My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

When I started thinking about Jetpac on the VIC-20 recently, a couple of questions immediately came to mind: Where does it fit in my top VIC-20 games? And because I kind of already knew it wasn’t going to figure quite as highly as it maybe should… Where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Coming back to the first question, this one is easy thanks to my big nerd list of my favourite games of all time ever.

  1. The Perils of Willy
  2. Andes Attack
  3. Jetpac
  4. Omega Race
  5. Submarine Commander

The Perils of Willy (read more here) will always be my favourite VIC-20 game, but this was the first time I’d thought about a top five, and genuinely didn’t know most of what was going to follow when I went through my big list looking for VIC-20 games from top to bottom. Andes Attack, Jeff Minter’s llama-focussed Defender clone, was a surprise in second place – without thinking much I actually thought I was going to see Submarine Commander there! But thinking much about it, it’s probably right in my mind. As is Omega Race in fifth place, and our subject here, Jetpac, in third. I don’t like that Pinball Wizard (read more here) isn’t there though! But taking away the all important nostalgia factor, we come to the second question – where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Even through my rose-tinted spectacles, I can look at my list and say that The Perils of Willy [maybe!] isn’t the best game on the VIC-20, though I won’t hear any argument that it isn’t up there somewhere!!! But seriously, looking at my list here for the first time, extracted like this as my VIC-20 top five, the first thing that came to mind was hang on, why isn’t Jetpac in first place? Instinctively, surely there’s no better game on the platform from a technical viewpoint, or aesthetically, or in terms of gameplay or longevity? From my top five, maybe Submarine Commander is an equivalent technical marvel, but I reluctantly concede that its gameplay has a more niche appeal. Omega Race also needs to be in there as an almost flawless conversion of the incredible playable – and re-playable – twist on Asteroids arcade game. Add a few other titles I’m familiar with, and after far more personal deliberation that was probably necessary, we have this:

  1. Jetpac
  2. Omega Race
  3. Gorf
  4. Jump Jet
  5. Pirate Cove

We’ll get into Jetpac (finally) in a minute. In second and third place, I could easily switch positions between Omega Race and another incredible arcade conversion feat in Gorf, a multi-level spin on Space Invaders that included screen effects like I’d never seen before, not to mention the biggest enemy I’d ever seen with the Flag Ship appearing every four levels! Then we have Jump Jet (read more here), which is a Harrier flight-sim that at the time I got it was surely as good as flight sims would ever get! I could argue that A.C.E. (Air Combat Emulator) – coincidentally another flight-sim – should be in this spot too, but that was even harder than this was, and its plane couldn’t take off vertically from an aircraft carrier! It never made me air-sick like its box said it might either… Then we have Pirate Cove, part of that incredibly immersive VIC-20 text-based adventure series (almost any of which could really be here instead if you prefer) by Scott Adams where you “Go North” or “Use Mongoose” (to kill a snake if I remember right)! And if I also remember right, the first game I ever finished, not long after the mongoose incident!

List complete, and there we have it. Jetpac is officially the best game ever on the VIC-20! We should find out why.

Jetpac was released by Ultimate in 1983, but I’m fairly certain I got this after Christmas in 1984; it definitely needed an 8K expansion so it wouldn’t have been much earlier than that. Without doubt it was the screenshots on an advert or review I’d seen in C&VG or Commodore User, or on the back of the box, that attracted me to it, and amazingly they were probably even VIC-20 screenshots and not, as was usually the case, nefariously hijacked from a C64 version (which in this case never actually appeared). They could have come from the Spectrum version, but any VIC owner could proudly say that even if they did, you’d struggle to tell the difference. In fact, this was especially true because the VIC-20 version had colour clash that any Spectrum owner would have been proud of!

You play as Jetman, though bit like Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong, I don’t remember ever knowing him as Jetman – he was just an astronaut with a jet-pack and a blaster who had crashed on a planet far, far away and had to rebuild his rocket from the bits strewn about the place then fuel it up and start making his way home. All of this happens on a single wraparound screen, with three rocket parts that had to be dropped on top of each other in order, which you’d find lying on the ground or on mid-air ledges, whilst fending off the planet’s fauna that randomly flies around the place impeding your quest. Once you’ve put the rocket back together, fuel starts dropping out of the sky, also randomly landing around the screen, together with bonus jewels and stuff, which you collect and drop onto your rocket until it’s full up. Then you walk back into the rocket, it takes off and you start collecting fuel on the next planet, which is a similar screen but with a whole new set of meanies to attend to.

