Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Jetpac (Ultimate Play The Game, 1983)

Written by Chris and Tim Stamper for the ZX Spectrum 16k.

Converted for the Commodore VIC-20 (1983) and BBC Micro (1984) by Ashby Computers & Graphics Ltd., but details are unknown.



Jetpac is in many ways an historic game. For one, it's the first release from Ultimate Play The Game, currently known as Rare. Second, it's the first game ever to be presented the Golden Joystick Award for Game of the Year in 1983. (Additionally, Ultimate caught the prize for being the Software House of the Year.) Somewhat historically in a more questionable way, Jetpac was one of the very few and first titles for the Sinclair machines that didn't get an official conversion for the Commodore 64, likely because they didn't want the Spectrum's "killer app" of the day get ported to the competing machine, but who knows.

In today's retro setting, Jetpac is placed at #31 at World of Spectrum voters' Top 100 list (tied with West Bank, Flying Shark and Abu Simbel Profanation) with a rating of 8.42 with 460 votes. I didn't have much luck finding any top lists for either BBC Micro or VIC-20, but really, for these two machines, you're lucky if you can find anything at all, really. The VIC version seems to be rather kindly spoken of, but the BBC version seems to be such an obscurity that I couldn't find much comments on it. So, as classic as it is on the Spectrum, the two other versions are rarely spoken of, and I intend to try my best at finding out why.



You're the guy in the white space suit, which we all have learned to call Jetman after the two sequels, if we didn't bother to look at the instruction inlay for Jetpac first. According to the inlay, he is the chief test pilot of the Acme Interstellar Transport Company, and his job is to assemble the spaceship kits delivered to various planets by Acme, fuel them up and get them safely through four planets before assembling another one of the handy Acme Spacecraft Kits. Naturally, while you're in space, you'll be harassed by a bunch of alien spacecrafts, flying alien monsters, balls, meteorites and whatnot. Luckily, amongst other dangers and debris, you'll get some valuable bonus items which build up your score, which will earn you an extra Jetman every now and then.

For a game from 1983, you can't really expect too much from it now. When you take look at it first, with modern eyes, it does seem very dated and horrendously simplistic. Which it is, at least for starters. When the action starts, and it start immediately, you're suddenly in a slight state of panic. Most modern games give you a gentle push into the game with a training course and some stupidly long "interactive" story parts, and here you're suddenly left alone in a field with three platforms, an unbuilt space craft and a bunch of meteorites flying at you. Of course, you have a weapon - a Quad Photon Laser Phaser - but you're not told of it in the game itself. Read the manual, why don't you.

First things first, though: remember that you have a jetpack, and you're fully entitled to use it. Push the joystick up (or press the corresponding key) to fly with it, and you can easily maneuver your flying Jetman all over the screen. The game only has that one screen, which is a horizontal wrap-around, and consists of three floating platforms (I saw them being called "moonclouds") which you can walk on. So, when you fire your laser phaser, the beam goes around the screen, so you can destroy enemies on the left side of the screen by shooting to the right at the right edge of the screen.

And that's pretty much what the game is. There's four different spacecrafts to assemble, with 8 types of enemies flying around, one for each planet, so every new level acts like an achievement of sorts.

It's simple, but very playable, and devilishly addicting. Even my 20-or-so years junior nephew got immediately hooked with Jetpac when I showed it to him a year or so ago, and it was such a blast from the past looking at him managing to complete the first level for the first time and seeing that glee of achievement just flowing. It wasn't even nearly his first game ever, but it was his first Spectrum game ever, and I doubt he'll be forgetting it too soon.



If it weren't for the amazingly hard to find Spectrum cartridge version, we'd almost have some competition here. I found a disk version for the BBC Micro on the internet, but I don't know if it was ever officially released on a disk, so I don't include it on the list - besides, I don't know if the emulator loads it in real time (took 3 seconds to load). The three tapes and the Speccy cartridge are all that we have clear knowledge of, so here we go:

BBC TAPE - 2 minutes 52 seconds
SPE CART - no loading time.
SPE TAPE - 2 minutes 25 seconds
VIC TAPE - 3 minutes 18 seconds

Left to right: ZX Spectrum, VIC-20, BBC Micro.

And here's the loading screens. The BBC version has a surprisingly interesting loader, with some sort of animated raining thing going on, but the Spectrum loader is clearly the most iconic and pretty. Optional points will be given at the end.



