Review: Jetpack Joyride

For the last couple of months I have been obsessed with Jetpack Joyride. During the heat of the darkest times I frequently had to apologise to my friends for pretending to write a text on my phone, when actually I was trying to beat my latest high score. When my shit phone (which is a piece of shit) was being a complete shit and deleted some of my apps, Jetpack Joyride included, I suffered serious withdrawal symptoms which rendered me temporarily intolerable to those around me. These symptoms included – but were not limited to – constant distraction, irritability, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and convulsive refuckulation of my body’s neural haemogloobles.

For the uninitiated, Jetpack Joyride is exactly that kind of game that gets people like me addicted. It’s a seemingly simple Endless Runner (I prefer this term for the genre as it avoids any of the C-words: Canabalt, Clone, or Cunt) which exists solely on mobile platforms and boasts quick game turnaround, RPG-lite persistent character enhancements and a whole load of polish and class.

It’s produced by Halfbrick Studios who are definitely a developer to watch, particularly if, like me, you’re a PopCap fan who thinks they might be losing their touch. Halfbrick might be your next favourite studio; they are the people responsible for another classic and addictive mobile game (Fruit Ninja) as well as the utterly brilliant XBLA racing-puzzle-platformer-deathmatch-comedy-adventure Raskulls.

Jetpack is more ambitious than Fruit Ninja, and has the character if not the humour of Raskulls, whilst also maintaining what is now emerging as Halfbrick Studios’ trademark design elegance. As is often the case in games you play a dude, who may or may not be called Barry, who steals a jetpack and then flies it down an infinitely long corridor. Along the way PossiblyBarry encounters lethal obstacles such as spinning laser things, zappy things and homing missiles, all of which become increasingly hard to avoid as he builds up speed.

Not everything he encounters is dangerous. There are also scientists who exist purely to die in jovial slapstick ways, coins to pick up to enhance the titular jetpack in subsequent runs, tokens which the player can either cash in or gamble for better power-ups, and a smartly designed selection of vehicles to commandeer, which all provide the equivalent of a second life as well as mixing up the gameplay experience by having different control schemes and movement mechanics.

Whilst all this is happening the player is also given three missions per level, picked from an apparently random pool of possible options – essentially mini-achievements, but with cash rewards if the player succeeds, such as ‘High-five 25 scientists’, ‘Collect 750 coins’, ‘Travel 1,000 metres without a vehicle’, and so on. Any missions not completed are carried on into the next run, but complete one and it is replaced with a new one from the pool. Over time the obsessive player will eventually learn to prioritise missions in certain orders to maximise money earned, as well as swapping out gadget loadouts to support their current objectives.

Accrue enough cash-money and you can upgrade your vehicles as well as buy utilities (single use power-ups) or gadgets (equipped abilities from a long, varied and imaginative list). It’s all extremely hard to put down. Everything is about coaxing you into one more run. After each attempt you can spend your tokens on the slot machine or exchange them for cash, and this will often result in gaining added abilities next time you play, or giving you enough money to buy another gadget – this next gadget being the one that you firmly believe will completely transform your game, of course.

I should point out, before you rush to your nearest iPhone, Android palmslab, Book of Faeces or Windows Phone GUI Metro Interface Device 8 RC to buy Jetpack Joyide on the basis of my so-far shining comments, there are two more things you should know. Firstly it’s free, so you can just have it anyway. And secondly, I’ve not really played many Endless Runner games, so my opinions on it may be all wrong. For all I know, there are better examples of the genre out there; I just haven’t played them. Maybe Jetpack Joyride is fairly generic. I would say that I have tried a fair few other Endless Runners and never felt the urge to return to them again and again as I have with this game.

Whilst playing I have often been impressed with the amount of depth that can be wrought out of a single button press, but one niggling thought has unseated my confidence in my own opinion on the matter. That thought is the chicken-or-egg dilemma of whether we enjoy games for their depth, or find depth in the games we enjoy. Surely any game with reaction-based mechanics will inevitably involve nuances that unveil themselves to the player over time? Perhaps Jetpack Joyride suckered me in with its gloss and carrots on sticks and the depths present in all games of its type became evident to me only because I was tempted back to its delights over a long time period. There’s also the possibility that because I am all-but-new to the genre when it comes to burrowing any deeper than a ten minute play, I have been fooled into thinking that the standard elements of the genre are unique to this game – after all if they do exist elsewhere, I would scarcely have had the chance to find them.

