Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Jet Set Willy: The Alligator-Devouring Routine

In part one I had a look at Manic Miner, and so did you! And now, in part two, I will have a look at the sequel. And so will you. We will both look at it, together. Here is the title screen; look at it:

Jet Set Willy (Nineteen Eighty-Four)
Matthew Smith developed Manic Miner over a period of just eight weeks, with a lot of sleepless nights but no major delays. Jet Set Willy was a much more complicated affair, and had a relatively troubled genesis; it was originally scheduled for Christmas 1983, but Matthew Smith missed the deadline by four whole months and so the game didn't come out until early 1984. During that time Smith had earned over £20,000 from the enormously popular, chart-topping, multi-ported Manic Miner. Jet Set Willy was hotly anticipated; it lived up to expectations and was a bestseller, although it also turned out to be Matthew Smith's high water mark, his apotheosis, his grand finale, almost his goodbye. Reference to PiL's Public Image there, which doesn't make sense because Matthew Smith was a hippy who would probably have been into the Ozric Tentacles, if they had been around at the time. Which they were, apparently, but they hadn't released any records.

Still, Jet Set Willy was Smith's swansong, and the swans were, er, on the water, see. Which was... the tide was at the high water mark, and the swans were on it - and they were dying. Dying of the weight of expectation. Which had crushed them, whilst they were on the water.

Miner Willy is now a rich man, and has bought a large mansion and a luxury ya-cht. He has boisterous parties with his fair-weather friends, but one night his housekeeper, Maria, decides that enough is enough, and forces him to pick up every single bit of rubbish before he can go to bed. Unfortunately for Willy there is a lot of rubbish, and his mansion is full of surrealistic meanies that are lethal to the touch. Thus began Jet Set Willy.

Whereas Manic Miner consisted of twenty individual screens that were completed one after the other, Jet Set Willy took place in a flick-screen mansion with sixty different rooms that could be visited and revisited at will, although the puzzly jumping gameplay was essentially the same. This kind of non-linear approach was very novel at the time and still feels a little unusual today; most subsequent platform games forced the player to advance inexorably in one direction. The flick-screen approach had taxed Matthew Smith's brain, and by all accounts he playtested Willy by attempting to complete each screen individually, and if he could do that screen after a dozen or so tries with at least one life left the screen was done. Next screen. Next!

As a consequence of this Jet Set Willy was and remains overwhelmingly difficult; the individual screens were generally just as hard as the first game, but there were three times as many of them, with the added problem of navigating some of the rooms several times in order to access different parts of the map. In compensation the player had eight lives - an enormous amount at the time - but it was never enough. It was surprisingly easy to lose them in one go, too; if you fell off the bottom of a screen to your death on the screen below, you would be ressurected at the top of the screen you died on, to fall to your doom all over again, until you had no more lives.

As with Manic Miner the game was accompanied by a competition, this time to win some champagne, a helicopter ride, and a chance to meet and presumably shake hands with Matthew Smith himself. The people of Britain didn't expect much in 1984 and, by God, they didn't get it. Unfortunately the original release of the game was literally impossible, on account of a bug that made several rooms inaccessible after the player negotiated the mansion's attic. Software Projects initially tried to spin this as a feature, but the "attic bug" became infamous and prompted the company to issue a patch, which in those days was a POKE listing that had to be typed in before running the game.

The patch had been written by Ross Holman and Cameron Else, who had hacked the game in order to solve the bug and win the competition; nowadays Software Projects would have asked the British government to hold the duo in prison under anti-terror legislation, whilst suing them in such a way that the case could not be reported in the press, but it was a more innocent time back then. For this piece of Kobayashi Maru-esque tricksiness Cameron Else was hired to write the game's official MSX port. I have no idea what happened to Ross Holman.

