The vast majority of gaming icons are Japanese or American, but Britain has contributed its own share of quirky characters over the history of gaming. And there are few unlikelier heroes than one of the most popular British platform heroes of all time – the monocle-wearing Monty Mole.
Monty Mole emerges from a somewhat unusual background – the miners’ strikes of 1984-85. Briefly speaking, the economy was taking a battering – unemployment was high, and miners were among those hit hardest, especially due to plans to close local collieries. In many communities, this was the only source of employment. Mining union president Arthur Scargill (technically illegally) called a national strike, and there were battles between the miners, the Thatcher government, the police and the press. Eventually, faced with increased financial hardship, the miners returned to work in early 1985.
Peter Harrap was the son of a mine safety officer – he grew up in Yorkshire, a place with a huge mining community heavily affected by the strikes. He saw in the strikes inspiration for a game and, aged 19, he developed the 1984 platform adventure Wanted! Monty Mole. The gameplay was simple, seeing the titular Monty collect coal and other objects in a mine. Once he’d collected all the coal, he escaped the mine through the confines of ‘Arthur’s Castle’ (a play on words referencing Scargill).
Versions of the game were released for both the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64, and they achieved a lot of positive reception from gamers. Indeed, according to a special issue of Your Sinclair magazine in 2004, the Spectrum version is the 15th best game of all time. However, there was also a lot of controversy in the tabloids, because of the end-of-level boss heavily resembling Scargill, as well as references to ballot papers, a vote-casting scroll and the union president’s signature hair spray.
Two sequels followed the next year. 1985’s Monty is Innocent saw our hero thrown into Scudmore Prison for stealing coal, so the player is now his best friend, Sam Stoat, who tries to break him out. The gameplay deviates from the jump-and-collect formula, and Harrap wasn’t involved as writer, meaning many fans see the game as soft sequel. They see the real follow-up as Monty on the Run, which sees the titular mole attempt to escape to Europe – the authorities want to catch him due to his involvement in strike. The game was known for its anti-piracy measure – you had to choose five objects to form an escape kit, but the objects were formatted in such a way that the player required the accompanying manual to actually complete the game.
At the end of the game, Monty boarded a ferry to France, and that led nicely into the next game, 1987’s Auf Wiedersehen Monty. It employed a similar style of gameplay, and saw Monty travelling Europe to find money to buy a Greek island where he could safely retire (there’s a definite sense of British quirkiness to proceedings, and it only refined over time). It failed to hit the heights of Monty on the Run, but it was still well-received.
Then came the game that killed the franchise. As the platform genre moved towards dash-and-action gameplay, developer Gremlin Graphics decided that Monty should follow suit. In 1990’s Impossamole, Monty became a gun-toting superhero, and as Harrap had left the company before development, there was none of his satirical touch in the script. It was too different to what had come before, and it left gamers without a taste for further Monty adventures.
A new Monty game did emerge in 2013, the winner of a game design competition, with proceeds going to the charity SpecialEffect. But there’s been no serious attempt to resurrect Monty, despite Harrap’s interest in a new project. In a 2011 interview, he said: “Personally I would like to do a new game based around my original idea Monty Mole. Another platform type of game would be an interesting challenge for me. It would probably work quite well. It’s rattling around in my head; I’ve actually got a few ideas about it rummaging around in there. I’m thinking something along the lines of: obviously it’s been 20 years since Monty Mole stole all that coal; I’m thinking he’s probably got kids now – probably got the mole babies might come into it somewhere, ha ha.”
Harrap’s involvement is likely the only way we’ll see new Monty Mole games – the character was both of its time, and inextricably linked to the mindset of its creator. Whatever happens, Monty Mole remains proof that gaming icons can come from the most unusual places.