Developer: Matthew Smith Platform: Pretty much all of them Year: 1984 Play it online!
You can’t talk about old British games without talking about Jet Set Willy. It’s like an unwritten rule. People would come and take away our computers if we even tried – and we love our PCs!
Originally written for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Jet Set Willy went on to be one of the most well known and best loved platformers of the period – probably even more so than the first title in the series, Manic Miner, thanks to the…unusual name.
The plot for Jet Set Willy is minimal at best and, even if you do know what you’re supposed to be doing, the experience can still be baffling at best. At worst, it’s darn right hallucinatory, as Willy’s mission to clean up his mansion after a particularly riotous shindig sees him being chased by giant Swiss Army knives and dodging giant floating goat heads in his private chapel.
Floating heads in the chapel? Call the exorcist!
In other words, it’s obvious that Jet Set Willy is a game from the 80s.
The crazy thing about Jet Set Willy though is that when it was first released the game wasn’t even something you could hope to finish. There were numerous bugs and oversights in the original code that meant even if you had the lightning reactions and split-second timing required to navigate the hugely difficult gameworld then you’d still not be able to finish the game. It would crash before you got halfway, or you’d find one of several items that were actually impossible to collect.
Somehow though, Jet Set Willy became a classic; a title often held up as one of the best truly retro titles to ever be put to digital format. It’s baffling. This is a game that is actually impossible to complete, which handles terribly, has no story to speak of and which doesn’t even look that great – and yet it’s still brilliant thanks to the speedy movement and overall pace. Astounding.
We think you’d be pretty hard pushed to find a gamer or geek who didn’t play a Lemmings game back in the halcyon days of the Amiga – the series rapidly became a gaming phenomenon for it’s infuriatingly tough but brilliantly designed puzzles. As time went on the franchise exploded, spawning a miasma of lack-lustre 3D adaptations and action spin-offs that deviated more and more from the simplicity that we first fell in love with.
Never send a blocker to do a builder's job
The premise of the game, for those of you born after-the-fact and without an interest in history, was nonsensical, streamlined brilliance. Lemmings, with blue clothes and green hair, fall from a trapdoor in the sky and must be guided towards an exit in the distance. Between them are a bunch of obstacles – at their easiest merely walls to be tunnelled through or gaps to be spanned, but scaling up to flamethrowers and mincers. You have to get a certain number of survivors through the level to access the next. Simples.
Complicating the matter though was the suicidal nature of your azure-fringed rodent army, who would happily waltz off cliffs and plummet to the earth before terminating in a digitized squelch and burst of pixels. You only had limited resources too, with some levels requiring precise timing and/or MENSA membership to overcome.
There were plenty of things to love in the original Lemmings, including the way you revisitied some of the easier levels with less and less resources towards the end of the game, but two levels in particular stands out in our memory. Pea Soup and We All Fall Down.
The first tasked you with building a series of bridges over a giant bowl of deadly soup, while the second made you dig through a thin strip of earth that was one pixel above the point at which a lemming could survive a fall. In both levels you needed perfect timing, as one missed bridge brick or one digger who starts too early and the level is lost. It took a lot of practice to get it right, but the levels perfectly captured that blend of irritation and enjoyment that Lemmings thrived under.