Saturday, 1 February 2014

Jet Set Willy II - a love for this game - by Andy Pryer

Before we begin in ernest I think I should make clear that in I am unable to write a fair and balanced review of Jet Set Willy II as I am extremely bias towards this game.  You see, this was my ‘gateway game’, the first game I ever played (excluding my mindless fumblings as a toddler in the arcade) and the first game that I owned:  purchased on impulse from Superdrug no less back when everywhere sold games, and actually before I even owned a computer!  

Not only was it an immediate portal to a vast and surreal universe (once I’d secured my rubber-keyed spectrum a few days later), but in many ways it was a conduit to the gaming world at large, so I hope you’ll understand and forgive me my prejudices.

Jet Set Willy is the third outing for the character of Miner Willy of Manic Miner fame (Jet Set Willy II is kind of an expansion pack for the first JSW game adding more rooms and different music).  Flush with cash after his success in the mines, Willy decided swap his helmet for a topper and treat himself to a large country pile and celebrate with a party of biblical proportions.  Now, there’s a party I would like to have been at; although I would only have been seven at the time, so I may not have gotten the full benefit.  

To say this house is large is a ridiculous understatement.  It’s also very well appointed and comes equipped with all the conveniences you’d expect in a playboy gazillionair’s pad: Swimming pool, private beach with yacht mooring, a space rocket to transport you to the space station annex and of course all the young go-getter’s want the latest must-have gadget: a gateway to hell. 

As the previous resident, an eccentric professor, left the residence in mysterious circumstances, many of his experiments and contraptions are still running.  I can’t even begin to fathom what unholy experiments this crackpot must have been working on, but the resultant fallout seriously prevents ergonomic movement through the property.  One would imagine that being accosted on the stairs by a huge, flaming skull would play to the buyers favor at the negotiating table, so the house presumably came at a knock down price.

Somehow, Willy was able to convince guests to join him for a soiree at his death trap of a mansion, but we arrive on the scene after the final guest has either left or fallen victim to one of the many peculiar hazards.  We can only presume that the party was a success judging my the amount of glassware strew throughout the house.  Willy awakes in the bathroom where our hero has been purging his system of the excesses of the previous evening, as graphically illustrated on the cover.  But unfortunately for Willy, who’s understandably quite keen to hit the hay by this point, his housekeeper Maria doesn’t think risking her neck to gather the dirty glasses is in her job description, so she stands guard over his bed, denying him access until the last of the mess is cleared up.

Personally I’d have sacked her on the spot, but I guess Willy either loves a challenge or has matriarchal issues. And so Willy embarks upon the greatest adventure ever undertaken without leaving the house.

Unlike Manic Miner, the individually named screens can be attempted in any order, which delivers an amazing sense of scale and encourages epic exploration whether you decide to collect the items or not (I usually didn’t).  Just navigating through the game world can while away hours and there is always something more to see.  Collecting all the crockery is a somewhat daunting task to say the least, many of the room layouts will leave you scratching your head or thumping it raw with frustration, and the Prof.’s experiments certainly don’t make it any easier.  Whether your head is smashed in by a large rotating lemon, or your jaxi is being speared by a levitating rooftop guard, death is instantaneous and with only seven lives it's often not long before you’re crushed under the naked foot of failure in a Monty Pythonesqe scene signaling that your final life as been depleted.  

You certainly can’t blame the controls for you failure, with just Left, Right and Jump you aren’t going to get confused.  I prefer to use keyboard over joystick, but that may be because I didn’t have a joystick when I first had the game.

The music is simple, but like everything else is perfectly judged.  The title screen treats you to a superb 8-bit rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, while the scale of the actual adventure is enhanced no-end by looping In the Hall of the Mountain King (or If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof in the case of the original JSW)

A game with this much character can only have been made at this magical time of bedroom coders, where one person’s wonderful eccentricity could be tapped and converted to code. The game was and is immensely popular and elevated it’s author Matthew Smith, already idolised for Manic Miner, to legendary status.  

I feel rather lucky that my first game was one which was bound to strike such a chord with me.  The sense of humour coupled with the spirit of exploration and discovery still wows me to this day, almost as if the game was aimed especially at me to entice me off my bike and into games.  Intentional or not, it worked.  I know not all games can be like this, but it would be nice if there was a little something of the spirit of JSW in games today.

Thanks to Guest Blogger - Andy Pryer
You can also follow Andy on Twitter @ClammyLizard

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