Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Jet-Boot Jack (English Software, 1983)

Written by Jon Williams for the Atari 400/800.
Converted for the Commodore 64 by Mark Taylor.
Converted for the Amstrad CPC by Colin Hughes.
Converted for the Acorn BBC Micro and Electron by Dave Woodhouse.

Originally published by English Software in 1983.
Published in North America by Datamost in 1984.
Amstrad version published by Amsoft in 1984.
Acorn versions published by English Software in 1984.



Jet-Boot Jack has got to be one of the best known, or at least the most circulated games on the 8-bit Atari computers, because English Software pushed the game on the first three Atari Smash Hits compilations after the original release. Of course, this doesn't mean it was in every Atari gamer's collection, but it certainly will have helped the exposure. On other platforms, the game's status is not necessarily quite as notable. My personal introduction to Jet-Boot Jack was rather unnotable, since I can't actually remember when it happened and on what platform, or if it was through emulation or on a real C64, for example, but it has grown on me over the years, which is why I decided to compare this game right now.

The original currently has a score of 7.8 out of 10 from 230 votes at Atarimania, putting it on spot #96 in their Top 100 Games by rating. At Lemon64, you can clearly see the difference of exposure with only 23 voters having rated the game with 7.4 out of 10. For the Amstrad version, CPC-Softs has a score of 14.00/20.00, while the review at CPC Game Reviews has a 6 out of 10. As expected, the Acorn versions have no scores anywhere.



Like many other arcade/action games from this age, Jet-Boot Jack looks simple enough, but is difficult to master, and it tries to do something completely different to make it stand out from all the other arcade/action games of that age. You control Jack, whose Jet-Boots can make you fly over gaps in the ground, but you can't use them like a jetpack to fly all over the place. Nor would it be particularly advisable or even possible, since all the game's are narrow, multi-leveled passage-mazes with plenty of structural and living hazards, but for vertical movement, you're supposed to use the vertically moving platforms. You're also able to duck to avoid getting hit by low ceilings. The American release of the game by Datamost was more descriptively sub-titled "The Music Machine", as your job is to collect all the musical notes from each level.

Because of the game's nice combination of apparent simplicity, devious set of rules and Jack's abilities, Jet-Boot Jack is an easy game to get addicted to. It's not exactly a masterpiece, but considering the time period it was released in, it certainly held its ground, and was a good addition to any gamer's collection back then - with the appropriate machinery, of course. I would highly recommend every retrogaming fan to have a go at it for those reasons already, but there might be an added interest to find out Jon Williams' first published game, before he went on to work on such classics as the Berks series, Knight Games, Shadow Dancer and First Samurai.



Our traditional tape loading times comparison comes naturally with only 8-bit versions of the game in existence, even though all versions were released on floppy disk as well. But tape is where us Europeans had it mostly at the time due to cost, so let's see...

Acorn: 3 min 20 seconds
Atari: 6 min 5 seconds
Amstrad: 9 min 39 seconds
C64: 3 min 22 seconds

Loading screens, left to right: Atari 400/800, Acorn BBC Micro (and Electron), Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.

The loading screens are not much to talk about, since they offer no graphics as such, when they do. It's basically just some text in a similar fashion to how the game's actual title screen is styled, but I admit to being rather surprised to see that the ATARI version actually had a cassette loading screen, which is a rarity. Speaking of which, the colours of the texts and backgrounds in the ATARI version change as the loading progresses, which might make it the most interesting loader of the lot. The ACORN loading screen shows us the control keys, which is nice, if you don't have the original tape to check the controls from the inlay. In the AMSTRAD loading screen, you can see the classic Amsoft logo, and the C64 loader uses no loading screen.



True to English Software style, Jet-Boot Jack is a deviously simplistic-looking game, but for the uninitiated, it can offer a serious challenge to even get to grips with how to get around. It certainly took me a few Game Overs to get further than the first screen.

The controls are simple as usual: left and right make you go left and right, fire button will make you duck, up will force the lifts and slider platforms move when you're on them, and pulling down long enough will make Jack perform a jump. All the other versions can be played with a joystick, except for the ACORN version, which shows you the control keys in the loading screen; also, the AMSTRAD version has keyboard controls as an option, in which the keys are almost the same as in the ACORN version: Z and X for left and right, \ for jumping, ENTER for ducking and ] activating lifts and sliders. In all versions, SPACE BAR toggles pause.

