8 REASONS TO PLAY 8-BIT GAMES

It’s mostly people who have never seen the 8-bit computers in action. They’ll tell you that the “old graphics were so chunky that they practically consisted of bricks,” “the sounds consisted of the occasional beep and bleep,” and that “there were no storylines to speak of.” The straw that broke the back of my patience with these ignorants was a reviewer who commented on an abomination of a recent indie game with something like, “I don’t have a Commodore 64, so I lack the hardware to play this game.” The Commodore 64 (as well as the 8-bit Atari, the Spectrum, or the CPC, for example) has literally thousands of games that can effortlessly kick the donkey of the very most of the current game production. The 8-bitters may be outdated, but they definitely aren’t obsolete. Here are 8 very valid reasons to play 8-bit games.

ENOUGH GAMEPLAY

Ever heard of “too much graphics, not enough gameplay”? Well, that’s what won’t happen in the 8-bit world. Not having to care about employing Hollywood actors for marketing purposes or plaguing their games with scripted events to show some cool explosions or even cooler eviscerations, the creators didn’t have to care about how to force you into those situations. So they could focus on letting you do some actually cool things by yourself.

NO STRING MUSIC

8 bit games had soundtracks, not ambient, faceless, impotent movie-score-like string boredom. You can whistle and hum 8-bit themes twenty years later (last time I checked, I was able to remember about 200 8-bit music themes spontaneously), but how many melodies do you remember from PC games you’ve played over the last five years?

NO POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

Characters in 8-bit games have always been dictated by the story, not by minorities bitching about being underrepresented in home entertainment (surprisingly, none of my gay 8-bit friends has ever complained about no gay characters in games), and even the German censorship could be placated by killing robots instead of humans. Did anyone ever object against the female baddies in Double Dragon or Target: Renegade kicking your character in the-, erm, just fatally kicking your character? Games were just games, not balls in pressure groups’ political ping pong. And if you really wanted political correctness, you could still have it – for example, Strip Poker had a data disk with male opponents, so there! And by the way, the next time they reboot the Tomb Raider series, I want Lara to be Larry, a little guy of Asian complexion, with glasses and no muscles to speak of. Just for the sake of balance, you know.

NO SOCIAL FEATURES, NO ACHIEVEMENTS

You can play your 8-bit games in peace, or with a friend sitting by your side. You enjoy the games the way you want, and no one can spoil your party by sticking in front of your eyes that you haven’t killed Gzhrondzor in less than 10 seconds or have gone through the Hotlands not finding all the five tubes of the Killi Chili Paste. And your heart doesn’t get broken by seeing that there are about several thousands other people with higher scores in a game you used to think you were the king of. In the 8-bit world, your high score is your high score, and that’s it.

GAMES WORKED OUT OF THE BOX

You bought the game on Day 1, and if you were good enough, you could finish it on Day 1. Today you get to about Level 2, and then have to wait till a patch is released that finally stops the game from crashing, makes the boss at the end of the level killable, or puts an end to items randomly disappearing from your inventory (can today’s coders imagine that there are people who don’t have – or even don’t want to have – Internet at home?). Also, developers didn’t charge you extra for something that already was on your disk or tape but would be presented as an expansion or super duper hyper deluxe bonus content. And just by the way, no hassle with online activation even when you buy a physical medium.

VARIETY OF COLORS

8-bit games have a bigger color palette. Yes, they work with just 16 or so colors, but they don’t use them all the same way. They know other color combinations than just darkish-greyish-greenish for war simulations, the-shiniest-yellow-and-red-and-green-and-blue-and-especially-violet for action titles, and the 50-shades-of-black-and-dark-grey monochrome of survival horrors and indier-than-the-indiest-indie titles.

ORIGINALITY WASN’T ARTIFICIAL

8-bit games have content before form. If a game is original, it’s original because someone had a great idea, not because a wannabe-indie team of people spent a week in a hut on a beer-and-pot diet, trying to brainstorm something that hasn’t been here before. As a result, 8-bit developers didn’t spend most of their time scratching their heads, thinking how to fill the idea of an exciting and highly innovative procedurally generated real-time strategic rouge-lite RPG with crafting elements and pausable fight (that has come to them on the top of their high) with some substance. Instead, the 8-bit developers just coded cool games!

