, Alan Maton, and some other programmers including Chris Cannon, to the new company Software Projects, which he was a shareholder in. Utilising a legal loophole, Matthew withdrew Manic Miner from circulation, and then took it with him to Software Projects, re-releasing it in a slightly different version.

"Everyone thought that we had always planned to take Miner away from Bug-byte," said Alan Maton in a 1984 PCW interview, "but it wasn't like that at all. The idea of Software Projects had been kicking around for a while."

The follow up to Manic Miner was Jet Set Willy, which arrived in 1984. A massive 60-screen platform game, it was similar in style and gameplay to Manic Miner, but the player was able to travel between the rooms freely collecting objects. The game's production was followed avidly in the gaming press, and when the game finally arrived it was even bigger than Manic Miner. For a while it was this biggest-selling computer game in British history, but there were problems.

The game was unfinishable due to a few unforseen bugs. The main one was a caterpillar baddy in "The Attic" room, which corrupted other screens on the return journey. Software Projects actually managed to claim that this was a feature of the game, making the player seek out a harder route, but still released some official pokes that solved the problems. This did nothing to deter people from the game, however, and if anything increased the legend of Matthew Smith.

The follow up to Jet Set Willy was supposed to be "The MegaTree", a semi-isometric game starring Miner Willy. The press knew it as "Willy Meets The Taxman", which was an in-joke referring to Matthew Smith's own tax troubles.

"The third Miner Willy game was called "MegaTree" - an expansion of the Banyan Tree - during the development phase," says Stuart James Fotheringham."'Willy Meets The Taxman' was a joke title to keep the games press interested."

Marc Dawson adds: "There was no Willy meets the Taxman, that was a joke due to how much Mathew had made. It's real title was "The Mega Tree". It was a semi isometric type game, all we really ever got going was lots of mini trees running around in isometric with Miner Willy."

But the game never materialised. "We hadn't got past the discussion and planning phase in a month of work, and only had one draft screen working," says Stuart Fotheringham. "Tommy Barton (who was the money behind Software Projects) wasn't impressed and cancelled the project"

The only project that Matthew Smith was ever publicly attached to was Attack of The Mutant Zombie Flesh-Eating Chickens From Mars (AOTMZFECFM) in 1987. This was advertised in computer magazines, and there was even an interview in Sinclair User with Matthew Smith at the time. But again, nothing materialised, and the truth behind the game has been the source of great speculation until now (find out the truth in the interview).

After this nothing was heard of publicly from Matthew Smith, and his fans in the emulation community speculated wildly about his whereabouts. But why did so much interest arise in a computer programmer who only ever released three games?

Chris Cannon: "It really is down to the fact that MM was such a departure from the games that were around for the Spectrum at the time. That and the fact that he was so young at the time, and he was so mysterious as far as the press was concerned. All this seemed to boost interest in him. The hype behind JSW must have a lot to answer for, too."

Stuart Fotheringham: "Matthew Smith disappeared from public view at the height of his 'fame', after delivering two highly influential and best selling games, which is a well trodden path in other media to gaining 'cult' status"

Stephen Smith, author of the 'Where's Matthew Smith' webpage, says, "[His disappearance] probably did increase his status, in the same way it increased John Lennon's, by pushing him to 'legend' status, because there's nothing else to go on but his much-admired past."

The games are still held up as benchmarks of quality today, and are kept alive through the use of emulators and the loyal Speccy enthusiasts still working their rubber-keyed wonder. "Someone in the British gaming press said Mario 64 would never have existed without Manic Miner," says Keith Ainsworth of Retrogamer fanzine. "That's an exaggeration as the Americans I know have never heard of the game (they could have seen the C64 version). But in Europe there is no question that Matthew set a trend for platformers that was carried right through to the 16 bit consoles."

"[The games] were excellent," says Marc Dawson, "He also wrote a number of games on the TRS-80 which were all pretty good fun. Also when he finished a game it was polished something that even today people do not do"

"Just about everybody has heard of [the games]," says Andy Noble, author of Manic Miner PC, "and, judging by the ammout of emails I get, every body has at least played one of them once. So it has to have rubbed of on the kids who have now turned into games producers."

"MM and JSW were influential on a whole generation of "bedroom" programmers in the UK," says Stuart Fotheringham, "which I believe goes someway to explaining why the UK has one of the world's highest number of computer programmers per head of population, if not the highest, depending on whose figures you believe. So I think MM and JSW (and the whole 8-bit scene) not only influenced the games industry, but the UK IT industry as a whole."

The mysteries surrounding one of the most influential games programmers this country has ever seen have finally been solved, and the great Matthew Smith is back and programming once again. Now it seems that Specusers will have to find themselves another case to solve... now whatever did happen to 'Mire Mare'...?

Thanks a lot to Stuart James Fotheringham, Chris Cannon, Marc Dawson, Stephen Smith, Andy Noble, Keith Ainsworth, James Langmead, Steve Layland, and, of course, Matthew Smith himself for help with this article.

Sources: Interviews with Matthew Smith in Sinclair User (Dec 1984, Jul 1987), Your Sinclair (Feb 1986), Big K (Apr 1984) and Popular Computer Weekly (Apr 1984),the Ultimate Jet Set Willy Fan Page and Stephen Smith's site.

(c) Pete Mella