Asking a Miner Willy fan to choose between Manic Miner and its sequel, Jet Set Willy, is like asking a parent to pick their favourite child. The games, programmed by 8-bit whiz kid Matthew Smith, are both brilliant platformers that have captivated gamers ever since they debuted on the ZX Spectrum in the early eighties.
I'm a fan of both, but if I was forced to choose my favourite then it would be Jet Set Willy every time. It's probably my favourite game. It's certainly the one I have the fondest memories of playing as a child.
For me Manic Miner was just too difficult. There were 20 underground caverns to explore, but like a lot of early games they had to be completed in turn. In each one you had to collect the keys while avoiding the nasties and unlock the exit before your air supply ran out. It was intense; the difference between safety and certain death was often nothing more than the width of a pixel.
After playing Manic Miner for months I don't think I ever got past the fifth cavern, Eugene's Lair, with its killer toilets. It was only years later, watching a play-through video on the web that I actually saw the entire game. Amazingly, Smith hadn't stacked all of the best caverns at the beginning. It was the opposite in fact, with brilliantly clever screens like The Warehouse and Solar Power Generator appearing near the end.
Smith seemed to design Jet Set Willy with mere mortals like myself in mind. Rather than having sequential screens the sequel, which took place in Willy's sprawling mansion, featured a 60-room map which you could freely explore.
There was an overall objective, of course. It involved collecting all of the flashing objects scattered around the house so Willy's housemaid Maria would allow him to retire for the evening. But the emphasis was on exploration, and discovering what lurked in the darkest recesses of the house was utterly compulsive.
I must admit that when I first played Jet Set Willy I had no idea about the size of the game. I was obviously challenged as a young gamer because I didn't suss out that you could jump through the staircases. So imagine me for a second, heading down the stairs in the First Landing, weaving through The Nightmare Room, then becoming horribly unstuck at the ridiculously difficult Banyan Tree.
This went on for weeks, before one day – one glorious day – I accidentally jumped on the stairs in the First Landing and fell through to the other side. It was like standing in the lobby of a huge hotel and the manager handing me a skeleton key that unlocked every room.
A similar moment occurred when I discovered the secret passage in The Wine Cellar that leads to the Forgotten Abbey and beyond. I immediately assumed there were other secret screens and spent hours checking every room for possible hidden doorways. It didn't help that a friend at school claimed to have stumbled across an secret sub-basement full of weird and wonderful rooms.
But it was easy to be taken in due to the game's seemingly endless scope. Some scamp sent a letter into Your Spectrum magazine saying that if you stood on the bow of Willy's yacht at the strike of midnight (game time) you'd sail off to a mysterious desert island. I can only guess at how many readers were fooled by that rapture-like prediction.
Even publisher Software Projects added to the myths surrounding the game by announcing a secret 'feature'. Apparently, visiting The Attic would trigger a chain reaction where four screens would suddenly turn 'bad', instantly killing you if you tried to enter them.
It claimed that this was intended to make the game more difficult, yet hacking into the code unsurprisingly revealed that it was actually an unfortunate bug which corrupted those previously accessible screens.
There were other bugs too. Some messed up the placement of certain objects, making it impossible to collect all 83 of them and therefore complete the game. Software Projects issued a fix in the form of values which you 'poked' into memory before loading the game.
For some, this required game patch (the first one ever?) took the shine off Jet Set Willy. In contrast, Manic Miner was a really tight and polished piece of code. At the very least it had been play-tested through to completion.
Bugs seemed to infest Jet Set Willy. Following its debut on the Spectrum, the game was ported to several other machines by different programmers and most of them managed to bugger up something or other. As with the Spectrum version, the Commodore 64, Dragon 32 and BBC Micro releases couldn't be finished either.
But I was never too bothered about the bugs. For me, Jet Set Willy was never about completing the game anyway. It was more about being invited to explore Willy's vast mansion, and by extension, Matthew Smith's alien brain. Bizarre screens such as The Nightmare Room, Nomen Luni and We Must Perform a Quirkafleeg were baffling and brilliant.
As much as I love the game I don't think I'll ever try and finish it properly. Repeatedly trying (and failing) to grab objects from devious screens like The Banjan Tree or Conservatory Roof would surely drive me crazy. It would become tedious. It would become like Manic Miner.
Instead of trying to progress I'd prefer to regress; to wipe the game from my memory so that I could play it for the first time and explore afresh. From the beginning I'd head through the kitchens to the west wing, then up to the battlements on the roof before leaving the house and climbing the MegaTree. And when I'd done that, I'd probably wander over to Willy's yacht and wait until midnight. You know, just in case.