Jet Set Willy [1984]

This is the first sequel in my blog, which gives me an opportunity to think about sequels in general. In the medium of video games, one of the basic mechanisms of “hype” is that video game sequels are popularly expected to be better than the previous game, whether or not this hypothesis bears out. This is not the case in any other medium. Television spin-offs have to fight uphill to establish themselves as any good, seemingly having more of a struggle converting the audience’s like of the related TV show into the new show than an unrelated TV show that is simply scheduled after it. Movie series, despite our recent decade-long Golden Age for their commercial and critical viability, have traditionally been viewed as having such diminishing returns that they are a joke, like Jaws [1975-1987] or Hellraiser [1987-2018]. Book series, again up until recently in the post-YA world, have traditionally been ignored outright by cultural tastemakers. (In those two examples, there’s a whole “genre/literary” complex that’s helping things along.) And who’s ever heard of a sequel to a painting or a musical composition? Even in a numbered series they’re just two different things. There are huge exceptions to all of these trends, sequels that were accepted or embraced, but I think the inertia of critical expectations against sequels is present.

But the field of video games is the biggest exception of all, and it’s interesting to speculate why. Maybe it’s just the overbearing power of marketing departments on the critical discourse, which has held strong for pretty much the entire existence of commercial video games. (You could also easily point to the same phenomenon in movie criticism to explain the past decade or so.) Maybe it’s that there’s not a widespread sense that “telling a story” is the primary function of a video game, so there’s less bias against grafting more story onto one that’s already come to a natural and unified end. The theory I gravitate towards most, though, is that it’s because video games are so tied to rapid technological advances. The medium and its audience are usually looking forwards, rooting for progress and newness instead of dwelling on the past. Even in a case like this where there simply isn’t any technological progress over the previous entry, Manic Miner [1983], there’s quantifiably more video game in Jet Set Willy [1984]. That’s also more bang for your buck, a little brutal market logic, like valuing paintings partially by the square inches of canvas.

Cardiacs – Jibber And Twitch [1984]. Jet Set Willy, like Manic Miner before it, actually is notable for having its own soundtrack: an absolutely horrendous staccato beep rendition of If I Were A Rich Man [1964].

In this framework, the absurd difficulty level of Jet Set Willy & Manic Miner can actually be thought of as a perverse generosity. It’s tempting to call it “masocore”, especially since VVVVVV [2010] (which isn’t masocore, except Veni Vidi Vici) specifically rhymes with the stylistic tradition that Manic Miner seems to have inaugurated, but that’s projecting future standards back onto the past in a way that’s definitely misleading. Just off the top of my head, Jet Set Willy gives you 7 lives (a lot, but far from enough to keep you from having to start from scratch over and over,) the typical masocore formula of perverse generosity is allowing you to take dozens upon dozens of runs at a tricky part in quick succession with checkpointing. That’s right: it actually takes much MORE glee in killing you. Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy are games that demand pixel-perfect platforming and dodging of enemies while only having two very much fixed and unadjustable jump arcs, one to proceed forwards either to the left or right, and one to go straight up and down. Your only savior is that only sometimes are you required to make your jumps in a timely fashion. Manic Miner frontloaded a difficult level so that you could boot up and immediately have a challenge. Jet Set Willy starts you a few screens away from the most difficult rooms, instead situating you in the easiest room of the game.

What that represents is actually the reason I picked Jet Set Willy over Manic Miner: it uses its position as a sequel to commentate on the original game. See, Manic Miner has the same basic “collectathon” premise as Lode Runner [1983] or Pitfall [1982] or Wizardry [1981] or Zork [1980] or Rogue [1980] or Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77]: the subterranean treasure extraction that I am oh-so tired of trying to find fresh angles on. Jet Set Willy does it for me! Miner Willy, the player character, has become quite wealthy from the treasure he stole. He’s traded in his hard hat for a top hat, and as the curtain raises we find him lazing about fully-dressed in his bathtub. Willy’s been living quite lavish, and has bought himself a gigantic mansion that he’s been partying hard in. Now, though, it’s the morning after. He crawls out of the tub and goes to bed, but blocking the doorway is his overweight and coded-non-white maid, Maria, who demands like a stern mother that Willy pick up his own mess this time. The rest of the game’s treasure collection consists of exactly that, Willy stumbling around cleaning up after himself.

This is juicy stuff. We see here a quick, allegorical sketch of the move to a perceived post-colonial Britain from the perspective of the privileged: wealthy, sure, but chastised, taking orders from those who you’d traditionally boss around while at most grumbling about it, and chastened in the hangover after the thoughtless conduct of the good times. That partying was actively unhealthy to the body, and now the bill’s come due — the ending of the game (which is also the cover) is Willy shoulder-deep in the toilet, vomiting and thus finally purging his body of the poison he put in himself, while also giving himself a bit of a vulgar baptism that mirrors his emergence from the tub at the beginning. And the luxury itself is tacky and obscene.

