Eugene Jarvis didn't create the only great Williams games

by Chris Federico

Excerpted from the Classic-Gaming Bookcast

The Joust arcade cabinet

This 1982 masterpiece manages to be gloriously violent and mercilessly brutal without a hint of firepower. There's nothing else quite like it.

It begins with an attempt at levity, in the form of the message "Prepare to joust, buzzard bait!" As if I'm the one who needs preparation. Oh, I'm prepared, you vile birds. Make no mistake. The question is: Are you? I must warn you that I'd be administering the mandatory course called How to Kick Ass at Joust in a better world.

Thanks to the magnificent imaginations of John Newcomer, Bill Pfutzenreuter (now, that would be a great game title) and Jan Hendricks, the game's surreal humor offsets its ruthlessness. You're in control of an ostrich with remarkable wing speed. Continually pushing "Flap" sends your ostrich flying and bouncing around the screen at uncanny velocities. The "Stick Your Head in the Ground" button was left off of the final cabinet, as it hadn't been very helpful.

Lunar Lander-style mechanics have evolved to require that you exploit gravity even as you fight it, since your only weapon against the enemy buzzards is collision from above.

Occupying an even slightly higher screen position upon contact kills each rider and forces his buzzard to flee, whereas a lower altitude leads to an ousted ostrich jockey. If it's a draw, you ricochet harmlessly. The birds all apparently possess extremely noxious talons.

When you slay an evil knight, his buzzard lays an egg as she leaves. If you don't snatch it from the air or pick it up when it's landed (scoring less), it will soon hatch and produce a new rider. This represents some interesting biology. What has that guy been doing with his pet, exactly?

Anyway, a faster, more wily buzzard than the last will fly in from one of the side borders. You can stop her newborn owner from mounting by running over him before he's picked up.

A useful strategy is to pacify the buzzards before surprising them with death. Prior to facing each one, get close to the screen and ask, "Who's a big, tough buzzard? I know! You're so scary! Who wants a carrion treat?" When she seems to have grown submissive, and her jockey is glaring at you sullenly, fly in for the kill.

Well, I think it works. In more demanding waves, of course, it's better to resort to convincing threats: "Look, you're all going to die anyway. You might as well just make it easy on yourselves." At least one will appear to withdraw from the battle, gliding to one side to drink from a scalding lake. (They're not terribly bright.) When the Lava Troll's hand emerges and grips the startled creature, zoom over and bounce her to death.

You won't have time to rescue the ensuing egg from getting hard-boiled, but it's a nearly risk-free way to rid yourself of a beast who wouldn't hesitate to do the same if your ostrich were caught instead.

Admittedly, it's not always a simple matter of flying directly to your trapped adversary and landing on her. Sometimes, one of the other buzzards will try to intervene. This illustrates how thick-headed they are, no matter how tricky their various flying patterns. You don't try to break up a fight in Joust! Why, you could get killed that way!

Joust screen shot

Demonstrate this by quickly flapping against the nearest platform above you, concurrently moving a bit to the left or right. The bottom of each ledge is shaped like a wide bowl; your sporadic skating along the underside will confuse the buzzard as she tries to follow your altitude, and you'll take her out when contact is finally made.

This works brilliantly beneath the lowest centered ledge, and it yields much more success than attempting to bounce off of the top border, especially when the enemies speed up in later waves.

The intermittent Egg Wave begins with numerous stationary eggs covering the ledges. If you don't seize them all within a few seconds, they'll start to hatch. Your most effective route commences on the upper right ledge. If it contains no eggs, its screen-wrapped extremity to the far left almost certainly does. Dash through the right-hand border to scoop them up. Then head steadily downward and to the right, running across each egged platform until you reach the ground.

This wave gives you the opportunity to rack up a bunch of points in one falling swoop, leading to an extra ostrich if you surpass a 20,000-point interval. And as my father used to tell me, "You can never have too many ostriches."

Now that I mention it, that was an odd thing for him to say. Joust didn't even exist at the time.

If you take too long to clear a Defender wave, the speedy Baiters materialize. In Berzerk, the invincible Evil Otto jumps for joy when he gets to play. Venture's equivalent is the Hall Monster who barges in on your chamber combat. Not to be outdone in the refusing-to-give-the-player-a-damn-break category, Joust urges you to hurry up by sending in the Pterodactyl. He's joined by another when yet more time has passed, or without delay in a higher wave.

Let's challenge the screen message's claim, displayed before each Pterodactyl Wave (in which he appears right away), that he's unbeatable.

Land on the centered lower ledge before the wave properly starts. Upon noting which direction he's flying in from, turn to face him. Your rider's lance will be lined up to skewer the middle of his beak, and he'll die in writhing agony. Postpone your hysterical laughter to evade any buzzards who've since risen from the other platforms.

Later, when that ledge isn't present, land instead on the left-hand lava beach, halting over the sixth score digit from the right. Except in rare cases, the Pterodactyl will zip toward you on the precise trajectory for suicide.

As the waves grow more difficult, you'll frequently find yourself beneath some heavy, mid-screen buzzard traffic. It looks like a dense asteroid belt, except with feathers. If you wait for an opening and quickly rise just above it, you can bound from bird to bird with just a flap or two in between, sending off a bunch of tumbling eggs. It's like surfing, except for smart people!

Joust is an immensely original game that retains its viscerally gripping qualities over multiple plays and multiple decades. With an inventive use of physics that transcends the mere alignment of targets, it lays claim to some innovative battle mechanics that haven't quite been matched in 2-D, even in 1986's Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest, with its clumsy movement and desertion of the precursor's immaculate balance.

The latter title ironically says it all about why the first game is the one that's remembered so fondly, and still played so fervently.

Uploaded on 5/21/15
Image sources: Playfields = CF
Cabinet = Arcade Nostalgia (URL currently unavailable)

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