Even with the patch, most players died without ever seeing beyond the first few screens of the mansion, which led to some odd urban legends. A letter in issue seven of Your Spectrum magazine told of how it was possible to sail a raft to a deserted island off the edge of the map, which involved waiting in one spot for several hours until a certain time; it also mentioned The Gaping Pit, a screen that only appeared in early preview screenshots (a modified version was used in the finished game as We Must Perform a Quirkafleeg, the odd title coming from an issue of Fat Freddy's Cat, an underground comic aimed at drug fiends). The island and the gaping pit and all the other locations that could be found by performing odd rituals were fabricated nonsense, although in an odd kind of reverse osmosis some of them were added to the eventual sequel, more of which later. I'm not sure if "reverse osmosis" is the correct term, but it instinctively sounds right, so I'll run with that.

Jet Set Willy was just as inventive as Manic Miner. One set of rooms mocked Ocean Software's contemporary conversion of the arcade game Hunchback:

Hunchback (top)
Jet Set Willy (bottom)

Hunchback was a pretty dismal arcade game, and the home version nowadays seems very shoddy; ironically, the Jet Set Willy spoof is more entertaining and feels more professional than the official port. One pair of rooms, "Nomen Luni" and "Up on the Roof" made an oblique reference to Imagine Software's Zzoom, an aeroplane shoot-em-up game notable mainly for the fact you could blow up civilians (their bodies would go flying through the air in a most amusing way, and the boat went all to matchwood).

See, the plane has crashed into the roof. "Nomen Luni" was a pun. Imagine Software's regular slogan was "The Name of the Game", but presumably as a reference to the RAF's Per Ardua Ad Astra the company had it translated into Latin in the adverts for Zzoom:

You can't actually fly a Spectrum. Not in a controlled manner, anyway. There's nowhere to sit.

Jet Set Willy
inspired a series of hacking guides in Your Spectrum which detailed the process of breaking the game's copy protection and fiddling with its internals, something which is unthinkable in a mainstream magazine today, but was common at the time. David Braben and Ian Bell's Elite had a similar treatment when it was released. No doubt Jet Set Willy inspired a whole generation of bedroom hackers, most of whom probably ended up stripping the copy protection from Goldrunner and Road Blasters after they got an Atari ST for Christmas '87. Nowadays Jet Set Willy is actually more entertaining to play with infinite lives; the platform jumping is tricky enough without having to restart the game from scratch after every eight deaths.

As with Manic Miner the game had music, in this case a version of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on the title screen and a blippy rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man" during the game. This came from the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof, which was still under copyright, and so later versions of the game either switched the music with a substitute or left it out.

At this point it's worth mentioning the Jet Set Willy engine. It was derived from the work Smith had done for Manic Miner, written on a TRS-80, but with support for multiple screens, Pitfall-style swinging ropes, larger sprites, and several other tweaks, although gone were the crumbling floors of the original. The engine amounted to roughly 4K of code, with the room data kept in a separate 22K block that could be easily fiddled around with in order to create new rooms. In the years hence there have been literally dozens of fan-made mods for the game, stretching into the present day, including an art project called Jet Set Willy Variations that was made by proper artists and exhibited in an actual art gallery and viewed by real people with their own eyes.

The game was ported for the popular computers systems of the day, with an expanded version for the Dragon 32 in black and white. The BBC Micro version was written for Mode 1, which - as you know full well - had a limit of four colours per screen. The various different versions were generally faithful to the original's gameplay, although the C64 rendition replaced the original's jump-throughable ramps with stairs, which you could also jump through although it was very hard to get the timing right. It was a terrible, pointless design decision that ruins some of the game's fun:

ZX Spectrum

Commodore C64

Amstrad CPC

BBC Micro



The Amstrad CPC version was noticeably faster and smoother, as the developers essentially rewrote the game from the ground up rather than porting over Smith's movement routines, but more of this in the next section. The Atari 800 port is astoundingly, extraordinarily awful, with hideous graphics, jerky animation and messed-up jumping. In fact it's almost unplayable, but its worst sin by far is the complete waste of a cracking Rob Hubbard soundtrack (for some reason the tune puts me in mind of Jean-Michel Jarre's Equinoxe V).

