by Jed Pressgrove
“It’s not been vivid for years, because I’m not having a nervous breakdown. That’s when you get these really vivid electric dreams that are probably in their own way your subconscious trying to save your sorry ass. If only we paid as close attention to our dreams since the Pleistocene period as we have the global economy for the last 20 years. But the global economy is supposed to be relevant, right? Well, fuck the global economy. Why should we discard a third of our lives?” – Jim Harrison, in an interview with Salon.
After the end of each stage, the background devolves into a pixelated blur teeming with anxious energy. Even when a text summary appears — showing the number of individuals saved and the number of coins earned — and even after the summary is replaced by a between-level upgrade menu, the background continues to bug out, but without being a distraction. It’s like the subconscious of the average human being, trying to pipe up and say this is not real and here is what’s real. Jetboard Joust reminds me games could once be likened to dreams (as opposed to constantly updated downloadable lifestyles). Dreams with odd details. Dreams with absurd logic. Dreams that only take over our lives for moments, their echoes in our minds afterward being as sweet as, if not sweeter than, the act of playing them.
More than 30 years ago, Skateboard Joust came to the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and Amstrad GX4000. Developed by a youngster named James Closs, Skateboard Joust is a single-screen action game that hasn’t gotten much attention over the years, which makes it all the more interesting that now, a little over 20 years into the new century, one can play Closs’ sequel, Jetboard Joust, on the Nintendo Switch (or on one of the overglorified, overpriced wannabe PCs that people call game consoles).
Unlike its predecessor, Jetboard Joust is a horizontally scrolling shooter that follows in the footsteps of 1981’s Defender. Jetboard Joust’s hero, who rides a souped-up hover board, must battle waves of invaders while protecting innocents from abductors. If kidnapped, the innocents transform into aggressive brutes that hunt the protagonist. A level ends when every foe dies. Battle takes place along a horizontal plane that acts as a loop when the player flies off the edge of a displayed map — fly off the right side of the map and one immediately appears on the left side of the map, and vice versa.
If you’ve not played Defender, it’s possible you’ve run across one of its many children, like Sega’s Fantasy Zone (notable for its exuberant tone and pastels) or Housemarque’s Resogun (a flashy update of the superior arcade classic) or even Stargate, also known as Defender II. With this legacy in mind, Jetboard Joust might seem like a Defender clone that’s late to the party, especially given that Skateboard Joust didn’t concern itself with traditional shooting. But Jetboard Joust is no mere imitator. Because of the design of the jetboard vehicle, there’s a sense of gravity to the hero’s movement which separates Jetboard Joust from Defender’s more straightforward flying. If one stops moving the analog stick on the Switch controller in Jetboard Joust, the hero’s position inches downward. If one changes directions, momentum must be rebuilt. The jetboard is subject to minute directional influence.
Except when one performs a joust, which comes with the freeing, momentary feeling that the game’s laws of physics no longer apply. During this maneuver, the jetboard achieves its own version of warp speed, turning itself into an unstoppable bullet that can, if leveled up, annihilate many enemies upon impact. As the jetboard inflicts major damage to everything in its path, the hero jumps and performs a forward flip so that he can land on the board at the end of its vicious propulsion.
A version of this exhilarating technique first appeared in Skateboard Joust. As RealGenericDemon shows in his video, jousting is the primary way to obliterate enemies in Skateboard Joust, and so the player has unlimited jousts. But in Jetboard Joust, the player can only perform a limited number of jousts, as the game would have zero challenge otherwise. This mechanical twist helps ensure the sensation of an outstanding release — the jousts in Jetboard Joust are cathartic and orgasmic, even when poorly aimed with no threat extinguished.
At their best, video games exist in our lives as fantasies and nightmares, rather than addictions that have a sort of logical add value and turn us into another statistic (“Why yes, survey, I do spend on average 40 hours a week playing this particular online game.”). Hours played doesn’t matter with great games. Lesser games require as many of our hours as possible because there’s nothing special about them when we don’t play. A great game maintains a place within us, however modest, as we go about our days doing other things. Contrary to what the industry tells us, we need time away from games for them to be special. Call it the truth of the arcade.
We should welcome games that haunt us long after we’re done with them. That is when we are the most alive. That is when our souls are trying to tell us something is very right or very wrong or both.
When the final level of Castlevania: Bloodlines uses the concept of graphics against us — splitting the screen into three parts and thus scrambling our perception of the avatar and the space it moves through — we should celebrate that surreal discombobulation after we turn off the game and continue our day, perhaps while we curse our inability to progress through the challenge.
Similarly, when that specific alien in Jetboard Joust emits a blaring sound that conceals the cries of our friends being ripped from the earth — those annoying meowing whines, not unlike the baby’s yelping in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, that we learn to take as signals to spring into heroic action — we should cherish how confounded that noise makes us, yet how aware we become of our vulnerability and impotence. A nightmare within a fantasy.
The hero’s method of violence in Jetboard Joust doesn’t have to involve bullets. The most interesting weapons deviate from the shoot-’em-up mold. Take the Gravity Hammer, which brings about devastation with a circular attack. If an enemy finds itself within the appreciable radius of the hammer swing, it will go for a ride, as the hammer drives its targets downward after a successful connection, slamming them into the ground. With proper timing, the hammer can obliterate or at least profoundly injure several invaders at once.
