It might seem a trifle perverse to desire a reboot for a series which choked to death on a frond some 35 years ago - unless you count NumFun's terrible 2005 phone racer Jet Set Racing - but Miner Willy is, arguably, the greatest British video games character of all time. After Lara Croft, who - let's face it - these days is British in accent only.
How can I make such a ridiculous assertion? Because games have become homogenised and safe, and there was nothing safe about Miner Willy.
Try and think of another British games character who is as iconic, or has endured, to the degree Miner Willy has. He is - or was on his way to becoming - our very own Mario or Sonic. What's more, his games had a personality all their own - a wry, uniquely British, sense of humour, filtered through the cracked, unhinged, worldview of the young Matthew Smith. Even the character's name was a double-entendre, the game's humour being a weird blend of Carry On, Python and satire; the surreal mixed with the mundane.
How much better would the world be if Shigeru Miyamoto revealed that Jumpman's real name was, I dunno, Huge J'bottom, or Max Johnson, or Buster Hardy.
Matthew Smith, of course, is British gaming's very own Syd Barrett - an iconic game designer who wandered away just as his career was reaching peak momentum.
Had he been able to create Miner Willy Meets The Taxman, or Megatree, or whatever would've been the third bona-fide instalment in the series (not counting a Smith-written type-in game, Andre's Night Off, published in Computer & Video Games in 1984), it should've cemented the character as Britain's very own gaming icon.
We could've had proper Willy games on the Mega Drive and SNES - and still be getting them today. The character, the idea, is perfect enough that it stands up to reinvention in the way that Mario has done. There are reasons why gamers of a certain age don't want to forget those games.
Smith has since resurfaced in recent years, giving sporadic interviews here and there, and the story of what became of him post-Jet Set Willy has been revealed as somewhat sadder and more tragic than the romanticised version we all chose to believe.
Without Smith at the helm, Software Projects tried to keep the franchise alive - releasing the not-quite-a-sequel reworking Jet Set Willy II: The Final Frontier - while attempting to motivate Smith into working on either a Willy sequel or Attack Of The Mutant Flesh-Eating Chickens From Mars (heavily advertised by Software Projects as the next big Smith game, after work on his Willy sequel stalled). Beyond that, and a terrible Vic-20-only game entitled The Perils of Willy (again, not written by Smith)... it was the end.
And it was premature.
The thing is, Miner Willy never needed to go away. They were tough games, but they've remained iconic for a reason - because they're simple to play, full of quirky, distinctly British, humour, and feature a main character who is every bit as defined as Sonic and Mario. Ie; barely at all, but just enough for you to get who he is.
There was something profoundly mysterious about Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy - their surreal interpretations of, respectively, a mine and a mansion, were intriguing, full of bad acid trip nightmare fuel, and dayglo whimsy. From hideous giant demon heads floating above the gateway to Hell, to saws cutting through the floor, to pirouetting penguins and a lethal off licence, they felt simultaneously dangerous and unhinged, and incredibly playful. Indeed, as a piece of art, they appeared to be a reflection of their creator.
Just take look at the insane, needlessly complicated, sci-fi backstory included with Manic Miner:
"Miner Willy, while prospecting down Surbiton way, stumbles upon an ancient, long forgotten mine-shaft. On further exploration, he finds evidence of a lost civilisation far superior to our own, which used automatons to dig beep into the Earth's core to supply the essential raw materials for their advanced industry.
"After centuries of peace and prosperity, the civilisation was torn apart by war, and lapsed into a long dark age, abandoning their industry and machines. Nobody, however, thought to tell the mine robots to stop working, and through countless aeons they had steadily accumulated a hugh stockpile of valuable metals and minerals, and Miner Willy realises that he now has the opportunity to make his fortune by finding the underground store.
"Can YOU take the challenge and guide Willy through the undergraound caverns to the surface and riches. In order to move to the next chamber, you must collect all the flashing keys in the room while avoiding nasties like POISONOUS PANSIES and SPIDERS and SLIME and worst of all, MANIC MINING ROBOTS. When you have all the keys, you can enter the portal which will now be flashing. The game ends when you have been 'got' or fallen heavily three times."