The SPECTRUM version is the original here, and therefore has to be described first. Jetpac was originally released on the 16k Spectrum, so it'll load on pretty much any Spectrum machine. My only experience with Jetpac on the Spectrum so far had been on my original 48k rubbermat, which broke after three years of usage, and the current 128k +2, which feels exactly like playing it on the 48k, so I had to load it up on the emulated 16k Speccy to see if there was any difference at all. Well, the only difference I noticed was the slightly slower ascension of the rocket, when the screen is filled with other flying things, but that's pretty much it, and I can't even really be entirely sure of that. Even that has really nothing to do with the actual playability, it's really a transitional animation between levels. Getting finally to the game itself, you should notice pretty quickly that it's probably better to keep yourself in the.. well, not air, I would suppose, but in flight, since Jetman walks pretty slowly compared to his flying speed. The controls are very responsive, but your flying has enough friction to make it feel kind of alive. When you're walking, switching directions is instantaneous. Your laser phaser's length is half the screen, but only one pixel wide (or high) - although the firing is continuous, so you can blast the laser almost as much as you wish to. It just sometimes feels a bit tempermental for some reason. Picking up the spacecraft parts and fuel tanks is handled by walking over them, and you drop them automatically when you fly over the one existing bit on the ground, so there should be no mysteries in any of the game mechanics.

As for the enemies... Well, there's no real names for these enemies so I made up some descriptive ones for them, and I feel the need to make a numbered list to tell more about them, so here goes:

1. Meteorites. The easiest ones to handle. The travel from side to side at slightly varying angles in a specific speed, and are destroyed by colliding into either platforms or laser.

2. Furballs. They move in a 45 degree angle at the same speed as the meteorites, bouncing offthings, and only your laser can destroy them.
3. Balls, or balloons. Starting to get tricky now, they seem to have a slightly more random attitude to moving. While they move at the same speed as the previous two, they can bounce off of things as well, and they can change their altitude on a whim.
4. Darts. At first, they float around for a while at the left edge of the screen, taking an aim at you, and at the most opportune time, they take a shot at you. Mostly, they're easy to dodge and they crash on collision to platforms.

5. UFO's. These buggers act like homing devices, but can easily be stumped by standing on the rightmost platform. They only die from contact with your laser.

6. Crosses. These act pretty much like the balls, only look like rounded plus signs.
7. Spaceships. Another easy enemy, acts exactly like the meteorites.

8. Blobs. The last of the bunch, and they act like the UFO's.

When you get to assembling the third spacecraft, the enemies get a bit faster. And that's all I can think of to say about the original Spectrum game, there's no real weaknesses in this game, other than being relatively short. It's surprisingly addictive and playable still, after 30 years of its original release.

Two of my friends used to have a VIC-20 a loooong time ago, and I've only seen one in action about 25 years ago, so I can't really remember much of it, other than the graphics being as wide as they look in the emulators. I trust the VICE emulator enough to represent me (and to all other retrogamers) an accurate enough version of the real thing. For starters, the VIC-20 can be a bit problematic for the uninitiated in that there are lots of memory expansions available, and most games worth mentioning seem to require some, because the computer only had 5 kB or RAM of its own. Jetpac will only load up, if you have at least an 8k expansion, but the loading procedure is otherwise the same as in any other game on tape. So if you don't have a memory expansion, it really affects your ability to play it in a rather rough way. Once you actually get to play the VIC version of Jetpac, it looks almost exactly like a horizontally strecthed copy of the Spectrum original, but without the floor bit. Although, being strecthed in graphics means that the playarea is actually smaller. The enemies feel as though they are busier in this version, and partly because it's true, but mostly because the narrow field makes it a lot more cramped and hectic. Otherwise, the game actually plays surprisingly like the original: Jetman flies in exactly the same way and everything else works exactly like the Spectrum version, but the narrow playarea and the busier feeling make it slightly more uncomfortable, if you're used to the original. Of course, you may well prefer to have a bit more challenge, and this will definitely give you enough of that. Too bad that there's only half of the enemies to loop through compared to the original, so that brings the replay value a bit down.

