The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack - Jet Set Willy
by, 10-14-2010 at 11:19 AM (1554 Views)
We're going back to a software review this time with a review of a distinctly British game, and no it isn't Tea Drinking or Warm Beer related, it's the retro platformer Jet Set Willy.
Jet Set Willy was one of my favourite games, and it's finest version was on one of my favourite systems. Perhaps a little surprisingly it was a sequel which is often a curse but in this case is most definitely not. It was the sequel to Manic Miner, both games being written by Matthew Smith. Smith was born in London, but his family moved around before ending up in Wallasey. He started out programming on a 4K TRS-80 and his first commercial game was a Galaxian clone for the TRS-80 called Delta Tower One, next was Monster Muncher on the VIC-20.
Following those successes he loaned a ZX Spectrum from a company called Bug-Byte Software Ltd on the proviso that he would use it to write three games, and the first of the three was Styx in 1983, then Manic Miner which took him just six weeks and became an instant hit.
Manic Miner wasn't just a great platformer, it was the first game on the ZX Spectrum to have in game music. The third game he wrote for Bug Byte was the sequel Jet Set Willy which took a lot longer to write and was an even bigger hit than Manic Miner had been and they became two of the biggest games on the system.
Smith started the publishing company Software Projects and his next game was The Mega Tree for the Commodore 64 but he abandoned it after three months. Another failed project was the 1987 title Attack of the Mutant Zombie Flesh Eating Chickens From Mars which was actually advertised in magazines but it was rumoured that Smith was unhappy with the finished game and it was never released.
Software Projects closed in 1988 and at the same time Matthew Smith went AWOL. He just dropped off the face of the earth. People reported sightings of him but nothing official was heard until he got deported from the Netherlands in 1997 after living on a commune there, and when he returned to England he was very "surprised and flattered" by the interest there had been in his whereabouts.
In 1999 Smith worked for the game developer Runecraft but the the company went into receivership after releasing only one new game, Scrabble for the Game Boy Color. He is now said to be working on new games as well as mobile versions of his original games.
Matthew's lifestyle has been described as “experimental” and it is as though he has discovered the sixties. Matthew himself says "I don't do a lot. Computing was my only hobby but I don't do that any more. I like partying, getting drunk and falling over a lot." He once went to a nightclub dressed in a toga, 'as an experiment' and when asked if they would let him back in again he replied "Not in a toga."
Matthew says that if he had to be shut in a room with one Spectrum tape it would be Atic Atac as “It's closer to what Jet Set Willy should have been than Jet Set Willy is."
The first one in the series then, Manic Miner is a platform game originally written for the ZX Spectrum, and at the time its stand-out features included in-game music and sound effects, excellent playability, and colourful graphics despite being on the limited Spectrum. Like I said earlier it was the first game on the Spectrum that had in-game music and that required some trickery that meant constantly alternating CPU time between the music and the game (which accounts for the music's stuttery rhythm). The game tune was Edvard Grieg's In The Hall Of The Mountain King and the title screen theme song was Johan Strauss' The Blue Danube. Both of which are royalty free.
The object of Manic Miner is to enter the twenty caverns of Miner willy's mine and collect all the goodies, no not Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Time Brooke-Taylor, I mean goodies as in treasure. In each of the twenty caverns are several flashing keys to collect before the oxygen in the room runs out. Once you've done that you have to make your way to the now flashing exit that will take you to the next cavern.
Trying to stop you, as well as the falling oxygen level, are baddies such as Poisonous Pansies, Spiders, Slime, Robots, Telephones, Penguins, Toilets and Satellite Dishes. You can also die if you fall too far.
Manic Miner was placed at number 25 in the Your Sinclair official top 100 Spectrum games of all time.
The sequel to Manic Miner then, and the game I'm meant to be talking about, is Jet Set Willy, which was also originally written for the ZX Spectrum and it was released in 1984 when the system was at the height of it's popularity, but like it's prequel it was ported to many other systems.
The plot this time is that Miner Willy has thrown a party in the huge mansion he bought with all the treasure he found in his mine in Manic Miner, but the mansion is in a mess with empty bottle everywhere. His housekeeper Maria will not let him go to bed until he has picked up every single one of them but that is a mammoth task as the mansion is huge containing 60 rooms and a total of 83 items.
Jet Set Willy has a similar game engine to Manic Miner and has the same simple gameplay using just left, right and jump, and you can climb stairs by walking into them. To get past just jump through them, and you can ride on rope swings using just left and right too. Before you got into the game though you had to get past the copy protection.
I remember that Jet Set Willy had a unique, at the time, anti-piracy code sheet that was included with the game and it contained a grid containing 180 squares, and each square had a unique combination of colours inside it, so when the game booted it would ask you to enter the colour combination at a certain grid reference on the sheet. Of course everybody spent a few days making their own copy of the grid using coloured pens. So even though you could easily copy the cassette tape itself, there was still a lot of work to do in order to get the game to be playable. This is of course in a time when almost nobody would have had easy access to colour copying facilities the way they do now. Now it would just be a case of doing a quick colour scan and that's it. Back then it was colour it in yourself or buy the game, which we all should anyway right?
I actually owned an original Jet Set Willy, as I did with most of my Commodore 64 games, but not everybody was as honest as I was, including one magazine actually that showed you a way to circumvent the copy protection.
