I’ve always likened couch multiplayer gameplay to a Rosetta Stone of sorts—no matter what language people may speak, however way they communicate, or their experience with video games, there’s something universal about playing a relatively simple game together that is uniting. In an age dominated by blockbuster online games, the independent studios of the games industry have been the ones providing those wonderful couch multiplayer experiences, for the most part. Joggernauts from Space Mace is a worthy entry in that pantheon.
The developer’s elevator pitch for their co-operative autorunner platformer Joggernauts is “Overcooked co-op meets Bit.Trip Runner,” and it’s an apt description. My sense while playing the game, however, was that it inspired feelings of Cuphead—if that game had multiple people controlling the same, singular character. It’s heavy on trial-and-error and is bound to frustrate anyone who attempts playing it.
Rather than turning people off from Joggernauts, I was surprised to see firsthand how the difficult character-switching gameplay and hazardous level design created a strong determination by players to do as best as they could and defeat the game, no matter how many attempts it took.
Joggernauts will have two to four characters automatically running from left to right, the two control inputs being jumping and “switching.” The latter mechanic controls who is leading the pair/group, and with each character being a different color, the leader will determine what obstacles they can get past—think Ikaruga. In multiplayer sessions, whoever hits the switch button will transport to the front of the line, which players will frequently do to navigate through these treacherous levels. In single-player, one person controls two characters, the switch button switching the two and with two separate jump buttons for each character.
The actual gameplay is easy to pick up, but where players will have to wrap their heads around are the several hazards that will challenge their coordination and communication. Tall creatures (monsters? aliens?) of certain colors will block your way, and the only way to get through them is to have the character of the same color lead the group. Likewise, the second world will introduce colored platforms that only players of that color can activate. Similarly, the third world brings in colored switches that, you guessed it, can only be activated by the character with the corresponding color.
The game starts you off with three worlds, with a map that is reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3—heck, even the goal point at the end of every level looks like the one in Mario 3. The story premise has Team Joggernaut, presumably some sort of intergalactic athletic team, recovering lost trophies from their victories on behalf of their robotic C.O.A.C.H., two trophies being collectibles in each level. These are generally found in difficult to reach places or can be obtained by grabbing a series of keys (think Mario red coins) that again, can only be grabbed by characters of a certain color. Similarly, there are various pick-ups of each color that can be used as currency to use checkpoints. Finally, players can grab power-ups, like a shield that protects the group from hits, either from being the wrong color and hitting an obstacle or running into a wall—be wary, as the group shares the same hit points.
I don’t know the number of ways I can describe just how difficult Joggernauts is. Even though the characters are autonomously running, there is still much to keep track of. You as an individual or a group have to make several on-the-fly decisions as you see the obstacles ahead, and it’s hard to be wary of every member of the group. If you’re not in the front, your attention may still be fixated on the leader of the pack, and you’ll end up forgetting to jump over something simple like a small gap or a step. You’ll forget who you’re playing as, do one action when your mind wanted you to do the other, and probably switch as the leader in a panic without warning and cost your team some hearts.
I don’t mean to discuss the difficulty of the game as a criticism, because I believe I deserved every lost heart that occurred during my time with the game. I never thought Joggernauts to be unfair, and though I failed over and over again, my frustration didn’t cause me to give up but instead motivated me to finally get it right the following run. In a group, the trial and error aspect caused us to cycle through different strategies, our main one being the simple plan to simultaneously yell the color name to go in front, or perhaps of the name of the person instead. It’s games like Joggernauts and Overcooked where there’s a flat hierarchy amongst the players, with everyone barking orders at each other at some point.
Even after getting through an intensely difficult level, my group would want to retry the level again, knowing they could do better. The trophy collectibles certainly are a major incentive, but it’s surprising how completing a level doesn’t just result in relief to the point where we’d never revisit that level out of frustration, but rather newfound confidence that we could take it on again. It takes a game with excellent and precise game design to inspire those kinds of sentiments. The game was slightly less tolerable, however, in single-player, with the added difficulty of having to manage two characters at once instead of just one of your own.
I generally enjoyed the art style and overall look of Joggernauts, and for a game that depends so much on color, it utilized it quite well. Everything looks round and soft, with simple geometry that fits the diverse locations into a unified aesthetic. The first world looks and feels like a dangerous creature-infested jungle, the second world a deeper forest, and the third world being more space-bound and industrial. The character designs have a bit of grotesqueness conceptually, while still fitting in with the bright, colorful, round look of the rest of the game. I especially like the graphical effect of switching, being this sort of teleportation that has a liquid residue of the character’s shape.
Every time the characters switch, they shout out their own color in a high-pitched distorted manner. It sounds like alien gibberish at first, and it becomes all the more amusing once you realize what they’re actually saying. The sound design works overall to match the rest of the game, but I struggle to list out other particular cases and moments where it really stuck out to me. The same can be said about the musical score—I remember it being fun, energetic, and occasionally atmospheric and “spacey,” but I don’t recall any specific tracks off the top of my head. It could go to show how well all of the artistic elements in the game worked together in a unified manner, but I always appreciate a game just a tad bit more when it has a particularly exceptional soundtrack.
I think where Joggernauts falters in is building its own world for players to remember and feel invested in. The story set-up is funny enough, with the players being forced to retrieve their coach’s trophies—their ship is damaged and needs parts for the team to escape and survive, but the trophies are clearly the coach’s motivation. However, this is literally the only joke in the entire game. The elements of Joggernauts really sets up some interesting possibilities for humor, and to characterize these odd-looking characters that you play as. Plus, I wanted to see what these actual competitions that this team of Joggernauts was actually involved and successful in, but the opening failed to really show off any of that. Unfortunately, I saw no such effort to make the world of the game memorable.
Ultimately, this is a game that while it has nice visuals and sound design, is entirely defined by its gameplay. And that certainly isn’t a bad thing—the gameplay is quite good. It challenged myself and my friends to find new ways to communicate, and to constantly readjust our strategies—many times, you’ll find yourself in situations where you actually don’t want the red character in front when approaching the red switch, as that switch will turn off the platform that you want to go across. In times like that, you’ll have to coordinate switching so that the red person never even touches that lever—it’s hard to do individually and ridiculously hard when multiple people have to not only put their brains together to coordinate but get the timing down just perfectly.
Of course, this game is best with, well, a group of friends. Otherwise, while you still may have that same motivation playing the game as an individual, it doesn’t feel nearly as rewarding as a team victory. I’m lucky to be a part of groups of people that gather on weekends to play games such as this, and Joggernauts is certainly one that I intend to add to our regular rotation. I think that attempting to play through the whole game as one unit may be too much to ask due to the game’s difficulty, but it may be fun in short bursts and a few levels at a time. I won’t be too hyperbolic and say something outlandish like “local multiplayer is dying,” but for anyone who may think that, it’s wonderful that we have games like Joggernauts to keep that spirit alive.