2015 will mark an important gaming milestone – it will be the 30th anniversary for Super Mario Brothers. This event, backed by whatever Nintendo has planned, will grab the lion’s share of media attention in relation to retro games.
However, in my mind there’s a much more interesting retro milestone, at least from a personal perspective – 2015 is also the 30th anniversary of Monty on the Run. Monty Mole was the star character in this Commodore 64 game that was a key part of my formative gaming.
But Monty Mole is a more interesting character than that. Created by Peter Harrap, he starred in six different games across multiple platforms. Monty started as a controversial character – at a time when Mario was still cleaning out pipes, Monty was making political statements. His games contained meta-references years before indie developers pretended they invented the concept.
For all those not familiar with Monty Mole (which is all of you, including those who thought I was referring to Nintendo’s Monty Mole character) let’s recap his games.
Wanted: Monty Mole (1984): Set during the UK Miner’s Strike (where miners went on strike in reaction to the Margaret Thatcher government’s proposed coal industry reforms) Monty Mole is a miner who is collecting coal and other objects to support his family since he can’t earn an income during strike action. It’s a 2D platformer, meaning a lot of jumping between spaces and dodging things that would kill you. Learning what would kill you was a trial-and-error process, but it was safest to assume the answer was “everything”.
The UK Miner’s Strike may sound benign thanks to the passage of history, but it has been considered “the most bitter industrial dispute in British history”. It was serious enough that the Thatcher government nearly declared an official state of emergency and brought in military resources. Police and miners fought each other in riots. People died.
In that kind of environment Wanted: Monty Mole was something that arguably hadn’t been done before (and rarely since) – a game that invoked contemporary political issues. It made enough of an impact that Harrap appeared on UK television because of it.
The political position of the game is on the side of the miners through having Monty as a miner (albeit a monocle-wearing one). However, it’s clearly not favourable to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), given that the ‘final boss’ is NUM leader Arthur Scarsgill. Monty ends up going to jail if you complete the game, indicating that it is the miners who get screwed over no matter what they do. Wanted: Monty Mole takes a sympathetic, working-class position on a turbulent issue of its day.
(To this end, when I see the “get politics out of our video games” meme, all I can think is that the politics has been there for more than 30 years, so that ship has sailed.)
The Spectrum version of Monty Mole was programmed by Harrap over a three month period, while the Commodore 64 version was programmed by Anthony Crowther. Both versions were published by Gremlin Graphics. As such, the two versions have a common underlying core, but also significant differences. The Spectrum version has fixed screens where the C64 screens scroll; the C64 version has given Monty a health bar while the Spectrum version used a one-hit kill mechanic.
Monty is Innocent (January 1985): Shifting from a 2D platformer into a 2.5 maze adventure game, Monty is Innocent sees the player control Sam Stoat as he aims to bust Monty out of prison. The player needs to collect the right items before Monty can be freed and both Sam and Monty can (literally) run off into the sunset.
This game wasn’t developed by Harrap. Instead, Gremlin Graphics had Chris Kerry develop it for the Spectrum only.
The video below makes the game look short, and it is – provided you know where to go. Otherwise it was very easy to get lost in the maze of rooms and die as an enemy teleported in and ‘touched’ Sam Stoat. It also relied heavily on finding either a potion (which gave 20 seconds or invincibility) or a gun (which allowed Sam to kill five enemies) to have any chance of completing the game. Again, learning the game was a trial-and-error process while the location of Monty was randomised in each game.
(Sam Stoat did pop up in at least one other game – 1985’s Sam Stoat: Safebreaker. It is apparently so awful Harrap says, “Please don’t look at this [-] it really was that bad!“)
Monty on the Run (July 1985): On the run from police after escaping prison, Monty Mole must escape the UK, travelling through a haunted house, sewers and other varied locations before boarding a ship at the end of the game. This title returned Monty to the 2D platformer format with Harrap as the main designer, assisted by Chris Kerry and Shaun Hollingsworth. Gremlin Graphics remained the publisher, although relations between management and the developers was strained.
When Monty on the Run is discussed, its music is always mentioned first, which is because it was incredible then and still awesome today. Composed by Ron Hubbard, it took the usual bleeps and bloops of video game music at the time (if a game had music at all) and turned it into a driving theme – Super Mario’s score is positively sleepy by comparison.
But that shouldn’t be the only reason Monty on the Run is remembered. In an era when a game was happy to offer one style of gaming only, this title included a jetpack section and a driving section, with the driving conducted in a Sinclair C5.
Monty on the Run also included a copy protection system that required the player to select the correct five items at the start of a run-through (the gas mask, passport, rope, jetpack and barrel / bottle of rum, listed in the manual) or not be able to progress past certain screens in the game. In an era long before the internet existed, running into a door that didn’t open was a head-scratching experience! After all, who actually reads video game manuals? (Answer: not me as a child, that was for sure…)
Finally, Monty on the Run did contain references to his earlier games. For instance, one screen has a message from Sam Stout in the background.
Auf Wiedersehen Monty (June 1987): Having escaped the UK, Monty must now collect (steal?) money from all over Europe in order to buy the Greek island of Montos where he can live out days peacefully. This was another 2D platformer, as were the remaining Monty Mole titles. The development team and publisher remained the same as for Monty on the Run. It was during the development of this game that Harrap and others decided to leave to set up their own development studio despite management threats that they’d be blacklisted.
Auf Wiedersehen Monty continued the series’ trend of having some interesting features. As the player collected items / money, an image of the island of Montos is revealed under the playing screen. It is only after enough money has been collected and Montos fully revealed that the game can actually be finished.
(During the 1980s Greece was a very desirable destination for the British, while buying an island there would have seen Monty considered among the wealthy elite of the day.)
Auf Wiedersehen Monty also has the areas the player can travel to laid out in rough geographical relation to a map of Europe, with the ability to fly between some ‘countries’ by airport (and indeed some places are only reachable through this way).
Moley Christmas (December 1987): An exclusive game only ever released through Your Sinclair magazine (for the Spectrum), Moley Christmas has the player guide Monty through six screens to collect items they need to release Moley Christmas and deliver it to Your Sinclair magazine readers.
Meta, man. Just meta. Peter Harrap finished this title before leaving Gremlin.
Impossamole (May / June 1990): An updated version of Monty Mole turned him from a retired miner into a superhero who is recruited by aliens to save their sacred scrolls. It was developed by Core Design (yes, the Core Design behind the original Tomb Raider game, among a lot of other titles) and published by Gremlin Graphics.
Unfortunately, the rot always sets in at some point in a series. An early warning sign is the incredible Monty on the Run theme transitioning into a 90s techno beat, but the game itself just isn’t that interesting. As noted on the Impossamole Wikipedia page, this title shares similarities with Rick Dangerous 2, another title from Core Design. However, where Core Design tightened up Rick Dangerous when it released the sequel, Impossamole just felt a bit sloppy to play. It lacked the crispness of both Rick Dangerous 2 and earlier Monty games.
It should be noted that Impossamole was the first Monty game to give him a health bar rather than relying on one-hit kill mechanics since the C64 version of Wanted: Monty Mole. Core Design had used health bars in other platformer titles like Switchblade (1989) and Torvak the Warrior (1990) but Monty didn’t cope well with the transition.
I remember you fondly Monty Mole, pioneer of many things for me personally and for gaming at large.
Auf wiedersehen Monty, auf wiedersehen … at least until we meet again.