Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy – 32 years of gaming greatness

In 1983, a young programmer named Matthew Smith changed the face of computer gaming.

A fairly prosaic sentence there, and one that has been stated many times before. If it’s true, how did he do it? Well, he gave the world a character called Willy and placed him into a platform game called Manic Miner.

What set Manic Miner apart from other games of the time? For one, it was the first Spectrum game to have an animated loading screen, owing to a rather smart piece of programming trickery on Mr Smith’s part. It was also the first Spectrum game to have in-game music. Many people of my generation cannot hear Hall of the Mountain King without imagining themselves trying to move Miner Willy through Central Cavern or Eugene’s Lair. It was the quintessential platform game, and many since have been modelled on or inspired by it.

The game was re-released several times (Bug Byte had a go, as did Mastertronic) and in the years since, remakes began to emerge. We’re looking at the original on the Spectrum.

Ahh, don’t it take you back?

For the uninitiated, the premise of Manic Miner was that a man named Willy stumbled into a mine while looking for gold. The mine had been long-since abandoned, but the machinery inside was very much active and lethal. Willy must obtain all the keys in each room in order to open the exit and move forward. In addition to the hazards that fill every screen, Willy has a limited amount of air, so he must progress to the next screen before it runs out.

You start the game with three lives, but you get an extra one for every 10,000  points you rack up. There are 20 screens to negotiate and they are always faced in the same order. The further you go, the harder they get. You can collect the keys in any order you like, but you must bear in mind you have a limited air supply, so find the quickest means and get the hell out.

Man, I love that game to this very day. There is a great remake for the PC, which came out in 2004. It was put together by a chap named Andy Noble. Let’s make a comparison.

As you can see, the noble Mr Noble took no liberties with the game’s spirit. Although he souped up the graphics and sound (the in-game music is still Hall of the Mountain King, but a nicer version), the feel of the game remains the same. It plays just the same, although in fact the simple controls feel a bit less stiff. All the screens are laid out exactly the same. The only major difference is that you can change the speed of the game. It ranges from glacially slow to mind-meltingly fast. I prefer it a couple of notches above the normal speed.

One innovation for the end of the game is that there is an actual ending, unlike the original, which just loops in perpetuity. The ending is just a little text thing with a simple yet pleasant rendition of The Blue Danube playing over it.

The remake is a commendable tip of the hardhat to its progenitor. Andy Noble is clearly a genuine fan of Matthew Smith’s first masterpiece. Now let’s take a look at his second.

The original release of Jet Set Willy came out in 1984. It was, like its predecessor, a massive hit. It was a colossal game at the time, being more than three times the size of Manic Miner. The title screen music is a rather shrill rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, while the in-game music is If I Were a Rich Man (or Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King again, depending on which version you have).

“What’s the story, Rufus? Like we don’t already know.” Well, pull up a mug of hot chocolate, prepare yourself a nice, sweet chair and I’ll tell you.

Willy, having not only escaped from the lethal mines in which he found himself, has also amassed a fortune from what he found there. With his new-found riches, Willy has bought a mansion from a crazy scientist who has gone missing. So vast is the mansion that not even Willy has been able to explore it all. One morning, after a devastatingly successful party, Willy discovers an almighty mess has been left behind. He is so exhausted that all he can think about is bed, but his domineering housekeeper, Maria, forbids it until he has cleared up all the detritus from the previous night’s soiree. Willy soon discovers how big his house is, and that it is full of the failed experiments from the mansion’s previous owner, which all appear to want Willy dead. Not the most auspicious start to the day.