Since I don't have a BBC MICRO, and have never even seen one in action, it's difficult to actually judge solely by emulated controls, which might not even be entirely accurate. It's the exact same problem that I experienced earlier with Commando, but this time I didn't have that many other conversions to go through, so I decided to give it more time on this occasion. BeebEm, which is the one I'm using due to recommendations, doesn't seem to allow the use of a keyboard joystick as pretty much every other emulator does, so I was forced to either find the keys for keyboard play or use a joypad, which I loathe. So I went for the keyboard option, even though I had to find the keys by myself, since there was no info on the game controls on the internet. It took me about 5 minutes and 10 game overs to find all the keys needed to play the game, and two other game overs to find a combination I could somehow use without turning my keyboard 90 degrees to the left. So anyway, for all you other keyboardists out there, the least uncomfortable key combination for the BBC version would probably be Caps Lock and Left Ctrl for moving left and right, Enter for shooting and Right Shift for using jetpack. Using a joystick won't help all that much, because the gameplay is so much different from the other two versions. First of all, all the deadly flying enemies/objects act in a completely different way, which is mostly very random and dangerously situated, not to mention in mostly unfamiliar numbers. Since the playarea is similarly narrowed down like it is in the VIC-20,
you will have such a bad time trying to navigate through the randomly flying objects to get your space shuttle compiled, that it'll be a small miracle if you can manage to persevere long enough to get to the second level without shutting off the game at least once. Because of the gameplay elements so completely out of balance, I couldn't bother to try and play further than the second level. So as a last resort, I took my gamepad out for this one.

Having a pad at least enabled me to concentrate on the differences of movement and some other details. Jetman on the BBC Micro changes directions mid-flight just as if he was walking, and the gravity is slightly off as well. The enemy numbers are quite different - the first stage has six meteorites flying around instead of 3 or 4, the second stage has another 6 furballs flying in completely random angles and more random patterns compared to the original's 45 degree patterns and two less furballs. Because that's as far as I could play it even with the pad controller, I had to take a look on YouTube. Unfortunately, the only video I could find only went as far as the second level before the game was over. Clearly, it's rather unplayable.

While the differences between the original and the VIC-20 conversion are surprisingly small, and only differs in a sort of naturally machine-based difficulty setting, it would make for another clear battle of preferences, were it not for the lack of number of levels and enemies on the VIC. Therefore, I would have to put the versions in such an order:

2. VIC-20



For starters, you get the menu screen, which isn't much to talk about. The BBC version looks very different, but surprisingly familiar even to those who don't know why. Well I'll tell you why: it's because the BBC Micro's default graphics mode was based on the Teletext display, and the computer could be used to create and serve teletext-style pages over a modem connection. But enough about that, it's not what the game's real graphics are.

ZX Spectrum screens.

I have to say, even though I like games to have colours, they should rather be thematically proper, instead of colourful for the sake of being colourful. It's clear that Jetpac was tailormade for the SPECTRUM, because the graphics are just colourful and colourless enough to feel completely right, but also right in proportions not to make it feel crowded or too busy. Every bit of graphics somehow works for the game's advantage, although there's so little of it to mention. In total, you got Jetman, the laser beam, the four platforms, nice flashing bonus objects, fuel tanks, 4 spacecrafts (each in 3 parts) and the 8 types of enemies, all nicely detailed and clear. Nothing is uselessly overdone that doesn't specifically need some good animation or other effect, and for this amount of action on screen, the graphics flicker surprisingly little for a game of this age.

Commodore VIC-20 screens.

As mentioned earlier, the VIC Jetpac looks otherwise surprisingly close to the original, but it's horizontally stretched, thus having less playarea. For some reason, the VIC version has no floor platform, but everything else seems to be somewhat of a direct copy from the Speccy. The only thing missing is half of the enemies, and some of the less used colours. I'd say it's a surprisingly good conversion, but I can't compare it to much of other VIC-20 games, since I'm too unfamiliar with it.

BBC Micro screens.

The BBC MICRO version, on the other hand, hasn't all that much difference from my other BBC experiences. So far, they've all been rather underwhelming, considering how warmly the machine is spoken of in some forums. Perhaps I'm just playing the wrong games on it. Anyway, the graphics are kind of trippy in the amount of colours. The screen being similar to the VIC version, and the amount of stuff flying around, it makes the game look really uncomfortable. It even flickers like there was no tomorrow. The best looking thing in the BBC version is probably the space craft, but it's not the one you really have to concentrate on too much.

Again, we have to give the original the highest marks, if only for the sake of being the most comfortable space to be in when playing Jetpac, but I do prefer everything about it.