What's brilliant about this is that Miner Willy isn't motivated by chivalry or selflessness or saving the world - but sheer, self-serving, greed. It's pure wish-fulfilment; wouldn't we all want to be as selfish as Willy, were it not for those pesky morals?
Jet Set Willy built upon everything which made Manic Miner a classic. Players would've been happy with more of the same, but Smith went above and beyond, creating a sprawling, free-roaming, collectathon, which built upon its predecessor in the same way Super Mario Bros. built upon Mario Bros. What's more - having reaped the financial benefits of Manic Miner - Smith once again seemed to be telling his own story:
"Miner Willy, intrepid explorer and nouveau-riche socialite, has been reaping the benefits of his fortunate discovery in Surbiton. He has a yacht, a cliff-top mansion, an Italian housekeeper and a French cook, and hundreds of new found friends who REALLY know how to enjoy themselves a a party. His housekeeper Maria, however, takes a very dim view of all his revellry, and finally after a particularly boisterous thrash she puts her foot down.
"When the last of the louts disappears down the drive in his Aston Martin, all Willy can think about is crashing out in his four-poster. But Maria won't let him into his room until ALL the discarded glasses and bottles have been cleared away. Can you help Willy out of his dilemma? He hasn't explored his mansion properly yet (it IS a large place and he HAS been VERY busy) and there are some very strange things going on in the further recesses of the house (I wonder what the last owner WAS doing in his laboratory the night he disappeared).
"You should manage O.K. though you will probably find some loonies have been up on the roof and I would check down the road and on the beach if I was you. Good luck and don't worry, all you can lose in this game is sleep. Why not join the Jet Set and share in Willy's good fortune."
Smith had gone from seeking success to getting everything to dream of, and it doesn't take a genius to work out why his next game could've been Miner Willy Meets The Taxman.
Jet Set Willy was full of secrets - both intentional and accidental, not least the fact that it was impossible to complete the game... until two players wrote to Software Projects pointing this out (their work became the official JSW POKEs and they were announced as the winners of a competition the company had included with the original release).
It'd be pointless to expect Matthew Smith to work on a new Miner Willy game, but somebody out there must have the rights to the character, and there have to be creators capable of building upon what he started. To leave the series languishing without exploiting the potential of such a unique, and cruelly curtailed, franchise, feels like a crime.
We're living in a new era of indie gaming, where Smith would've been right at home - so there has to be somebody out there who can take a gamble on this. There have been enough remakes and home-brew interpretations to demonstrate that it's a series that's not without its fans, but it needs to be more than that; it needs to be a proper release that has had a few quid lobbed at it. One that can, potentially, re-establish Miner Willy as the British gaming icon.
Start from scratch again with a Manic Miner reboot - take Willy back to his money-grabbing roots. Throw him into a series of surreal, sci-fi, caverns, with limited air supply, and a simple left-right-jump control system - but potentially with the sprawling, open map of Jet Set Willy. Give it a degree of modern graphical gloss - but don't lose sight of the bizarre, Gilliam-esque, humour which defined those games. That's the selling point; that balance between what we expect from a game, and the constant surprise.
Keep the satirical element intact - lest we forget that among the other things Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy achieved was to offer their own twisted interpretations of games like Donkey Kong and Hunchback.
And most importantly, make the game personal; whomever is doing it needs to forget making a game with universal themes. Make it yours, own it, pour yourself into it in the way that Matthew Smith did. Make a Miner Willy game which doesn't ignore the fact that its a sequel to a 35 year-old game that nobody wanted or expected.
Let's see an ageing, washed-up, Miner Willy trying to restart his career - surrounded by pretty young things. Use it as a platform for commentary on where games are at today. Make a virtue of how out-of-step Miner Willy is with the times.
Please do this now, yes? It'll be well worth it, probably.