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.