One of the things that’s really great about Joust, and which probably underlies its enduring appeal for a surprising number of hard-core geeks, is its variety. As you go from the first few red-dominated waves to the mixed-red-and-grey waves and on up to the all-blue waves, the game changes quite a bit. Egg waves are a whole different thing; at first they’re opportunities for free points, but at the highest waves they actually involve dangers all their own. Pterodactyl waves are always “special” in their own way that is deliberately intended to foil common stratagems used on other waves. Most good players eventually reach a state where they lose more men on pterodactyl waves than on all other waves combined.

As a result of this variety, not every suggestion works in every circumstance, or for every player. Some of the things that every Joust “millionaire” does routinely and feels compelled to do would be absolutely suicidal even for a player at the 300K level. I’ll try to identify these sorts of limits, but I also encourage you to exercise caution on your own. You have been warned.

Before I get to the actual hints, let’s clarify some terms:

These are the four (sometimes three) points where enemies appear.
Platforms are permanent, and there are two: one at the bottom of the screen (the “floor”) and one that wraps around on both left and right about half-way up. Three of the four launchpads are on the platforms – one on the floor, and two on the upper one.
Islands are temporary; they come and go depending on the level. There are actually three, though there appear to be four: one high up in the middle (with a launchpad on it), one between that and the floor, and one that wraps around on both left and right a little above the first. I refer to these as the upper, lower, and side islands respectively.
The Step
The upper platform is divided into two parts, with the part toward the center on the right higher than the rest and separated by a small crack; I call the transition point the step. You can go through the crack if you come along the lower part of the platform on your belly – you have to fly in low from the side – but I rarely find it useful. Eggs and opponents, including pterodactyls, can also go through it, and it’s worth watching for. The most important thing about the step, though, is its value for sudden direction changes; if you run into it going right to left, you very quickly find yourself going left to right. This is extremely useful, particularly on egg waves.

And now, the basics:

  • Learn how to control your bird. Well, duh. Seriously, though, this involves a lot more than just the basics of figuring out how high a single flap moves you and how to move from side to side. Experiment with how two- and three-flap bursts differ from single flaps. A flap can move you horizontally or vertically, or both; learn when it will do which, and how much. Make sure you know the effect of hitting an obstacle; the way that you bounce is one of the least physically-realistic parts of the game, and forms the basis of several useful tricks that the computer already knows. Don’t forget that the top of a screen is an obstacle too, with its own interesting rules and uses.
  • Know your enemy. Reds, greys and blues all have characteristic patterns of movement. A friend used to believe that there were actually two kinds of blues, which needed to be handled differently; I never quite believed it, but I sort of believe there are two kinds of reds. Did you know reds are actually stronger fliers than greys? Reds and greys – particularly reds – have patterns of flying level for a while, then suddenly rising at a particular angle, based on where you are.
  • Develop “situational awareness” so you always know where everything is and can anticipate where it’s going. Learn to recognize “attack formations” such as one bird slightly above and behind another so it can cream you when you go for the leader. Pay particular attention to the edges; the “playing area” is actually very slightly larger than the visible screen, creating a hole not quite big enough for an enemy to hide but big enough to throw off your ability to anticipate.
  • Learn where your sanctuaries are, and how to get there, for when things get too hot. For example, learning to “drop in” under the lower island and handle close-in fighting there can save many otherwise-disastrous waves. The spot at the right end of the floor is great for stuff coming in from your left – even from above – when there’s no lower island, but is also dangerous when stuff’s coming in from your right (including those that slip through the little crack in the step). In general, note the general “flow” of your enemies – left to right or vice versa – in choosing non-center sanctuaries.
  • Track your eggs. A successful start to a wave can easily turn into a disaster if you let the last couple of guys keep you distracted until the eggs from previous victories hatch into more difficult opponents. Get used to timing the eggs yourself, and use “idle time” – e.g. when opponents are stubbornly refusing to come to your level – to clean up.

If you just practice these basics, you’ll have no trouble with the early waves – up to fifteen certainly, and decreasingly for the next fifteen. While no special tricks are necessary, you should find yourself frequently planning and executing certain maneuvers. Luring an opponent under the top island before turning around to nail them as they come up the far side is a good one; getting a double kill by bouncing off an opponent coming toward you into one following you is another. As you become more comfortable, you should start taking the best opportunities to kill pterodactyls too…but don’t push it. While killing pterodactyls is both useful and fun, I find that even at the highest levels it never really becomes a central part of my strategy.

The one “trick” that’s essential has to do with egg waves. Here’s the drill:

  1. Start at the left end of the side island (which is always present for egg waves).
  2. Run right-to-left all the way along the side island. By this time you’ll be going at full speed, and your momentum will allow you to sweep the upper island right to left as well without extra effort (though one flap while crossing the gap doesn’t hurt).
  3. Let your bird keep running off the precipice, down to the middle platform. You will land in front of the step, hit it, and reverse direction. Keep in mind that the birds always come last to the part above the step, and don’t worry.
  4. Keep running across the lower island. It’s a matter of taste whether you slow slightly to sweep the whole thing or not, so long as you’re at full speed when you reach the right side.
  5. As you come off the lower island, going left to right, do three quick but deliberate flaps. This will be just enough to avoid the lava troll without missing an egg on the very left edge of the floor. If there is no egg at the very edge, flap four times.
  6. Sweep the floor from left to right, then ascend to the level of the lower island.
  7. If you didn’t slow down to sweep the lower island before, take care of the left end now and slow your momentum just a tiny bit so you can execute the last step.
  8. As you cross the center of the lower island, flap so you can hop onto the part of the upper platform above the step and pick up the last eggs.

