‘Jet Set Willy’ is a platform video game written by Matthew Smith, originally for the ZX Spectrum. Published in 1984 by Software Projects. It was highly successful and ‘ported’ to most 8-bit home computers of the time.
‘Jet Set Willy II: The Final Frontier’ is an updated version of the game released in 1985 by Software Projects on the majority of the 8-bit home computers. It was developed by Derrick P. Rowson.
In this review we will be looking at both ‘Jet Set Willy’ and its semi-sequel ‘Jet Set Willy II’ together, as the games are so closely related. ‘Jet Set Willy’ was itself a sequel to the seminal ‘Manic Miner’ published in 1983 and is regarded as an example of a key point in the development of the platform genre.
What happened to Miner ‘Willy’ after he escaped the caverns?
After successfully escaping the caverns in ‘Manic Miner’, Miner ‘Willy’ has become somewhat of a ‘nouveau-riche socialite’ who now owns a large mansion and all the associated trappings, including an yacht, French cook, Italian house maid and hundreds of friends.. ..who know how to party. He has taken to partying hard with his new found friends, the results of which are hilariously depicted on the cassette inlay cover.
After a particularly boisterous party all ‘Willy’ can think about is ‘crashing out‘ in his four poster bed. ‘Maria’ however, has had enough of all of his antics and won’t let him into his bedroom until all of the discarded wine bottles and glasses have been cleared up.
Willy’s mansion is huge and he hasn’t had much time to look around. As such, most of the mansion remains unexplored and the rooms appear to be full of strange creatures, possibly a result of the previous (missing) owner’s experiments.
Willy must explore the enormous mansion and its grounds (including a beach and a yacht) to collect all of the items and tidy-up, so he can get some much-needed sleep.
Insight – why the obsession with miners?
Why was Matthew Smith obsessed with miners? As mentioned in my review of ‘Manic Miner’, some of this came from the fact that originally he was clearly influence by an earlier game ‘Miner 2049er’ developed for the Atari 8-bit computers. However, in the case of ‘Jet Set Willy’ it also coincided with the UK being gripped with the news of the ‘miner strikes‘; a struggle between the coal miners, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) led by Arthur Scargill against the UK Conservative government (led by Margaret Thatcher) and the National Coal Board (NCB). In fact, ‘Willy’ can clearly be seen wearing ‘NCB’ boots on the inlay cover picture.
It was a pivotal time in the UK resulting in the decimation of a once key industry which families had depended upon for generations, as well as a general reduction in the power of the trade unions.
Indeed, ‘Manic Miner’ and ‘Jet Set Willy’ are not the only entertainment related media from the UK that has strongly referenced the miners struggle; perhaps better known to an international audience would be the more recent film ‘Billy Elliot’ (2000), which captures aspects of this part of the UK’s history very well.
How do you play?
‘Jet Set Willy’ is a flip-screen platform game in which the player moves ‘Miner Willy’ from room to room in his mansion collecting objects. Unlike the screen-by-screen progressive nature of its prequel ‘Manic Miner’, the player can explore the mansion at will, going back and forth between rooms.
Willy is controlled using left, right and jump. He can climb stairs by walking onto them or jumping ‘through’ them, to simply walk past. A new addition to ‘Jet Set Willy’ is swinging ropes, which ‘Willy’ can grab by pushing either left or right depending on what direction the rope is swinging.
The game consists of 60 screens, which somewhat resemble a large mansion and its grounds.
There are many hazards to avoid, including static objects that will kill ‘Willy’ upon contact and various weird and wonderful enemies which travel along predetermined paths. There are also many platforms and jumps to traverse in ‘Willy’s’ quest to tidy-up.
The wine glasses and bottles flash to distinguish them from other objects in the room and ‘Willy’ needs to collect them all before ‘Maria’ will let him go to bed.
‘Willy’ loses a ‘life’ if he touches an enemy or falls too far, being returned to his entry point in the room he died. This can sometimes, and usually quite comically (if a not a little frustratingly), lead to an unwinnable situation in which ‘Willy’ repeatedly falls from height, losing all his lives in quick succession.
The rooms of the mansion
Some of the rooms in the mansion have strange or funny names, such as ‘Nomen Luni’ and ‘The Banyan Tree’. However, one of the really bizarrely named rooms is ‘We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg’ (which was called ‘The Gaping Pit’ in pre-release versions of the game). This is a reference to the comic strip ‘Fat Freddy’s Cat’, a spin-off from the ‘Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’; in the original comic, the ‘Quirkafleeg’ being an obscure ritual in a foreign country required to be performed upon the sight of dead furry animals.
