Deconstructing A Classic: Jumpman, Part 2

This article is part of the Jumpman Forever Kickstarter campaign – instead of just telling you we’re going to make a game, and showing you a little in-game footage, I though it would be a great idea to break down what made Jumpman great, and how we’re dealing with it in a modern sequel.

In the previous article, we explored the lineage and DNA of one of the oldest video game franchises, Pac-Man, and I pointed out how annoyed I am with sequels, offshoots, reboots that have very little to do with the original game DNA.  If you haven’t read that one, you might want cruse over and read it first, then come back to this one.

As part of every part of the series, there’s also a “practical application” of what was learned here – since I’m doing a sequel to Jumpman and Jumpman, Jr., I’ll be talking about what we’re doing to make sure that game DNA moves forward within the series, even as we add new levels and features within the game.

Now, let’s throw out a quick description of Jumpman, for those who haven’t ever seen it or played it before.  At first glance, Jumpman was a 1980’s era 2D platform game.  Most of the platform games from the early to mid-80’s era were 2D, non-side strollers.  That’s right, all the action happened in one screen per level.  On top of that, most of them only had a few levels, and would loop back to the beginning and crank up the difficulty.

Not Jumpman.  The first Jumpman game had 30 levels, broken down into different difficulties.  If you completed all the levels for a given difficulty (beginner, for instance, had eight levels), something weird happened:  you won. Each difficult had an end, and it didn’t loop back around to the beginning again.  Kinda cool.

Jumpman, Jr, added another 12 levels to the mix.  Randy Glover has pointed out a couple of times that Jumpman, Junior wasn’t an actual sequel: instead, it was more of a “lite” version that fit the needs of the low-storage requirements of the devices and cartridges of the day (for those who never experienced playing Jumpman on a Commodore 64 with a tape drive, you’ll miss why it was important.  Loading Jumpman took forever, and between each level you had to press play and load the next level.  You had plenty of time to go do something else.)

Each Jumpman level had a specific challenge that had to be overcome.  Your overall goal was to defuse the bombs.  On a good number of levels, you had Alienator bullets to smart darts to avoid (both are the same thing – it just depends on who’s marketing copy you read.  Back in 2000 when Randy and I were talking about Jumpman and my prop opposed sequel, he revealed that a lot of the backstory was actually from Epxy marketing.).

From a design point, the Alienator bullets are a way of preventing the player from being able to stand still and think the puzzle portion of the level through.  The game doesn’t really slow down, mainly because of those bullets.

The bullets are randomly generated somewhere around the edge of the screen, and slowly work their way across the screen.  When the bullets line up with you in a compass, they suddenly change direction and accelerate in your direction. They won’t further follow you – they just shoot out in your direction once, until the you pass the edge of the screen, and soon another one will be randomly generated.

This also helps to add an overall sense of continuity to the levels – you pretty much expect them to be on every level.  Though, there’s a few where they aren’t.  And, later, just to keep you on your toes, you end up with multiple Alienator bullets – four or five on screen means it’s no longer just a matter of keeping the gameplay flowing, they become a serious threat!

I’m not going to go through each and every Jumpman and Jumpman, Junior level – with 42 levels in total, it would take too long to hit each and every one.  Instead, I’m going to hit a couple here and there from both Jumpman and Jumpman, Jr.  For Jumpman, there were three sets of levels – Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced.  Additionally, you could select Grand Loop, which took you through all the levels back to back (a REAL GAMER would select Grand Loop, game speed 2 😉 ), or Randomizer which loaded them at random (which was a special form of hell for anyone playing on a tape drive!)  Jumpman, Jr only had one level set.  And, for every level, you have an additional option – how fast the game runs.  1 is so fast it’s pretty much expert, 12 year old eye-hand coordination levels only (though, at 42, I can still play MOST levels on 1, but not all.)  In Jumpman, run speed 7 is glacially slow.  4 is the default, but I recommend playing on 3 or 2.

BTW: if you want to get a quick overview of all the levels, Giant Bomb has a complete list of both Jumpman and Jumpman, Jr levels.

Beginner:  Easy Does It

Level 1: Easy Does It
Level 1: Easy Does It

Here, we’ve only got one Alienator bullet to deal with.  Not too bad.  The level is pretty straightforward, but, quickly it starts setting the tone for the game.  First off, hitting a bomb may have unexpected results.  In this case, hitting a specific bomb will remove a piece of a ladder.  It’s not enough to trap you from your destination, but, it does change the flow of gameplay.

