The never ending quest for the earliest co-op video game continues this week. Coupled with the quest is a touching, heartbreaking story from my childhood. What more could you ask for? Grab an ostrich and a lance as we check out arcade golden oldie Joust, this week's Co-Op Classic.
You may recall a previous Co-Op Classic column featuring Mario Bros. It seems the "true" co-op gameplay of that game was inspired by that of Joust. Released in 1982, Joust was a real standout from other arcade games of the time. For one thing, the cabinet had truly distinctive art. The biggest appeal though was the simultaneous two player gameplay. Taking turns in Pac-man is all well and good, but sometimes, you and a friend want to play at the same time. Joust allowed you to do just that.
The gameplay was simple, but surprisingly deep. Only a two-way joystick for left and right, and a "flap" button were needed. You controlled a knight, flying around on an ostrich. (This lead many young gamers astray when it came to the discussion of flightless birds in elementary school.) The object of the game was to ram your lance through opposing knights in order to clear the board. When you smacked a bad guy, he turned into an egg, and if the egg was left uncollected, he would respawn, meaner than ever. Joining the fun were pterodactyls and lava trolls.
I must be honest with you; the co-op in Joust is not particularly strong. You and a friend can play at the same time, sure, but you can also kill one another. Friendly fire is harsh, especially when all the characters in the game look so similar. In fact, in some levels, called Gladiator Waves, you are awarded points for destroying the other player. On the other hand, there are Team Waves, where if you leave the other guy alone, you get points. When the feathers were flying and the lances were striking, having a buddy to help was indispensable.
And now on to the heart breaking story from my childhood. This tale isn't quite as epic as "The Great Transformers Tragedy of 1984", but that's one for another time, perhaps. Back in 1987, I was thirteen years old, and wanted a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. I had played Top Gun at one friend's house, and Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda at another's , and I was hooked. My brother and I decided we'd ask for one together, figuring that would improve the odds a bit. My days were spent dreaming of bullwhips and bats, heart containers and octoroks. Lo and behold, the day finally arrived. I could feel it; I just knew my folks got me an NES. In fact, there was even one box that looked to be about the right size...
Unfortunately, that box contained one of these:
Imagine my horror, friends. An Atari 2600 Jr. instead of the greatest video game console of all time. Cue the sad music, and bust out the Kleenex. The irony of it all was that we had an old, boxy Atari 2600 years before, but it broke, and we sold all the games at a garage sale. It might have been nice to play Atlantis and Phoenix again, but when your heart is set on Simon Belmont and Mario, bad arcade ports just won't do. I cannot for the life of me remember what games we got with the system. However, my dad must have noticed our discontent, because he took us shopping for more games just a couple days later. I managed to find a copy of Joust to play; I'd guess they were paying people to take and 2600 games, at that point. Here's a screenshot from that fine port. At least it had co-op!
Thanks, Dad, for at least springing for some good games for a bad system. And for all you Atari fans, hey, I am one of you, trust me. But the 2600 was ten years old at this point, and it showed. To this day, every time I see a Joust machine, I think of that Christmas. To their credit, my folks totally made up for it when we got a Sega Game Gear instead of a Game Boy a few years later!
A port of Joust is available on Xbox Live Arcade, as well as the Playstation Network. You can even play it free at Midway's site! It's a fine game, one of the best of the era. Joust is certainly important to the history of co-op games. Maybe when you play it the next time, you'll think of that fateful Christmas morning in 1987...