The game loops around a set of four levels, after which you’ve obviously crashed again and need to rebuild the rocket from scratch, which makes for the perfect setting for the game’s score-chasing intentions. This simplicity is what makes the game great – this gameplay loop is without fault, and it sits in the company of Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, etc. as timeless games that play just as well today, still offering endless challenge and replayability.

The sound is very functional and of its time, but the aforementioned graphics are absolutely outstanding, and unlike most VIC games stand up just as well today, with big bold sprites for the main character and the various enemies, and this incredible sense of scale as the rocket is put back together. And when you eventually fill it up with enough fuel, that sense of exhilaration as it takes of and exits the screen is still there today too! The planet design, in contrast, couldn’t be more basic, with three platforms suspended over blackness – there’s not even any ground at the bottom of the screen! But you won’t even notice that when you’re frantically trying to create a path through a kind of large-scale bullet-hell array of fast-paced aliens, either by shooting or dodging or sheer fluke as you panic your way around to get to a rocket part or fuel drop or tasty morsel. And I say you won’t even notice it because for all the hours I’ve spent playing this over decades, I didn’t either until just now! There’s a lovely subtle flame effect from your jet-pack, which moves as you change direction, and from the rocket too as it flies up the screen; the aliens have their own explosion animation too, and I really like that this happens when they crash into a platform as well as when you shoot them. Aside from a bit of flicker, you really have to pinch yourself and say yes, this really is happening on a VIC-20!

And all of this is why Jetpac sits at the top of the pile for the VIC-20, even if it’s not actually as good as The Perils of Willy in my opinion!

I’ve never played any of the Jetman sequels, and have steered clear of the overly restyled XBOX title Jetpac Refuelled, but did eventually play the Spectrum version of Jetpac in 2018, when the Rare Replay collection went backwards compatible on XBOX One. You’ve got more screen space to play in and it’s the same fantastic, timeless game that the VIC-20 offered, but it doesn’t seem quite as fast and frantic, so I’m sticking with the VIC as having the superior version despite only having half the levels of the Spectrum version. And saying that is even more incredible when you come back to what a technical achievement it is that it’s on there at all, when it’s not such a technical marvel on the Spectrum; and when you consider the pedigree of Ultimate’s other games on the Spectrum. Really incredible!

My Life With… The Perils of Willy – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… The Perils of Willy – Commodore VIC-20

Expanding my VIC-20 to 16K RAM was always going to be a hard sell to my parents. “This plug-in cartridge adds 16K RAM to your VIC’s memory, which allows you to write and use longer programs, store more data and increase your VIC’s capacity.” To an 11-year old equipped with his Ladybird How it Works… The Computer book and a couple of marathon type-in games under my belt, it all made perfect sense, but between Christmas 1983 and Christmas 1984, none of this really translated into parental justification! 

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During that time though, one thing happened, that in my mind at least, was all the justification anyone needed – I played The Perils of Willy at my friend Steven’s house! Not being able to afford most of the exotica you saw every month in Computer & Video Games magazine, this method of games discovery would be a mainstay for the next few years, at least until he went C64 and I went Spectrum, and things like Ghostbusters happened… Having said that, as I write this I’ve just had a go at their version of Green Beret on my new C64 Mini, and they definitely didn’t get it all their own way!

Over the course of 1984 – the greatest year in pop music history – I became extremely clued up on Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, but I think I stayed pretty oblivious to Miner Willy’s other adventures on the ZX Spectrum. I would later own Jet Set Willy on there, and play Jet Set Willy 2 on the Commodore 64, but it would be more than thirty years later that I’d actually get my mitts on the wonderful Manic Miner! 

The year went by, and despite still not having a clue what this bizarre, anonymous brown box that plugged into the back of my VIC-20 did, the 16K Expansion cartridge and a copy of The Perils of Willy were dutifully delivered by my parents for Christmas after months of badgering – there may have been some doubt about people knowing it was Christmas time that year, but I definitely knew it!

You could look at The Perils of Willy as a stripped-down Manic Miner knock-off that somehow found it’s way, via Software Projects, onto the VIC-20 – it may have now been a massive 16K beast to me, but to most I guess it was seen as a dying minnow, expanded or not, at that time. However, I prefer to see it as the official Miner Willy game developed exclusively for the VIC-20 that it really was. The Spectrum crowd could only look on in wonder and jealousy at the 33 screens and superior sound!