I captured a short video (400K) demonstrating the basic technique. Yeah, AVI sucks, but that’s what the program I used produces and I’m too lazy to convert it.

This approach works marvelously all the way up to at least wave 40, even on higher difficulty settings (the difficulty setting affects egg-hatch time). After that you’ll start to run out of time, and you’ll have to make smart decisions about when to abandon the egg-hunt and take care of a mounted opponent. By the time you’re able to reach those levels, you won’t have a problem with this.

When the blues start to predominate, you need to know a few things about them:

  • Blues have a distinctive “looping” pattern of flight, requiring a special kind of awareness of the points where they’ll be high and low. You have to nail this exactly; unlike reds and greys, where missing by a little just results in a “draw” and you get to try again, missing a blue by a little bit is one of the best ways in the game to get killed. You’re better off being a long way away than being just a little off center.
  • The blues’ flight patterns near the top create certain “hot spots” immediately above the launchpads and – to a lesser extent – precisely in between them. Despite all the variations in movement that exist, if you’re in one of these hot spots you’ll win far more battles than you lose. Think of them as attractors in chaos theory.
  • Blues are amazingly vulnerable when they’re running along the ground. The two- or three-flap “hop” to take them out as they run toward you is any good player’s most frequently executed maneuver and often the foundation of their high scores.
  • Blues are also pretty stupid about the edges of islands and platforms…usually. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, so watch out. The trick of hanging just next to the edge of a platform or island, without any gap, waiting for a lower blue to come right along the bottom of the obstacle and up into your bird’s butt, is totally standard. This makes the sanctuary at the right end of the floor especially important. A well-timed pop up next to the near edge of the upper platform often provides happy hunting, and if you miss you can often get a second chance just above that – off the right edge of the top island when it’s present
  • The single piece of knowledge that most clearly distinguishes a novice from a master in Joust is awareness of how blues respond to your altitude when they first appear (waves 16 and above, not from eggs). Here’s the key: if you’re below them when they appear, they won’t fly off their platforms. They’ll take the maximum time to appear, and then they’ll walk toward you. When they reach the edge of the platform/island above you, they will drop down in a very characteristic fashion that makes it easy to pick them – and their eggs – off if you know what you’re doing.

These facts about blues, and the distributions of greys and blues in the various waves, suggest certain strategies. At this point you’ll see good players developing certain styles; here are some suggestions based on my own:

  • In waves from 16-20, I usually don’t bother doing anything special. An intermediate player might consider picking off the first grey guy at the top level, then dropping down to pick greys off from the “caravan” that forms at the middle level. Staying low like this has the advantage of keeping the blue – which will normally appear on the top platform – “frozen” at first. This is a good way to practice a common maneuver – a timed swoop upward on a trajectory that causes them to “lift off” right into you.
    BTW, wave 18 is still often my worst of the game. I hate mixed blues and greys more than I hate all blues because they require two different and often conflicting approaches.
  • For 21-29 I stay on the floor launchpad, under the bottom island at first, but then “naked” afterward. It is safe, though it can be tricky and more than a little nerve-wracking. Knowing greys’ habits, especially when they collide with each other, is a must for this. Just let everyone come to you. Don’t stray too far from that bottom launchpad; you don’t want anyone appearing there.
  • You’ll eventually start having trouble with pterodactyls appearing before you’re done; when depends on the difficulty setting. At this point you need to start practicing the “hover” maneuver when there’s no lower island. At levels 37 onward, there will be no greys coming across and all the blues will be frozen when they appear. Pop directly up from the floor launchpad, being careful to stay below the level of the others. At a certain height, an opponent will appear beneath you and fly almost straight up; look to see which way they’re facing and make small adjustments quickly toward that side to account for the “almost” part. If you miss, just drop down and deal with the “freed” blue however you want; just don’t move far from that bottom launchpad.
    Just get one “extra” opponent this way at first, then two, until you get the hang of it. Before long you’ll be picking off all that’ll come, dropping down only when one of the guys from the other launchpads walks off a cliff.
  • When there is a lower island and there are still greys, you just kind of have to suck it up, do your fighting on the floor as best you can until the pterodactyls show up, and hope for the best avoiding them as you pick up stragglers.
  • When there are no more greys (57 onward) you can do some more sophisticated hovering. When there is no lower island, continue as before; it’s still the best. When there is a lower island, set up your hover above the rightmost launchpad. If you do it right, this can produce some of the most spectacular killing sprees of the game as you’re nailing guys from left, right and below all at once. Ending a high-number wave in ten seconds is a great way to impress onlookers.
    One side benefit of this approach is that you actually seem to get fewer pterodactyls on some ptero waves if you stay high than if you stay low. Maybe it’s a bug. Several times, though, I’ve noticed that I only had one ptero to contend with when I expected three, and it doesn’t seem likely that I killed two without even noticing.

That’s it. If you master all of the techniques here, you’ll be getting million-plus scores consistently. If you can think of anything else, please let me know and I’ll include it. Happy jousting!