Manic Miner had, as previously stated, 20 screens for Willy to leap and run through. Not only does Jet Set Willy have 61 screens, but they can be visited at will, instead of sequentially. Because the game is so much larger, you start with eight lives instead of three. However, no extra lives are obtainable. Willy starts his misadventure in The Bathroom. He must collect the items strewn around his mansion and its immediate environs. There are 83 items to collect in total, although no one knew that when the game to begin with. In fact, there was a competition to that effect within the original release. The first person to write in to Software Projects with the correct number of items would win, among other things, a case of Dom Perignon champagne. The only way to find out how many items there were was to either beat the game, or at least visit every room and count all the items. This was more or less impossible, because the original release had some now famous bugs. However, two players of the game, Cameron Else and Ross Holman, discovered how many items there were and subsequently won the competition. They also gave Software Projects the necessary bug fixes.

The most famous bug was in the room known as The Attic. Once this room was visited, several other screens became corrupted and remained so unless the computer was reset. The Forgotten Abbey, for example, lost all of its enemy sprites. Not so bad, but several other screens would kill Willy the moment he entered them. It’s been said that the glitch occurred by an arrow (a common enemy used throughout the game: they fly across certain screens) having a path that travelled outside the game’s video memory and subsequently overwriting some of the game data. I don’t know much about programming, but I know that certain things a player does, particularly in older games, can overwrite the code and alter the game. A good example of this would be the horribly circuitous method a player can adopt to see the end credits of Super Mario World after playing for only about four minutes. You have to do very, very specific things, though. Software Projects were eventually compelled to release a set of POKEs to correct the error in Jet Set Willy.

The First Landing bug was another notorious one. It made the game physically impossible to complete. There is an invisible item embedded in the wall that Willy is facing. Even if it were visible, it would is unobtainable. Various POKEs were published, which moved the item to one of two locations: The Bathroom or The Hall. There was another bug which involved an item that couldn’t be collected. The Conservatory Roof contained an item that was right next to a deadly static object, making impossible to collect. The POKE removed the offending static sprite. The room called The Banyan Tree had a solid object which blocked the exit at the top of screen. Again, POKEs were released to remove it.

Despite its plenitude of glitches, Jet Set Willy was a superb and ground-breaking game. I never ran afoul of the bugs because I really wasn’t very good at playing the game. It didn’t faze me, I loved exploring it anyway and never made a serious attempt to beat it. At the time, I didn’t even know it was impossible. Later releases of the game were actually beatable.

Now, here’s a mystery from my childhood. My friends and I always wondered what the hell a Quirkafleeg was, and thanks to Mr Internet Face, I now know. Quirkafleeg is a reference to Gilbert Shelton’s comic strip, Fat Freddy’s Cat. In the strip, a Quirkafleeg was a strange ritual that had to be performed whenever a dead furry animal was seen. Not seeing one here, but hey, we all like our references. That rope in the middle can either take you across to Up On the Battlements, or up to The Watch Tower. We’ll be coming back to the latter in a bit because of what lies beyond.

So not only is JSW an enduring, challenging and fun game, it also has this history of bugs and quirks. Now let’s have a shufty at the sequel.

I was PSYCHED to play this game when I was a kid! I didn’t even know it was out for at least a year after its 1985 release. A friend of mine revealed that he’d bought it and at first I didn’t believe him. Once I saw it, however, I just knew I’d love it. I did, of course. I have always loved platform games, so a JSW game that was more than twice the size of its predecessor was going to have me enthralled for years to come. This is the first one Matthew Smith did not have a hand in. Instead, it was developed by Derrick P. Rowson.

Jet Set Willy II is not so much a sequel, as much as it’s an adapted port. The original JSW was ported to the Amstrad CPC and given many extra rooms. It was still, in essence, the first game, but it was given the title Jet Set Willy – The Final Frontier. This was ported back to the Spectrum in 1985 and dubbed a sequel. As if the 61 screens in the first game were not challenging enough, there are a whopping 132 screens in the sequel. Although physically possible to complete (no bugs to impede your progress), it was so monumentally challenging that I never knew anyone who came close to beating it. I have beaten it since using an emulator, with no POKEs, cheats or savestates, and it was hard as nails.

