One need but glance at any 8-bit emulation site's 'guestbook' to note that a certain 'timeless' quality of some golden oldie games is the sole reason why many install an emulator on their PC. In a sense, the game, coupled with an insatiable desire to play it again, sells the emulator. The internet-surfing viewer simply asks him/herself "Will I be able to play Chuckie Egg again using this?" and downloads it, and the appropriate .zip file, if the answer is in the affirmative.
But whilst the testimonials applauding this platform egg and ladder romp prove it the favourite tipple of the retro-gaming classes, there is not yet any improved version making use of the advanced features of the PC. And whilst there are many web pages dedicated to Chuckie Egg alone, allowing it to be downloaded and played in less than a minute, the PC version is identical to the emulated Amstrad/Spectrum/Electron one. Subsequently, the playability of a retro classic may be present in all its glory to the PC gamer, but the game itself on the PC machine can appear (graphically) a little blocky and somewhat 'tacky'.
An ideal solution would be for a 'grafix' designer to rip the game from the emulated format but instead of just re-coding it so it works without the emulator, to also touch up the spites and improve the sound, speed and collision detection (if required) too. The result would be to offer a more stunning-looking PC title without encroaching the classic version requiring an 8-bit emulator.
This is exactly what Andy Noble has done with the mansion jaunt of Jet Set Willy, once available over almost every retro format from Oric to C64 and now available free for the PC from www.retrospec.co.uk/anoble/mmjsw/mmjsw.htm. It's fair to surmise that this title, despite a stupendously high frustration factor, is almost as beloved by retro players as the likes of Chuckie Egg and Impossible Mission. It concerns not, as you might expect, a jetpack-wearing hero in outer space but rather a member of the jet set upper class with a very big and messy house and a very big and angry housekeeper demanding he cleans it up before retiring to his bed.
Not counting its sequel, JSW was a quite unique game upon its release. A sometime sequel to Manic Miner (also available revamped from Andy Noble), it departed from the then traditional 'complete one room before proceeding to the next' format and allowed the player to roam freely between over eighty rooms. On machines such as the C16 and Acorn Electron, this represented a miniature miracle of programming. With each room of the mansion titled on screen - text ranging from the simple 'Bathroom' to the perplexing 'We Must Perform A Quickafleeg' - each was also packed with a dazzling array of CHR$ definition sprites in 100% machine code. There were also very nice touches such as housemaid Maria standing guard at Willy's bedroom, tapping her feet and pointing sternly to the rest of the mansion when Willy got close.
Now to playing. As with all platform games, JSW is viewed from the side on. Top-hatted and suited Willy is manipulated by moving or jumping him left or right, occasionally requiring pixel-perfect accuracy. Most screens have a number of 'floors' which can be reached either by jumping or by taking the stairs (walking onto rows of dots at angles of 45 degrees) and a number of exits up, down, left or right. Flashing items have to be collected. The idea, described in the instructions as foolhardy, is to collect every last item, of which there are 83, in the mansion and surrounding environs. A satisfying blip accompanies each successful collection, and objects range from bottles and glasses to flagpoles and candles.
Although all baddies, from the Monty Python style naked foot to a dancing goat, move in set patterns, devising a strategy to navigate the room to an exit makes the game infuriatingly difficult. This is compounded by the fact that, although Willy begins with seven lives, entering a room from the 'wrong' direction can be enough to take out all seven! Whenever Willy dies, he appears at the spot at which he entered that room. So if he has fallen into it from a height, for example, all seven Willys will fall into the room from that height and die, one after another.
This problem so acute, one may wonder what appeal the game holds. The answer is in all of those features outlined above. The game really pays off for the arcade addict and adventurer alike in the sense that successful completion of a screen introduces another wonderfully composed and intriguingly titled location. Plus there is the sense that, with a lot of perseverance, the game is possible. So though you may never set out to complete it, you may intend to find out if one particular room can be traversed without dying and, on achieving it, feel satisfied in this alone.
None of the elements mentioned above have escaped the attention of Andy Noble in his remastered version. The character of Willy, on all retro formats one colour only, has remained the same size as the 8-bit counterpart but is now fully dressed in a suit in varying degrees of black and grey, a bowler hat and brown shoes, from which his pink face and hands peep out. The same transformation has been applied to all other characters, the 'Kitchen's' chefs and some other baddies have become very cartoony whilst Maria is able-bodied and meaty, yet all sprites bear a very strong resemblance to the original CHR$.Also employed in the PC version is a Load/Save facility, allowing you to tap F7/F8 respectively to load and save your position before risking your neck to get the birds' eggs or whatever. After describing the problems above, few will doubt the enormous benefit this bestows upon the player. If Willy is plummeting towards certain death, a quick tap of F7 and he will be restored to wherever he was when F8 was last pressed. By pressing F8 each time another object is collected, the game can finally be completed!
Surprisingly too, this does not ruin the playability of the game or feel like cheating. This is because you are still faced with working out the strategy required to collect the objects and still must complete whole rooms without dying. F8 works by saving your position when you entered that room, not where you are physically standing when it is pressed.
Having applauded this feature however, there are two irks with it. Firstly, the keys are too close together and it is far too easy to hit the wrong one (particularly when under pressure). Hitting F8 instead of F7 in a situation of peril of course, is disastrous. The new position will be saved over the old one and the whole status of play will be lost. In fact you will have to begin again from the start. Secondly, F7 occasionally doesn't work. I have frequently been killed in a room, pressed it to attempt the room again with the maximum number of lives, completed the room and then realised my original game had not been retrieved!
Another fault in this conversion is the spinning round on the spot which is possible in the BBC and Electron games of JSW but not in the PC version. If you are facing left and turn right on these machines, you will not move from the spot, meaning if you are poised pixel-perfect between two baddies you can look left and right without dying. However, doing the same on the PC version moves Willy one pixel in the opposite direction and occasionally this is enough for him to bite the dust.
JSW PC employs a speedometer effect where CTRL-F1 to CTRL-F5 can be used to take the game from very fast to normal speed. Playing at anything above normal speed is actually only useful for running across the bottom of screens you have previously completed. The documentation supplied with the PC version also notes "There is a CHEAT, you know" but doesn't tell you what it is. Of course I tried entering CHEAT. It didn't work. Any other suggestions?
The PC version of this game is however, made truly incredible by one feature above them all, the sound for which, the title screen informs us, we have Matt Simmonds to thank. The tinkle of notes accompanying Willy's leaps and bounds and the scales accompanying being squashed by the foot in the end sequence (where Willy is knocked down into a keg of ale) remain untouched. But bursting out over virtually all of the rooms come amazing renditions of classic pieces of music - everything from Tchaikovsky to 'I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside' - which really give an enhanced atmosphere to the whole experience. The music has to set this version head and shoulders above even the best retro version (the C64 one!).
In fact, this PC version of Jet Set Willy will not simply entertain you for a few hours but its sheer sophisticated presentation will actually have your friends fighting for a go, possibly without even suspecting its aged origins. Offering something for all in its heyday, the rejuvenation has in all except the slight difference in the turning pixellation made it even better. And on top of this, it's free! For all this, it cannot be recommended enough. This is what new versions of the golden oldies should aspire to. Download it, play it, be impressed.