You got I Wanna Be the Guy'd, dude.
This was what a friend said as I demoed Jumpman for the Atari 400, and got brained by a falling girder within the first few seconds of starting intermediate difficulty. A pretty apt comparison, actually, even if the later fangame is much more fully realized of what TV Tropes calls Platform Hell. It's got unfairly difficult deathtraps. It's got emergent slapstick comedy. It's got constantly changing rules. It's got almost unrelenting difficulty. It's got homages to classic arcade games like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders. In one level, Jumpman even pulls a very IWBTG-like move of having Donkey Kong barrels rolling around the stage and occasionally rolling up the ladders.
Being released in 1983 well before Super Mario Bros. and its followers codified the (often unfairly) difficult 8-bit platformer, Jumpman nevertheless parodies, deconstructs, abuses, and subverts conventions of the nascent genre in astonishingly creative ways, featuring 30 levels and a new gimmick in most of them.
Although Jumpman obviously invites comparisons to Donkey Kong - the title itself a reference to Mario's initial moniker in its NA regional release - it even more strongly recalls Miner 2049er, almost to the point where I am certain this was a major influence. When I reviewed that game for the 1982 phase, I noted its greater emphasis on platforming, puzzles, gimmicks, gadgets, and its ten levels, greatly expanded from Donkey Kong's four. Jumpman has all this but even more so.
Rather than having an end goal to reach, Jumpman places bombs everywhere for you to collect before moving onto the next, often changing the landscape or triggering events as you gather them, sometimes in ways that can strand you or render the level state nonviable if collected in the wrong order. There's both a big puzzle element and a harsh trial and error one as you gradually discover and perfect the solution to each level.
Thankfully, Jumpman doesn't expect you to beat all 30 levels in a sitting. They are divided into three tiers of difficulty, each of which may be tackled and completed independently. The first eight constitute beginner, the next ten intermediate, and the final twelve advanced. For the truly masochistic, a "grand loop" mode does indeed challenge you to finish the entire game on a single set of lives.
I was able to beat beginner and intermediate modes fairly, although intermediate tested my resolve. Jumpman gives you a seemingly generous seven lives, with the potential to earn a few extras by scoring points, but they don't last long. With each new level that I reached for the first time, I effectively had up to seven chances to figure it out, minus one for each screw-up or unlucky pratfall suffered along the way in the previously conquered ones. I had to restart to the level with the falling girders dozens of times. And yet with each replay, I got better at the levels I had beaten, was able to beat once baffling stages more and more consistently, and kept getting further and further into the campaign until eventually I finished level 18.
Level 1 serves its purpose as an introductory stage with all of the basic mechanics that will be seen throughout the game.
The innocuous looking girder on the bottom floor illustrates two of Jumpman's idiosyncrasies.
The first is that platforms can be climbed. This is crucial to quite a few levels, as simply touching a girder, even in mid-air, will cause Jumpman to hoist himself up, and mastering this will allow you to reach platforms that seem out of his reach.
The second is that Jumpman has no tolerance for ledge drops at all. He can survive a reasonable fall when jumping, but the lemming march will kill at an altitude of more than a pixel. It's distressingly easy to die by accident this way, either by forgetting about this limitation, or by slipping off an edge after a narrow jump or maneuver.
This first level also introduces the recurring hazard of stray bullets, which are slow and infrequent here, but become a real nuisance later on. Among Jumpman's most unfair deaths are when bullets strike you from offscreen with barely any warning - you can hear the bang, but have no time to react or perhaps nowhere safe to move to quickly enough.
Level 2 has killer robots, who mercifully stay put until you collect a bomb. Each one collected causes them to move to a new location and stay there until the next is retrieved. Nothing terribly difficult as long as you stay out of their way - they will not pursue you deliberately. Yet.
Level 3 has randomly falling bombs (do not collect these), but more importantly, collecting the normal bombs will remove segments of the level. For the first time, completing the level can be made easier or more difficult depending on the order you collect them in, and the optimal sequence is unknowable without playing through it multiple times beforehand.
The rope here is climbed downward rather than upward, and the distinction can be told from the pixels that extend past the top of the girder it hangs from.
Level 4 is fairly easy and features a unique form of stray bullet which won't kill you instantly, but instead compels you to jump in a random direction which may or may not become a fatal leap.
Level 5 has a roost of vampire bats who will begin to awaken once you start collecting bombs, and flit around the level in your general direction. They aren't fast, but evading them forever is impossible and jumping over them is difficult. Their AI, which is slightly more intelligent than the stray bullets, can be manipulated to make your life easier.
The top bomb here opens a pit directly below it, making for a nasty deathtrap should you attempt to grab it by jumping directly up from the girder below it.
Level 6 has Space Invaders, and replaces your jump with a gun which may be fired in eight directions. You don't need to jump, thankfully, and this stage is very easy. I beat it multiple times without even realizing that you could shoot.
Level 7 is dubbed "Grand Puzzle." Here, you don't need to collect all of the bombs to finish, but will score 500 points for each of the four bombs on the top two girders. How do you reach them? It's a puzzle. And you probably won't solve it on your first attempt.