However, most of the rooms names describe what they are, or their location, for example ‘The Bathroom’, ‘The Attic’, ‘The Staircase’, ‘The Kitchen’, ‘West of Kitchen’ or ‘Master Bedroom’ etc.
The ‘music’ on the original ZX Spectrum version is Beethoven‘s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ for the menu, and ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ from the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, during the game itself. Early release versions played Grieg‘s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ as in-game music.
‘The Attic Bug’
Upon release, the game could not be completed due to several bugs. Although this was the result of completely unrelated issues in different parts of the game, they have collectively become known ‘The Attic Bug’.
After entering ‘The Attic’, various rooms would undergo corruption for all subsequent play-trough’s, including all the enemies disappearing from ‘The Chapel’ and other screens, triggering the Pythonesque ‘Game Over’ screen. This was caused by an error in the path of an arrow in ‘The Attic’, the data of which was placed beyond that of the rooms data.. ..it overwrites memory locations in other parts of the game as it moves, resulting in the corruption of subsequent rooms.
Initially Software Projects attempted to pass this bug off as an intentional feature to make the game more difficult, claiming that the rooms in question were filled with poison gas. However, they later rescinded this claim and issued a set of POKE commands to correct the error.
Despite these bugs, Ross Holman and Cameron Else won a competition that Software Projects had set for the completion of ‘Jet Set Willy’.. ..even going so far as to provide Software Projects with a set of bug fixes. Software Projects then subsequently employed Cameron Else to port both ‘Manic Miner‘ and ‘Jet Set Willy‘ to the MSX range of home computers.
A successful sequel
‘Jet Set Willy’ reviewed and sold very well, in June 1984 Sue Denham of ‘Your Spectrum’ magazine, wrote that the game was “every bit as good and refreshing as the original”.
Indeed, the game remained at the number one spot in the British ZX Spectrum sales chart for several months, until it was replaced by ‘Sabre Wulf’. The ZX Spectrum version of ‘Jet Set Willy‘ was voted the 6th best game of all time in a special issue of ‘Your Sinclair’ magazine in 2004.
The inception of copy protection
‘Jet Set Willy’ came with one of the first forms of copy protection; a simple card from ‘Padlock Systems’ with 180 coloured codes on it that was bundled with the cassette. Upon loading, four of the codes from the card had to be entered before the game would start. You had two attempts to correctly enter the code, or the computer would reset.
Although the cassette could be easily duplicated, a copy of the card was also needed to play the game and at the time home colour reproduction was difficult. In addition, the colours used were deliberately chosen to make photocopying difficult, making ‘Jet Set Willy’ harder to copy than most ZX Spectrum games of the time. However, means of circumventing the card were quickly found, and one method using POKEs and the ‘Merge’ command was published in ‘Your Computer’ magazine in 1984. It also didn’t stop industrious school children from painstakingly making copies of the card using felt-tip pens.
In ‘Jet Set Willy II’ a new system dubbed ‘Padlock II’ was used, this time there were seven pages of codes, increased from the single page used in ‘Jet Set Willy’. This mostly stopped the felt-tip copying antics.
‘Ports’ to other systems
The original releases of ‘Jet Set Willy’ for the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64 also contained bugs which made it impossible to complete the game.. ..although these were different bugs to the ZX Spectrum version. For example, in the Commodore 64 version, it was impossible to reach all of the items in the ‘Wine Cellar’.
There are two versions of ‘Jet Set Willy’ for the MSX computer range. The Software Projects version that was sold in the UK and dated 1984 was programmed by Cameron Else, co-winner of the ‘Jet Set Willy’ competition. Another, slightly different version was published by Hudson Soft in 1985 as a ‘Bee Card’ in Japan.
A port of ‘Jet Set Willy‘ for the Atari 8-bit family of computers was released by Tynesoft in 1986. It received universally poor reviews which criticised the inferior graphics and animation; however, Rob Hubbard‘s theme music, unique to this version, was considered a highlight. Again, like the ZX Spectrum version, it was impossible to complete but once again for different reasons. Some of the legitimate items that needed collecting, caused the player to lose a life (for example the bottles in the ‘Off Licence’ screen).
The legacy of ‘Jet Set Willy’ and expanded versions
‘Jet Set Willy: The Final Frontier’ was an expanded version for the game created and written especially for the Amstrad CPC range and was later converted back to the ZX Spectrum, being released as ‘Jet Set Willy II’.
A differently expanded version of ‘Jet Set Willy’ was released for the Dragon 32/64, with extra rooms. This version could also not be completed, as it was impossible to traverse ‘The Drive’ in a right to left direction, which was necessary to return to the ‘Master Bedroom’ after collecting all the items. The game could, however, be completed using a built-in cheat, accessed by holding down the keys M, A and X simultaneously, allowing you to start Willy from any position on any screen, using the arrow keys and space-bar.
