Joust is an arcade game developed by Williams Electronics and released in 1982. It is a platform game that features two-dimensional (2D) graphics. The player uses a button and joystick to control a knight riding a flying ostrich. The object is to progress through levels by defeating groups of enemy knights riding buzzards.
John Newcomer led the development team, which included Bill Pfutzenreuter, Jan Hendricks, Python Anghelo, Tim Murphy, and John Kotlarik. Newcomer aimed to create a flying game with co-operative two-player gameplay, but wanted to avoid a space theme, which was popular at the time. Staff worked within the technical limitations of the hardware (originally developed two years earlier for Williams’ first game, Defender), excluding concepts and optimizing the visuals.
Following the success of the 1980 title Defender, Williams searched for new creative staff. Believing video games to be the future of entertainment, Newcomer left his job as a toy designer to work at the company who hired him to create game ideas as support for development staff. After a few days, he generated a list of ideas that included game ideas for The War of the Worlds and Joust, Newcomer’s top two choices. Technical specifications dictated the selection; Newcomer’s vision of The War of the Worlds was infeasible, but Joust could be accomplished with Williams’ available hardware. A development team was formed, which decided to create the game using Defender‘s hardware.
The decision to use birds prompted Newcomer to deviate from the then standard eight-direction joystick. He implemented a “flapping” mechanism to allow players to control the character’s ascent and descent. With the vertical direction controlled via the arcade cabinet’s button, a two-way joystick was added to dictate horizontal direction. Though other Williams employees were concerned over the design, Newcomer believed that a direct control scheme for flight would strengthen the connection between the player and the character. The combat is devised to allow for higher levels of strategy than traditional shooting games. Because flying became an integral gameplay element, he chose to have characters collide as a means of combat. Newcomer felt that the characters’ heights on the screen were the best way to determine a victor.
Given the different control scheme, Williams was concerned that the game would be unsuccessful. Though arcades were hesitant to purchase the game for the same reason, Joust sold well. Williams eventually shipped 26,000 units, and Electronic Games in 1983 described it as “tremendously popular”. A cocktail table version was later released, engineered by Leo Ludzia. It differs from other cocktail games in that it features side-by-side seating rather than opposing sides. This setup allowed Williams to use the same ROM chip as in the upright cabinets. The cabinets have since become collector’s items. Though the upright cabinets are common, the cocktail version is a rare, sought after game. Between 250-500 units were manufactured.