VARIETY OF PLOTS AND ENVIRONMENTS

Believe it or not, there were times when you could do more in games than just fight in a (conventional, magic, or future) war, solve 3D puzzles, survive in isolated premises infested with unknown evil and graphomaniacs constantly losing pages from their diaries, look for (how moving!) someone close who has mysteriously disappeared, or play sports games licensed so thoroughly that you wonder whether the characters use licensed toilets off-camera. There were times when you could compete in psychotic judo or cow milking, drive a prehistoric or space taxi, search for (and find) the Loch Ness monster, dispatch aggressive carnivorous dinosaurs with a baseball bat, ride on a broom, be a nice monster cooking for a nasty monster, or step into the shoes of an aardvark searching for a promised land called Antopia. And much, oh so much more! Anyone, anything, anywhere.

MEMORIES

In case you counted with us: this would be reason no. 9, but it’s not really a reason. But just admit it: nothing can ever beat the fun you had with [insert your favorite title here, or hundreds of your favorite titles if you’re a hardcore 8-bit freak like us]!

ON YOUR MARKS – JET – SET – WILLY!

Just in case you’re a visitor from another galaxy, have discovered the world of 8-bitters just recently, or have been on a platform the game never made it to: Jet Set Willy is a part of the 8-bit family jewels. It’s a sequel to Manic Miner, also an outstanding game where Willy the miner must escape a complex of caverns filled with such grave dangers as mutant telephones or an alien kong beast.

Anyone who’s ever played Jet Set Willy knows that it’s not an easy game. After Willy escaped the mines, he threw a wild party in his new house. The house is not only new but also huge, so when Willy’s annoyed wife Maria tells him in the morning she won’t let him enter the bedroom until he tidies up the whole house, there are more than sixty (!) rooms waiting to be put back into order.

In the beginning it might look like Willy’s got enough time for the cleaning job (from 7 a.m. to midnight), but there’s more to the house than meets the eye. Like that there’s an item in one of the rooms (Conservatory Roof) that you can’t collect without losing a life? Or that the game looks different on different 8-bitters? Let’s have a closer look at some of the trivia around the game.


The Attic Bug

The original release of the game had a fatal bug. Once you visited the room called The Attic, you couldn’t enter some rooms (like The Kitchen or The Attic itself) anymore. If you did, some mysterious power kept killing you there until you ran out of lives.

Software Projects, the game’s publisher, were neither the first nor the last to try the stupidest excuse of them all: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” They said that visiting in The Attic caused some of the gas pipes in the house to break and the corrupted rooms therefore contained poisonous air.

This naive “explanation”, however, wasn’t enough, and Software Projects had to release an official set of POKEs that fixed this bug and several others that had transpired in the meantime.


The Uncollectible Item

Apart from some invisible objects, which you acquired by just visiting certain rooms (e.g., Swimming Pool), there was also one that couldn’t be collected. Originally, it was located in First Landing, just next to the top of the blinking cross. Not only you couldn’t see it, but you couldn’t even reach it. So a fix was published that kept the item on the same screen coordinates but moved it to The Hall, whose layout made it possible for Willy to get it.

The Forgotten Abbey

This room isn’t bugged, just insanely difficult. To cross it, you have to jump over four monsters whose paths mutually cross, so you have to plan your way carefully and be almost pixel-exact while jumping over them.


Secret Passages

From certain rooms you can take shortcuts from completely different parts of the house. Usually, it is done through exiting the room in the “up” direction, like in Watch Tower, where jumping up from the conveyor belt on its top gets you to The Off Licence. Likewise, if you jump up from the conveyor belt in Rescue Esmeralda, you’ll find yourself in Ballroom East.


Bugged Mother – Bugged Daughter

Even though the 1980s were the idyllic time when games usually just worked, the curse of The Attic Bug seemed to affect also the ports of the game to the other major platforms. The C=64 version by Shahid Ahmad was also bugged. Perhaps the biggest problem is that Willy’s jumps to the left and to the right are of different heights (and, consequently, lengths). It’s a matter of just a few pixels but prevents you from completing the game. That every stair in the house is about waist-high and Willy looks like strangely levitating when climbing them is then just an insignificant detail. The translation to the 8-bit Atari by Tynesoft, however, was even worse. I could throw a lot of funny adjectives at the graphics, animations, and mechanics of this totally unplayable disaster of a game, but I’ll just refer you to the screenshot above instead. If it wasn’t for Rob Hubbard’s music, there would be no reason to load this version even once.

