JETBOARD JOUST (VCS)
Published 2021 (Freedom Games)
Ever since Eugene Jarvis and Williams Electronics unleashed Defender on unsuspecting arcades in 1980, there have been countless sequels, send-ups, hacks and tributes to the game. With a rare exception, these tend to fall short of the high-water mark set by the original. Jetboard Joust by indie developer BitBull is one such exception. The game takes the foundational elements of Jarvis’ classic and adds branching pathways, an intriguing upgrade system and fun joust mechanic to create an excellent modern arcade game. I enjoy Jetboard Joust so thoroughly that I’m naming it my 2021 Game of the Year!
Jetboard Joust is available on multiple platforms, including Atari VCS, Steam, Epic and the Nintendo Switch.
Let’s take a look at the Atari VCS version of the game!
In Jetboard Joust, you use the VCS Modern Controller (or third-part gamepad) to guide Super Jetboy through 5 multi-level worlds, protecting helpless citizens - heretofore known as "little dudes" - from the ravages of evil mutant invaders! If one of the little dudes is picked up by a mutant, you will need to zip across the screen to free it before its kidnapped and becomes a super charged mutant baddie that you'll need to destroy. Essentially, destroy everything that moves. As you destroy enemies, you'll pick up drops consisting of health, ammo and coins. Its a tried and true premise to be sure. And while this game will be instantly familiar to many, it adds enough style, humor and variety to keep it fresh. These include a cool Joust attack, randomly generated level maps, a deep equipment upgrade system and more.
The "Joust" in Jetboard Joust is a special attack that propels your jetboard through multiple enemies. This is great to use to get out of a jam or clear a group of baddies. Lower level enemies will be obliterated and higher level enemies will take significant damage. Plus, you're temporarily invincible when the joust is employed. Be warned, there are a limited number of jousts available. These can be replenished by picking up drops. You can also add to your joust capacity as you build your capabilities.
Jetboard Joust features a wide variety of weapons. This includes your base weapon (a gun) and several special weapons that are picked up along the way. These come in a wide variety from lightning, to a gravity hammer to a giant circular saw (the Shredder), and everything in between. Some weapons are more effective than others on different enemies, so it makes sense to keep a variety in your arsenal. Weapons can be upgraded or repaired throughout the game. Keeping your weapons in good condition maintains their effectiveness and increases ammo drops. With a click of the trigger, you can switch between your primary gun and a special weapon. You'll only be able to carry one special weapon at a time. The other special weapons that you've collected will be scattered across the playfield. If you want to switch special weapons mid-level, you'll need to find and pick-up another one. Special weapons have limited ammo so you'll want to use them wisely. Ammo can be replenished by picking up ammo drops.
Upgrading equipment is a crucial element to success in Jetboard Joust and there are multiple ways to accomplish this. Players may opt to use the store in-between levels to upgrade their jetsuit, jetboard or weapons. The cost of doing so can be high. Fortunately, you can sell off weapons to raise precious coinage. Alternatively, you can select a route that leads to weapons pick-ups, equipment upgrades, repair, and hidden treasure. However, to access these upgrades you'll need to summon a guardian - as sort of end level boss. Only upon defeating the guardian will you gain access to the special item on that level. Summoning a guardian is completely optional and some are much harder than others. You will not know exactly who is showing up until after the summoning. Its a nice bit of risk vs. reward that breaks up the standard level clearing action. Choose your path wisely to outfit Super Jetboy with the equipment needed to take out the end of world bosses!
Another reason to save coinage is to continue a game. If you happen to die and have no emergency jetsuits, you'll be given the opportunity to purchase a continue using available treasure. If you have enough, you can continue the game. If not, it's game over! The costs of continues raises as you progress. If you don't have enough money in the bank, you can restart the game with the teleports unlocked to choose where you start. Picking up lost jetsuits from an earlier play through will allow you to recover some coin. This helps make your loss in a previous run slightly less stinging.
SOUND & VISION
The graphics in Jetboard Joust are highly stylized. The playfield is populated by colorful cities, exploding pixels, glitch-like background animations and a large variety of aliens. The color palette changes from level to level. Sometimes they look a bit muted, and other times they pop. Everything is alien. Some of the aliens recall sea creatures, others look robotic or insectoid. I really enjoy seeing the different enemy types as the game progresses. Animations are constant, chaotic and wonderful. Screenshake and pixel explosions abound and really add to the frenzied vibe of the game. Sound is equally fitting. The in-game music is catchy, if a bit repetitive. The background noises and explosions are satisfying and include an audible alert for abducted little dudes, and an affected electro synth sound that recalls the noise Defender makes at the start of each level. Overall the art style and audio are effective in defining Jetboard Joust and give the game a character all its own.
Jetboard Joust adds in-game achievements. There are 12 pages in all, with a wide variety of achievements to attain. Achievements are somewhat rare on the VCS, so this is a welcome inclusion. There is also an in-game high score entry system. Both the achievements and the high score entry add to the replay value of the game.
Jetboard Joust takes a familiar formula and successfully layers on modern gaming elements, combined with a distinctive art style and frenetic action to create a superb arcade experience. Importantly, it's SUPER FUN! If I had a place to insert quarters in my VCS, I would have spent well over the $9.99 cost of entry. Retro arcade fans and modern indie gamers alike will find a lot to enjoy. Recommended on any platform!
Have you tried Jetboard Joust on the VCS or another platform? What do you think of the game? What's your 2021 Game of The Year? Let us know in the comments below!
P.S. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most about the Atari VCS experience is that the relatively small library with its focus on curated indie games has led me to play titles I might have otherwise ignored. These games are often lost in the noise on large platforms and ecosystems. Were it not for the VCS, I would have missed out entirely on this excellent title.