The Dragon port was itself converted to run on the Acorn Archimedes computers. Better collision detection meant that ‘The Drive’ could now be completed as intended.
The ‘modding’ community
In the original ZX Spectrum version, the data for the rooms is stored in a fairly straightforward format, with no compression, making it relatively easy to create customised versions of the game.
The review of ‘Jet Set Willy’ in issue 4 of ‘Your Spectrum’ included a section entitled “JSW – A Hacker’s Guide“. The comments in this part of the magazine imply that the author had successfully deduced at least some of the data structures, since he was able to remove sections of wall in the ‘Master Bedroom’. The following year, issue 13 contained a program that added an extra room, ‘April Showers’, to the game and issue 15 described the data formats in detail.
Several third-party editing tools were published between 1984 and 1986, allowing players to design their own rooms and sprites. There are now several different and varied ‘mods‘ of the game to download from the internet, with many still being developed to this day (see image below).
Jet Set Willy II
As mentioned, ‘Jet Set Willy II: The Final Frontier’ is an updated version of the game released in 1985 by Software Projects on the majority of the 8-bit home computers. It was not written by the original programmer, Matthew Smith and was instead developed by Derrick P. Rowson.
It is the only official sequel and the last of the ‘Miner Willy’ series, although numerous unofficial sequels, remakes, homages and updates have been released.
The mansion in ‘Jet Set Willy II’ is primarily an expanded version of the original, with only a few new elements over its predecessor, several of which are based on rumoured events in the original that were in reality, simply never included (such as being able to launch the titular ship in the screen called ‘The Yacht’ and explore an island).
In the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and MSX versions, ‘Willy’ is blasted from the ‘Rocket Room’ into space and for the subsequent 33 rooms, dons a spacesuit.
Other differences from the original
The ending of ‘Jet Set Willy II’ is different to the original game. Once ‘Willy’ has collected 150 of the 175 available items and goes to bed, the game takes control of ‘Willy’ and guides him into the bathroom, where he falls into the toilet – and lands in a room named ‘Oh $#!+! The Central Cavern!’, laid out identically to and deriving its name from the opening level of ‘Manic Miner’. Indeed, in the Amstrad CPC version this screen is playable, but there is no escape, save for the player intentionally killing off their remaining lives.
Control of ‘Willy’ also differs from the original game:
- The player can jump in the opposite direction immediately upon landing, without releasing the jump button.
- ‘Willy’ now takes a step forward before jumping from a standstill.
- The ‘Willy’ character is mapped differently, so although ‘Willy’ looks the same, some previous ‘safe spots’ in ‘Jet Set Willy’are now hazardous to the player in ‘Jet Set Willy II’ – the tall candle in ‘The Chapel’ being an example.
‘Ports’ to other systems
As mentioned, ‘Jet Set Willy II’ was originally created as an Amstrad version of ‘Jet Set Willy’ and was expanded to exploit the extra 16k of RAM available in the 64K Amstrad CPC range (compared to the 48K of the ZX Spectrum, the game’s original platform). This version was subsequently ported back to the ZX Spectrum, which may explain a number of other small differences, including the loss of coloured backgrounds in certain screens as the Amstrad CPC version ran in a 4-colour display mode and had more memory.
The game was subsequently ported to other platforms, including the Commodore 64, Commodore 16, BBC Micro, Acorn Electron and MSX. The BBC Micro cassette version has 2 rooms not in the ZX Spectrum version, and omits 60 of the original rooms.
The Commodore 64 screen data was in a different format to the Amstrad CPC, so the developers were unable to take the data used in the Amstrad CPC and instead had to lay it out again and re-implement all the screens and sprites. However, Rowson was able to do this very efficiently and as a result the Commodore 64 version was actually released first.
In an in-depth article about both the game and the code was published in ‘Your Spectrum’ magazine, which stated that as each room was compressed and took up differing amounts of memory, a room editor would be impossible to code for ‘Jet Set Willy II‘ (unlike its prequel).
‘Jet Set Willy 2+’
In November 2016 Rowson released ‘Jet Set Willy 2+’ as a re-write of ‘Jet Set Willy II’. As well as technical improvements to the code allowing for more complicated rooms, it has built-in ‘cheat’ devices allowing for infinite lives and teleportation. Rowson also added some new rooms and made many of the rooms easier with fewer or slower enemies.
‘Manic Miner‘ was a bona fide classic.. ..and as sequels ‘Jet Set Willy I & II‘ continue that tradition. So my recommendation, remains the same as for the prequel.. ..if you only ever play a few ‘platform’ games in your life, make sure you give these two a try!
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