Space is a huge place to get lost, you only have to look at the Robinson family to see that. So it's quite a surprise that, when our hero Jetboy finds himself crash-landing on an alien world, he's almost totally unfazed. Of course, this may well be because he knows that his trusty space steed is modular and that, with a little zooming around with a Jetpac to collect the various segments, it can easily be reconstructed and then fueled up to make a quick get-away. The locals on the other hand aren't best pleased about several tons of alien artefact smacking into the ground and are out in force to see what they can do about wiping out this menace to their society.
And if some of that sounds familiar and the highlighted title a few sentences back didn't make it entirely obvious, what we have here is a port of the Ultimate Play The Game Spectrum and VIC 20 classic Jetpac to the Atari 8-bit. Anybody who has played the original will immediately be on familiar territory; the parts of a little rocket strewn around the platforms of the alien world, the Jetpac-wielding lead character with the amazing-looking laser that was borrowed from a Defender ship, assorted trinkets and fuel canisters, presumably distributed into the atmosphere during the crash and now falling from the sky... and the reason it looks so familiar is because this is a direct port from the Spectrum, the Z80 code disassembled and painstakingly converted to 6502 to allow it to run. But it's not as simple as that because, along with the straight conversions of code and graphics, there have been some enhancements added including a selection of music with the option to disable the in-game tune, some fitting sound effects and a bit of spot colour and a mountain range in the background which work quite well despite being a little chunky. Everything in the game however is one colour, the rocket changes to blue as it's fueled but the player, nasties, that cool laser and all of the power-ups are a universal shade of grey throughout.
LIKE A ROCKET MAN
But the biggest change is to the gameplay because, although the controls feel identical and all the nice little touches are present such as flying being faster than walking or landing on the corner of a platform making the character either walk further onto it or step off depending on the direction faced (rather than just balancing ridiculously in the air halfway on) the status panel sees the addition of two gauges; an oxygen meter and, more importantly, an energy level for the laser. So, how different do these additions make Jetboy to the original? Well, the oxygen level gets bumped up to maximum on completion of a level so it's essentially acting as a timer and this was probably put in place to prevent players from hanging around on the first level and racking up phenomenal scores (something I'll admit to being guilty on the VIC version, a very long time ago) and to this end works fairly well.
The gun energy is a hugely different matter, however, since the only way to recharge is by collecting an item that falls from the sky once in a while. The falling objects are released randomly, one at a time and the game will occasionally go for a while without sending down anything to collect so topping the guns up from that would be bad enough if there was some kind of weighting to the random numbers to throw ammo into play when it was needed... but there isn't. Instead, the player can sometimes be deluged by power-up after power-up when they don't really need them and, at other times when the gauge is red-lined or even worse when the damned thing conks out altogether, the game refuses to send any more juice in! I've actually played right the way through two concurrent levels without firing on a couple of occasions because no ammo was forthcoming, something that makes the game a lot more difficult for those parts - what was originally a steep but fair difficulty curve in Jetpac can be bent totally out of shape when the battery dies.
This leaves us with what was once a true classic of arcade gaming which has been very reasonably converted to the Atari through a painstaking process with previews uploaded to a couple of Atari-based message boards that looked incredibly promising... and then, after putting all that work in to flawlessly shift the thing over, they sat down and added a new "feature" that severely damages the gameplay. To be honest, second guessing what eventually became Rare and attempting to shift around the fine balance of what is a very well thought out (and indeed thought of) game was always going to be dangerous, but almost as importantly, this modification has also wounded what many Jetpac players would list as their favourite feature; that fabulous laser is almost an open invitation to just wade in with the fire button wedged firmly down, streaming electric death and blattering anything that gets in the way but that fun isn't allowed any more and, finicky as it might seem, I believe that stealing that thunder from players is as much reason as any to recommend them towards the originals rather than this version.