You’ll also notice that there’s jumps of varying widths – Jumpman can make the span of every jump on this level, but that’s not going to be the case for later levels.

One of the level elements is a “up rope”.  With ladders, you can go up or down with them, and you control your movement in the process.  With ropes, they come in two flavors – up, or down.  If you jump on the up rope, Jumpman begins climbing up them.  The only real control you have is that you can jump off them – you can’t speed up or slow down.

And, you’ll discover your first Jumpman frustration:  the trip and fall.  In the center of the bottom most girder is a platform.  If you step off the platform, Jumpman… well, he’s not graceful.  He trips, falls flat on his face, and you die.

Beginner:  Robots

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Level 2: Robots (at the beginning)
On this level we won’t find any Alienator bullets.  Good thing, too – we’ve got a new element to deal with.

The robots are a re-occuring theme in the game – a few levels (like the Grand Puzzle) levels occur in each of the difficulty sets of Jumpman, each with a new variation.  Robots is one of the more interesting (to me) variations, because they slowly become more intelligent.  Additionally, the make really cool noises in Robots II and III 🙂

The robots are static, until you touch a bomb.  Once you do that, they go into action.  They run on a pre-determined route, and each bomb triggers them to move to the next section of their route.  So, part of the trick for the player is finding out what the route it.

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Level 2: Robots (almost done – notice the change in robot location)
The robots are just tall and wide enough that you can’t jump over one while it’s in standing still – but, if it’s in motion, headed your way, you can clear them if you’re careful.

Another new element begins to show up at this point, too: efficiency of motion.  You’ll notice a Bonus counter in the lower right corner.  The faster you complete a level, the larger your bonus in Jumpman.  In Jumpman, Jr, it becomes a bonus for every life you have left – which removes a little bit of incentive for running at faster speeds.

The efficiency comes in play once you discover Jumpman’s ability to catch a girder in mid-jump and climb up.  The two bombs at the top are more easily reached if you just take the flying jump from the angled girder and catch the top-most girder, climb up, grab the bomb, run across, and jump off and land – you’ll land just inside Jumpman’s fall tolerances.

Beginner: Jumping Blocks

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Level 3: Jumping Blocks
OK, this one is weird.  You’ve got a glowing, oversized version of the Alienator bullets.  You’re first instinct is to avoid them like the plague – they act exactly like the bullets, accelerating at you once they line-up with you.

But, the first time you make a mistake (because there’s always a good number of them on screen), you discover their ability isn’t going to directly kill you.  Instead, they cause your jump boots to malfunction, and you get sent jumping in a random direction.  Not bad, at first, until you’re trying to pick off the bombs at the edge of the screen, or climbing the rope.

Intermediate:  Look Out Below

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Intermediate Level 1: Look Out Below, about midway through the level.
This time, the Alienator bullets have returned to keep things moving along.  See, if you have an infinite amount of time to very carefully step and be ready to react, this wouldn’t be too hard.  Throwing the bullet in there means sometimes you’ve got to just move and react to what happens – and this one has some surprises!

Now, every time you touch a bomb a part of the level falls.  It’s pre-scripted which parts fall, so once you know the pattern, it’s a bit easier.

But, two things happen.  First, the entire level starts turning into a trip hazard.  You can see how there’s blocks sticking up – they fell from the level above, and get stuck on the level below.  Second, it’s not consistent how far up they stick, or, sometimes as they fall they accidentally leave behind dirty clone versions of themselves.

Intermediate:  Hot Foot

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Intermediate level 2: Hot Foot, part of the way through the level.
This time the new game mechanic is a reaction to your motions.  Every time you jump, the floor space where you boots were explode!  It doesn’t do any damage to the player, fortunately.  But, it does leave holes in the girders for you to trip on if you aren’t careful.  And, we’ve got an Alienator bullet (or two) running around to keep us jumping.

This level holds an important thing to know:  order of operations in Jumpman can render a level unfinishable.  In this case, the four bombs at the bottom of the level are the problem.  Touching the one second to the left will encase the one that’s all the way to the left in a piece of girder that can’t be removed.  At first it might seem that you can blow them apart by jumping up and down on them.  And you can… sometimes.  Some other times, well, it’s just stuck.

There’s a number of levels that have small design flaws like this – fortunately, it’s not frequent.

Intermediate:  Runaway

Yep, time for something new.  Moving bombs.  Oh, bloody heck.

