AGH -- Cross-Platform Review: Joust (2600/5200/7800)

- CROSS-PLATFORM REVIEW: JOUST (2600/5200/7800) -

by Maurice Molyneaux

Coin-Op Joust
Arcade Joust

  • Like many popular arcade games of the early 80's, Williams' Joust was ported to just about every Atari system. This review concerns the 2600, 5200 and 7800 versions.

    • NOTE:
    Several users have suggested adding the Lynx version to this comparison, and I intend to do so as soon as I can get my hands on it.

  • I order to write this review I set up all three systems and played the games back to back. For comparison, I then played the original arcade game--via emulation on the Sony Playstation.

  • For those of you who, for whatever reason, never played Joust, the game is fairly simple. One or two players take control of knights riding upon flying ostriches, and engage enemy knights riding huge buzzards. The joystick moves your mount left and right, and the fire button causes the mount to "flap", which controls altitude. "Jousting" occurs whenever two opposing riders collide. Players can dismount one another, so rounds can be played competitively or cooperatively. The computer controlled enemies do not kill each other when they collide, rather, they simply change direction. Which of two opponents "wins" in a collision is determined not by where a lance lands, but simply by whose lance is higher. Lances at equal height are a draw. Thus, it is possible to win a joust by colliding your bird's butt with an enemy's lance! Therefore, the most common tactic is to "belly flop" atop an opponent to destroy him.

    Lynx Joust
    Lynx Joust

  • Enemies initially appear on one of several materialization points. Likewise, when a player is killed, his next life (if any) materializes on one of these materialization points.

    When an enemy has been defeated in a joust, he does not simply vanish. Left in his wake is an egg, which--if the player doesn't scoop it up within a short time--quickly hatches into a new enemy knight of a higher rank than the one defeated. The enemy knights come in three flavors, each one more dangerous than the last: Bounders (red), Hunters (gray), and Shadow Lords (blue).

  • The screen is mostly open space, but for a series of floating stone platforms, which aid you in evading enemies and setting up ambushes. The platform arrangement changes as the game progresses, leaving varying amounts of space for maneuvering and evading.

  • In addition to being dismounted by other riders, there are three other dangers. First, after the first few rounds, lava pits open to either side of the bottom platform, so landings must be carefully considered, or it's Kentucky Fried Ostrich time. Flying low over the lava reveals yet another danger, the Lava Troll: a disembodied hand which tries to seize low-flying birds and drag them into the lava. Fortunately, the Troll will grab any knight's bird, player or enemy. The final danger is from the Pterodactyl, which appears if a round goes on too long. The Pterodactyl actively hunts down the players, and the only way to destroy it is to lance it in the mouth (very difficult to do).

  • That's Joust in general, now to the specifics of the individual conversions.

    2600 Joust
    2600 Joust

  • Playing the 2600, 5200 and 7800 versions of Joust one after another points out just how different each is. Play details between the three vary a great deal, with the 2600 being least like the arcade model and the 7800 being the truest, as you'd expect.

  • The playfields on the 5200 and 7800 are fairly authentic, with the various platforms appearing where they should. The 2600 version is another matter, with a playfield that is perfectly symmetrical left-right, is absent two the "stepped" platforms on the other versions, and which features spaces between the platforms which are proportionally too small, making it tougher to maneuver between them when they are all present.

  • The handling of the rebirths of the enemy buzzard riders differs on all three versions. In the arcade, when an enemy is dismounted, an egg appears and arcs across the screen, falling to earth if the player does not catch it or it does not plunge into the lava. If an egg is left alone long enough, it hatches and a new rider appears. After a few moments, a buzzard will fly in and pick him up, making a new threat if the player doesn't quickly scoop up the new rider. The 7800 version faithfully reproduces this (although it adds some overdone sound effects for the egg hatching), whereas on the 5200 the eggs hatch into riders already atop buzzards, and the player has until the eggshell vanishes to pick up the new hatching, otherwise it becomes airborne. The 2600 takes this simplification one (albeit weird) step further: eggs do not fall, they fly, as if on wings! They lazily cruise through the sky, and when they hatch, an already airborne rider and buzzard appear. It is understandable that the 2600's limitations would result in some changes, but this particular choice is just plain odd, particularly given that a routine for calculating the "fall" of an object is in the game (just stop flapping and you'll see it in action). The 5200's elimination of the buzzards flying in to pick up the new riders smacks of a programmer who didn't want to bother with getting all the details right, or was overwhelmed by the number of moving objects this would involve.

  • The Pterodactyl in the 7800 and 5200 versions behaves pretty much as it does in the arcade, while on the 2600 it does not seem as "smart" and doesn't actively track the player. To make up for this the programmer chose to have it reappear at a different and more threatening altitude each time it leaves the screen, instead of having the it "wrap" around as it does in the other versions.

    5200 Joust
    5200 Joust

  • Graphically, the games are as far apart as you'd expect. The 2600 version looks more like a graph-paper sketch of a Joust screen than anything else. The 5200 and 7800 versions are much closer, rendering the platforms as rocky shapes. On the 2600 the birds and riders are single color objects. On the 5200 they are single color but for their lances, which stand out in white. Pterry's and the Lava Troll hand are likewise single color on both of those versions. The 7800 improves on this, with multi-color characters which are much more attractive. The 7800 also reproduces such nice details as the flames which "burn" away the covers from the lava pits.

  • Finally, there's game play. What's most striking about all three versions is how different they "feel". The physics in each are distinct. The same flap rates do not produce similar results across the versions, and the physics of "falling" are likewise different. In all three versions, gaining altitude is much easier than it is in the arcade, and, thus, holding a steady altitude is somewhat tougher.

  • The original Joust was a breakthrough game at the time of its release, and, unlike many of its brethren of the same era, remains as much fun to play today as then. The various Atari versions, however, haven't all aged quite as gracefully. Having seen what a good programmer can do on the 2600, it's tough to accept the oddball abridgments made to that version, and the weird playfield design and relatively large characters makes the game less fun to play than it should have been. The 5200 and 7800 versions are a lot better, and, overall, the 7800 is the best of the lot, in both terms of look and play...just as you'd expect (although the 5200's "flap" rate feels a bit closer to the arcade). However, as much fun as it was to do this little comparison, I'll stick to the arcade original... thank goodness for emulation!

    Copyright 1997 by Maurice Molyneaux.

    Authorized for publication on AGH, this article may not be posted to other web-sites or printed without express permission of the author.

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