It’s 1982, and you’re standing inside your local arcade with a 10p piece clutched within a sweaty palm. You’re fed up with shooting aliens or gobbling up dots, and are looking for something different, something new and exciting to play. A cabinet catches your eye. There’s a red knight holding what looks like a pool cue while sitting astride a yellow ostrich. Yeah, that looks different.
Perhaps unsurprisingly considering how diverse Joust was from similar games of the time, its designer, John Newcomer, came from a different background to many of his peers. “I was a toy and game inventor, and my mentor was Gordon Barlow, the inventor of Mousetrap and well over 150 popular toys from the Sixties and Seventies,” he explains. “Gordon helped me develop a discipline to quickly brainstorm a variety of ideas in every age group.” Newcomer applied this technique on his first project at Williams Electronics. “When I arrived at Williams I had worked on a variety of electronic toys, but never a videogame. In my view, it was a very natural transition, and that focus on game strategy and how players think still serves me well in the industry today.”
With Newcomer working on the design for Joust, but lacking the necessary technical skills, Bill ‘Pfutz’ Pfutzenreuter was selected to assist him, with Jan Hendriks joining shortly to work on character design and animations. “I wanted to make a flying game, but not use conventional spaceships or machines,” Newcomer reveals. “I had researched that flying was a universal dream most people had, and the number two most desired super power. I’m an avid movie watcher, reader of mythology and comic book collector – the references were everywhere. So the temptation was to make a winged humanoid like Icarus or Marvel’s Vulture, but it was better gameplay to knock a rider off a bird, and this became the medieval connection.”
Using Williams’ Robotron 2084 hardware, Joust pitches the player as a yellow-clad knight riding an avian of indeterminate origin – most likely an ostrich, we’d guess. The cabinet houses a two-way joystick and a fire button, which in Joust’s case, makes the knight’s bird fly. Enemy knights hover into view and must be eliminated, and this is achieved by flying into them while ensuring the player’s lance is higher than the enemy’s. Once vanquished, the knight turns into an egg which must be collected before another warrior hatches and is picked up by their former buzzard steed. It’s a simple mechanic, but one that works well, especially in simultaneous two-player mode. Notes Newcomer, “When I was hired at Williams, upper management told me that a designer’s job was to get 25 cents from a pocket every two-and-a-half minutes. Logically, if you want to attack that math, do simultaneous play. And there is more fun potential if you can get players to play together rather than wait their turns.”
Once that first coin is dropped, Joust’s unusual control method hits the player. Tricky to get to grips with, it may on the surface appear to be an odd choice for an arcade game. “I thought the key to making players feel connected to the flying theme was to have each press of the button be a flap,” recalls Newcomer. “It feels awkward at first because it’s new, but psychologically it makes sense – if players gave it a chance, I think they realise subconsciously that any other way would not feel right.” Memory restrictions prevented the game from having especially diverse levels. Each ledge has a fixed location, leaving Newcomer the decision of which to remove at any time. “Removing ledges let the enemies fly unimpeded, making their AI more effective. I wanted the player to get into a rhythm every five levels which increased in difficulty, before giving you a bit of relief on the egg wave where you had the scoring opportunity to get an extra rider.”
The enemies themselves have differing tendencies, either sitting back or attacking, with the level’s platforms enabling the player to exploit them. “Pfutz and I worked together on this for months,” continues Newcomer. “Using markers on my monitor, I would map out the flight paths of different birds based on his latest code. Then I would tweak the ledges to the bird-flying behaviour to prevent exploits.” However, his efforts to eliminate work-arounds didn’t quite succeed thanks to a bug that affected the game’s ‘hurry-up’ creature, the distinctly non-medieval pterodactyl. “If the player stands on the centre ledge, the pterodactyl’s flight path comes at an angle so that the player just has to stand still and the height of the lance is just perfect. The ptero would basically just kill itself.”
Upon release, Joust became a hit in arcades, settling into a top five ranking for several months. After designing Splat and Turkey Shoot, writing the game design document for Sinistar and performing other management roles, Newcomer returned to his first game with Joust 2 three years later. But it is with the original that he holds the fondest memories. “I take special pride in Joust because it’s a true original, with no reference game used. It was unique, and taught me that being honest with yourself and your design is key to a successful game. If it isn’t fun, throw it out, or rework it.” As part of an iconic era in videogames, an era that is revered today by retrogaming fans, Newcomer also feels privileged to have worked with some very talented people. “And it is a very happy surprise,” the designer concludes, “that people still remember the game and play it. It’s very cool that classic games such as Joust are still getting some love.”
Our thanks to John Newcomer for his time.
JOUST and all related characters and elements © & TM Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (s21) Easter Egg