Joust is one of the first arcade games in my collection, and still one of my favorites. I’ve been playing Joust since the day it hit the arcades back in 1982. Back in the 80’s arcade games could be found everywhere. I actually played it regularly in my hometown Radio Shack store. They had four or five games at any given time, so we went there daily. Fast forward to 1998, when I purchased my game from a pinball repair company about 30 minutes from my house. That year I set a high score of 339,850 on the machine. I tried for years to beat that score, but was never able to match it. I hit 300K a few times, but never 339K. That score sat for over ten years.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a big fan of the movies “The King of Kong” and “Chasing Ghosts”. Both movies documented classic arcade game players and their attempts to set record scores. One player in both movies was Steve Sanders. Steve was known for his legendary Donkey Kong exploits and even wrote a strategy book for the game. However after learning more about some of the stars of the movies, I found out Steve was a world class Joust player and a past champion. I figured that if anyone would be willing to give me some tips, he might be able to. I have not met many people who were actually decent at Joust, and did not know anyone personally that was as good at the game as I was. I needed to reach out to someone who I knew would be a great player. I knew quite a bit about Steve from watching the movies and reading about gaming history for so many years. I knew what city he lived near and what his occupation was. A simple Google search later I had an email address. I sent out a quick email to see if he would be interested in sharing any tips with me. A few days later I was surprised with a phone call from Steve! We talked for a while and Steve gave me several tips that I would have to try out. The biggest thing I learned from that conversation was that I should NOT be playing the game at the top of the screen. That was a very counter-intuitive strategy given how the game is played. It was not going to be an easy adjustment!
The rules of Joust are pretty simple. Fly your ostrich around the level by flapping its wings with your button and moving a joystick left and right to direct your flight. To defeat enemies, just run into them so that you are flying at a higher altitude than they are. If you do, you knock them off their buzzard and drop out an egg to collect. If you do not collect the egg, it will hatch into a more difficult rider who will soon be picked up by another buzzard. Once you defeat all of the enemies and pick up their eggs, you move on to the next level. The natural way to play this game is to fly around the top and hit the enemies from above. I was now having to learn how to play lower in the screen and trying to get the enemies to come down to me. It was very difficult.
I was able to progress to higher and higher scores by learning to play lower in the screen. In January of 2009 I finally beat my old score by almost 30,000 points! I hit 364,150 points. A few months later I broke the 400K score barrier with a score of 418,000. I stayed under that score until I then eventually settled in to a score of 483,700 that May, My gameplay had hit another plateau.
This past summer I was reading through some threads on the KLOV forums, and I came across a great thread about scoring 1 Million points in arcade games. I posted about my quest to become a better Joust player and I decided that I would try to answer the challenge of the thread and become a one million point player! One of the guys who responded to my post in the thread was Mark Kiehl. Mark was the current Donkey Kong Jr. World Record Holder, and also a really good Joust player. He shared a video online of a one million point game that he played, to demonstrate more techniques that could be used to improve my gameplay. It was a great video. What I learned from it was that I was already playing in a very similar way, but I was not nearly as consistent. My timing was also not nearly as good as it needed to be. It was great to have more encouragement and examples of better gameplay to learn from.
Not long after I heard from Mark I learned about an event coming up for the International Video Game Hall of Fame Big Bang event in Ottumwa, Iowa in August. I contacted Walter Day, who also plays a significant role in the video gaming movies I mentioned earlier, to offer to bring a classic game to the event for attendees to play. He suggested I bring my Joust cabinet because it would be a good fit with the attendees that were planning to come to the event. I had to start working on my game skills before I made the trip because who knew what kind of players would be there. I didn’t want to bring my own game to the event and be the worst player there. I also assumed Steve Sanders would be at the event since he was heavily involved with the IVGHOF’s efforts and frequently attends these types of events. Several of the other gaming “stars” were going to attend and many of them were going to be members of the first class of Hall of Fame inductees. I was really excited about going and knew I would have the chance to learn by seeing some really good players on my game!
I played several games prior to leaving for the event. I would play just about every night. I ended up beating my high score several times. First 556,400 on July 20th, then a week later I hit 636,550. Finally a couple days before I left I hit 835,300. I was excited about my improvement and I knew the event would help me to get even better. I went to the event and had a great time! I was able to play several games with Steve, and found out that there really weren’t a lot of players that were good at that game attending the event. I was probably one of the better players there. There were some amazing game players at the event. It was pretty humbling hearing about some of the scores these guys could get on different games. Through the years they shared so many strategies between each other that they just made each other better, and were still willing to share. Steve talked through several strategies with me, and critiqued what he witnessed that I could improve on. I also was surprised to get the chance to meet Mark Kiehl and thank him for his help. By the time I left Iowa, I hadn’t performed any great scores at the event but I felt I was ready to really hit some higher scores in the near future.
When I returned home, I had one extra souvenir to show for my trip – a million point high score posted on my game. Steve Sanders hit a million in a game while showing me gameplay strategies. My Joust saves high scores with a battery, so I would continue to see this score until I finally could knock it off the top with my own 1M+ score. I figured it would be easy. Turns out it wasn’t. I continued to score below my current high. I finally had a break through night. It was Labor Day and my daughter was having a party with a bunch of her friends in the game room. I decided to give a try and scored 992,950! It was a great game and I felt that everything was starting to come together. It was painfully close to a million but encouraging to break through to a higher level.
One week in late October I was informed that John McAllister was going to attempt to beat the 25 year old Joust Marathon record of 107 Million points. The attempt was being broadcast live on Justin.tv. It was an exciting event. He really fought through fatique and some tough stretches to beat the record. He had over 100 lives left over when he decided he’d scored enough and killed them off. I was able to pick up a few things he was doing that I could tell would help my game. I played several games that weekend and finally cracked the one million point threshold! My first Million point score was officially 1,041,100 on 10-23-2010. I beat that score the next day to reach 1,072,150. I still had not yet knocked Steve’s high score from the top of my game but was getting closer and closer. Now it was just teasing me!
Since I was now playing so much better, the next week I knew I had a shot to beat Steve’s score. I felt like I was getting better with each passing game so I HAD to beat that score any day now. We happened to have some friends over Friday night to play some cards, and I started a quick game to show him some of the strategies I’ve been learning. Forty five minutes later, after everyone else went upstairs for some snacks, I finally beat Steve’s score with a score of 1,137,800. The following night I hit 1,186,200. It was a great weekend of Joust gaming.
Even though I finally hit my goal of a million points, and beat Steve’s score, I really want to continue improving my gameplay. I don’t ever plan to play a 57+ hour marathon session but I do want to get to the point where I walk away from a game without losing all of my lives. John McAllister was able to maintain 100-200 lives throughout the entire length of his marathon. Steve walked away with 27 lives after he hit the million on my machine. I need to be able to play at that level if I ever want to put a legitimate score on the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard. My new goal it to hit 10 million. After that, I want to hit a million points in Tournament settings and post a high score on the TG scoreboard. Then I can officially say I am one of the best Joust players in the world!