Since you're operating on jet-boots, you don't actually walk/run around in the game, but rather float around, so you don't really need to worry about any actual holes in the floor, if you just float past them. Just don't stop in mid-float when crossing over a hole, or you'll lose a life. You also need to watch out for low ceilings by ducking under them, but you can only duck for a short distance, so you need to be careful with that. Also, you can't float over the left and right moving slider platforms. There are also conveyor belts on some floors, which will enforce movement to the pointed direction, but you can go against them. Attempting to enter lifts while they're moving up or down will results in a loss of life, but thankfully, the lifts have visual indicators for telling you, when they're about to move.

Your job is to collect all the musical notes from each level, so the American release by Datamost features a music meter at the bottom of the screen instead of a power meter, as it is shown in the European release. Although it depletes by using the jet-boots, the power meter is not simply a fuel gauge, since it can also deplete on other occasions, such as standing around for too long. You can refill the power meter by collecting the purple blobs hanging from the ceiling. The blobs also respawn after a while, but there are only four or five blobs that spawn for each spawning spot, so while there's music/fuel in abundance, you can't just go on swooshing around in a wasteful manner. Unless you're playing the practice round, marked "P" in the menu screen's skill level option, you do get some actual enemies to dodge, as well. The five proper skill levels alter in their number of enemies and game speed. Having enemies also allows you to kill them by jumping at them, which you need to activate in the menu screen, and perform a jump by pulling the joystick down exactly on the spot above an enemy.

Being such a well-designed game, that it has been almost impossible to ruin it for any machine it was ported for, there aren't all that many differences between the versions. The only real mistake the C64 version has compared to the others is, that you can't change the options or start the game in the options screen while the theme tune is still playing - you have to wait until it finished before you can do anything. Otherwise, the C64 version feels pretty much identical to the ATARI original. The ACORN and AMSTRAD versions both have the platforms move at a quicker pace, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but requires some recalibration from a player who has used to the ATARI or C64 version. But unless you count the lack of an alternating two-player mode in the ACORN and AMSTRAD versions as a serious omission, there is nothing that would actually make the gameplay experience any better or worse for any version. Thus, I'm forced to give the lot a tied spot.

1. ATARI / ACORN / C64 / CPC



Understandably, the graphical design of Jet-Boot Jack is very characteristically ATARI-driven. What is, perhaps, rather unusual, is that the game has been managed to make look as similar as it has on all the ports as well, but you can't really escape some minor differences.

Title screens and options, left to right:
Atari 400/800 (English + Datamost), Acorn BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.

The most obvious differences are shown in the title screen - most particularly, the animations and the lack of such. In the original ATARI version, Jack drags all the chunks of text for the title screen in three parts, flying from right to left and left to right from top to bottom order. After the title screen has been fully displayed for a period of time, the options screen slides in, while the game title is left in its place. The C64 version is the only port that follows the original in this. For the ACORN and AMSTRAD versions, the titles and options are basically slabbed onto the screen unceremoniously in their turns.

Screenshots from the first two levels, left to right:
Atari 400/800 (English + Datamost), Acorn BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

As you can see, the in-game graphics look similar enough for the most part, which proves that drastic changes to suit each platform is not always necessary. Apart from the ELECTRON version, there are only three real notable differences here. One, the floating notation icons which you need to collect, as well as the enemies, are differently coloured for each floor in the ATARI and C64 versions - and the colours also alternate in order; but they're uniformly coloured in the AMSTRAD and both ACORN versions. Two, the C64 and AMSTRAD versions have grey borders, whereas the other two have black borders. And three, the C64 version has the info panels more colourful, but lacking of borderlinings. The ELECTRON version is notably less colourful than the other versions, rather reminiscent of CGA graphics in DOS games; also, seeing as the ELECTRON version varies from the BBC MICRO version's graphics only by its number of colours, I shall not waste any more of your bandwidth with it.

A frame of animation from Jack losing a life, left to right:
Atari 400/800, Acorn BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

One of the conversion job oddities is how each converter has dealt with Jack's death animation. In the original ATARI version, on collision, Jack's stiff body has a mangled colour seizure before he gets erased from top to bottom. The AMSTRAD and ACORN versions have the erasing effect kept in, but no mangled colour seizure. The C64 version makes Jack go interlaced black-and-white in a manner reminiscent of old Apple II games, before he gets erased in the same manner as others.

Bonus counter and "Let It Rock!" message, left to right:
Atari 400/800, Acorn BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

On completing a level, bonus points will be gathered from remaining purple power refill blobs hanging from the ceilings. In the ATARI original, the "BONUS" text is very stylized, with the middle letters smaller than the rest, lodged over the tail of the letter 'S'. Also, both the "BONUS" and "x100" texts flash in various colours while the counting happens. In none of the other versions you get this colour flashing effect. The styling is more or less kept in the C64 and AMSTRAD versions, but the C64 version goes for a squeezed, more hi-res look.

