Knights in the Nightmare

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[My apologies to anyone hoping this would be a post about Knights in the Nightmare]

The Atari 400 version of Williams’ arcade smash Joust was one of the first games I ever played, and in those early years I’d find myself spending an awful lot of time with it: partly because it was great, partly because it was one of the handful of games we owned for the machine that came on cartridge instead of tape (Centipede and Pac-Man were two other highlights), and that meant a happy blast of instant gaming gratification for my impatient self. I’ve no doubt everyone reading this has played a game or five hundred off a cartridge before but I want to emphasise how fast boot-up was on these eighties computers (and consoles) because it still surprises me today, and I grew up with them: Being so basic meant they had no BIOS-embedded company copyright screens to hold things up, no fancy publisher logos or eye catching intros standing between you and getting to the meat of the game – all you have to do is flip a switch and the title screen would be right there and ready to go. Instantly. Blink-of-an-eye sort of instantly. Super-quick. Anyway. For all the obvious visual compromises that were bound to occur in a port so old it virtually shares a birthday with this ageing blogger – the two-tone shading found on the platforms really is the greatest graphical highlight that beige tank of an Atari could muster – it’s worth remembering at that point in ancient history having a specific game permanently stored on a physical format was still a reasonably new and exciting idea, and in that context this home effort can be considered as accurate a port as was reasonably possible for the time and the hardware, unquestionably nailing the general feel of the game and recognisably reproducing the familiar gameplay loop of the original even if it doesn’t come anywhere close to the level of accuracy and polish we expect from arcade-at-home ports today (or considering how darned old this is, arcade-at-home ports from yesterday either). Thanks to this early exposure to Joust I’ve always had a soft spot for it, and that’s why over thirty (!!) years on I still find myself going back to another successful Atari re-release of the game – the Lynx version – from time to time for a quick bit of flappy fun . The screen on the thing’s… not the best, shall we say, and the resolution may be painfully low (lower than the original Game Boy, in fact) but the finely crafted reinterpretations of the arcade sprites (assisted to no small degree by the strong silhouettes of the original designs) against that plain black background mean it’s always easy to read the battlefield even when things start to get busy, making it a great game to curl up on the sofa with for an evening’s play. The Lynx port even kept in the completely different sprites for the 1P and 2P jousters (joustees? joustmen?), and there’s a neat little touch related to that detail: if playing alone it only takes a single button press to choose to start on either the 1P or 2P side which is infinitely preferable to keeping player two’s lovely gold and blue design unseen outside of linked game sessions.

It never ceases to amaze me how fresh Joust still feels all these years later: Expertly dropping in on enemies from above still feels supremely satisfying, especially when you manage to scoop up the ejected egg (it’s probably best not to think about this game’s peculiar circle of life) before it hits the floor in one perfectly-judged movement. Watching enemies flying around and learning how to spot when they’re about to change “lanes” allows for some tactical play, opening up a sneaky window for you to fly in at the right moment to easily dispatch them as they clumsily find their way between the screen’s high/middle/low bands, and even something as simple as earning those survival wave bonuses is a point of pride – a straightforward if/then challenge that makes it clear when your skill (and on occasion, luck) has been noted and rewarded. All of these things hinge on the game’s fantastic use of physics: Your bird has a real sense of weight behind it and mastery of this avian mass combined with your furious flapping and momentum-based directional input is the key to your survival and success. Go too fast and you’ll struggle to stop yourself careening into enemies or risk bouncing off the top of the screen and into who knows what, but if you go too slow it’ll be hard to stop them picking you off – not to mention you feel less like a knight riding a warrior-bird that’s majestically soaring through the skies and more like a defrosting turkey on Christmas morning. The magical thing here is that it’s all so intuitive it needs little practise and even less explanation to get used to the game’s unique handling – Joust behaves exactly as you’d imagine a game about bird knights duelling other bird knights over lava with occasional prehistoric animals should.

