Any gamers old enough to remember the days of the ZX Spectrum will no doubt hold the humble machine close to their hearts. In these modern times of high-speed broadband and nanotechnology, you’d be hard pressed to find a pocket calculator packing less than 16KB RAM, but the Speccy was the pinnacle of home entertainment in its day. The 8-bit system and its various iterations enjoyed a successful ten-year lifecycle that yielded a vast library of memorable games, though few were as significant as Software Projects' 1984 offering Jet Set Willy.
Designed by the enigmatic Matthew Smith, the game was a sequel to his hugely successful platformer Manic Miner. Many of the same principals resided at its core - namely the simplistic run and jump mechanics and colourful graphics engine - though the follow-up was considered a significant leap forward for the genre due to its sheer size. Unlike its predecessor, which consisted of multiple stages with single-room layouts, Jet Set Willy offered players an enormous mansion to explore. There were 60 rooms to discover, all containing bizarre creatures, hazards, collectible items and mind-boggling jumps.
They storyline picked up after a huge party had ravaged protagonist Willy's mansion. Items were left strewn around his abode and the housekeeper Maria refused to let him sleep off the events of the previous evening until the place had been tidied. Thus began one of the most surreal cleaning operation we'll ever witness. Flying pigs and dancing rabbits might sound like the outtakes from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, but they are in fact some of the least outlandish creatures that Willy crossed paths with during his quest, which should give you an idea of the level of bizarreness on offer here.
Core gameplay was incredibly simplistic compared to today's standards, though it was the norm for a game of this manner at the time of release. Only three buttons were required to play, left and right directional keys and a jump button. However, more than a modicum of thought was required to negotiate each room. Most screens had multiple enemies sporting troublesome movement patterns as well as numerous hazards to avoid. The utmost precision was required when timing each jump, and reaching the items that Willy was ordered to gather took much trial and error. Luckily, the game was courteous enough to provide the player with a fair crop of extra lives, though this was counterbalanced by the fact that there was no health bar and one false move brought instant death.
Experienced players soon had every room mapped out in their heads, each enemy's movement pattern memorised and the location of the items noted down. However, at the time of release, this was not enough to complete the game as glitches made such a feat impossible. A collection of technical flaws collectively known as 'The Attic Bug' made the original edition of Jet Set Willy impossible to finish. Upon entering the mansion's loft area, a number of its other rooms were corrupted, some of them triggering instant death and thus becoming impassible. Software Projects initially claimed that The Attic was full of poisonous gas and the changes its exploration brought were intentional, although the studio later came clean and issued a series of POKEs to rectify the issues.
As anyone with basic programming skills soon discovered, it was relatively easy to create customised rooms and sprites for Jet Set Willy. This issue came to light when Your Spectrum magazine published a hacker's guide to the game. In the ensuing years, several third-party editing packages were distributed, enabling those with the technical know-how to build customised versions of the title. The volume of new content that was exchanged between friends makes Jet Set Willy the LittleBigPlanet of its day, in a sense. Had there been any kind of internet back then, the possibilities would have been endless. A thriving mod community helped the game endure over the years, albeit underground. Several free-to-play java editions still exist online for anyone looking for some nostalgic kicks.
So how well does Jet Set Willy hold up today? Needless to say, it has a very archaic feel about it and the experience is still spoiled by some bugs and glitches, yet the gameplay remains capable of bringing some minimalist entertainment. As this is essentially gaming's equivalent of the hoop and stick, younger players are unlikely to see what all the fuss was about back in 1984, but for anyone who was around when it came out, it's always worth revisiting as a reminder of how far we've come. With many retro games receiving a new lease of life via mobile platforms and online storefronts, isn't it about time Miner Willy was given a minor resurgence too?
Do you have any fond memories of Jet Set Willy? Add a comment in the space below!