It’s 1984. The most exciting thing in the world is crisps. But all that is about to change. Let’s take a beige-tinted amble down remembery avenue.
I don’t remember my bedroom at the Bracklesham Bay bungalow that was my home between the ages of 2 and 6. I don’t remember the bathroom. I remember the garden where I tested the cartoon physics of standing on the end of a rake to make the handle hit you in the face. (And I remember being surprised at how much it hurt.) I remember the kitchen where my Dad poured me a bowl of Shreddies every morning, and which I ate with the scent of freshly-laid tarmac wafting through the open window one impossibly-long summer. And I remember the living room – or the lounge as we’d have called it – with the stove that would occasionally trap a bird that had come down the chimney, and which Dad perfected a technique for rescuing. And where, one Christmas, the shock that a chocolate bar could taste terrible reduced me to tears (Marathon, peanuts). But most of all, it’s where I remember the endless repetition of a few bars of a strangely bleepy rendition of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s If I Were a Rich Man along with the smell of rubber and ozone. And with them the sight of a magical wonderland depicted in just under 50,000 tiny squares at a time, each resplendent in one of eight colours (including black and white), and which collectively depicted the singular vision of a then-19-year old computer wizard called Matthew Smith. In other words, I remember there being Jet Set Willy running on a ZX Spectrum.
Crucially, it’s not the playing I most remember, though I did, in brief fumbled intervals. The magical memorable hours were spent watching my brother play. I should quickly explain its premise at this point, which was to navigate, as the titular Willy, a mansion – a surreal and fantastical mansion – collecting shimmering objects scattered through 61 rooms, though it seemed many more rooms to me. Only with these collected would Willy’s housekeeper let him go to bed, at which point he would hotfoot it to the bathroom to be sick in the toilet.
In those days, this almost never happened thanks to game-breaking bugs that prevented its completion. These could be fixed through simple manipulations of the BASIC code called POKEs – if you could get your hands on them. They were often issued, as game-pacifying cheats more often than bug-fixes, in Crash magazine. But we didn’t know about the Willy-fixing POKE, or even the bugs they fixed. We were nowhere near good enough at the game to complete it – or even contemplate completing it. Instead, we were explorers in this psychedelic digital world, where even reaching a new place was cause for celebration. I don’t know if it was for weeks, months or years that the cry of “new room!” was the pinnacle of excitement in our little bungalow – but I do know that you could almost taste that excitement in the air.
Out on a limb
Mostly, we ignored the (literal) objects of the game in favour of picking a direction and then seeing how far we could go. When I say “we”, I really mean my brother. Though, as an observer, I was fully along for the ride. My turns usually involved making it out of The Bathroom – the first room of the game as well as the last – before losing many lives on the Top Landing attempting to jump over the first enemy of the game, which slightly (but only slightly) resembles a dancing paper clip. Because, as I’ve explained, it would have been foolish to take on the levitating razor blade and barrel of grog that would need to be jumped, over or under, to reach the first collectible item – a wall-mounted light fixture. (The blend of the mundane and the bizarre was a hallmark of the game’s brilliant and uniquely-British surreality.)
Rooms, I should explain, were the static spaces you moved between as Willy made it to a gap at the edge of the screen. Scrolling was a technological marvel yet to be foisted upon our then-only-primordially-digitally-literate minds. These were arranged in all directions. The mansion was therefore a non-linear maze to be untangled, years ahead of the Metroidvania genre of platform games that would necessitate the exploration and backtracking fundamental to success in Willy’s mansion. At best, I would see seven or eight rooms during what my brother would come to know despairingly as “James’s go.” This despite Willy’s seven extra lives, each one swiftly extinguished with a discordant electronic plink-sound and the clash of pixels – those of the top-hat-wearing Willy and some nightmarish creature or, more likely in those early rooms, an inexplicably-animate household object.
Dr Jones will never believe this
No – it was down to my brother to forge into terra nova – into ever-more-wonderful and at-times unsettling places populated by penguins, sentinel droids, fork-wielding demons and pirouetting rabbits. These are by no means the oddest creatures. They’re merely the ones I feel most confident in identifying and naming. Which is not to say the rest are amorphous and indistinct, although there are one or two of those, like the ornate spinning discs that may or may not be ashtrays and the pulsating orbs that could equally be throbbing ectoplasm or bouncing balls. Many would be difficult to describe, and yet they’re extremely vivid figments of Smith’s mental menagerie that speak to that innate sense of creature in all of us. But I’ll try to describe a few all the same. There are the disembodied tentacled heads with their chomping fanged maws. There are fast-moving pixie-bats that seem to be doing the can-can while performing dubious salutes. And there are the smiling, side-stepping kitchen tongs – of course there are.
