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Jet Set Willy

A miner miracle.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

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.

Welcome to Willy's not-so-humble abode.

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.

The thoroughly evil Banyan Tree. One of the trickiest screens ever?

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.