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The premise is that Willy’s had a bit too much to drink on a night out and decides to walk home, catching the notes of music “that seem to hang in the air” across a variety of screens meant to be parks, railways, possibly rooms and other areas. Unlike Manic Miner, none of the locations were named, and given they’re generally a colourful jumble of platforms and conveyor belts with killer dogs, ducks and balloons flying about, it can be hard to work out where you’re at. But the gameplay itself makes it straightforward enough to navigate – collect the notes on the screen within a certain time and you move onto the next. What’s not straightforward is playing it! This is a tough game requiring precision timing of jumps that are a bit floaty (even though Willy appears to have put on a bit of weight on the VIC-20) and take some getting used to, but once you do then this is as much fun as any other Miner Willy game. What I really loved were the dirt platforms that dropped away as you ran over them – real Indiana Jones stuff (which, as a side note, I potentially saw for the first time at my Grandma’s house on Christmas Day night the very day I got the game)!

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Despite the hours spent being hypnotised by one of the most “hardcore” 8-bit theme tunes ever created, I never did finish it – I do recall there being a POKE in Computer & Video Games giving you 255 lives. I also recall starting it with POKE in hand on a Sunday morning, leaving it on whilst out with the family on Sunday afternoon, then playing until bedtime, and surreptitiously leaving it on overnight and all day Monday while I was at school. I got through a hell of a lot of it (or, put another way, less than 33 screens of it), but never got to the end game. Assuming there actually was one, as it was rumoured it never finished even after 33 screens! 

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I guess if I’d played Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy at the time I might feel differently, but I didn’t and The Perils of Willy remains my favourite old-school platformer. Ever!

My Life With… Jump Jet – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Jump Jet – Commodore VIC-20

I’m not going to lower my teenage cool credentials any further than I have already by admitting that I was into planes, but I kind of was. World War II planes mostly. I’d had my share of Airfix models that looked great until the paint came out. I had huge St Michael encyclopaedias about them that came down off my bookshelf regularly and I’d pore through them, making notes on what I read  and badly drawing my favourites  – which reminds me, I have a fantastic aside on these to share later! And I’d dream of being a fighter pilot, at least until I was 16 and had my red / black / green / brown colourblindness well and truly confirmed by the RAF. But that was still three years away in 1985. Top Gun was still a year away too, so what on earth would make a thirteen year-old boy want to be a fighter pilot? The Harrier Jump Jet, of course!

Without getting too bogged down in it, the Harrier was a fighter plane that could take off and land vertically. A bit like a helicopter, though generally it took off from a kind of ski ramp at the end of an aircraft carrier to save fuel. And that’s as technical and nerdy as we get in my yard; for this post at least… And in the mid-eighties, it was the coolest plane in the world – everyone knew what it was from the Falklands War build up –  images of them lined up on aircraft carriers, then 20 confirmed kills, and probably a couple of Blue Peter appearances too; who needed Kelly McGillis with her incredibly hot eighties hair and little pilot sidekick when you had Christmas decorations made out of coat hangers, Sarah Greene and a sunken garden. Which is something I’d love to make an aside about but footballers have far more money than me and I’ve no chance of winning that battle! Sarah Greene though. Mmmmm. 

I’d had a couple of VIC-20 flight sims at this point. The first was 1983’s Flight Zero – One Five…

You had a map in the bottom right showing progress towards your goal – a O at the top of it – and basic controls to manage variables like fuel, height, speed and so on. The idea was to keep them all in the right ballpark for each stage of the whole flight, managing various hazards that occurred like being blown off course. If they went out of the right ballpark, the screen started flashing blue and there was a horrible alarm sound. If you corrected whatever was wrong in time, you were back on track, and if not you were screwed. No one can say this game aged well, even six months after its release, but its significance to me can’t be underestimated. I was actually flying a plane in my bedroom! That was something you only imagined doing at that time, so using that same imagination to fill in the gaps demanded by the presentation of this game was a very short stretch. I probably flew enough hours in this to get a pilot’s license! 

1984 would then bring Bomber Mission, complete with my first proper cockpit view!

Okay, proper cockpit view was a bit of a stretch. More like view of a cockpit, as most of the time there wasn’t a lot going on outside the window. If I remember right, there was the odd appearance of a fighter plane, but what was great was the feeling of helplessness when you met flak over enemy soil (represented by a cockpit view full of flashing asterisks). This was another groundbreaker though, because now you were really flying a plane. And it was a World War 2 bomber! You chose your target, chose your bomb, took off, navigated to the target, dropped your Tallboy then flew home and landed. And it was brilliant! 