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Intermediate Level 3: Runaway
On this one, the bombs semi-randomly decide to pack up and move. In the picture, you can see the things that look like X’s, but are the color of the bombs?  Those are bombs that are on the move.  Fortunately, you can catch them in mid air while they’re on the move.  Unfortunately, they also move at the same speed as you, so, you have to figure out their paths and catch them head on.

And, of course, we’ve got a couple of Alienator bullets trying to chase Jumpman down.  And, as you can see in the screenshot, sometimes they succeed – Jumpman is falling to his death in this screenshot. 🙂

Advanced:  Ladder Challenge

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Advance Level 1: Ladder Challenge, about half way done
This is a level where you can tell the game pushes the hardware (at the time) just a little hard in some places.  In the center is a moving ladder.  Which, well, doesn’t look too impressive when you start the level – it moves around on a pre-set path, and if you run into it, nothing much happens.

It’s collecting the bombs that reveal it’s true purpose.  As you collect them, you’ll see parts of the level disappear, and you’ll see new bombs appear, floating in a spot that Jumpman can’t quite jump high enough to get.  Instead, you’ve got to learn to ride the ladder, working your way up and down as it goes along it’s route (and, of course, avoid an Alienator bullet.)

Advanced:  Figurit

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Advanced Level 2: Figurit, at the beginning
Figurit would hold the vote for “level most likely to make you throw your controller across the room, and the go get another one because you MUST beat it.”  This level takes the ability to re-configure the levels based on grabbing a bomb to new extremes.

Also, while they appear in other levels before this, this is the first screenshot with a “down rope”.  Down ropes have a problem – just like Jumpman can trip and fall from a small ledge, going off the bottom of a down rope often ends up dropping Jumpman a little too far (I’ll get into WHY that happens in the next article on controls and Jumpman’s reactions – Randy was the one that explained the secret to me.)  The best course if a down rope doesn’t terminate exactly onto a girder is to jump off.

Screen capture 38 [1]
Advanced Level 2: Figurit, and there’s no way left to figurit out.
This is also a level that has an order of operations problem – pick up the bombs in the wrong order, and you’re screwed.  It’s also got a level design issue: it’s almost too random what’s going to happen when you grab bombs.  It wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so many.  BUT – the name “Figurit” sort of hints you’re not going to have an easy time on this one.

In the screenshot above, you can see the “stuck” configuration for the level – grabbing the wrong two bombs is all it takes to render the level unplayable (though, that’s also partially because of bad luck in this case – I died while messing around trying to get screenshots at the same time).  Grabbing one of the bombs ends up removing a small chunk of ladder – you can’t jump quite high enough to grab the next piece.  Grabbing the other bomb ends up removing the ledge you could have jumped onto instead of climbing the ladder.  There’s no way to finish the level.

Advanced: Jump-n-Run

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Advanced Level 3: Jump-N-Run
While complained about the previous level, this level actually makes up for it.  There’s a number of Alienator bullets after you (I see four on the screen in this picture, but, I believe it maxes out at five) that keep things moving.   The level is reactive, reconfiguring small bits here and there as you grab bombs, though not ever bomb causes the level to change.

And it’s just got amazing flow.  The up / down rope combo, for instance, acts as a nice express way for Jumpman – climbing up or down the ropes moves faster than climbing a ladder, so they become good tools for dealing with the large number of bullets.

For me, it’s the best of the you-vs-Alienator bullet levels.  There’s enough of them to make it interesting, but Randy Glover had given you just enough tools to keep away from them – as long as you never stopped moving.

Jumpman, Jr:  Nothing To It

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Jumpman, Jr Level 1: Nothing To It
Really, it’s pretty much what the name says – it’s not a special level. Since we’re into the sequel, it’s back to the introduction – the level reconfigures in various places as you grab bombs.  You’ve got an Alienator bullet to keep you moving.  Though, it’s a little more complete than Jumpman’s first level – this time you have up and down ropes both, so the player learns early what they.

Now, there is one thing to note when dealing with Jumpman, Jr’s levels.  With Jumpman, you started with 7 Jumpmen.  That might seem like a lot, but, in the Advance levels you’d better be good to make it all the way through on them.

With Jumpman, Jr, you only get four Jumpmen to start.  It’s easy to blow through all those on some of the levels, making it a bit harder overall.   Blowing a single guy on the first level could mean the difference between finishing the game or not.

Jumpman, Jr:  Fire, Fire!

