Joust Arcade (reviewed), Atari 2600, 5200, 7800, and Lynx, NES, and DOS computers Developed by Williams Electronics Released in 1982
Scrolling through our frontpage this morning I realized we haven’t done anything from the 80’s for a while, which is definitely something that needs to change. I pondered for a while about what I could talk about when a little quest in the MMORPG World of Warcraft reminded me of an arcade game once very dear to me. Ladies and gentlemen, ready your ostriches. It’s time to Joust!.
The concept behind Joust is hard to take seriously. You play as a knight mounted upon an ostrich, or a stork if you are player 2, and must battle your way through waves of enemy knights that use buzzards. You do this by running into the enemies while flapping your bird’s wings to gain height. If you are higher up than the enemy when colliding, that enemy is defeated and drops an egg that you must pick up. If you don’t get the egg quickly enough the knight respawns after a few seconds.
You have to beat waves of enemies like this with the map changing slightly after each round, often in ways that slowly remove elements that made it easier for you or allowed some cheap strategies to be used. For example, the first thing to go is the bridge on the bottom floor, meaning you can’t freely run around there and have to instead fly over the lava pit. Also nice is that the enemies are remarkably smart and capable without becoming too hard. They can deal with the terrain just fine and each wave is a challenge as they gang up on you or strike unexpectedly. Any credit you use provides you with a generous five lives and you’ll certainly need them while learning to deal with both the knights and the changing arena.
What gives the game the most appeal, besides everything mentioned above, is its unconventional controls that require skill, finesse, and training to master. The ostrich is nothing if not a bizarre creature and it takes a lot of time to grow familiar with the way its flapping works and how to maintain any sort of height with it, which is definitely required when the later stages almost force you to play entirely airborne. The bird also has a strange momentum to it where it’s hard to stop and build up speed after turning, but if you keep going in the same direction you reach top speed almost immediately. Wanting to puzzle the subtleties of this control scheme together kept me coming back and the evolving nature of the stages encouraged me to improve even more.
Gameplay score: 10/10
A lot of effort was put into creating and animating the birds in this game and that love really shines through. For an arcade game from this year, Joust looks fun and energetic, thanks in part to how fast characters can move. It’s also easy to separate the player characters from the enemy knights, even when things get especially hectic. The stages are somewhat simplistic and, while the bridge burning at the end of the first few waves was a nice effect, very little happens to it visually afterward.
What impressed me the most, though, are the physics for the eggs. Upon defeating a knight, the egg that drops bounces and rolls around somewhat realistically, awarding you bonus points for catching it mid-air. It’s details like that which really sell this game.
Presentation score: 8.5/10
Deploy the stork!
As is the case with many arcade games, a lot of the replay value comes from your ongoing quest to conquer the leaderboard. The mechanics by which the score is calculated are fun, like catching the eggs and trying to survive the aptly-titled survival rounds for a massive bonus. Besides score, the game can also be played together with a second player. While doing so, players can decide themselves whether to be cooperative, competitive, or only occasionally knock the other player into lava “by accident”.
Extras score: 8.5/10
A brief search through Ebay revealed that a Joust cabinet goes for about $1200, so I recommend trying to run the game on Mame or using the arcade version hosted on The Internet Archive. The game also proudly featured in many “greatest hits” compilations by Midway and the Williams Arcade’s Greatest Hits for fourth and fifth generation consoles. Whatever version you can get to work, Joust is a great time and an arcade classic worth revisiting.