Jet Set Willy

Imagine Moonlight Sonata but a bit bleepy and youre there

Imagine "Moonlight Sonata" but a bit bleepy and you're there

Now, I think (at least hope) that most people reading this know something about the game that’s the reason this first little batch of lookbacks is getting written in the first place – Jet Set Willy – but I have to assume that a lot of you don’t, this is something intended to be read by the big bad world, after all.

So, what is Jet Set Willy? Well, it’s a platform game that was published by a British label called Software Projects back in 1984 and it was written by a teenage coder called Matthew Smith who had previously written Manic Miner. Originally published for the British microcomputer the ZX Spectrum, it was later ported to the Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit, Amstrad CPC and even (several years later) the Atari ST and Amiga.

At first glance, Jet Set Willy (hereafter referred to as JSW because I can’t be arsed) is a lot like Manic Miner. The main sprite is almost the same (indeed, it’s the very same character, Miner Willy, who featured in that game) and the screens are similarly laid-out and have glowing objects to collect and imaginative nasties to avoid.

Nothing says 80s quite like a tabletop-dancing rabbit

A tabletop-dancing rabbit! Since it's 1984 it must be dancing to the Human League or something. Nice one.

But the big difference, and the one that made JSW truly influential was that Willy didn’t have to collect all the objects to leave the screen, he didn’t even have to collect a certain number of objects in order to progress beyond a certain limited number of screens. No, in JSW the whole game is open to the player from the start and the player is free to explore Willy’s mansion and its grounds at their leisure. Of course, all the objects have to be collected to complete the game but the order in which you collect them is completely up to you. This was something quite new and meant that playing the game was as much about exploring Willy’s mansion as it was about collecting the objects. Something else important was that each screen had its own name, displayed under the game window, which gave each screen a greater atmosphere and character and added to the impression that the player was exploring an actual building and its environs rather than just bouncing around some screens in a videogame.

JSW had a long shadow. As well as an official sequel, Jet Set Willy 2 (essentially the same game but with extra rooms), published in 1985 it was also followed-up by an unofficial “extended” version, Jet Set Willy 128, which took advantage of the 128K Spectrum’s greater memory and superior sound to create a much-extended game. In addition to this, numerous unofficial games were released (and continue to be released) following the publishing of Jet Set Willy editors which allowed the graphics, music and room-layouts to be changed for both the original and 128K variants of the game. Recent years have also seen the appearance of Jet Set Willy Online, an online multiplayer version of Jet Set Willy 2 where players compete to grab as many objects as possible in Willy’s mansion.

But it’s the clones and tribute games for various platforms which we’re going to focus on. Whilst many JSW clones altered certain aspects of the gameplay all of them stuck to a few basics – large, explorable, area of interlinked screens; collectable objects (or equivalent); and named screens. It’s games with these features I’ll be looking at; some worthy of Smith’s masterpiece, some not so good and some crap. Which are which we’ll find out in the coming weeks.

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