No route seemed more exciting than the plunge into the depths of the mansion via the Back Stairway, through The Wine Cellar and into The Forgotten Abbey with its pacing clergy – if that’s what they were – their noses by turns elongating then shrinking with every step. Leaving this room eastwards brings Willy to the tunnel below The Security Guard, which is notable for two reasons. The first is that this apparently teleports Willy seven screens away, based on the number of rooms you’d need to traverse to reach the same destination from the floor above (as if the mansion was somehow warping space and time like Dracula’s castle). And also because this is the only way to reach Entrance to Hades: a room that spells an inevitable game-over because, when you lose a life in Jet Set Willy, you re-enter the room the same way you first came in: in this case by falling from a pit above onto the game’s most frightening enemy, a giant ram’s skull-meets clown face-meets crystal chandelier. This is the most unnerving part of the game, and not only because of its unbeatable proto-boss. The words “DIE MORTAL” are written in giant capitals across the screen, which hardly helps.
We must perform a Quirkafleeg
But as memorable as the creatures are the names of each room, written at the bottom of the screen in pixelated yellow. These, you’ll have guessed by now if you didn’t know it already, I’ve borrowed for the subheadings of this post (with strictly-respected punctuation and capitalisation). Many are buried so deep in my psyche they feel woven into the fabric of my identity. They bear the essential hallmark of the surreal: a blend of the normal and the far-from-normal that elevates Smith’s work, to me at least, to the same plane as M. C. Escher and Terry Gilliam. So you have the commonplace likes of The Hall, The Drive and The Kitchen. And the rather grander Cold Store, Ballroom East, Ballroom West, Priests’ Hole, West Wing and The Yacht. To the unexpected Emergency Generator, A bit of tree, Up on the Battlements, and Orangery. To the downright inexplicable Nomen Luni, At the Foot of the MegaTree, The Nightmare Room, and Rescue Esmerelda.
Seeing the furthest reaches was the very best we could hope for. We were not yet gamers – we were, at best, queueing at the post office for our gaming application forms. We lacked the hand-eye coordination, strategies and patience we’d later hone through hours of Super Mario Bros., Doom and Call of Duty games. We were doing our best with wobbly rubber keys, weak fingers, zero muscle memory, and fuelled only by the will to see something wholly new. (This will almost certainly be the only post in this series that focuses at great length on minutiae like room names instead of fundamentals like gameplay. But here the gameplay, as robust as it was, didn’t matter because I lacked the skills to appreciate it, and because I spent most of the time watching anyway – as wrapt in front of a CRT TV in much the same way many parents will recognise in their iPad-obsessed progeny.)
I’m sure I’ve seen this before…
The game would be followed by the bigger and in some ways better Jet Set Willy II. This offered not an all-new mansion but an extension of the original, with, by my count 134 rooms, more than doubling the mansion’s size. These included the Deserted Isle, reachable via the previously-mentioned The Yacht, and a number of rooms set in space, including some named with not-so-subtle nods to Star Trek such as Beam me Down Spotty and Captain Slog. A particularly fiendish addition was Highway to Hell, accessible only via the pit that would previously have led to certain death, forcing players familiar with the first game to brave the drop all over again in the hope of a different outcome. All of which would be explored, this time around, to the 8-bit strains of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. It was only later that I’d come to be aware that Jet Set Willy was itself a sequel to Manic Miner (which also used the Grieg) but which seemed much-less exciting to me at the time because it only had 20 rooms. I now appreciate them for their similarly-weird brilliance – and because I still haven’t seen them all for myself. (Manic Miner brutally forces you to collect all the items in a room before moving on.) At first I thought I’d write about Jet Set Willy II for its bigger-and-betterness, but actually, the original was every bit as good for its relative compactness. There the surreality seemed finely-tuned next to the outlandish (or offworldish) extravagance of the follow-up.
The gameplay of the original was better too, thanks to a mechanic that allowed you to jump again immediately on landing, which was incredibly helpful, even to us abject beginners. Jet Set Willy was by no means the only Spectrum game that I watched my brother play with fascination. Feud, Sabre Wulf, Head Over Heals, A Day in the Life, Byte Bitten and Kokotoni Wilf, among others, all contributed to my burgeoning fascination with video games, many of which were clearly influenced by Smith’s. But nothing else on Spectrum was as magical or as exciting – and though gaming has since gone on to produce equally wonderful sights and sounds, none have ever equalled the unique surreality and quirky Britishness of Jet Set Willy, which deserves to be remembered as a great video-gaming genre in its own right. I’m tempted to go back, game pad in hand this time around, to see if I can best the mansion with my platforming skills honed in the likes of Ori and the Blind Forest, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Hollow Knight (and with the benefit of emulation features like rewinding mistakes.) But a big part of me doesn’t want to, in case I succeed. I want to remember it as an impossible and impossibly-weird and brilliant game.
These websites and videos were useful in the writing of this post:
- Jet Set Willy rooms at The complete Jet Set Willy RAM disassembly
- Jet Set Willy Walkthrough, ZX Spectrum (YouTube, no commentary) by RZX Archive
- Perfect Jet Set Willy ZX Spectrum with Commentary (YouTube) by Geoff Neil
- Jet Set Willy II: The Map by Julian D. A. Wiseman (who also writes about financial markets and vintage port)
- Jet Set Willy II Walkthrough, ZX Spectrum (YouTube, no commentary) by RZX Archive
- Manic Miner Walkthrough, ZX Spectrum (YouTube, no commentary) by RZX Archive