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The Jet Set Willy Saga

Meeting Willy

When I cast my mind back to the 8-bit era there is one series of games that sticks out loud and proud to embody everything that is single colour blocky sprite gameplay. The pythoneque tales of Miner Willy.

Written by the eventual wide eyed commune dwelling oddball, Matthew Smith, the series kicked off with Manic Miner, a game inspired by the lesser known Miner 2049er. Miner Willys task was to collect the keys in each single screen before the air ran out. Not half as easy as it sounds and for some reason the first room was harder than the next three or four almost to get you by the scruff of the neck out of the gate. Whatever it did, it was addictive, highly playable, likeably quirky and a huge hit released on multiple platforms by Bug Byte. After Smith left Bug Byte, he took Manic Miner with him due to a shoddy freelancing contract he had with them which allowed him to release it through his own newly  created software company, Software Projects. Having played Manic Miner first on the spectrum in the 80s and then years later on an emulated version, I can certainly attest to its playability lasting and I dare say I wouldn’t mind loading it up on one of our 64s here.

Jet Set Willy has landed

With expectations high for the sequel, Smith delivered Jet Set Willy, a now rich miner willy living in a mansion. Following a huge party, Willy was unable to return to his bed by his housekeeper Maria until he collects every bottle from the house. While the objective of the game was again collecting bottles, there was no time limit, no requirement to clear a room of collectables and with a serpentine multidirectional layout of over 60 rooms, most, myself included, spent the majority of the time simply exploring. With room names like, “We must perform a quirkafleeg” (a homage to The Fury Freek Brothers) and the inventive layouts, the world that Smith had created had genuine depth despite its bingo monitor look.

A sequel for the ages

I recall being told by my elder brother, an oracle of 8-bit gaming, that the Jet Set Willy 2 game wasn’t written by Matthew Smith and that the new rooms added were written by other writers to flesh out the mansion. Years later I read that was actually a port to the Amstrad that a developer added a bunch of screens onto that came to the attention of Software Projects management. While I did appreciate that some of the added rooms were pointless and lacked the flair of the original, it had double the amount of rooms at over 132 (Manic Miner had 20, Jet Set Willy 60) and for a good 30 of those, Miner Willy was in a spacesuit. It became one of the 8-bit eras largest selling titles and despite it being an odd sort of bastard son of Jet Set Willy, it was the only official sequel and certainly worthy of its lofty status. Alas, it was to be the last we saw of Miner Willy as the 16 bit era was ushering in deeper gameplay, Software Projects were concentrating on different errrrrr projects, including the atrocious Dragons Lair 8 bit games and Matthew Smith was smoking weed somewhere in Europe.

It’s hard to even consider overlooking Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy when looking at the 8 bit era as a whole and in particular, platform games. The Monty Mole games from Gremlin Games came close and were just as playable but weren’t quite the landmark and while Blagger turned some heads, it came off as something of a clone as opposed to a fresh work of its own. Matthew lit a small fuse in the gaming industry, showed many that games could actually be amusing and probably deserves more recognition that he gets but disappearing off the face of the earth is a fantastic way to make people forget you, I hear. Still, I remember an interview he gave back in the 80s when he made the shocking declaration that “One day, it won’t be just one person writing a game. You will need a whole team and more”. That’s not verbatim and you’re welcome to trawl youtube for the clip but the essence is there. Conversely, I imagine that students studying game design in universities the world over will probably be told to the sound of jaws dropping to the floor that in the early days, a game could be written by one person on a machine with less than 1/1000th the power of your current phone.

More of Willy?

Final thought, there was actually another Miner Willy game released only to the Vic-20, The Perils of Willy. I only ever played one Vic-20 and it wasn’t that game. How could I have trusted it? A Miner Willy game that wasn’t available on the spectrum on a computer that looked like a C64, but wasn’t. It sounds like a strange parallel universe.

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SegaFanatic Posted on Nov 10, 2013 at 10:04 PM

I'm a gamer, and I've NEVER heard of this series. Good work on your part. This was an interesting read.

RevJ Posted on Apr 14, 2013 at 01:12 PM

Cool! I still have the map I made for this game on the C64. In my memories I'm also recalling the Monty Mole games. Good times playing on the '64

AceNThaHole Posted on Jan 19, 2013 at 04:24 PM

Didnt have a C64 but we did have a Tandy and this game reminds me so much of some of the games we wore out on that old machine

The Ronin Identity Posted on Jan 17, 2013 at 02:36 PM

very interesting stuff, never heard of the game before this

Vaporman87 Posted on Jan 16, 2013 at 07:56 PM

This was a great read. I had absolutely no knowledge of this game and it's following until having read this.

Then I did a little research on it, discovering a devoted fan base (even online versions of the game). Just excellent.

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