As mentioned earlier the game is free to download, although it is supported by microtransactions. These microtransactions are my final gripe with the game though I don’t believe the player is being ripped off by them – more that they upset the game balance. For 99% of my time playing Jetpack Joyride, I ignored them. All they offer is the ability to buy in-game currency with actual currency, but half the fun is in the accruing of in-game currency, so I didn’t need to purchase any more.

Upon eventually checking the store I was quite disappointed to discover that for a mere 69p the player can buy 50,000 coins. This is simply a case of the in-game economy being broken by the Freemium model, as players who make that purchase are completely devaluing all the money they earn normally. It would take a week or two of sneaking a game at every opportunity whilst also holding down a nine-to-five job and a social life to accrue that much money.

I made the purchase. Partly I did so for the benefit of this review, so I could report on the gameplay effect of it rather than baselessly postulating that it would be damaging. I also wanted all the best stuff and 69p seemed an irrelevant sum. Finally, I was also conscious of having got a lot of joy from the game and it seemed only fair that I pay something towards it.

The experience of buying all the money ever for no money at all brought to mind the many childhood games I ruined by using cheat codes. I would always imagine that I’d use the code to become invincible and get all the guns for ten minutes, have some fun, then go back to the way it was before. But there’s no going back. After you’ve used that code all the fun of finding the next thing is gone. The levels that were once exciting are reduced to dull software when you can clip through the walls. All the anticipation is dead. I can’t count how many games I loved which got put back on the shelf and never played again, all because I relented and put in the cheat code, had my burst of final fun and then lost all enthusiasm.

As you may have guessed by all of my past tense references to the Jetpack Joyride era of my life, this has happened again. 50,000 coins buys you the farm and there aren’t any real carrots on sticks anyway once you own all the gadgets and upgrades you want. I’m a god now, but there’s nothing left to conquer.

There is always the argument that it’s my fault I bought the coin pack, just as it was my fault I used those cheat codes back in the day. But some responsibility should be placed on the developers too, for putting the opportunity in there and making it so easy for me to take. It brings to mind a personal favourite Seinfeld quote: whilst driving his mother to hospital after she injures herself in the shock of catching him masturbating, George’s mother asks “Why George?! WHY?!” To which he responds, “Because it was there.”

Microtransaction enthusiasts may say that the game actually offered me a way to play it any way I wanted. I could have plugged away for another week or two to get that money if I’d wanted. If I didn’t have the time to do that, then the purchase option exists as a way of upgrading the game from a sort of proto-demo (slow money accrual) to the full game (you already have all the money) – but this way of thinking means that the ‘full game’ cuts out the fun of building up the bank account.

I don’t really buy any of it (except the 69p of it which I did buy). Personally I could have lived with adverts if there had been no microtransactions and the money found in-level had been bumped in value.

There’s no denying that the freemium model worked its capitalist magic on me, though. I would never have bought the game outright for any amount of money, even 69p. Even if there had been a traditional demo, with the full game at that price, that demo would by design have had to be limited, and it never would have got its hooks in me from that reduced scope. Microtransactions were the only way that Halfbrick Studios ever could have monetised my custom, and that’s precisely why this trend will inevitably continue and evolve. That feeding the bottom line of a developer whose work I value and admire ultimately crippled my enjoyment still leaves me feeling somewhat bitter about the whole thing, even when presented with first-hand experience of its value as a money-making tool.

I think it’s a real shame that the game ended for me with a bit of a whimper, but I did really enjoy most of the time I spent on it. I never did reach 4,000 metres. So damn close though. I probably won’t now. I might play it a couple more times – a slow ramp down seems healthier than cold turkey – but I can tell that the excessive coin purchase has done me in. Oh well.

I could have one more game, I suppose.