Thursday, June 27, 2013

Video Game Review: Joust for Atari 2600

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Fairly faithful recreation of the arcade game play...
Cons: ...except for the flying button and the floating eggs
The Bottom Line
Harder to control
Makes for frustrating game play
Of arcade classic

Hey Buzzard Bait, the Controls Will Drag You Down

While it was never quite as high on my list of classic 80's games as Donkey Kong or Pac-Man, I do remember loving Joust.  When I went on a buying binge after college, snapping up for games for my Atari 2600 that I had missed, this was one I picked up.  For some reason, I never played it as much as the rest, but I couldn't remember why.  That is until I stuck the game in my system again.

Like many games from the 80's, this is one of those games where you wonder how they even came up with the concept.  The game recreates the classic jousting of the middle ages with a few key twists.  Horses?  Gone!  They're replaced by ostriches.  (The manuel calls them buzzards, but we know better.)  Yep, you are flying around the screen as you try to unseat the rest of the field by being above them when you crash into them.  Adding to the danger are the lava pits that appear on the bottom sides after round two.  Oh yeah, and if you take too long on a round, a pterodactyl comes after you.

Like many games of the era, finishing a wave just means you face more and harder enemies in the next wave.  The entire point is to rack up the highest score you can.

The arcade game was created for one or two players at the same time, and that is preserved here.  Additionally, you can play in normal mode or easy mode, which means you only face one opponent at a time and never see a pterodactyl.

Joust itself is surprisingly addictive, especially the two player version where you are pitted against a friend on screen and racing to top each other's score and even kill each other in certain waves.

So what's my problem with the Atari 2600 version?  Is it the graphics?  While they certainly lose much of the detail of the arcade version, that's to be expected with the limited resources they had for this system.  You and your opponents are certainly acceptable, although the pterodactyl is laughable.

How about the sound?  It's fairly faithful to the arcade with flapping noises for your wings and bumps when you joust with someone.

No, the problem is the controls.  Controlling your bird should be fairly simple.  You press the red fire button to fly, stop pressing it to drop, and press left and right to fly in those directions.  The left and right work pretty much like they should.  I'm not going to complain too much about them.  It's the stupid flying control that makes this game a pain.  You press it two or three times and you barely fly.  Then suddenly you are shooting up and hitting the ledge above you and bouncing out of control.  Stop flapping your wings and you hovercrash with about that much pause before you start to really fall.  As a result, it's very hard to make sure you have the upper hand to win a joust.  I've never been super good at controlling my bird in this game, but this version makes it much, much worse. It feels like the screen is just too small to really get good flight control in.

Then there's the strange case of the flying eggs.  As in the arcade, when you unseat a computer controlled rider, it leaves behind an egg and will hatch if you don't go collect it quickly enough.  Unlike in the arcade, where the egg glides down and lands on a platform or falls into the lava, the eggs in this version float toward the top of the screen and never land.  That makes is much harder to catch them.  This is even true in the egg rounds, a round where you start with eggs and only have to battle opponents you allow to hatch.

Not too long after I bought this cartridge, I bought a Super Nintendo and wound up with Joust there - a version that not only has better graphics but is much easier to control.  Guess which one I played the most.

Joust is a fun game, but Joust for the Atari 2600 is too frustrating to control, especially when you have to catch the floating eggs.  I'm not saying to avoid this game, but there are games that are much more fun for this platform.

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