Jetpack Joyride soars on the wings of micropayments

, | Game reviews

Every game of Jetpack Joyride opens in a room with a gramophone playing a languid holiday ditty. A jetpack sits on a table with a sign next to it that reads “DO NOT STEAL”. Some scientists shuffle around. At the other end of the room, another sign notes your high score as a measure of your best distance.

After the jump, all this changes when you touch anywhere to start

Every game of Jetpack Joyride begins with your little dude — you’ll come to discover either that his name is Barry or someone who made this game like writing the name Barry in floating coins — blowing through a wall, violating the “DO NOT STEAL” sign, and then trying to violate the second sign by setting a higher score, which involves how far you can fly the jetpack. The languid gramophone ditty is promptly replaced by raucous action music, and you’re off. This might be one of the most perfectly named videogames ever invented.

The only controls are touching the screen to fire the jetpack and ascend. Otherwise, you constantly move to the right, controlling your altitude with the jetpack to dodge laser walls and missiles. Wipe out and your run is over. Each time you play, the obstacles, collectibles, power-ups, and so forth are randomly placed.

It’s the simplicity and charm of Tiny Wings, but with more game crammed around the edges. Slot machine tokens, coins, power-ups that put you into different vehicles, that sort of thing. The most effective gimmick is the mission system. Even though you’re essentially playing the same game every time, you always have three random missions lined up. These are things like “reach a certain distance”, “collect a certain number of coins”, or maybe “high-five a certain number of the little scientists”. Do enough missions and you level up and earn a lump sum of coins. My favorite mission so far has been to travel 300 meters while rubbing my head on the ceiling. Basically, I just kept firing the jetpack so Barry bumped against the top of the screen. But the fact that the developers expressed this as “rubbing my head on the ceiling” shows just how playful everything feels.

That playfulness and simplicity is why I would happily grind my way through this game’s economy for a top hat for Barry, or a jetpack that spits out rainbows, or a zombie mask. But Jetpack Joyride isn’t tuned for that. Jetpack Joyride really wants me to microbuy these things. It would take way too much grinding to buy many of these cute little cosmetic bits, which means they really aren’t a viable goal given the simplicity of the gameplay. Instead, they’re a part of the business model, which therefore robs Jetpack Joyride of a fair amount of its appeal. I don’t want to buy top hats, rainbow jetpacks, or zombie masks. I want to play for them.

That leaves the competitive element of working my way up the leaderboards for the greatest distance among my friends. But I’m not really keen on trying to set a record distance when anyone can pay for a head start (15 cents), a free push for bonus distance after he’s died (20 cents), and an extra life (50 cents). Again, I don’t want to buy a high score. I want to play it.

It all comes down to the fact that I would rather pay for a carefully tuned game than get a financially optimized one for free. But I guess if a developer’s going to screw up the equation, they might as well do it with a game as good as Jetpack Joyride.

4 stars