Note: The Tynesoft version shouldn’t be confused with Jet Set Willy 2007, a fan port of the game to the Atari 8-bit, which in turn is perhaps the most faithful conversion from the ZX Spectrum, Willy’s home platform, to any other 8-bit computer. But Willy’s journey around the 8-bit world will be the subject of a different article that we’ll publish in near future.

This Little Piggy Had Wings

In The Nightmare Room, Willy transforms into a winged pig. Some sources call it a flying hedgehog. I’ll leave it up to you to decide. This feature is missing from the Atari and C=64 versions, while on the Amstrad CPC, the joke is applied even to the lives display at the bottom of the screen.

In some conversions, the piggy joke didn’t appear


The Banyan Wall

On the screen called The Banyan Tree, there’s a wall that makes it impossible to jump through the tree’s roots and get to A bit of tree (capitalization – or rather the lack thereof – as opposed to most other rooms, in the original). The wall has to be removed by one of the aforementioned POKEs.


Run, Willy, Run!

While in most rooms you have to be very cautious not to collide with any of the baddies and plan your way and jumps well in advance, in The Kitchen and West of Kitchen you can avoid the flying killer cooks by just blindly walk left all the time.


The Rainbow of Virtue

For those of you who have played the game as kids, this will be nothing new because we all have always played only legally bought games (right?!), but anyway… The game was one of the first to come with a special form of copy protection: once you loaded Jet Set Willy, you had to enter a 4-digit, color-based code that you had to look up in a matrix printed on the original cassette’s inlay. If you got the code wrong the first time, the game asked for a code from another square from the matrix. If you failed two attempts in a row, the computer reset and you had to load the game again.

Jet Sandbox Willy

Willy’s mansion, or rather manor, comes with all kinds of expected and unexpected rooms. Apart from the Master Bedroom (about which the whole game is), Willy has his own yacht as well as a watchtower and battlements, an emergency generator, or a chapel. There are much more obscure rooms as well: one’s called We must perform a Quirkafleeg, others have names like Dr. Jones will never believe this, or I’m sure I’ve seen this before.. (“Honey, could you please bring me my curlers from wemustperformaquirkafleeg? If they’re not there, then I must have left them in I’msureI’veseenthisbefore.. or in Dr.Joneswillneverbelievethis.”) There’s also a priests’ hole – whatever it is – and even an entrance to Hades! Here’s map of the game.

Watch Tower is one of the secret entrances

The game is so unique and the house so big that it almost begs for you telling your own stories. So when you know Jet Set Willy in and out, you can invent your own little games. What would happen if Willy just disobeyed his bossy wife and do the exact opposite of what’s asked of him? How many rooms could you visit not collecting a single one item? Or what if you just acted out a real-life scenario and instead of tidying up after the party immediately you just holed up somewhere and slept out of your hangover? For example, you could enjoy a nice nap in the branches of the tree in the Out on a limb room and, as a matter of principle, not to collect a single one item on the way. You can go through The Bathroom, Top Landing, First Landing, Main Starway, The Kitchen, and West of Kitchen, then through Cold Store and Back Stairway to The Wine Cellar. There you have to cross The Forgotten Abbey, The Security Guard, and Under the Drive. From there you’ll go to At the Foot of the MegaTree you’ll just jump through Inside the MegaTrunk to the Tree Top and Out on a limb, where Maria will never find you. You will not officially win the game this way, but you have not collected a heap of the things and can enjoy that priceless, heartwarming feeling of outsmarting the old witch in the bedroom. Or you can use one of the shortcuts – from the Back Stairway you can climb up to the roof and in We must perform a Quirkafleeg you climb up the rope to the Watch Tower. Once there, jump over the left obstacle, carefully avoiding the item on its top. Then go to the conveyor belt and jump up. Voila, you’re in The Off Licence, from where you’ll just go on to the left to the MegaTree.

Or just don’t care about my advice and get a bottle or five in The Off Licence. That’s a nice revenge too and gives you the sweet satisfaction of playing according to your own rules.

Either way, I heartily recommend you to stop reading and just load the game and enjoy it yourself. On your marks – Jet Set – Willy!