Atari 800XL

Ah, Rob Hubbard. Three-channel wonder; wizard of white noise. Born at exactly the right time and place to intersect with the microcomputer revolution, without which he would have been just some crazy old man humming to himself. His talent was wasted on computer games, and he'll never have a book written about him, but I'm glad I got to hear Sanxion and Escape from Singe's Castle and so forth.

Jet Set Willy ended with a cutscene, rendered by the game engine, years before Half-Life made that sort of thing trendy again. After cleaning up the mansion Willy tries to go to bed, but the moment his hands touch the sheets he is overcome with nausea from last night's party, and makes a beeline for the toilet. The game ends with Willy face-first in the loo, waggling his legs, presumably spewing the technicolor yawn of the gods. The C64 conversion of the game unfortunately left out the code that activated the ending, but in 2010, after two years of work, a team of chaps at Lemon64 added it back in. "Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten." One by one the loose ends are tied up or snipped off. Or celebrated for what they are.

If you think about it, people are loose ends. Just waiting to be tied up, or snipped off, or celebrated for what they are. Loose ends dangling from the great blanket that unites us all; the great blanket that warms the sleep of death.

After the release of Jet Set Willy Matthew Smith entered a long dark tea-time of the soul. Rumours of a third Miner Willy game, Miner Willy Meets the Taxman, remained rumours. His first post-Willy project, The Megatree, never progressed beyond the development stage, which amounted to the title and some doodles and a few characters and a bit of code, all of which surfaced many years later and were auctioned on eBay. In retrospect it seems a shame that it was never finished; the concept was reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3, with several sets of platform levels that could be accessed via an overhead map in any order.

Smith, now an old man at the age of 18, had burned out, spending most of his royalties on motorbikes and partying and also donating a substantial portion of it to Her Majesty's Inland Revenue. His next project after that - an ambitious but vague chase game called Attack of the Mutant Zombie Flesh-Eating Chickens from Mars - was advertised in the press in 1987, but never finished, although a version of the game was eventually released by Software Projects a year later as Star Paws. Smith dissolved the company shortly afterwards. A few years later he fell off the face of the Earth. Rumour had it that he had gone to join a commune in the Netherlands, and indeed a Jet Set Willy-era interview in Sinclair User revealed a man unhappy with cities and modern society. A loner; a rebel.

Jet Set Willy II / The Perils of Willy (Nineteen Eighty-Five)

The Perils of Willy

These two games were developed independently of Matthew Smith. The Perils of Willy was essentially Manic Miner for the Commodore VIC-20, with a new set of screens and a droning and greatly truncated version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" as the soundtrack. It was apparently one of the better games for the system, although it had little of the original's charm - the only baddies seem to be geese and dogs and balloons - and Miner Willy flickered like mad. And the music was hideous. Really, have a listen.

Jet Set Willy II: The Final Frontier grew from the Amstrad CPC port of Jet Set Willy, with some extra screens and engine tweaks. Eventually Software Projects chose to port this expanded version back to the ZX Spectrum. Nowadays it is the best way of playing a Jet Set Willy game, although at the time it received fair-to-middling reviews on account of its relatively unambitious nature, and by 1985 the gameplay was beginning to look old-fashioned. Curiously the outer space bits that everybody wanted to see - a set of screens in the shape of the Starship Enterprise - were hidden away. The extra rooms kept to the spirit of the original and included a useful map room that showed the player which parts of the mansion had been completed. The price had gone up by a pound, to the dizzy heights of £6.95.