Then there’s the Rotovator. This huge spinning saw blade, which extends outward for a brief period, injects an eye-to-eye brutality into the game in the same way that the chainsaw makes Doom more up close and personal. The Rotovator sounds like nasty anger when engaged. It gives one an intimate (but purely abusive) bond with those it traps in its savage cycle. That same bond can backfire, holding one in place as whatever fiend eats away the hero’s health faster than the blade can deliver victory.
Another standout is the Poison Pump, which leaves behind gaseous clouds that slows down and drains the life out of attackers who fly into the gas. A tool for those who wish to be more defensive and diabolical, the pump works especially well against the aliens that abduct your friends. Abductors move straight up, just asking for a cloud of gas to wait above them.
These same weapons can and will be used against you by malevolent forces. I commend Closs for this most irritating element. Imagine a Contra where one must face the spread shot. Imagine a God of War where three demons from a long distance wedge boomerang axes into your body with startling accuracy. What was once cool becomes exasperating when the shoe’s on the other foot, as when a rival in chess pins your knight to your queen or king, or when you run into a screen in basketball, losing a precious step with a sharpshooting opponent.
To not dream is to lose sight of purpose and possibility. But the game industry, in its all-consuming greed, doesn’t give a flip about our imaginations as artists, critics, or audiences. Everything must be rational, objective, scalable, and upgradable. Games are to be the stuff of our lives, not the stuff of our dreams.
As such, video games have evolved into online services in the 21st century. These services reflect a scheme of the larger tech industry, where we’re supposed to think of tech as a permanent, indispensable extension of our bodies and personalities. The pernicious business model behind online games attempts to remove the potential for artistic failure or critical interpretation. That is, if a part of an online service offends some people, or if some aspect is half-baked or unfinished, the developers can release a patch. If baby needs pacifier, baby gets one. Artistic conviction and execution have been replaced with public relations and the appearance of good intentions. And the gaming press — a lapdog’s lapdog — has allowed the corporate interests behind online games to call into question the very point of criticism. Reviewers gave up when they started asking, “Are our reactions to newly released games valid given the reality of patches?” A better question: Why should people pay for or play unfinished games while they serve as unpaid testers?
Jetboard Joust, for all its admirable qualities, still exists within the wretched ecosystem set up by unholy computer nerds. My Switch keeps telling me I should install a patch for Jetboard Joust, but I don’t comply. I hang onto the original dream of the older James Closs. I will not discard it.
What’s a modern game without resource management? Probably a more focused affair that doesn’t mindlessly replicate some version of that numbers game we have to play in real life to keep a roof over our heads. But I’ll give Jetboard Joust this much: its weapon degradation and repair system ingeniously demands kinetic artistry.
Weapons can be repaired if the player spends money on upgrades between levels, but there’s a better way of keeping one’s weapons in good condition. Any enemy that rides a jetboard will drop what is curiously labeled an “armor” bonus. If collected, the dropped item will slightly restore a weapon’s constitution. The more of these bonuses you can snag, the better off your weapons will be, and the less money that needs to be spent on repairs.
The catch: these bonuses must be snatched quickly. After a board-riding villain dies, the item drops to the ground and takes a short single bounce into the air before falling off the screen and being lost to that infamous 2D video-game hell that we all know about but have never seen. The bouncing aspect, coupled with the trickiness of rebuilding momentum when one switches directions on the jetboard, inspires a scrambling brand of play that can lead to breathtaking saves. Eyeing these precious power-ups in their floaty grace while attempting to execute efficient routes toward the bottom of the screen brings to mind the frantic lunacy of juggling the different-colored bells in the 1985 vertical shooter classic TwinBee. Somewhere Eugene Jarvis smiles as Jetboard Joust forces one into a breathless, Neanderthalian desperation.
It’s not unlike finding yourself in the middle of a mess that you feel monumentally compelled to clean up because if you don’t the whole world will see and you will be exposed as a fool never to live down the chaos associated with your clumsiness and idiocy and you will never get the stench of your own shit off your hands and everyone will remember your silly naked body, too.
As in Spelunky, Downwell, and an embarrassing number of other recent games, Jetboard Joust involves a level-by-level descent toward more dangerous predicaments, such as a fight with a giant fish that will utilize awkward hesitations like a crafty boxer before rushing forward like an autonomous battering ram. Similar to the loop of Hades, the player chooses a path toward a particular randomized stage based on the upgrade that would await them. In Hades, this system turns players into junkies who need “just” one more hit — the ability to know beforehand how you can level up the protagonist in mere minutes proves to be an irresistible enticement to keep descending.
But Jetboard Joust’s path selection allows for more long-term planning. On the level select screen, the player can study how the routes branch out all the way down to the floor of a given world. Every juncture features an emblem that represents a different bonus, such as an extra joust or new weapon. This quasi-omniscient view should encourage careful decisions. At first glance, one might be tempted to head down an immediate path to the right because of a single attractive upgrade, but one would be better off taking the less sexy path to the left, as completing the level in that direction would open up a longer route leading to multiple rare bonuses. Jetboard Joust’s constant alternation between strategic contemplation and devilish aerial action creates an otherworldly groove of forethought and instinct.
I stare at the level select screen. The slow pounding of drum and bass transfixes me more than it should, as my reality outside of the game lacks such a trusty beat. After about five minutes of doing nothing on the screen, the music halts. I hear the dull hum of fast tapping. It sounds like a busted machine unable to scan anything despite manic effort. Is this panic-inducing audio the intention of James Closs? Or is it a mistake, a glitch that can be smoothed out if I accept the downloadable patch the Switch keeps informing me about? The answer doesn’t matter. The din complements the dreamlike state the game puts me in, functioning as an unanswered wakeup call.
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