Published on Magic Disk 64 04/90
If you haven't guessed it already, I like playing old video games. I'm not a purist, however, and I enjoy the conveniences that emulators have to offer, even though the experience may not be completely authentic. If I feel a C64 game is too hard, I have no qualms about using savestates.
Enter JASG, a game that has me dying over and over, despite the fact that I savestate frequently and use a trainer that provides infinite lives. At the time of writing, I have been unable to complete it, even though I've been using cheats up the wazoo. That should tell you something about how exceptionally stupidly difficult this game is.
JASG challenges you to control a jumping ball through several mazes and collect all dots. It sounds so deceptively simple.
Fittingly, the title screen reveals that JASG stands for (It's) Just A Simple Game. I like the graphical elements on display here which feel inspired by Uridium's clean bas-relief style with stark shadows.
The row of zeros indicates today's high score, while the all-time scores are listed in the text field at the bottom. I'm inexplicably amused by the fact that the game's author kept on shortening his name, FRED DC, with each subsequent score entry until he just left it blank.
The blue arrow pointing at the traffic light is a cursor that can be switched between the menu options for starting the game, loading custom levels from disk, and saving the high scores. This is another case where a level editor was intended to be included with the game but couldn't make it onto the disk in time. JASG's editor would be released in the next Magic Disk 64 issue.
Starting the game appropriately turns the traffic light to green and then cuts to a somewhat cryptic screen dominated by a huge '1' along with a small '8' in the corner. The first number is the level I'm about to enter and the second indicates the number of lives (or rather balls) I have left.
If you're playing the game for the first time, this is most likely what will happen to you within the first few seconds: The starting point is completely surrounded by deadly ground that immediately disintegrates the ball on touch. If you want to make it over the cyan field of death with a regular jump, you have to bounce off the very edge of the starting square. This is easier said than done because the controls are, quite frankly, horrible.
Once you start moving the ball in any direction it cannot be stopped. It just goes on bouncing until you steer it in a different direction. No matter what you do, you can't hold it in place anymore. What's more, the ball's jump distance does not always align with the ground tile size, so you'll inevitably bounce between tiles and end up landing on deadly obstacles. There are a few bright spots in the control scheme: While in the air, the ball's direction can be freely changed, so it is possible to jump around a corner. Additionally, if you press the fire button, the ball stays briefly suspended in air at whatever height it currently is (though it still continues moving in the direction it has been going).
Using the fire button is essential to jumping over large obstacles, like the field around the starting area. At the same time, it makes timing jumps even harder because you can't exactly predict when the ball is going to land.
What follows is my genuine attempt at getting as far as possible in the first stage without dying:
As introductions to a game go, this is extremely harsh. There is no easing the player into the different gameplay elements. Instead, the level starts out with the ball being surrounded by death and then immediately follows up with deadly tiles and collectible dots arranged in diagonal patterns which are really hard to navigate.
In the above animation, you can also see me struggle several times to land on the tiles that contain dots. You can't just collect a dot by landing anywhere on the corresponding tile, no. You have to touch the very center of the tile, or the dot just stays there. That results in a lot of joystick-wriggling to position the ball correctly.
As far as I know, the gem in the top right corner doesn't have any additional functionality except that it needs to be collected like all other dots. Maybe it is worth more points, but since I can't see the score until I've finished the level, I don't know for sure.
Here is an overview of the entire first level (pasted together with several screenshots):
The black mines and the cyan tiles are instantly lethal, and the corrugated floor plates destroy the ball if it bounces on them for too long. In total there are 98 deadly tiles and 60 hazardous tiles which make up over 50% of the entire accessible playfield. And this is just the first level.
Did I mention there is also a very strict time limit? Because of course there is. I'm a bit at a loss how one is supposed to complete this stage without losing a ball or running out of time.
Oh look, I ran out of time. What a shame. After the loss of a ball, I get to see my current score displayed in impractically huge numbers. By the time the fifth digit scrolls by, I've already forgotten what was shown earlier. The game might as well present the score in Roman numerals if it is so bent on being inaccessible.
At least I don't have to restart the level from scratch if I lose a ball. I should have enough time now to collect the remaining dots.
Done. From here on out, I'm turning on cheats (i.e. infinite lives and time) because this isn't going to get any easier, and I'd like to keep a healthy blood pressure.
Level 2 manages the feat of introducing a new game element, a lever, while keeping its function a complete mystery. I haven't the slightest idea what it does. If you bounce on it, it switches state, but nothing seems to change in the level. The stage can be finished without having to touch the lever at all, so I'm at a loss what it is for.