Then there was Flight Path 737, which I borrowed from my friend Steven, who lived around the corner. That had a real cockpit view, but for some reason I didn’t borrow the instructions, so never actually got beyond take off before I crashed. Over and over. Which made it rubbish and therefore it doesn’t count…

Now we are in 1985, and with a 16K RAM expansion stuck up its jacksy, VIC is in its prime! I got Jump Jet for my thirteenth birthday and looking at the back of the box couldn’t believe what I was looking at on the back of the box… From the “CBM64 screenshot version.” Oh dear, this didn’t bode well. And I genuinely remember feeling that. As I remember playing this two months later on the morning of Live Aid. But that really is going to be another story! 

I didn’t have too much to fear though. The VIC version held up pretty well to those screenshots. In fact, the first time I loaded it up, my black and white portable TV screen was displaying something beyond my wildest dreams! The realistic cockpit instruments. The aircraft carrier take off section. And once you got high enough, the endless blue ocean where you’d hunt the enemy in virtually lifelike splendour! 

That would come some time later though. Taking off wasn’t that straightforward. You had to sort out your flaps, give it some vertical thrust them up you went. But get anything wrong and you incurred penalties. After nine penalties it was game over. And you could easily incur those while you were still looking down from above onto the aircraft carrier deck. Get off the deck and you got split head-on and sideways views of your plane ascending off the deck, as long as you got your thrust back under control in time or more penalties. Get to the top of the screen and you’re flying properly, for a few seconds at least, because there’s plenty more penalties to be had if your thrust isn’t right before you sort out your flaps. But once you prove to the game that you’re not flying that badly, it’s time to seek and destroy. Or be destroyed, as shooting down the lurking enemy plane isn’t that easy either. Once you’ve nailed it though, it’s time to find your ship and land, refuel and restock on weaponry. And good luck with that! Taking off and taking down enemy planes was nothing compared to landing on the deck of the split-screen aircraft carrier! You would need to fiddle with your instruments no end here, with pinpoint accuracy, to get back on the deck safely. Fortunately, the instruction book included a handy guide to your cockpit instruments…

But for all these control formulas you had to get exactly right in each phase of the game, once you got them you got them. Then it became fun, and they just served to keep you alert and occupied as you trawled the skies, which was probably for the best… The instrument panel was cool, as were the various carrier views, but in reality the flight graphics were a bit plane. I mean plain. The horizon didn’t even tilt when you turned like the crappy 737 game’s did! But it was well after Live Aid that I even noticed that, and I didn’t care. There’s more to a dream coming true than a tilting horizon. 

Together with Pinball Wizard and Submarine Commander, this was a game I couldn’t part with when I eventually sold VIC, though it once came close after I rescued it from a school car boot sale, as the £1 sticker still on it attests to! 

Oh yes, I promised an aside! I dug some of my big plane books out for my ten year-old son recently, who is way too cool to show the slightest interest. But I had an interesting flick through anyway, especially when this dropped out….

My Life With… Pinball Wizard – Commodore VIC-20 

My Life With… Pinball Wizard – Commodore VIC-20 

We begin this journey most of a lifetime ago, in the year that pop music was both invented and subsequently ceased to exist. Alongside the greatest fashion in history, I’m sporting a Commodore VIC-20…

Pinball Wizard from Terminal Software was released on the VIC-20 in 1983, but I’m not entirely sure when I picked it up; I’m going to say that my mum finally relented and let me spend the exhorbitant amount of £8 in the fledgling game section in Woolworths, Bedford, sometime in early 1984.

The general lack of games that would be available until a few dedicated independent shops started to appear in Bedford a few years later (just as VIC began to wane) may have been a big part of what caused 11-year old me to start bugging my mum to let me buy it. The cover was definitely an influence – a cartoon wizard that looked like a cross between Ian McKellan’s Gandalf from years later and a village idiot, trapped inside a [pin]ball. Not so sure about its claim to be a “wonder of simulation that makes unsurpassed use of the VIC’s graphics specifically written for the unexpanded VIC 20.” Not even sure what that means, but it was obviously more than enough to justify not having a screenshot on the back of the case! Instead, it told you even more – hi-res, full colour, flicker free, 100% machine code. 

None of that really mattered though, just like the reality of a black screen populated by three big diamond shapes that the ball bounced off, and a some smaller ones in three channels that changed its colour as it passed behind them. But as also promised, the “gravity simulation” seemed fine, it had three flippers, and I was playing real pinball on my computer, and to me that was what mattered. And it had cost £8, so I was compelled to play it and play it and play it regardless!

When I eventually sold my VIC-20 to help fund the Spectrum+2 that followed, this was one of two games I simply couldn’t part with. The other was Submarine Commander, which I’ll get to here at some point too. 

See you next time, when we’ll choose another title from my gaming history.