Level 8 concludes the beginner tier, and features an incomplete level which populates itself with additional girders, ladders, ropes, and bombs as you collect what's already there. Here there are both upward and downward ropes, the former of which are a frequent cause of grief throughout the game, as dodgy collision detection concerning them can make Jumpman lose his grip and fall to his death.
I didn't need to master this particular level, as when you beat it, its set of levels is complete. Hence I could power through it once with a stock of remaining lives and had little reason to replay it.
|Cleared the easiest skyscraper.|
It took me a few tries to clear Beginner, but I managed without much overall difficulty. Intermediate is another story.
As mentioned, the intermediate tier begins with malevolent scaffolding that falls on you, and you can't reasonably predict where, or react quickly enough when it does. To make matters worse, the debris on the ground from the falling girders presents a tripping hazard of a sort, as "dropping" from an elevation more than a pixel is deadly, and there are stray bullets too. With enough replays - and you'll be replaying this level a LOT if you play through the intermediate tier fairly - you'll eventually memorize the falling patterns and find a safe path through the level.
Level 10 just gets even more evil. The gimmick here is that jumping causes an explosion beneath Jumpman's feet, but that's almost inconsequential compared to the fact that collecting bombs in the wrong order can make the stage nearly unwinnable by placing new girders in your way. In this screenshot, the lower-right bomb is covered by one which wasn't there previously, which can now only be removed by tediously blasting it with your jumping explosions, a task made dangerous by the stray bullets.
Again, with replays, you'll find an optimal bomb-collecting sequence which avoids problems like that. That said, this is one of many levels from now on where Jumpman has an annoying tendency to get "stuck" on ladders, grabbing them without being right in their center and unable to climb them or do anything but jump away, possibly to his death, or get hit by a stray bullet.
Level 11 has bombs that randomly move away as you approach, and also stray bullets. There's a potential for an extremely annoying experience, but this is to be honest one of the easiest levels in this tier.
Level 12 has three robots patrolling the area who move somewhat randomly but trend toward pursuing your location. It's difficult to just jump over one, and with bad luck and/or bad planning they may box you into a nigh-inescapable situation. Unpredictable behavior may also cause you to jump right into a robot instead of over it. They can't cross gaps, fortunately. I've replayed this one quite a few times, and usually lost a life or two, but on occasion everything would go perfectly, the robots would stay out of my way, and I'd clear the level without a hitch.
Level 13 features falling hailstones which bounce left or right randomly as they land on platforms and ladders. Climbing the ladders on the sides isn't much of a problem when you realize that once a hailstone bounces to its side, it will stay in its downward trajectory until it hits the bottom, making the ladders fairly safe except near the top. Negotiating the central area is dicier - you'll just have to play with Gaussian distribution to figure out where you're most likely to be safe, and even if you play the odds right there's no guarantee of survival.
Level 14 gave me so much trouble, for so long. The joystick button now, instead of jumping, hurls javelins, which is a cool change of pace. There's only one bomb, one linear winding path downward to reach it, and dragons, which run the path in the opposite direction, must be slain with perfectly thrown javelins. Throw one too late, though, and it will sail right over the dragon's head, and now you're wyrm food because the dragons move just as fast as you and you can't possibly retreat far enough to make the requisite distance.
Even when I got the timing down, I ran into a problem on the platform second from the bottom - the dragons just respawn so quickly that there's barely enough time to reach and descend the last ladder, and when you do, no way to reach the bomb!
I noticed that after killing several dragons, the terrain started to level a bit. Was this a sign that the dragons are finite, and perhaps that once the girders are totally flat, they'll stop spawning? Nope, it wasn't. They keep coming.
I stumbled on the solution by accident. You can jump here after all. Just hold up and hit the fire button to jump straight up. With correct timing, you'll jump over a charging dragon, and can proceed onward to the bomb.
Level 15 is another "Grand Puzzle," and here, to score maximum points, you must figure out how to pilfer each of the valuable treasures without being killed by the trap walls. Once again, the solution is deduced from careful observation and trial and error The level can also be finished by ignoring the treasures and collecting bombs, but that's no fun.
Moving platforms and stray bullets await you in level 16. This one's a bit of a breather, but you can still be killed by unlucky bullets while climbing ladders. Or by forgetting that Jumpman can't fall, or realizing too late that he doesn't move with the platforms automatically.
Level 17 has three dragons that hone in on your direction right from the start. The manual claims that every stage can be beaten without dying once, but I can't see how that's possible here, even with save states. Climb up the ladder and they ascend and kill you. Don't climb up the ladder and they swoop right at you and kill you. The dragons can't descend at all, except for wrapping around from the top of the screen to the bottom. Thankfully, there are only two levels left in the intermediate tier, and I was able to eventually reach this with enough lives left to power through it and the last one.
Finally, level 18 brings on the barrels and lots of ropes. Jumpman's troubled relationship with rope collision detection is among the greatest hazard here. The barrels and bullets are unpredictable, but so is whether or not Jumpman climbs up the ropes he touches, or slips from them and dies. As with levels 8 and 17, beating this one was mainly a matter of reaching it with enough lives to spare.
As of this post, I've beaten more than half of the twelve advanced levels, but not entirely without the use of save states. My next post will cover them and summarize my thoughts on this game.