This game has a very special place in my heart. It’s probably not the very first video game I ever played, there are a couple of other good contenders for that (Galaxian, Breakout, Cruising On Broadway) but it is definitely up there. Like Cruising this was one of the very few games my Dad actually took an active interest in. It was among the three or four cassettes with a 16K Sinclair ZX Spectrum given to us by our next door neighbour when I was 9.
It was also the game that showed the most longevity and was the highest quality in visual appeal and gameplay. Other games, like Throu’ The Wall (Breakout) and Cruising On Broadway were very simple line drawn and blocky graphics reminiscent of an unknown previous era. Jetpac was a fall on arcade quality game (though I’d never seen or heard of what an arcade might be back then).
The reason for Jetpac’s high production values comes from the writers Tim and Chris Stamper. The brothers wrote the games and run the company behind the then popular Ultimate Play The Game label which later went on to produce very high quality games under the RARE label for several Nintendo consoles. Jetpac’s arcade values wasn’t by chance, Tim and Chris actually got their start porting arcade games from NTSC to PAL. Converting games from the likes of Konami and Sega gave them the grounding needed for a certain production quality that they brought to all of their ZX Spectrum games.
During a time many commercial games where being written in BASIC, Jetpac was an early poster child for pure Machine Code programming. The detail of the sprites, the use of the Spectrums colour palate and attribute system, and the speed of fluidity of the animations showed a game that could have happily succeeded next to the likes of Galaxian, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong in the arcades.
You play the eponymous Jetman character and must guide him around a simple single screen with three platforms. Your task is to build your spaceship and refuel it before taking off from the planet. While doing this you’ll be under constant attack from the locals that you’ll need to fend of the locals with your lazer fire.
The size of this game compared to anything else at the time is breath taking. There are 16 whole distinct levels before the game wrap rounds and starts again. Every fourth level (1,5,9,13) have a new spaceship design for you to build. And there are 8 different alien designs that repeat (1-8,9-16), so you need to make it back round to level 17 before you see the same spaceship and alien combination.
How they got all of this in just 16K of RAM is mind boggling. And it’s a great game to boot. At no time does the gameplay suffer for high quality of the graphics and animation. If there’s a complaint it’ that there really is only one level design, but since you have four different ship designs and each of the 8 aliens have their own unique attack patterns it really doesn’t matter. Each level has it’s own unique feel regardless.
The Stampers captured that important – just one more go – magic of the early arcades. The need to see what’s next and set the new high score.