2. VIC-20



Usually, my idea of a good soundtrack in games is "more is more", but this is one of the games that points out that it also needs to be tastefully done in order to work. The BBC version has the most sound effects, and even a "get ready" tune, but it doesn't really give much to the game, rather only takes away the immediacy. The most annoying thing about the BBC soundscape is the constant noise your jetpack makes, which really starts to grind your eardrums after a while. If it wasn't such an overwhelming effect, it could've been a nice addition to the otherwise rich sound environment.

As a contrast, the VIC-20 version only has 4 different sound effects: one for picking up objects (as opposed to two on the other two versions), one for the death of Jetman or an enemy (both sound the same, while in the other two versions there's two different effects), one for shooting the laser (quite as overwhelming sound effect as the jetpack noise on the BBC, but less annoying and at least you don't need to shoot all the time), and one for when the rocket is on the move, which is quite similar to the one on Spectrum. So, while it's not nearly as rich in sound effects as the BBC version, it's at least a bit more comfortable.

Of course, the SPECTRUM version is probably the most familiar to everyone, so the sound effects should be quite familiar as well. But I was surprised how many different sounds there actually are in the original. Shooting the laser phaser has an interestingly varying sound effect, so it never gets old. Killing enemies and dying yourself have similar, but just different enough sounds to be recognizable as what they are. Picking up bonus objects, picking up fuel and spacecraft parts and dropping fuel all have a similar sound effect, but in a different pitch, so they're also distinguishable. The very recognizable rocket sounds can't be called realistic in any way, but at least there's an ascending and descending arpeggio thing for each, lift-off and landing. It's 1983, you really can't expect realism from a game, can you?

Initially, I kind of felt that the BBC Micro version should've gotten the highest marks for the sounds, but I have to admit that sometimes less actually is more. But not when there's too little.

2. VIC-20



The final scores are again presented in the traditional mathematical style, with the optional loading time bonuses included. The end result shouldn't surprise anyone, but here it is:

1. SPECTRUM: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3, Loading 3 = TOTAL 9/12
2. VIC-20: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2, Loading 1 = TOTAL 6/7
3. BBC MICRO: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1, Loading 2 = TOTAL 3/5

It's a mysterious game, Jetpac. There's a certain charm in its simplicity, that keeps me coming back to it at close intervals. It's also one of the reasons why I had to buy a Spectrum after a long time without one. It's also my favourite game from the Ultimate/Rare catalogue ever, but there's probably a lot of nostalgia involved in that opinion.

The mystery part comes in the fact that it was left officially unconverted for so many machines of its time, which probably makes sense if you think it like you would think Nintendo. They have their Super Marios, Spectrum sort of owns Jetpac and has a monopoly on most of the other Ultimate games, most which didn't get much conversions. Strangely, though, the third part of the Jetman saga didn't get released on the Spectrum, but was released only for the NES. Later on in the current century, a full C64 version of Solar Jetman was found and preserved.

The second part, Lunar Jetman was only released on Spectrum and BBC Micro, so Commodore was definitely a bit discriminated there. As recently as in 2012, Games That Weren't team found some evidence that Jetpac was at least worked on the C64 in late 1984, but the existence of such material is still under speculation. There were two unofficial conversions made for the C64: "Bac Pac" by I.M. Scull and "Jet-Pac" by Thomas Gösmann, both apparently in 1984, but neither of them seem likely enough to have been headed for the official release, although the first one isn't all that bad really.

Jetpac is still being remade and converted under different names for new and old machines alike. The most interesting so far has been an Atari 800 conversion called "Jetboy" made in 2007, and there's a new remake coming up for the C64 this year, titled "Rocket Smash". Hopefully, we'll finally have the conversion for the C64 that is worth playing.

UPDATE - January 24. 2014:
Rocket Smash was recently released as a sort of preview version, made for the 16k RGCD Cartridge Competition. Also, some more unofficial JetPac findings have been made and written about for a compilation post of updates. Read all about them here.
UPDATE - January 30. 2015:
An updated version of the above called Rocket Smash DX has now been released through RGCD's online store as a digital version and a cartridge, and will be shortly released as a tape and a disk through Psytronik. A review of the updated game can be found from the previous update's link.
UPDATE - July 20. 2016:
If you're still more interested in other unofficial Jetpac conversions, then you will be happy to know that in addition to Walid Maalouli's look-a-like conversion of Jetpac on the TI-99/4A, which you can read more about in the most recent Updates post, thanks to a bloke called 40Crisis, you can also play the Spectrum version of Jetpac on your Amstrad, albeit with slightly different colours.

Thanks for reading, and see you next time, whenever that may be!

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