Like all the very best classic arcade games the bare simplicity of it’s repetitive design is also its biggest strength, making Joust not only approachable to anyone with the slightest interest but also a distilled shot of pure gameplay: Joust doesn’t need to be anything more than Joust, it feels so complete and balanced in itself that it never feels like a title in need of tweaking or expansion (not that would stop it getting one…) and as the waves roll by you enter an almost Zen-like state – it’s just you, the game, and that nightmare-inducing pterodactyl forever.

Don’tsayitdon’tdsayitdon’tsayit…. [sigh] I’m going to say it: Looking at it now I realise Joust wasn’t just one of the first games I ever played, it was also my very first brush with the concept of “unexpected horror” too. Yes, I know – Joust. Should you somehow not be familiar with my entirely made-up genre-ish pigeonhole it goes a little like this: Unexpected horror isn’t merely a case of coming across something spooky in a game that’s not officially a scary one – it’s not the sort of game that gives you a sharp shock and then carries on as normal, or a platformer with a “How did they sneak that in?!” level made of innards and eyeballs – these games have to fill you with a constant sense of dread, forcing you into uncomfortable situations and making you do things you really don’t want to. My go-to example will forever be Ecco the Dolphin’s aquatic adventures: Games that lure in unsuspecting players with the promise of colourful fish and thoughtful puzzles but somehow forget to mention all those times you end up watching Ecco suffocate to death in a spike-filled tunnel or desperately try to avoid the aliens clamouring to eat his face, y’know… that sort of thing. R-Type Tactics is another good example of a game that looks like it’s nothing more than what’s presented on the surface and by the time you learn otherwise it’s too late, you’re Bydo-deep in the game’s web of spiralling bio-monster hopelessness playing out amongst the stars.

So what does Joust do to earn itself a place next to such unsettling not-horror horror titles? That deadly pterodactyl’s definitely a major contributor, taking a starring role in specific stages but also remaining a background threat on every level, appearing without warning if you linger too long and lunging at you from across the screen with impossible speed. Knowing that you can beat them, even if the odds are so slim it’s almost the stuff of playground legend, somehow makes them feel even more dangerous: If they were completely invincible it’d be so much easier to write them off them as a deadly object to keep well away from – and if you did get caught it would feel like a hollow inevitability – but to know that you can take them on, that maybe you could’ve faced it and won, casts a very different light on these fraught encounters. More than any of the above it’s the sound they make that stays with me, a harsh digital “screech” announcing the beast’s presence that you’d swear was ten times louder than the comparatively gentle flapping and the pleasant chime of lance-on-lance coming out of the speakers at any other instance, cutting through your ears like a jagged rusty knife. It’s fair to say in the cold light of modernity this enemy visually resembles what could charitably be called a brown wedge on my beloved Atari 400, which my child-brain then chose to interpret as a flying wooden clothes peg: an interesting attempt at making this monster less frightening (who’s scared of clothes pegs?) with this imaginative leap having the unfortunate side-effect of not only bringing this terror into the real world but by extension turning an otherwise harmless box of pegs under the kitchen sink into a sinister hive of very real and very pinchy beasts. Kids eh?

That’s the obvious one, and yet arguably not the worst of the bunch. At the very beginning of the game the bottom of the screen is nothing more exciting than a flat floor over an empty expanse, but then as the waves progress the lava rises… and rises… and then the game takes the time to animate the bridges burning away in the heat… and…

Nothing. Not straight away, anyway. You’re given a round to get used to this new if completely inert stage hazard and then the next begins and suddenly there are disembodied hands reaching up out of the lava trying to drag you down. There’s no warning about this unless you happen to catch the vague “Lava troll” descriptor during the game’s demonstration sequence, but that can’t hope to prepare you for the shock of struggling against a faceless entity for your feathered life. On its own that would be unpleasant enough but what makes these entities even more memorable, and the detail that sent shivers down my spine as a kid, was when I saw these fiery hands doing the same thing to anyone within their grasp – even your rivals! It was bad enough having to deal with regular adversaries and one occasional swoopy sod, so this discovery that my enemies had enemies – that there was something in this game so malicious it tries to kill everyone – kept me far away from the edges of that lowest platform for a very long time.

