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I guess I just like liking things

Today’s guest writer is Carolyn Lawson, a friend of mine who lives in Australia, of all places!  She writes The Bent Bobbin, but would like me to warn you it’s about sewing and knitting and such, not about movies or games. I was also warned not to “Americanize the spelling” and I have complied because Australia is full of dangerous creatures and I’d hate to have a venomous koala mailed to me.


The Micro Magic catalogue was delivered six times a year. A thick, slightly glossy A4 booklet containing hundreds of Shareware titles available by mail order. It sounds ridiculous now, when shareware can be downloaded in minutes but in the early 1990s most homes didn’t have the internet. Instead, at our place anyway, we’d send off an order and a couple of weeks later a box of floppy disks would arrive. At $3 each, my father would place a limit on how many my brother and I could order and I would spend hours reading over the catalogue choosing my next order. Without pictures or screen shots, I had to rely on the short descriptive paragraph about each title. It was a bit hit and miss and quite a few of the things I ended up with were not as great as advertised.

I did end up with some classic titles though. Commander Keen, Crystal Caves and a few others I’ve just googled and as it turns out I can’t remember the names of any of them. Hours and hours of screen time though, all contained on floppies. I had two absolute favourites – Commander Keen which I was pretty good at and Jill of the Jungle which I was amazing at.

Jill of the Jungle was released in 1992. It’s a platformer that leads the main character (That would be Jill, do keep up) through a jungle infested with giant ants, burning birds, frogs that are somehow deadly to touch and spinny things on vines that will also kill you. It was the first game I encountered where the lead character was female. Sure, she was a tall blonde in a bathing suit, but still she was a lady which was stupidly exciting to 13 year old me. I’d played games starring kids, aliens and even Quasimodo (on the SpectraVideo. In 1984. This game lead to the first recorded instance of me having Game Rage, but I was addicted and couldn’t stop. A sign on things to come.) but I’d never played a game starring a woman.

There’s cheats for Jill. Well there’s one that I can find, which is pressing X to fill your health and give you a shield. I didn’t know this at the time because of the lack of internet. Cheats and tips for any game were acquired from magazines and newspapers – The Age newspaper in Melbourne had a column in their Green Guide TV lift out you could write in to for help and advice. That’s how I found out how to get to the secret level on Commander Keen, but I digress (I really loved Commander Keen though). What was I saying? Oh yes, cheats. Well I didn’t know that one so Jill is probably the last game I beat without cheats. Judge me if you must.

Firing up Jill of the Jungle was from the DOS prompt. You’d then choose your colour depth. I really am showing my age here, huh? Depending on how new your PC was you could have 4, 16 or 256 colours in your display. Once I’d beaten the game a few times in VGA, I did it again in EGA and then a few more times in CGA just because. Basically, I loved playing it and wanted to see it in all the 4 colour glory available to those peasants with slightly less good computers. Once we had a proper sound card, I played it all through again and made liberal use of the included “Sound Board” which played various sounds from the game when you pressed keys on your keyboard.

By the end of my affection for Jill I was able to get through the entire game without a single loss of life. Along with the usual platformer skills of avoiding pits of spikes, water or lava and avoiding hazards from above, there was an interesting trick to the weapons. Jill picked up a knife early in the game which she could throw at burning birds or giant ants. The knife would then return to her. By combining throwing with jumping or ducking, you could control the path of the knife and kill enemies on lower platforms, or behind tricky walls. Much of the skill in not dying in Jill of the Jungle was mastering the timing on these throws. There was also a spinning blade when slammed downwards onto crocodiles and other things that wanted to kill Jill. Did I mention I was good at it? I was so good at it.

Shareware was generous in those days, usually giving you the entire first episode of a trilogy to play with. The ultimate ending of the Jill Trilogy was saving the Prince – a neat flip of the usual saving the Princess thing games were so good at. I’d make a Mario joke here, but I never played that so I’m not really qualified to do so. I could have owned the rest of the trilogy for just $19.95, cheque or money order. Sadly I never did. I played the first episode a few hundred times, and stared longingly at the address to send the money to at the end of the game but getting US funds in those days was expensive in itself so I had to let the Jill saga go in the end. I moved on to other “First in the trilogy” shareware games. I’ve played a lot of Part Ones in my days.

Even so, the strongest memories of gaming in the 1990s that I have are all of Jill of the Jungle. Learning the timing, the jumps and the enemies that were ahead gave me a weird sense of accomplishment that probably would have been better spent on homework. If I’d been in charge of a newspaper “Hints and tips” column I could have directed anyone to anything in that game. Secret floating “Epic” logos that spawned massive points, secret places full of apples. I knew them all. Although I’ve not played it through in years, I can still remember entire levels. That’s.. actually that’s probably not something to be proud of.

Jill of the Jungle was produced by Epic MegaGames, which dropped the “Mega” in 1999, becoming Epic Games. This is the studio behind Borderlands and Gears of War. Personally, I think the world is ready for Jill of the Jungle as a FPS. I know I am.


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