Atari 2600 vs. NES Joust: which did it better?

The Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System were the biggest consoles of two decidedly different eras in video games. However, they share a surprising number of titles, particularly when it comes to ports of classic arcade titles of the early ‘80s. This is the second in a series that will compare games that were ported to both systems.

So how am I going to do this? First and foremost I’m throwing graphics, sound and superficial likeness to the arcade original right out of the equation — the NES will win hands-down every time. I will generally only refer to graphics or sound if they are either exceptionally good or exceptionally poor by the standards of either system. Instead, I’m judging the titles based on challenge, control and — that most vague of categories — the amount of fun I had playing them. The first in this series was BurgerTime – next up is Joust.


NES Joust

The game. Released into arcades by Williams in 1982, Joust is one of the most fiercely original games of its era. Flying on your ostrich (!), your goal is to destroy other mounted knights by getting the drop on them (to do this your own lance must be above your opponent’s) and then capturing the eggs they turn into before they hatch and become even more ferocious warriors. The primary challenge of Joust is learning how to fly your bird, an effort that can rapidly alternate between a light, nuanced touch and rapidly tapping the action button. Impatience with this technique led to my somewhat lukewarm review of Atari 2600 Joust a few months ago, but there’s no doubt that the original game is one of the most revered in the history of video games.

Atari obtained home rights to Joust and released ports for several contemporary consoles and computers in 1983 and 1984. The NES version of Joust was developed by Hal America and carries a copyright year of 1988.


Atari 2600 Joust

Challenge. The 2600 and NES versions of Joust are pretty much equal in terms of challenge except for one factor: in the 2600 version, the eggs float in mid-air until you catch them. As far as I know, this is the only version of the game that includes this. It doesn’t bother me, though, and in fact I think it adds an extra dimension of challenge to the proceedings.

Control. Control in Joust is all about how easily you can control your winged beast of burden and, for me, the advantage in this category goes to the Atari 2600 port. The bird in that version seems to be faster and less prone to collision with a platform than its NES counterpart, which means less bouncing around and less potential of inadvertently getting killed by an opponent.

The fun factor. Both the NES and Atari 2600 ports are fine versions of Joust, and there’s no doubt that the NES take is very close to the arcade original in terms of graphics. However, the Atari 2600 wins by a tip of a feather in terms of fun and overall enjoyability. The air-suspended eggs offer extra challenge and the so-called “children’s variation” included on the cart provides some much-needed opportunity for practice. Less tangibly, however, the Atari cart just seems to have more enthusiasm behind it. Joust was still a new game when Atari ported it, and its programmer obviously put a lot of effort into stretching the capabilities of the 2600 to accommodate the game. Even though the riders and birds consist of single-colour sprites, their animation is fantastic and provides some delightful eye candy.

Overall winner: Atari 2600 Joust.

Click here for my original review of Joust.

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