Once you get past the copy protection then you find yourself in the bathroom so you make your way to your bedroom and there is Maria telling you to go and tidy the mansion so off you go exploring the 60 rooms, and each one has a name and some of them are weird and wonderful, perhaps portraying a little of Smith's off the wall sense of humour, but they all seem to take inspiration from somewhere.
The real great thing about Jet Set Willy for me though, as I mentioned in show 1 was that Jet Set Willy was the first game that I played where you weren't forced along a kind of linear path as you were in Manic Miner, having to complete the rooms in a specific order. You had complete freedom of movement in the game and that was something new to me back then. There were other games at the time with freedom of movement, something like Elite also from 1984 had it for example but Jet Set Willy was the first I played like that, and I’ll always remember it.
I also remember having a printout of the map of the mansion and the grounds showing all the levels and sometimes I would load up the game and just explore the mansion going from one end of the map to the other without necessarily collecting the items along the way, just exploring and practicing the levels.
What is it about the game that makes people want to play it like that even after all these years? Maybe it is because the game has that just one more go appeal, or you just have to try a particular room and even just completing some rooms gives you a sense of achievement, and there is no doubt that completing this game is very difficult but playing certain rooms like that and exploring certain rooms gives you the impression that if you just put all those bits together you could complete it.
Having said that though, even playing the game on an emulator with a save state feature that allows you to save your progress at a tricky part is very tough and will still take you a long time.
The PC version has a Load and Save facility that allows you to load by pressing F7 and save by pressing F8 and you can use that to make the game easier too. Now you can say that's cheating if you like, and I can see the point, but it also helps you to get around one of the game's flaws yes it does have some.
For example, if Miner Willy falls too far he loses a life, but if while he's falling he enters another screen before dying then once he hits the floor in the new room, he will be sent back to the point where he entered the room, and fall down and die again, and again and that gets repeated until all of your lives are gone. Having a quick Load and Save feature will allow you to get around that flaw and you can just hit F7 to go back to your last save point. That doesn't really ruin the playability of the game or feel like cheating though because you still have to work out how to clear the rooms and you still have to physically do it, this just means you don't waste all that effort by falling off a ledge that leads to oblivion, and also, F8 doesn't work like an emulator save state, it saves your position when you entered that room, not your position when you pressed it.
The other major flaw that the game suffered from was the fact that it was impossible to complete. For example the Dragon 32/64 version couldn't be completed without cheating because it was impossible to cross the screen called the "Drive" if you were going from right to left, which you had to do after collecting all the items. However, if you held down the keys M, A and X there was a built in cheat that allowed you to start your player from any position on screen using the arrow keys and the spacebar.
Also impossible to complete was the Spectrum version because of what was known as the Attic Bug. After the player entered the room The Attic, various other rooms would get corrupted so for instance all the monsters disappeared from The Chapel, and other screens killed you instantly. This was caused by an error in the path of an arrow in The Attic which meant that the sprite travelled past the end of the Spectrum's video memory and overwrote game data instead.
Software Projects originally announced that this was deliberate to make the game more difficult, and said that the rooms that killed you instantly were filled with poison gas, but they soon issued a set of POKEs (low-level memory-writing hacks) to correct the problems.
The original releases of "Jet Set Willy" for the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64 also contained bugs that made the game impossible but they were different bugs to Spectrum version. In the Commodore 64 version it was impossible to reach all the items in the "Wine Cellar."
Another peculiarity of the Spectrum version of the game is that the in-game music changes pitch and goes more out of tune every time Willy loses a life. The tune in the Spectrum version is the song "If I Were A Rich Man” and technically: the frequency of each note is shifted rather than scaled, and that's because the music does not use an interrupt. Smith says that "The first instruction in the program is 'disable all interrupts' he says "It's just move-a-tiny-little-bit, BEEP-a-tiny-little-bit.
Actually the tune in the version that was ported to the Atari 8 bit computers in 1987 was different, it was a track by the well known Rob Hubbard but the game itself received bad reviews and has been referred to as "the lousiest version of Jet Set Willy ever" with the music being one of its better points, and the original ZX Spectrum code was again ported to the Atari 8 bits in 2007 which made it a much better game and it also kept the Rob Hubbard soundtrack.
Software Projects made ports to the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST but cancelled them before they were released, however, Manic Miner did make it onto the Amiga.
As with all best selling games Jet Set Willy has attracted a huge fan base and also a dedicated community that would hack the game and do things like design new levels and make sequels. That wasn’t too difficult to do because the original Spectrum version has a clear separation between the game engine and the data describing the rooms with the rooms being stored in a straight forward format with no compression, so there were many people hacking the game and modifying it, and there is now a Windows based Jet Set Willy editor available.
More recently we've seen the game Jet Set Willy Online which is a Windows version that allows you to play Multi Player Jet Set Willy online as the name suggests.
You can pick a character and enter your name and while you’re playing your name will be shown above your character and you can run round the mansion and the grounds with your friends.
The mansion in the online game is huge and there have been loads of rooms added on to the standard game rooms. I’ll put up a link to the map and you can see just how huge it is, so the Jet Set Willy name is still valid today, still relevant and still stands the test of time along with its predecessor Manic Miner, so you should really look to play both the original and the online game and let us know what you think.
I’m still talking about it 25 years after I first played it, so who knows, maybe in 25 years time you’ll be doing the same thing.
Jet Set Willy Online - http://jsw.ovine.net
Mansion Map - http://www.doxdesk.com/jsw/map.html