Monday, November 22, 2021

Game 299: Jet Set Willy

Waking up hung over in his bathtub, Willy's day is only going to get worse.

I knew long before playing that I wouldn't be capable of finishing Jet Set Willy fairly. Not only because of an infamous bug which makes the game unwinnable out of the box, in which an arrow flies off-screen, out of VRAM bounds, and into system memory where it corrupts other rooms' data, but also because its predecessor Manic Miner was already next to impossible. Jet Set Willy isn't known for being any easier, but it is known for being about three times larger, no longer a linear series of single-screen levels to clear in sequence but a sprawling mansion to explore in a non-linear fashion. Designer Matthew Smith reportedly didn't bother playtesting beyond simply beating each room individually to ensure each one was technically possible, and this lack of integration testing both explains the uncaught bug as well as these games' reputation for completely unreasonable difficulty.

Jet Set Willy does give you a starting supply of eight lives, but they run out fast. There were more rooms that killed me in excess of eight times before I finished them than there were rooms that didn't. Falling too far can kill you now, and the fatal drop distance isn't very far at all. In rooms below others, it's possible to fall to your death, only to respawn at the top of the screen and fall to your death again and again in a loop that does not end until your lives are exhausted.

Imagine a boot stamping, etc.

As the cassette inlay explains (and the cover art tastelessly depicts), Miner Willy, rich from his adventures, bought a big tall house in the middle of town and all night long he'd biddy biddy bum with his newfound friends. Waking up in the bathroom the morning after one soirée too many, the house is trashed, the Aston-Martin is gone, and the housekeeper Maria won't let him go to bed until he's cleaned up each of its dozens of rooms.

I have to digress, is this insubordinate domestic trope an English in-joke? Jeeves would have fixed up the place by 7 o'clock and still had time to prepare some hair of the dog, and maybe bear the slightest hint of eyebrow raise. Even the gaslighting queen of passive aggressiveness Mrs. Danvers wouldn't dare to tell her employer to clean the house himself.

In case you're wondering, if you touch her you die.

Because of the aforementioned arrow bug and a few others that make certain rooms impossible, which Software Projects unconvincingly tried to claim were intentional difficulty-enhancing features before publishing POKE command fixes in UK computing magazines, I'm breaking my usual convention of playing original versions and using the "PCG fix" copy which I presume contains these fixes.

It didn't take me three minutes to reach a game-ending room. Leaving the bathroom was simple enough. The top landing, from which you may exit left to the master bedroom or go downstairs to the first floor, was only marginally more difficult to clear, patrolled by a deadly whisky keg, Swiss army knife, and razor blade. But the only place to go on the first floor was an appropriately named "Nightmare Room," where Willy turns into a winged pig and has to navigate a series of impossibly tiny platforms while dodging technicolor servants and a tired running gag. As in Manic Miner, you can't control your jumps, and you move so slow, so frame-perfect timing and pixel-precise positioning is the only way to survive here. Merely trying to get to the platform just to the right of the foot seemed borderline impossible - you can't fly, and as a pig you're just fat enough that there's no way to safely position yourself on any of the platforms between the purple servant and the foot and be safe from both of them.

Unlike Manic Miner, you don't have to collect all objects just to leave the room, so you could just ignore the mug, exit to the left with comparative ease, and keep exploring the mansion.

This room "stumped" me.

The Banyan Tree is the very next room, and I couldn't even get through it in all of my allotted tries with numerous repeat attempts. Incidentally, this is one of the rooms that Software Projects had to fix with POKEs, as in its original rendition, a solid platform overhead prevents leaping over the spinning microchip.

I soon discovered, quite by accident, that on the first floor landing, you can pass through the staircase by jumping onto it at just the right angle. This allows access to several more rooms of the mansion, but all paths eventually led somewhere I couldn't make it through, and exploring was simply delaying the inevitable. I'd have to properly complete The Nightmare Room, The Banyan Tree, and the rooms beyond at some point.

After getting yet another Game Over in a cold locker found at the end of a series of kitchens and sculleries, where I failed to come to grips with controls involving a swinging rope, I decided I'd start savescumming and relax my rules, allowing myself a save every ten minutes as I ultimately did with Manic Miner. If Smith couldn't beat it fairly, I'm not going to pretend I have a chance.

It took me three saves to grab the mug in The Nightmare Room and leave. Three. For one room. One save at the start, one save after making it under the gauntlet of servants and feet and jumping up three platforms to one between a cyan and purple servant, and one save after making two jumps past the purple servant and the foot onto a safe platform right in the middle. And each save other than the last represents ten minutes of trying and failing to clear the room from that position, over and over again. And this is just the fifth room of the game! One thing that simplifies jumping from these narrow platforms is that with the arrow keys you can now make a forward hop from a standing position, but even with this concession, this room alone was harder than anything in Manic Miner.

At least the Banyan Tree gave me less trouble. Not that I didn't have to save at the start of it too - I still got nailed on the second jump's landing by the demon repeatedly, and this is in part because your sprite's width varies with your walk cycle frame, which you don't have a great deal of control over. But when you do land it safely, you can climb up the tree to a rooftop area, or squeeze through the hole on the left and continue past a swimming pool and onward to the mansion's west wing.

Down the stairs and into the wine cellar, pinpoint precision is needed once again to descend each level, avoiding the patrolling robots who are all just tall enough that you can barely leap over, grabbing the bottles in each alcove. Once at the bottom, a secret passage to the right can be entered by jumping over the stairs at just the right distance and height to clear them without ascending a pixel too high and hitting the platform above it instead. Otherwise, the only way out of the wine cellar is to sacrifice a life and respawn at the top.

But if you weren't using save states, you might wish you did sacrifice a life to respawn at the top of the wine cellar, as the next room has even more patrolling robots, and the only way through is tedious and costly trial and error, figuring out the exact timing needed to jump over one robot without bumping into the next, or hitting your head on a robot or obstacle on a higher level. A collectable golden cross demands jumping onto a conveyor belt at the precise time so that you can leap over two robots in a row but also pass underneath a ceiling light in the split-second between, and in order to exit right you have to jump over four robots patrolling back and forth. This room probably took me more attempts than any before it, and involved another three save states.

The next room, called "The Security Guard," is mercifully simple, with nothing but a few sentries moving up and down in simple patterns. I easily walked underneath them all, leading to the right and downward to a secret passage underneath Willy's driveway in which I lost all of my lives to a red rabbit dancing on a conveyor belt. Reloading and making my way back to The Security Guard, I went downward instead, which dropped me into an infinite death loop, one clearly put there on purpose.

Let's go, Seth.

I'm not ready to give up on Jet Set Willy, but nothing about the experience has been fun yet. The labyrinthine mansion, ripe for exploration, is a wasted opportunity when every direction I go soon leads to a brick wall that I bash my head on until it eventually yields, more often than not just leading to another brick wall. As of now I've seen 22 rooms and used 12 save states, and I'm certain that without them I'd have given up having seen less than half that much.

1 comment:

  1. I played jet set willy 2 on my amstrad, not a sequel but the same game with more rooms and (I supose) the bugs solved.
    With 12 years and no save states I just explored a few rooms.


Most popular posts