Jetpack Joyride Review—Rocket-Powered Skinner Box
When the Minis program launched, Halfbrick was one of its biggest supporters, launching several titles, the biggest of which, Age of Zombies, introduced a new action hero (or parody of one), Barry Steakfries. Soon after, though, Halfbrick had major success on iOS with the inexplicably popular Fruit Ninja, and they dropped further Mini support like an actor who hits it big in Hollywood drops his first wife.
Barry Steakfries was treated somewhat better, though, and he had future adventures, but not on the platform he started on. Until now, thanks to Beatshapers licensing this title, Jetpack Joyride, and porting it to Minis. Age of Zombies was essentially a twin-stick shooter (with only one stick), but Jetpack Joyride is more of an endless runner like Canabalt or One Epic Game. As such, they play completely differently, but both do have a certain humorous attitude about them.
While Age of Zombies has some cinematic scenes and dialogue, this time the humor comes on the playing field itself. The game starts off with Barry crashing through the wall of a laboratory, somewhat reminiscent of the crashing through the window of Canabalt. Only instead of being a simple office worker, Barry, being Barry, has a jetpack. Where did he get it from? I don’t know; it’s not explained in-game. But he can use it to rise and fall as he runs.
Because of this vertical control ability, you have to dodge things on the screen, not jump over obstacles and gaps. Usually this is an electric or laser field between two points, but occasionally it’s missiles being shot at you from off screen. In the last case, you get some warning. You control Barry’s jetpack blasts, so if you want to keep him floating in the middle of the screen, you need to sort of feather your button presses.
Along the way, besides avoiding death, you want to collect coins and pick up power-ups. Some of these give you spins on a slot machine after you die, which can either extend the game or give you extra rewards, but the most interesting ones give you a new vehicle besides the jetpack. These all control the same, with just the X button, but are generally dramatically different from a jetpack.
One, for instance, is a motorcycle, where pressing X has Barry jump in the air with it. Another, a gravity suit, has him gravitationally attracted to the ceiling instead of the floor. There’s a bunch of them, including an amusing dig at Angry Birds (which is kind of ironic, since Halfbrick is just as bad with Fruit Ninja).
Levels seem to be randomly generated. There are certain stretches that seem to be the same, but they come randomly, complete with different background graphics. Hallways are the most common, but some have windows where you can see a forest or underwater, apparently introducing more of these the more you play.
And that, more than anything, is what makes Jetpack Joyride different. You constantly gain achievements and move up levels as you achieve them. Some are simple, like collecting a certain amount of coins or simply playing the game five times. Some require some effort, like high-fiving a certain amount of lab employees or hitting flashing lights.
While I think this has an in-game effect of adding more environments and obstacles to the mix when you play, it seems to come close to Skinner Box territory. Or in other words, just having cool things happen simply because you press a button. Still, beyond that, you can use the coins you collect to buy stuff for Barry in the game. Different clothing, different jetpacks, different-looking vehicles, as well a few game-affecting things.
Graphically it’s nice-looking; some of the backgrounds are really snazzy, like the undersea parts and the forest. There are a lot of little details if you look closely. The sound is rather unremarkable, with the music sounding like something from a generic game show.
Jetpack Joyride is fun, but at the same time, I think its gameplay lacks depth. Canabalt was a very simple game, but it offered a bit of strategy, letting the player slow himself down by running into obstacles. So while you were somewhat at the mercy of a random environment, your fate was largely in your own hands. Here, you just go faster and faster until it’s hard to react in time anymore.
Similarly, you don’t have any real goals, as the achievements are more or less random and don’t require any skill, just luck or playing over and over again. Even simply trying to reach a longer distance is hurt by some power-ups giving you a head start, a second chance at life, or just moving you further along. The slot machine when you die is actually quite apt on a number of levels, as it sums up the way Jetpack Joyride was designed.
Still, despite the manipulative design (which is somewhat wasted here since there are no in-app purchases), Jetpack Joyride is an immensely polished time waster.
Update: Rather curiously, a version of Jetpack Joyride has come out for the Vita and PS3 from another publisher. Moreover, it’s free, with in-app purchases. So how do they compare?
The PS3/Vita version has higher resolution graphics, as well as more special effects, but occasional slow down (mostly on starting the level).
The PS3/Vita version has at least two additional area types, a lava tunnel and a corridor with lava showing through the window.
The PS3/Vita version has a few more items in the shop to buy. The prices seem to be the same as the Minis version, though it seems easier to earn coins in that one. It could be I’m just better at the Minis version because of the controls, the Vita version uses the back touchpad as opposed to the X button.
So it’s hard to recommend buying the Minis version anymore, with the exception that it removes the temptation to use the in-app purchasing ability to buy items for the game.