The C64 version got rid of the stairs, making them ramps again (Jet Set Willy top, Jet Set Willy II bottom):

The BBC Micro version chopped off a lot of the old screens in favour of the rooms added for Jet Set Willy II. It added a couple of new screens, too, although as this page points out one of the new ones was essentially a modified version of The Watchtower:

BBC Micro: Fallout Shelter
ZX Spectrum: The Watch Tower

I never had a chance to play either of Matthew Smith's creations when they were new; I was a few years too young at the time, and games in those days had very short shelf-lives and there was no Steam. If you wanted to get hold of an old game you had to fill out a postal order and send off an order form, or speak to someone on the telephone. Or you could borrow the games from your mates - except that none of them had copies either, because 1983 was forever away in the late 1980s. And what was Jet Set Willy, anway? There was no World of Spectrum, no way to read about old games. Operation Wolf, that was more like it. Afterburner. The Dark Side. Etc. The Willy games were a little bit old-fashioned when they were new, and by the late 1980s they were rapidly becoming shrouded in nostalgia.

Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy were two of the best-selling games of 1983 and 1984 in Britain, but they aged quickly. Gremlin's Wanted: Monty Mole of 1984 introduced the idea of collecting specific objects to perform certain tasks - rather than just collecting everything - and thus the arcade-adventure was born. For the next five years Spectrum games would involve grabbing a pair of bellows in order to (counter-intuitively) put out a fire so that the player could collect a pesticide spray that would kill a bee that was guarding a key that would unlock a chest that contained an aqualung that would allow the player to explore a sunken wreck that had a rusty cutlass that had to be sprayed with oil before it could be used to chop a rope that held a drawbridge closed and so on and so forth. Rather than simply picking up one hundred flashing gems.

Ultimate's Knight Lore, which also came out in 1984, combined arcade adventure gameplay with a 3D isometric perspective which made Jet Set Willy's tiny flat sprites seem to belong to the pre-Cambrian era. A budget re-release of Jet Set Willy II in 1988 attracted grudging respect in the games press for its gameplay, although the tiny graphics and finicky platform gameplay had aged badly. By the time the ZX Spectrum itself was laid to rest, in the early 1990s, the Miner Willy games had been thoroughly surpassed by the likes of Head Over Heels, Auf Wiedersehen Monty, Treasure Island Dizzy, the Spectrum conversion of Rainbow Islands, the list goes on. Particularly Rainbow Islands, which was the closest the Spectrum came to the new wave of fast-paced Japanese platform games that were quickly becoming the predominant style.

Wanted: Monty Mole / Knight Lore
Starquake / Head Over Heels
Treasure Island Dizzy / Rainbow Islands
nothing nothing nothing

Nonetheless the games still attract a residual affection. Even in the 1980s, the quirky style and general naffness of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy were endearing in their naivety. By the end of the 1990s the emulation scene had finally taken off, as people had computers powerful enough to emulate typical 8-bit machines, and numerous ZX Spectrum emulators emerged, along with scads of fan-made modifications of Jet Set Willy (World of Spectrum lists almost a hundred of them). The first clones actually emerged in the mid-80s, along with a few level editors, although only a handful have survived to the present day. Oddest of the lot was Henry's Hoard, which was released commercially by Alternative Software despite being based on a hacked Jet Set Willy engine, complete with lots of the original code. The author, Martyn Brown, went on to co-found Team 17, of Alien Breed and Worms fame.

Matthew Smith himself re-emerged into the public eye at the end of the 1990s, with a website that was initially thought to be a hoax. It turned out that the rumours that he had gone to join a commune in Holland were true, after all - perhaps he had not joined a commune as such, but he had probably gone to Holland, although he had eventually been deported from the country after a SNAFU with his residency papers. Like many legends who returned from years of obscurity - Peter Green, Terrence Malick, Kate Bush, Rambo - he is now just sort of there. He exists. He even returned to developing games, with a port of Scrabble for the Game Boy Colour, published in 2001 by a company called Runecraft, who went bust a year later. In common with almost every other old 8-bit programmer he now develops games for mobile devices, although he apparently no longer owns the rights to the Manic Miner games.

And that is that. Next, something about lenses, probably the Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4. Then I think I'll go on holiday to Tunisia. And then I will have some cake.

"Isn't this where..."