That’s embodied mostly in the mansion you explore, which takes after most video game mansions thus far (outside of Deadline) in design: some of the rooms are to be expected, like the bedroom and bathroom, or more ostentatious, a wine cellar or a tree growing in the middle of the house or a yacht, but the place is absurdly extended past any practical sense. There’s something called an “Orangery” that’s apparently real but so alien from most peoples’ lives that it fits right in with the “Nomen Luni” and “Quirkafleeg.” That gibberish actually gives you a pretty good idea of the tone the game has: It’s the nonsense doodleworld that exists in the margins of a high schooler’s notebook and inscrutable personal in-jokes. Jet Set Willy draws a telltale bit of iconography from Monty Python’s Flying Circus [1969-1974] but mostly partakes in its freewheeling, throw-anything-in-there, flu-tv spirit. This game is overflowing with imagination, coherency be damned! A dream sequence with physical coordinates you can freely leave and enter where Willy becomes a pig with wings? Why not. Deadly spinning peanuts and eggs? Why not. Flying saucers? Why not. A killer compass? Why not.

Everything is out to kill you. Once again, as in House Of Usher [1980], there is an entire religious wing of the house decorated with crosses, abandoned to the forces of the unholy and demonic. These demons function the same as any other enemy, so perhaps we can conclude that all those other enemies are likewise demons or possessed. Certainly, their physical threat is equal to their spiritual threat. These demons function the same on the house as the chemicals Willy put in his body. Perhaps they were brought home with his treasure. They certainly behave the same as the enemies abroad where he got his wealth. Or maybe he invited them in, for a Monster Party [1989] last night, or maybe it was an inadvertent summoning just from the routines and rituals of how he lived his life. Maybe they only revealed their true demonic nature in the sober light of the next morning.

Then there’s the demon under the driveway…

I’m gonna skip ahead a little bit and compare Jet Set Willy to a game from the future, but one I can be fairly certain my presumed reader is familiar with: Super Mario Bros [1985]. Super Mario Bros definitely exists in a fantastical world of imagination that has made it the subject of many-a “they must have been on drugs” joke, but comparison to Jet Set Willy makes it seem relatively narrow and mild. Mario has to draw on Alice In Wonderland [1865] to get its inspiration for wacky reveries, and it’s reined-in enough that it recycles components, turtle parts especially, until it amounts to not just a logical aesthetic unified by if nothing else insistence, but to the germs of an outright worldbuilding project. It’s a much more professional and conservative approach to imagination.

Well, of course. Japanese game designers were largely professional adults. Even in the US, with notable exceptions like Richard Garriott, the early cohort of bedroom programmers seem to be largely either collegiate or around their 30s, the type to have the disposable income to buy their own personal computers. But despite the last two examples of UK computer games being from art school grads, era UK computer game development was populated in surprisingly large proportion by teenagers, thanks to a successful marketing push to get accessible personal computers into the household and kids to learn to code. Designer Matthew Smith was only 18 when he made Jet Set Willy, and already an established success. No, more than a success: a superstar, the type whose exploits are breathlessly reported upon, tabloid-style. There’s something insidiously romanticized about the lone genius developer, the ones who always get photographed next to their sports cars to demonstrate the wealth you could get in coding, and the aspirational figure seems to have been in particularly in currency in the 1980s UK press. This all produced a nasty storm, where lots of teenaged aspirants with no business sense could get absolutely sucker-punched by middlemen operating like scuzzy record labels and, essentially, exploiting child labor.

Matthew Smith, after Manic Miner, became a kind of poster boy for everything wrong with the industry around him. Having become a multi-thousandaire off the royalties, the irresponsible teenager blew it all on partying that became a spectacle for the public — “they must have been on drugs when they made this” for Jet Set Willy is no joke but a gawk. This gives Jet Set Willy’s cynical, disgusted view of wealth and partying an extremely tempting autobiographical edge that threatens to overwrite the social edge. And of course, like any rockstar, he realized his label had financially screwed him out of royalties, so he left his contract and started his own business. Now the pressure was really on. Reportedly, Manic Miner was a lot of fun to make, and he banged it out in about 8 weeks. Reportedly, Jet Set Willy was an unspeakably miserable slog to make, and it took about 8 months. When it did come out, it was famously broken such that when you entered a room, it changed all the other rooms to an impossible state. Smith had crunched himself, and burnt out from it, henceforth receding from game development for a quieter life (though rumors swirled around for years that he must have become an eccentric recluse.)

Miner Willy would live on, though. There was even another sequel, Jet Set Willy 2 [1985], with no input from Matthew Smith nor iteration like how Jet Set Willy introduced nonlinear exploration to the Manic Miner formula, instead literally just being Jet Set Willy (no, literally literally,) but with extra rooms. And alongside that officially-sanctioned expansion, the numerous cracks and hacks of this popular broken game led to a vibrant mod scene that lives on to the present day making custom maps. They had set the template for non-isometric, flip-screen ZX Spectrum platformers that would be used by everything from Dizzy [1987] to Soft & Cuddly [1987] to VVVVVV.

4 thoughts on “Jet Set Willy [1984]

  1. IMO the main reason for sequels in videogames is that they’re so unknown, difficult and complicated to make, you usually don’t get everything right on the first iteration, but by the end you can more clearly see how things should have been.

    This is maybe true of any creative process to a certain extent, but with games you’re making the musical instrument together with the music, which I think amplifies this effect.

    Additionally, this same dynamic rules programming in general, where each time you rewrite a system you do so with knowledge of how the rough edges felt when you were using the precursor version. In this context each version of the software is an incremental improvement; are modern jets in some sense “sequels” to the first Wright brothers prototypes? Jaws has nothing on Word or Windows. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Really good insight! In the case of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, Matthew Smith even LITERALLY had to make the musical instrument himself and the music at the same time.


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