How Authentic is the Video Game Joust? (Video Game Week Day 1 & Mmm… Marginalia #45)


Welcome to Medievalism and Video Games week here at Got Medieval.* This week, I’ll be considering the obvious intersections between Medieval Studies and Video Game Studies, which are, more or less, my two great loves.** And why the hell not, eh? It’s my blog, after all.

To get things rolling, I’ll be pulling off the rare triple cross-over post. Not only is this a Theme Week Intro, it’s also both an Mmm… Marginalia installment and a revival of Google Penance.***

Recently, some poor sod discovered my blog while doing a Google search for the answer to this question: is atari joust real?****

For those not in the know, Joust is a video game from way back when–or 1982, to be precise. In Joust, you control a lance-wielding knight who navigates a landscape of floating volcanic platforms atop his trusty steed, a giant flying ostrich. The object of the game is to direct your ostrich–or stork, if you’re the second player–into evil enemy knights who ride dragons, thus following the old video game law: lizards are evil. When your ostrich-knight hits a dragon-knight correctly, the foul miscreant is magically transformed into an egg, which you must then collect in exchange for a bounty of points. This continues ad infinitum; the more knights you eggify, the more knights spawn to plague you, until you either die (the usual outcome) or… a pterodactyl appears. Like everything else in the game, this pterodactyl hates you and wants you to fail, naturally. If you manage to hit the pterodactyl right square in mouth, it disappears in a shower of points. But probably you’ll just collide with it and die. Either way, the game sends more dragon-knights at you until you’re out of lives. Rinse, repeat, empty your wallet.

As you may have picked up on by now, I hate the game Joust with a lavalike passion. If this game were a knight mounted on a stork, I wouldn’t mess around with waves of dragons. It’d be pterodactyl all the time. Waves of pterodactyls homing in on its sucky stork- and/or ostrich-mounted ass.

On a cash per minute spent playing basis, Joust is probably the most expensive game I’ve ever played. A quarter bought me maybe ten seconds of gametime, tops, because the difference between a lance hit that turns your foe into an egg and a lance hit that kills you is approximately two pixels. But I digress. The original Googler wanted to know if Atari Joust is real, which I’m going to choose to interpret as, “is Joust authentically medieval?”

The answer to this is most certainly yes. I submit to you two images of medieval Joust. From the margins of the Macclesfield Psalter:


And from Pierpont Morgan Library MS G24:


Obviously, there’s no ostrich, as they had not yet been invented, but I think the parallels are clear. Atari Joust is real–in that medieval illuminators, like modern video game programmers, thought that there was nothing weird at all about a man borne aloft on the back of a giant bird.***** I hope my more skeptical readers can now see why we need a whole week devoted to video games here at Got Medieval.

*What do you mean, “Weeks don’t start on Thursday?” Don’t be so square, daddio. Thursday is so obviously the new Monday. Everybody’s doing it.
**There used to be a footnote here, but it wasn’t funny enough. You’ll have to wait until my blog hits DVD for the deleted scenes.
***Google Penance: A barely-recurring feature at Got Medieval in which I atone for the fact that Google sends people to my blog who are looking for stuff that’s not on my blog by retroactively creating the requested content.
****I have no clue why Google thought that my post on Life Magazine’s College Joust photo spread was relevant. Presumably, it’s because the original version of the article featured lots of pterodactyl-based puns, and they never cleared them out of their cache. Also, incidentally, the game was not made by Atari, but its most famous incarnation is probably the Atari 2600 port.

*****Indeed, the creators of Joust likely had a copy of the beginning of Chaucer’s House of Fame posted to the bulletin board with red marker circling various passages.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • scottmarlowe

    Nicely done. I always wondered about the authenticity of that game…

  • Jennifer Lynn Jordan

    UGH. This brought back so many hideous memories. I worked in an arcade in high school and wasted SO MANY dinner breaks trying to beat this game. This, and the pinball game based on Coppola's Dracula. They were both infuriating.

  • ncm

    Funny, it turned out there was an easy cheat. Just stand on the top platform and the pterosaur impales itself on your spear every time. The only thing you have to do is keep from getting pushed off. Later they patched that.

  • Fencing Bear

    Which of the Dorothy Dunnett books is it in which Lymond engages in an ostrich race? No armor, as far as I remember, and no dragons, but definitely men mounted on birds.

  • Emrys Eustace, hygt Broom

    I think the interestingly overlooked issue here is: where in the hell are the vultures promised on the startup image?

    God, I loved this game – but since I never really lasted more than a minute or two in any video game, the play length didn't affect me much!

  • Harry Campbell

    Surely there's something of Homer Simpson about that second giant bird (MS G24).

  • Amanda

    @Fencing Bear – surely it's Niccolo, not Lymond…which book, hmm …my husband put them on a very high shelf – I'll say the second or third Niccolo.

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