Before the North American video game industry crash of 1983, gamers were starting to bring gaming cartridges into the home while enjoying the arcade heyday. One of the most popular quarter-munching cabinets of the time was Joust, released in 1982. By the time the Nintendo Entertainment System console came along, it was only a short matter of time before an 8-bit version of this classic was released on NES in 1988.
For a title whose legacy has managed to survive the ages thus far, Joust is fairly simple, only using the Left and Right buttons on the directional pad and the A button for flapping. Yes, flapping. The player controls a jousting warrior straddled atop a giant flying bird, similar to an ostrich. The challenge is to survived numbered waves of enemies, who also fight atop their own avian mounts.
In order to defeat an enemy, the player must simply make contact with them, but at a higher altitude. This is the endless theme of the gladiatorial combat system in Joust: The higher bird wins. However, upon being hit, the enemy drops an egg. The egg must also be collected, and quickly, before it hatches into a new opposing warrior, sometimes of a stronger variety than before.
In order to reach that coveted higher altitude, the player must master the system of rapidly tapping the A button to 'flap' and control flight height. This is definitely a precise, touchy maneuver, and takes some practice. With a little experience, Joust does reveal a rewarding feedback system of physics. Flapping displaces gravity, and collisions have a delightful sense of hit detection and rebound, even better than some modern video games.
Play takes place in a gloomy, fire-and-brimstone arena with a black background and a few earthen platforms suspended in midair. At the bottom of the screen is a central, permanent platform, while the others are periodically removed. At either side of the bottom of the screen is a fire pit; while it begins with a bridge suspended over it, the bridge soon burns away, revealing a new danger that can land the player or enemy or eggs alike into fiery burning doom.
There is a screen-wrap effect, so any objects that disappear off the left or right border of the playing field will appear on the other side. The ceiling is solid, though. After some waves, a platform or two is removed. Every ten waves there is an “Egg Wave,” during which the platforms are restored, and the player must simply gather all the eggs that suddenly appear on-screen before they hatch into jousting big-bird warriors.
While the player only begins with a couple extra lives, more are fairly quickly earned through gathering points. Even then, though, Joust is a tough game to master: Not only do the enemies arrive in bigger numbers and better-skilled varieties in later waves, but there is a sort of time limit at work.
Whenever the player takes “too long” to complete a wave, a pterodactyl appears in the battlefield. This pterodactyl does not care about altititude in his attacks, he just screeches and moves quickly across the screen, posing a dangerous threat. While it is possible to kill the pterodactyl with a direct hit to its face, when two or more are popping onto the screen in later sessions, it can be rather challenging to contend with trying to defeat them.
Otherwise, the game only grows harder and harder, challenging the player to top a previous high score. Joust set a strange precedent, in providing distinctive gameplay with a unique theme, yet never really inspiring later sequels or remakes to the extent of franchises such as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc. Then again, if someone really likes Joust on NES, they always have Balloon Fight as a similar option too.
Joust is a visual treat. The images are iconic, with a signature presentation unlike any other. The arcade game was early enough that the NES is able to emulate a very similar experience, unlike some other titles that feel rather watered-down in their comparison. Play operates smoothly, and this 8-bit version probably deserves a bit more credit for how many sprites it can handle at once without flickering or slowdown issues.
All that being said: The visuals are a bit sparse, as the total artwork for the entire game amounts to very little in terms of varied assets. If you have seen the first level, you have seen them all, and there are only a handful of enemy varieties.
Those who place music as a high priority in their gaming will find Joust to be a massive disappointment, as it has no music whatsoever. At least the sound effects are nice: From the satisfying death of one's enemies to the frightening screech of the pterodactyl, gameplay can get noisy. Not to mention the fact that every footfall has its own quick beep, offering the player quite a staccato beat upon running across the platforms.
Joust definitely established its own identity apart from other selections on that scene, with a quirky nature that still holds up today. But six years later, on the NES, it seems a bit more difficult to rationalize any of its greatness in context. While it still poses a worthy high-score challenge for fans of the old school, can it really offer the same rewarding player experience as a solid RPG, or platformer, or Legend of Zelda, or a multi-player sports title, or other great Nintendo games of the era? The debate can persist, but the conclusion stands: Some will be haters, and some will be fans.
Overall score: 3/5 stars.