Joust, designed by John Newcomer and developed by Williams Electronics, is a game in which you fly around the screen on an ostrich and “joust” with other guys on buzzards by running into them. The winner is determined by whoever is higher than the other at the time of contact.
I remember playing and liking this game a bit back in arcades in the 80s, but I didn’t play it as much as some other games, probably because I wasn’t very good at it. It relies heavily on mastering the controls, which have a surprising amount of momentum-based physics for 1982. Your ostrich really feels heavy as you rapidly tap the “flap” button to fly, and it doesn’t change directions on a dime, either. It’s because of this that the game can be a little hard to get the hang of at first, but it handles beautifully once you get used to it.
Joust always reminded me a little of the original Mario Bros. in that it’s a single-screen game with two-player co-op, and there’s a two-step process to defeating enemies. Not only do you have to win the “joust,” but then you also have to collect the egg that’s left behind before it hatches and revives. In Mario Bros., you have to flip the Shell Creepers over from beneath, and then kick them off the level before they right themselves.
The medieval theme is a little wacky with its flying ostriches, pterodactyls, and fire hands that pop up out of the lava, but one doesn’t usually look for sense and logic in classic arcade games (or any video game, for that matter). The fantastical nature of it, along with the hostile environment, really created its own appealing world, even within its technologically limited scope.
Joust holds up great today because it’s easy to learn and it still plays really well, but it’s also very skill-based, which is always the mark of a great arcade game. It’s available in numerous arcade compilation packages, as well as various download services, and is well worth revisiting.
It was followed up with a little-known sequel in 1986 called Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest. It was also ripped-off by Nintendo with their 1984 game Balloon Fight (although knowing Nintendo, I’m sure they would deny ever even having heard of Joust).