There was a rumour that in the original JSW, it was possible to go to the screen called The Yacht and launch the boat in order to visit an island. This was never programmed into the game and never even intended to be. However, the rumour made its way back to Software Projects, who cleverly programmed that very thing into the sequel.

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Not the easiest thing to do in the game, but quite the achievement if you can make it happen. It is believed in some circles that after hitting the trip switch you had to reach the Yacht without losing a life, otherwise the yacht would not launch. I can vouch for the fact that that is not true. It doesn’t matter if you lose lives; the Trip Switch – Yacht thing will still work.

Perhaps the most significant addition to JSW II is the 33 screens that take place in space. I mentioned the Watch Tower before, and it is from the top of that room that you reach…

Willy dons a spacesuit and blasts off to adventure among the stars!

I always loved this element of the game, but I preferred the “classic” screens to the space ones. Still, I could hardly ever resist collecting those two items at the top of the rocket that cause it to launch. One of the most interesting screens in the space section of the map is the Cartography Room. What I didn’t realise as a kid was that the pattern of this screen was determined by which screens you’d visited previously. There is an item to collect in the Cartography Room, but it is impossible to pick up unless you have visited certain other rooms first and collected the items within.

This is what the Cartography Room looks like if you take a direct route and don’t stop to collect items on the way. The item at the top of the screen is unobtainable.

Here is the same room, but with a significantly larger area of the map explored and almost every item in the game collected. As you can see, I’ve already collected the item here. You can easily jump through the green blocks and also stand on them, while the red ones are solid and impassable from beneath or the sides.

Unlike its predecessor, you don’t have to collect every item in the game in order to complete Jet Set WIlly II. Although there are 175 items to collect in total, you can finish the game after collecting 150 of them. This means that if there are some items you’d rather not collect because the room is too difficult to get through, you can either pass through those rooms without getting them, or not visit the rooms at all.

The whole premise of the game is that Willy wants to get to bed, but Maria the housekeeper won’t let him until he tidies up. If you visit the Master Bedroom early in the game, Maria blocks Willy’s path to the bed. If you walk into her, you lose a life. In the unlikely event that you collect at least 150 items and then return to the Master Bedroom, Maria will be gone. If you jump onto the bed and touch the pillow, the CPU will take control of Willy and march him directly to The Bathroom, where he will bee-line for the toilet. When he touches it, he is transported here:

Welcome back to Manic Miner! We appear to have come full circle. Willy just jumps up and down and you cannot take control of him. On some versions, you can move him around the room, but he cannot escape. This counts as the 132nd room in the game, as it is absolutely the last one you can visit.

And that concludes the last official Willy game. I’ve never heard anyone say that the remakes and hacks that have come out since are superior to the originals. That is not to say there aren’t some great ones out there. There are. Why not take a look at these!

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This represents a mere fraction of the spin-offs, remakes and hacks you can find. If you’re interested in getting a hold of some (and if not, why not?), then take a look at these fabulous sites:

World of Spectrum

Planet Emulation (French)

Darnkitty

Andy Noble’s game page

Retrospec

There are so many to try out that you might as well just surprise yourself.

For my complete playthrough of Manic Miner, look here:

For my playthrough of Jet Set Willy, this is the video for you:

My playthrough of the legendarily difficult Jet Set Wiily II can be found here:

I know that Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy are games that I will always want to come back to at some point. They hold for me an enduring charm, which even after playing them to death, compels me to return. I’ve beaten Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, so maybe someday I’ll have the guts to take on Jet Set Willy II and round off the trilogy.

There will always be hardcore gamers who remember Matthew Smith and his creation. There will always be nerdlingers like me who hear an excerpt from The Blue Danube and think, “Hey, that’s the theme tune from Manic Miner!”

These games and their creators deserve to be remembered. The gaming world owes it to them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll try and beat my Manic Miner high score. Or maybe I’ll take a walk Up On the Battlements. Hell with it, I’ll do both.