After all that hubbub it comes as a relief to reach the fifth stage: The egg wave. At first glance it’s a straightforward bonus stage, a little ovoid oasis of calm after all that careful dodging and dropping on top of enemies from on high. There are plenty of eggs scattered semi-randomly across the entire arena offering a very tasty addition to your score for minimal effort and so you set off to collect them all, either neatly flying across each of the screen’s three levels or haphazardly rushing about however you please… and then the eggs start to hatch. In that moment the stage transforms from a quiet collect ’em up into a race against the clock as you desperately rush to gather them all up before the freshly-hatched riders mount their flying steeds and you find yourself fending off a whole swarm of enemies and potentially losing a few precious lives in the process. When the game loops back through its short range of stages and that bonus wave comes around again those eggs no longer feel like enticing little balls of points – they’re all enemies-in-waiting for anyone not fast and precise enough to hoover them all up.

Once all of these little seeds of unease worm their way into your mind the whole game becomes tinged with an indistinct sort of tension: The flapping has an almost desperate edge to it, your ever-changing momentum being the source of all of your victories and the cause of all your defeats. Everything you encounter apart from the ground you stand on is dangerous, and even that crumbles away as the waves wear on before returning to normal when the loop restarts (sans those bridges over the lava) as if it had all been a bad dream – and allowing the game to take that sense of safety from you over and over again. That single screen becomes an endless nightmare world where escaping from one side of the arena only leads you back around to the other, a place where the only way out is to die or give up…

Alright, I admit that I might be taking this train of thought just a little too far… or am I? Joust may not present itself as a scary game but it definitely has all the components needed to make one – and a very good one at that. There are plenty of concepts in here that if they were incorporated into something we could all agree looked like a typical blood-n-rust horror game you wouldn’t question them or think they were out of place: This is the game with a nigh-unkillable enemy that appears just to chase you down if you don’t keep moving, where invincible hands belonging to an unknown force drag anything that comes near to their doom, and where you’re trapped in an inescapable cavern filled with an infinite supply of aggressors that can kill with a single touch, after all…

8 thoughts on “Knights in the Nightmare

  1. CLICKBAIT! I call shenanigans, Kimimi!

    I love Joust, for all the reasons you describe here: the fact it starts relatively sedate then becomes incredibly frantic and terrifying within a few short levels. It’s enormously addictive, and remains super-fun today in both single-player and two-player.

    I really like Joust 2, as well. I didn’t know that existed until relatively recently, but I had a ton of fun with it when I first discovered it.

    Also, you were an Atari family? I knew you had immaculate taste. That reminds me, I haven’t “done” Joust on any of my Atari A to Z series as yet… I should get on that!

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  2. Ah, Joust is such a great game. There’s something to say about those really short games, or let’s say games that kill me fast. Kinda like the even more hectic Robotron 2084. Good thing, nowadays you don’t have to pay for every credit.
    Speaking of unexpected horrors, the white ghosts in Bubble Bobble scared the crap out of me as a kid. lol

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  3. Bubble Bobble gave me this feeling something serious. I still have a sense of unease when I see those goofy dinosaurs, knowing that some jagged tooth ghost blob is waiting somewhere in their future.

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  4. Whew, for a minute there I thought this was going to be one of those wrong-headed posts claiming that Balloon Fight is the superior game. Glad that wasn’t the case.

    Anyway. Williams had a thing for scary storylines and play mechanics. Robotron is about mankind’s fall to an army of robots, and its sequel Blaster is a desperate (and typically futile) attempt to escape Earth and find a new home at the edge of the galaxy. Then you’ve got Sinistar, where a giant chrome lion head roars “Beware, I live!” and relentlessly chases you around the endless void of space. If you’ve got no Sinibombs to fight him, you’re destined to become his Sini-lunch. Talk about intimidating.

    Also, don’t play Joust 2. Trust me, just don’t.

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