Joust was the first arcade game I ever played, at Royal Video on Breckfield Road North in Liverpool in the mid-80s. Those were the days. It’s a fascinating, old-school arcade game that still holds up well today.
During the peak of video game arcades, most games were based on abstract or fantasy concepts with a small amount of realism thrown in the make the audience feel involved. These days everything is trying so hard to be lifelike and I often long for the days where games were more interested in offering something out of the ordinary. Williams’ Joust was one such game. It put the player in the game as a futuristic knight sitting astride a flying bird, armed only with a lance, on a mission to defeat a number of adversaries and collect some eggs along the way. Every young boy has, at one point, wanted to be a knight in shining armour and this game gave you the ability to do that albeit in a world closer to the one in Tron than a medieval tale.
The only controls are left and right and flap - you gain height by pressing the flap button repeatedly. That was enough to do some skilful flying and manoeuvring around the wave, using the platforms that are dotted around to help you on your way. The levels increase in difficulty with the addition of more bad guys, different platform layouts - some of which crumble away mid-wave - and a lava pit along the bottom which will pull you in if you get too close. You can rebound off platforms which is a strategy that should be used to your advantage as bad guys can be turned into collectible eggs by descending on them from above - a somewhat less risky strategy than the lancing them. Take too long to kill the bad guys and a shrieking pterodactyl will arrive to wreak havoc - you can only defeat it by lancing it in the mouth which is a task that requires pixel perfect precision.
Joust is a typical arcade game in that it’s easy to pick up but tricky to master, a trademark Williams game if ever there was one. It’s a difficult game because it was designed to take have you play for short periods of time and keep taking money from players. There are a lot of tactics to be discovered and a surprising amount of depth with bonus points being given for completing the level in various unspoken ways. A second player can join in on a different bird and it’s up to you to decide whether or not to play cooperatively or against each other, often resulting in hilarious duels or short-term falling out.
The Joust world record was recently broken by John McAllister after a marathon 53 hours, 47 minutes of play - racking up a score of 107,301,150. The previous record had lasted for 26 years and John made the decision to stop playing as soon as he broke it. He had 105 spare lives at that point so I’d imagine he could have gone on as long as he was physically able. An astonishing achievement, especially when you see how difficult the game is in this clip of wave 31.
The core gameplay concept was used by Nintendo a couple of years later for their NES game Balloon Fight, and there have been a number of unofficial versions and fan remakes of Joust since. I’d love to see a modern day interpretation of the game. Whilst I doubt it would work in 3D I’m sure there are enough ideas to give the game a new lease of life.