Thinking about it now, there’s actually a clear distinction between retro-inspired games and retro-like games. Some titles, such as Prodigal, are inspired by games of the past, all the while implementing the modern provisions that make the gameplay experience more streamlined. Jetboard Joust is like games of the past, fancying itself a fast-paced, brutal portal to when games were specifically designed to rob your wallet. In realizing this distinction, I began to contemplate what I preferred from each style. The “inspired” tend to be more accessible, more balanced in its approach so that it offers fun to players of any skill level. The “like” are more inherent of rewarding skill and perseverance, oftentimes letting the player learn through trial and error or patience. Each have their pros and cons, but in recent times, I can’t help but feel my old bones have been worn down by constant bouts of difficulty.
This game provides all the brutality of the arcade era spun into a roguelike fashion. It’s retro-like, with a slight dash of modern conformity. Only that conformity is tinged with one of this generation’s most unforgiving genres. Kind of like putting “intense” in bold on top of “hard” in neon.
Jetboard Joust is available on Steam for your regional pricing. A Switch release is planned for sometime in 2021.
Story – What’s That?
Much like its arcade roots, Jetboard Joust chooses to forego the deep story bits in favor of a direct gameplay anthem. The synopsis on its Steam page even states not to expect a story. Background context is all you need—just like the “good ol’ days.” You’re on a flying jetboard equipped with a number of sleek weapons, fighting off an evil alien race determined to abduct the human race and turn them into mutants. Standard good vs. evil plot that many old-school titles employ.
To some extent, many would praise this approach. I know many that enjoy when a game is just a game, with superfluous fluff such as exposition through dialogue and cutscenes overwhelm today’s generation. While I can empathize, I’ve found the most substantial games in my lifetime incorporate narrative beats, even if minimalistic. It’s fair to the game’s presence as an arcade game for the modern age to ignore this, but for me personally, it ends up losing points in its favor. With as chaotic, flashy, and fluid as the animations are in this game, it’d be great to get at least something. Without that sort of motivation, it’s completion for completion’s sake. A solid motivator, mind you, but something that has its limits.
Gameplay – Kill Those Who Float, Save Those Who Don’t
As the synopsis implies, a lot of Jetboard Joust‘s mechanics revolve around shooting baddies and saving laddies. Should one choose to look into it, controls and capabilities are explained (minimally) in the options menu. Otherwise, the game kind of throws you into the action to figure it out for yourself. For example, you need to press a button to change from going left to right or vice-versa. Not the control stick/d-pad’s left and right, but a button input of your choosing. I did not know this for the first five minutes, so I flew around in one direction for my beginning run, wondering why this was so oddly limiting. After some time, I did grow used to the controls, even if still very floaty.
Mastering the jetboard is much easier said than done. Combining the input for turning with the semi-realistic physics for flying machinery, it forces the player to adjust to themselves in the earlier runs before being any good at destroying foes. Nothing is intuitive immediately, and this game expects a few runs before a player can adequately call themselves a savior of the human race. My fear with this game is that in that time, will it entice people enough to make them want to continue? Or is the arcade criteria of getting better as you continue too much to ask, along with hampering the motivations with little to no story or context? Personally, by the second or third run, I found myself mentally draining.
Just Shoot ‘Em All Down
Despite my floundering, there is a lot of stimulating combat to be found. Even the standard weapon, at least for the first few stages, serves as a viable tool for eradication, and getting that well-positioned shot in is immensely satisfying. If not that, there’s also a booster option that renders you temporarily invincible and almost destroys anything in your path. While usually better served as a last resort, it’s fun to use against a large wave of baddies. Note that this move is, as presumed of its power, limited. When in-sync with the jetboard, flying around at top speed and shooting at enemies along the way, feelings of immense bliss do overtake one. Perhaps that feeling is all one needs for a game such as this.
To retrace to my comments on retro-inspired vs. retro-like, Jetboard Joust isn’t so loaded in the latter that it may have appeared right out of 1990. There are plenty of aspects to the game that give the player leniency in progression and the tools to succeed. One just has to be good enough to capitalize on them. Defeated enemies will drop little medkits, there’s a map at the top of the screen that shows player and enemy location, ammo/health drops will sprinkle the level as it progresses, and one can continue based on number of coins collected. These coins also appear upon defeating enemies and through other means as players continue, and it’s easy to collect enough for at least a couple continues. You’re also given the option to spend collected coins at the end of each stage on weapon/suit upgrades, but bear in mind that it will cut deep into your pockets.
All in all, there’s enough to justify that this is definitely designed with the present in mind. Despite how arcade-esque it intends to be, there’s a layer of modern ingenuity that works well in its favor. Despite my relative lack of skill with the game, nothing ever felt my fault, and had I done this or that, I may have been able to overcome the odds. And, well, it being a roguelike doesn’t help the already random nature of each run. With the way the game is designed, I could have done well in a path that was otherwise kind of restrictive. That kind of perspective makes replayability more enticing simply for curiosity rather than serving one’s pride.
Graphics & Audio – Sorry to Bug Ya
One of the most impressive things about Jetboard Joust is its animated eccentricity. Retro style aside—though I do applaud it—the way things move, progress, and explode in this game is incredibly mesmerizing. One can tell from trailers alone that the developer appreciates high-flying, busy combat that excites the player with bombast. It certainly made me interested. Screenshake, pixelation, explosions and destructive merriment; the game has a knack for immersing the player in all the chaotic aftermath that a premise such as this implies. It’s a beautiful, magnificent representation of the arcade era brought to current times, with all the tricks to make one feel powerful in tow.
In terms of audio, there isn’t quite as much to say, unless you fancy comparisons to Yoshi’s Island. Seem random? It is, but I can explain. One of the core concepts of Yoshi’s Island was to prevent Mario from being kidnapped by kameks upon receiving damage. You would know this by the infamous cries of baby Mario floating around in a bubble, which has tormented players for decades. Jetboard Joust is somewhat similar, as one is notified by people along the ground being abducted by a loud, borderline annoying sound that plays until you save them… or let them turn. This was the most memorable auditory aspect of the game I can recall, as all else fell victim to the chaos of the visuals. Though, plowing through multiple enemies with the booster and hearing the crunch of multiple casualties was pretty nice, too.
Jetboard Joust was reviewed on PC via Steam. A review key was provided by Stride PR.