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The sequel to a ZX Spectrum game some 30 years in the making


I thought the nigh on 20 years I waited for Shenmue 3 was approaching some sort of record, but this - this is something else. Jetboard Joust, which just hit Steam late last week, is a sequel to the ZX Spectrum's Skateboard Joust, released way, way back in 1988. It's fair to say, though, that there weren't quite so many people waiting with bated breath for this particular follow-up.

"Yeah, it was a bit crap," admits Skateboard Joust's developer James Closs tells me some 30 plus years later. "I mean, that's part of the reason I started doing this - it was a bit of a joke, because Skateboard Joust was not very good."

Skateboard Joust was made back when James was 16. He had never played Joust, the game from which it took some inspiration, but had seen a screenshot once. He'd never ridden a skateboard but knew it was all the rage, so he fashioned a game to capitalise on the trend. Back then the term granny bait used to be bandied around - a game designed to trick people into buying their grandchildren. By James' own admission, Skateboard Joust could well have fit the term.

He started coding with the ZX Spectrum his dad bought home from work - having exhausted the games available, he started by hacking the level map in Jet Set Willy for a project that morphed into Subterranean Nightmare. Getting a publisher back then used to be a lot simpler. A lot, lot simpler - it's how a 16-year-old short on cash could decide to make a quick buck by knocking out a video game, which is what Skateboard Joust was all about.

"We'd just send stuff off to publishers, and there was such a market for it," he says. "Sometimes we would go around trade shows and things like that, that there actually, there wasn't that much of that."

So it was just a case of sending a tape off in an envelope and waiting to get a cheque back?

"Actually, joking aside, it wasn't that far away from that. You know, it was a lot simpler back then. You did send off an envelope, and then you did get a reasonably big cheque. I think I got paid two and a half thousand pounds for Skateboard Joust, which was a significant amount of money back then. It lasted me through to the end of my college journey, the money I made from that. And you know, I bought a car.

"I never recouped my advance. Funnily enough I was looking at some videos of it on YouTube the other day, and I came across a person who had done the Commodore 64 ports. It turned out they actually got paid more than I did for the original game."

The game and its various bosses are rich with references.

Skateboard Joust does have its fans, though. There are some confused YouTube playthroughs from people who hadn't picked up on the central mechanic - "a lot of people don't even realise you can jump off the board to kill things," says James. "It's not a great game anyway, but if you don't even understand it's probably gonna seem terrible" - while some can see its merits.James himself certainly still has a fondness for it.

"Despite the fact it wasn't very good, I always thought there was something in that central mechanic of the guy jumping off the skateboard and having the skateboard weaponized when he was off it. And I thought, I've never really seen that in a game. I've always thought there was something kind of cool about that. And so I thought, well, why not redo that, but actually make a good game this time, and try and rebalance some of my gaming karma."

Which is where Skateboard Joust comes in. James spent the intervening years working in graphic design, digital marketing and then mobile development, before moving back to where it all began. "When the switch came to smartphones, though, I wasn't so enamoured by the way the market works, pushing people down the route of in-app purchases and in-game ads - that's just not what games are about for me. So I made the sidestep into doing PC and hopefully console stuff, and here we are five years later. It took a bit longer than I anticipated."

Jetboard Joust picks up from its predecessor, with its core idea lifted wholesale - but everything else around it is very different. "The key inspiration is those early 80s arcade games, and it's about this feel that I got from them rather than trying to slavishly recreate them, which I don't see the point in that really. I imagine being somewhere between the age of 11 and 15 playing Defender in the local swimming baths, you know, and it was really just a full-on sensory assault."

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Jetboard Joust does the Defender thing very well (there's even the option to play with Defender's original control configuration, should you be a masochist) and folds in enough of its own ideas along the way to make it worthwhile - there are upgrades and skill trees and a whole lot of style, plus that returning joust mechanic that gives you a moment of thrilling release as you fire off your board into enemies. It's a delight to see someone go back to an idea they had over 30 years ago and strive to do it justice - and Jetboard Joust does much more than that. It's a game you can tell has been obsessed over by its creator for some time now. "Well," says James, "it's probably taken in years what the original took him months to create."

It's a very different market that Jetboard Joust is launching in, too. "Well, the massive difference generally is that now it's just so much about the marketing of it," says James "Even back when I was doing feature phone games you could put it out there and be pretty sure it'd be picked up because the bar to entry was fairly high.. Now, the bar to entry is fairly low - there's an awful lot of rubbish out there. It becomes a lot more about the marketing and being seen and how the product is perceived, rather than just making a good game and hoping the fact that it's a good game means it will sell itself."

Jetboard Joust is a good game, thankfully - it's one I've enjoyed having quick blasts on here and there, getting lost in its arcade excesses, and it's most definitely a sizeable improvement on the original Skateboard Joust. And two games in, maybe James has a series on his hands... "Yeah," he says. "I'm not sure if I want to sign myself up for that..."

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