As for the "LET IT ROCK!" text, which is shown after the bonus has been counted, the execution is otherwise similar - with the ACORN version again having no styling - but in the AMSTRAD version, the graphician forgot to separate the dot in the exclamation mark, and separated the line from the intended point of origin, the letter 'R'.

Game Over screens, left to right: Atari 400/800, Acorn BBC Micro/Electron, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

To be completely honest, because I rarely get to play any of the games I make comparisons of with a friend, I didn't even realize Jet-Boot Jack had a two-player mode until I took a closer look at the Game Over screens. The clue I needed for it was in the AMSTRAD version, which shows an otherwise similar version of the Game Over screen as the ATARI and C64 versions, but the "PLAYER 1" text is missing from the middle. Also, the line spacing is more extravagant on the AMSTRAD, making it the space between the two lines of text even larger than it normally would - however, the reason why the spacing is so large, is that the space is reserved for the possibility of an "out of fuel" message, which will be displayed in a different colour to the other text. In all other versions, the "out of fuel" text will replace the Game Over text. But graphically, the only real odd one out is the ACORN version, which uses a flatter font and brighter colours. But, who cares anyway, it's still just text.

All in all, the four versions are surprisingly close to one another in most ways. Therefore, even the minutest details need to be given consideration to, when scoring the lot, and simply because the ACORN and AMSTRAD versions utilise less colours than the other two versions, as well as slightly less detailed animations, I'm forced to give them a shared second place. The C64 version's animations and colours differ from the ATARI version in certain ways, but essentially, it's all there.

1. ATARI / C64



While Jet-Boot Jack's soundscape can't be called quintessentially Atariesque, it certainly packs up a good deal of the 8-bit Atari spirit in the original version. But, having heard all these four versions for an elongated period of time for the last month, I'm not entirely certain it's the best option.

The ATARI original starts by Jack flying over the screen, back and forth, bringing in the title screen in three parts, as was mentioned earlier. At this point, the only thing you will hear is Jack's jet-boots making noise. Once the final chunk of text has been brought in, the music kicks in, which is programmed to use a single type of a beep for three channels, building the harmony in such manner. The title tune itself is a short, happy piece of music, lasting all of 16 bars, and it's over in 12 seconds; 25 seconds if you also count Jack's flying noise. A short excerpt of the title tune is later used for the "Let it rock!" bit when you complete a level, which isn't anything new as such, but it does keep the theme nicely variated within the game. Also, in the Game Over screen, there's another brief melody, fairly similar in style to the main title theme, but this lasts only about 5 seconds. Considering the instrumentation practically lacking any character at all, this could have fit almost any 8-bit computer at the time, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly shows a lack of imagination, or skill, but I can understand the nostalgia factor.

However, the sound effects are much more interesting. When you start the game, the power/music bar gets filled with a long upwards sliding beep, and Jack gets spawn at the top-middle spot on the screen with an odd sparkling noise. Flying around makes the same noise you heard in the intro animation, and picking up notation icons will play a fast six-note sequence of randomly chosen pitches. Performing a jump makes a relatively jump-like "boing" sound, and killing an enemy plays a brief, descending sound, ending with a quick major chord arpeggio of three notes. Crashing into things will make a loud crash noise, and the animation of erasing Jack plays a similarly odd sparkling noise as when he gets spawned. Collecting a power/music filler plays an ascending beep, and when the left-over fillers are counted for bonus, they make short blip-noises in an ascending order from bottom to top, with the blips ascending along with the counter. So, the sound effects give a much more Atariesque addition to the overall experience than the music, which is fine, since you'll be listening to the sound effects much more than the music.

Rather obviously, the C64 version gets the closest to the original, with the flying noises and title tune being almost as uncharacterised in the intro, but importantly, they're all intact, as are the "Let it rock!" and Game Over tunes. The sound effects are notably different, and while they're not necessarily any better or worse than the ones on the ATARI, they're definitely more considered. The sound effect in the spawning and erasing of Jack is similar enough to the original, but the build-up of the power/music bar doesn't slide as softly as in the original. Collecting notation icons gives three clearly defined sound effects, all of which have four notes in a certain pattern, but in three alternating octaves - more akin to actual music, than in the ATARI version. The crash and flying noises aren't quite as powerful as in the original, but they do their job just fine. Landing the lift to the next floor makes a beep, which is a new element. Jumping to kill an enemy makes a much more deadly boom-noise, accompanied with a high, descending beep, which feels more like a scream than just a beep here. Collecting power/music fillers gives a slightly in-faded sliding beep, which is a nice touch compared to the original non-effected version; but counting the bonuses from the fillers gives a less pronounced blip than on the ATARI. All in all, there's an odd balance in the C64 version that makes it work just about as well as the original, but in a slightly different manner.

