Retro Coin Op Synopsis

You have to wonder whether the programmers at Williams Electronics didn’t have a bit of a sadistic streak in them. It’s one thing to pit best friends against one another—Gun Fight, Warlords and others had already taken care of that—but Joust played a twisted little game with players’ loyalties, encouraging them to team up on one level, then duel it out on the next. Naturally, it was a major hit.

The concept of Joust was as old as the Middle Ages, but with a bizarre underworld flair. Mounted knights still tried to dismount one another with long lances, but their trusty steeds were replaced with large birds. And if things weren’t nutty enough already, the programmers threw in a fiery Lava Troll and a near-invulnerable pterodactyl.

At the start of a game of Joust, the first player’s yellow knight materialized atop a large ostrich. If a second player joined in as well, a blue knight appeared, mounted on a stork. Soon, a host of enemy knights would join the fray, each riding a giant buzzard. What followed was a mid-air fight to the finish, as players swooped down on the enemy and tried to dodge counter-swoops.

The birds could only move left or right with the joystick control, but each tap of the “Flap” button gave the feathered combatants a bit of lift. A semi-realistic gravity applied, however, so repeated flapping was necessary if you wanted to win the day. When two knights collided, the higher lance prevailed, while the loser was knocked from his mount. In your case, that meant a lost life, but if you unseated an enemy, there was one more step before the threat was over.

Each hit on an enemy bird released a giant egg, which could be grabbed for bonus points. If you failed to snatch the bounty within a certain time limit, however, a new knight would hatch, one degree tougher than the one you had out-jousted.

If you took too long in dismounting your opponents, the dreaded pterodactyl would emerge from the side of the screen, screeching as it dove toward you. The prehistoric bird of prey was almost indestructible, but a perfectly placed lance to the mouth would send the beast back to temporary extinction.

Once a board was cleared of enemy knights, a new level began. The various platforms that filled the playing field would disappear on some levels and rematerialize on others, creating new challenges with each new stage. But that wasn’t nearly all the evil geniuses at Williams had up their sleeves.

At the start of the game, the right and left lower corners contained a covered lava pit. After a few levels, the cover would disappear, creating a new lethal hazard. But that wasn’t all. On later levels, flames would belch up from the pit, cooking your bird and sending you to an early grave. But that still wasn’t all. There was also the pesky Lava Troll—a giant, flaming hand that would reach up from the pit and grab any jouster who flew too close to its lair.

Joust could be played alone, but the programmers went out of their way to encourage two-player games (this is where the sadism comes in). On any level, the two players had the ability to knock each other off their mounts, but there was initially little incentive to do so. Some levels even offered bonus points for cooperation, encouraging team play.

On other levels, however, the killer instinct took over. Instead of offering a bonus for cooperative play, the game actually awarded points to the first player to knock the other one off his bird. Maybe you didn’t need the extra points, but how could you be sure the other guy wasn’t going to turn on you in a moment of weakness…?

With its unique concept and cooperative/competitive play, Joust quickly became an arcade favorite. Home versions appeared on nearly every contemporary system, and an arcade sequel was released in 1986. Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest added a few innovations to the game (including a vertical screen and a “transform” button that turned your mount from an ostrich to a pegasus), but the concept remained the same.

The sequel turned out to be a disappointment, but that was no reflection on the popularity of Joust. The original retains a loyal following today, and even casual gamers can remember getting caught up in the thrill of the hunt.

Arcade Machine Release History

1982 - Joust
1986 - Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest

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