In contrast to that, the other new feature in this level, the white glass pane, practically explains itself: Glass panes break when bounced upon and then act like deadly holes. I got firsthand experience with this new tile type only seconds after I started the level and promptly died.
Compared to the previous level, the number of mines has increased by more than 60%. The difficulty curve is definitely pointing upwards. There are also dollar signs in this level, but they just award points. At least, that's what I think they do. The game gives zero feedback what picking up anything does. For all I know, I might be collecting money that can be spent in a shop later on.
Level 3 once again has a lever whose functionality is unclear to me. Even worse, it doesn't switch over when I jump on it. The time limit is set to one minute, which is pretty harsh, but by collecting the watch symbol I get an additional minute. Finally, there's a pickup that has a discernible effect. Even with the extended time, I would not have been able to finish the stage legitimately because I died about ten times. I really dislike the controls, as they force me to do crazy wiggle motions with the joystick so I can land the ball on those tiny dots wedged between deadly tiles.
Whenever I encounter an extremely challenging game on the C64 that was made by one person, I always get the impression that there was nobody there to test the end product and give feedback to the developer about its mad difficulty. I know how it is to make a game and gradually build up the controls and the gameplay elements. When you are the one who is making the game and seeing it grow, you gain firsthand proficiency in playing it. If you then start designing levels solely based on your skills, it's easy to make them inaccessible for most other players. I expressed a similar sentiment when I played Decton.
Also, I think that the influence of arcade games was still felt very strongly at the time. Despite there being no coin slot on a home computer, it was sort of mindlessly accepted that good games needed to be hard right from the get-go. We can't have players breeze through the first few levels and learn the mechanics. Players need to get good at games the hard way, by dying over and over.
Let me skip to level 5 which has two levers that actually do something tangible. I know, what a concept! If I hit the cyan lever in the lower right corner and then the white one in the top left corner, a piece of the railing that surrounds the central heart gets removed, allowing me to collect it. The game doesn't bother to let you know when you've triggered something, so you have to search the map for any changes yourself.
I noticed that JASG's bonus items would not look out of place in a slot machine. The game's author certainly knew how to make pickups look attractive. Since the levels largely consist of gray platforms, these splashes of color stand out all the more.
This is level 8, the final stage of the game. It's divided into three separate areas with huge gaps between them. There are four levers on the main platform which, again, do not provide any feedback what triggering them does. I expected them to create some platforms so I could cross the gaps, but I was unable to find the right order in which they needed to be switched. Trying out all the combinations would take a long time, especially because the levers are positioned at opposite sides of the level with lots of death in between.
I was about to abandond the stage, but then I discovered that by pressing the fire button in mid-flight, I could extend the ball's jump just long enough to cross the gaps. This literally requires pixel-perfect precision. Here's a successful long jump in slow motion:
These jumps are ridiculously hard to pull off. If that's the intended way to reach the outer platforms, then JASG's difficulty ranking just jumped from ludicrous to completely insane. Again, I suspect that the levers are supposed to make some tiles appear. At the same time, this is the final level in a C64 game, and I know the temptation is high to add a crazy challenge at the end of one's own game. It's within the realm of possibility that pulling off these jumps is meant to be mandatory.
As I mentioned at the beginning, when I started writing this blog post, I hadn't yet finished the last level. Now that I have, I don't feel any better about the game. At least I can show you what the ending is like:
Keeping in line with its "zero feedback" policy, JASG ends without any kind of congratulatory message and instead just skips directly to the high score entry. A fitting conclusion if I've ever seen one.
I had a frustrating time playing JASG, and I think it mainly comes down to the way the ball controls. The game could be described as a simplified version of Rainbow Arts' Rock'n Roll combined with Gremlin's Bounder. On paper, this sounds like a fun diversion, but as soon as you get the ball rolling (or rather, jumping), you'll probably lose your enthusiasm pretty quickly. Maybe even quicker than you'll lose all your blue balls. Hold on, that came out wrong.
On the plus side, I really like the graphical style. Even though shades of gray dominate the playfields, they lend the tiles a clean, unified look. Any game elements can be quickly identified, as they stand out well from the background. I also dig the casino-style bonus items which look enticing enough to me that I want to pick them up, despite the controls doing everything to prevent me from reaching them.
If I neglected to mention the game's music it's because there isn't any. The title screen plays a weird bubbling sound, and during the game, only a few sparse sound effects are used while a wind-like noise loops in the background.
The elements for a simple, entertaining game are present in JASG, but they never get a chance to shine through. If only the controls were better and the level design wasn't so eager to kill the player at every opportunity. Oh well, I'm going to play some Rock'n Roll instead.