An interesting extra observation to the C64 version is, that the music sounds a bit different on different  SID chips. Some of the beepy instruments still sound the same, but the main melody is played with a thinner, nasal kind of a beep tone. Almost a kazoo compared to the full-bodied beep's representation of a... trombone, perhaps. I'd say, on the basis of this possible variation alone, the C64 version beats the ATARI in sounds.

The ACORN versions don't have the animated intro, so they start straight off with the title theme tune. On the BBC MICRO, it is performed with a sound that has more bell-like characteristics, while the ELECTRON version uses a DOS/Spectrum-like single-channel beeper sound. Concerning the BBC sound effects: Jack's flying noise feels closer to the one in the ATARI version than the C64, but collecting notation icons gets closer to the C64 in a manner: there are three alternating sounds that the game plays upon collecting them, and they're very distinctly designed sounds; however, they're not quite as musical as the C64 equivalents. That doesn't mean you might not prefer these instead - a matter of taste, and/or nostalgia, I'd say. But there are some effects, in which the BBC MICRO is clearly weaker - namely, the power/music filler pick-up, which is just a short low "blip", and thumping down an enemy, which has no oomph at any point, although it still does its job at depicting the action. At least, the ascending blip noises for counting bonuses have been kept as close to the original as possible, as have the crashing and spawning sounds. The ELECTRON version's sound effects are surprisingly close to the BBC MICRO, the only problem being the inability to play multiple sound effects simultaneously due to the cheaper technology.

Finally, the AMSTRAD version beeps along musically otherwise as fine as the rest of them, but whether you're using an emulator or real hardware, your experience might be vastly different. Since I don't have a real CPC, I used WinAPE (as I usually do) to play this version, and at least when using WinAPE, there's an infernally piercing high-pitched beep playing in one channel during any pauses in the music. During play, it's not a problem, but the theme music is almost unbearable. Checking a video recording of the game played on real hardware, the infernal high-pitched beep is not audible, but instead, one of the beepy channels is a bit muffled, which I'm guessing is something WinAPE wasn't able to reproduce correctly. The in-game sound effects are oddly close to the ELECTRON version, as the beepy sound effects are comparatively loud to the flying noise, and the beepy effects are more random than usual. The sound for picking up the notation icons has been reduced to a single beep, although it still alternates between three pitches. The biggest omissions are the big crashes, the sliding build-up of the power/music meter, and a real sense of achievement in the sound for stomping down an enemy. All in all, it's adequate, but not nearly as good as what the AMSTRAD could have been able to do.

2. ATARI 400/800



Before I get to the unfairly mathematical Overall scores, let it be pointed out again, that all versions play equally well, and I would recommend any of the versions to an owner of any participant platform. It just so happens that when the design of a game such as this is primarily an Atari-centric experience, the most authentic way to play such a game is to play it on the original platform. However.

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 9
2. ATARI 400/800: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 8
3. ACORN BBC MICRO: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 6
4. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
5. ACORN ELECTRON: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

The real measure of a fully realized Jet-Boot Jack experience is revealed in its audio, and even then, only by a hair's width. Had not the Commodore 64 had a second production run with a different SID-chip, the C64 version of Jet-Boot Jack would have been tied with the ATARI original. Unfair, I know, but from a collector's point of view, it makes some difference.

You cannot hear that difference in this video, which was picked from the Mikroview series by mikroman01 (thanks again for the kind permission), but you can hear the version as it was intended to be heard on a 6581 chip, with the thin, kazoo-like nasal melodies. In any case, this video gives a great demonstration of all five versions of Jet-Boot Jack, which should more or less prove what I've been yapping on about for the past 21KB of text.

The Legend of the Knucker-Hole (English Software, 1984; Commodore 64)
If it ever was unclear to any fan of the game, Jet-Boot Jack did get a sequel, but it was only ever released on the C64. Legend of the Knucker-Hole was also written by Jon Williams, and published by English Software in 1984. This took a more traditional approach to platforming than the original game, with Jack now running and jumping instead of flying around in his jet-boots, and flipping switches from top to bottom ad nauseam, taking much of the original's charm away. The graphical style remains, as does the main title theme song, but honestly, it's just too mediocre to recommend to anyone.

That's it for today, and if my recent track record in posting new comparisons can show a trend of any sort, the next comparison will probably not be posted until next month. I have been rather stupidly busy lately, but worry not - more comparisons are on their way, as are new videos for all my current video series. Until the next time, keep an eye on my Videos section, or subscribe to my YouTube channel. Thanks for reading, see you later!

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