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Jumpman, Jr Level 2: Fire, Fire! Just a split second away from death.
Now that the player has been eased into it on the first level… let’s crank it up a bit.  I’ve talked to Randy via email a number of times in 1999 / 2000 range, and he is a really nice guy – let’s face it, he let multiple people do free versions of Jumpman, and let me do a commercial game (as long as it wasn’t for the major consoles.)  He blogged on my site for a while.  He was just an all round good guy, from what I could tell.

But, if you were to take his level design work as an example of what his personality was like, you’d think he kicked puppies and led blind people into traffic for fun.  Someone (can’t remember who) described Jumpman and Jumpman, Junior as sadistic games that were amazingly fun.  Going from the first level to this level falls into that sadistic category.

The level is reactive, but this time, when you grab a bomb it sets something on fire.  You can’t jump over the flames – they’re too high and wide, similar to the first Robots level.  Sometimes when you grab a bomb, it puts out a fire.  Sometimes it put out a fire in one place, and sets another spot on fire.

Finding the pattern for the flames is seriously hard, particularly with two Alienator bullets harassing you.  It’s not that they’re any smarter – they aren’t – it’s just that the level design doesn’t leave much room for negotiating around them as they whiz across the screen.

Even worse, there’s a couple jumps where you need to know exactly how far Jumpman can jump and fall safely to navigate it efficiently, or to avoid the fires you’ve set!  It’s not too hard if you’ve already play the first Jumpman all the way through, but if you haven’t, it’s a steep learning curve.

This is only a sample of the level designs.  There’s levels that aren’t completely visible.  There’s bats.  There’s birds.  There’s moving walls.  There’s UFO’s (and, as a change of pace, Jumpman gets a gun!).  There’s dragons, rolling barrels, hellstones (it’s a thing – you’ll understand when you start playing, and say “oh, hell” when dealing with them), wavy bullets, and more.

Practical Application In Jumpman Forever

So, here’s the basic rules we’re working from (there’s more than one level designer):

If a level doesn’t have a good, solid enemy, Alienator bullets are a good way of harassing the player.  Great for times where there’s a mystery that the player needs to figure out, or an order of operations, but you don’t want them to be bored at the same time.

Second, anything goes.  Really, there’s not a specific pattern to what makes up a good level when it comes to the enemy or the challenge.  In fact, in some ways, it’s better if there’s not a defined pattern to how levels are going to work.  For instance, Robots I, II, and III wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as back to back levels are they are scattered throughout the game.

Don’t coddle the player.  A lot of game these days “tone it down” to make it easy for the new players.  Let things ramp up, and there’s no upper ceiling to how hard a level can be, really, just as long as it’s solvable

Be careful with reconfigurable levels.  It’s pretty easy to get a player in a stuck state.  Now, in the modern era, we don’t have to worry about having to reload from the tape drive (heck, even loading from a floppy drive back then – when my family afforded one, finally – wasn’t a particularly snappy process.  Jumpman, Jr on cartridge, though, was good and fast!), but that doesn’t mean the player should end up feeling cheated because they ended up stuck after finishing half the level.

Keep the levels in “chunks”.  I don’t want a player to be able to start from anywhere they want, so, for Jumpman Forever I’m breaking it down into “stations” – since the original game was played on Jupiter station (later, Jumpman Lives! put him on Saturn station for some reason), instead of worlds it’s going to be broken down to space stations and similar locales.  This means the player still has to play through all the levels of a given set to finish one, but they also don’t have to start clear at the beginning of the game again if they were on level 29.  Most of the time, each station is going to be between 8 – 12 levels long.

Auto-save progress on mobile devices is a must.  I’ve played games where having a phone call could result in starting over.  With Jumpman Forever, I might be tempted to throw my phone across the room when someone called.  For PC, Mac, and Ouya it’s not quite as important, but if I’m supporting it for mobile, I should support it for everything.

Imagination is a must.  Jumpman and Jumpman, Jr already covered a lot of ideas – Jumpman Forever’s built in levels are going to end up covering at least three times the number of levels, and thus, three times the number of ideas.

Some ideas are already sketched out a bit – for instance, “Now you’re thinking…” is a bit of a tribute to Portal & Portal 2.  Now, if you’re thinking Jumpman gets a portal gun, well, you’re wrong.  It wouldn’t be any fun if the player had the gun.  No, give the gun to something else, and now we’re talking sadistic level design.  Which is important – some levels are going to end up being just plain hard!

Don’t be afraid to play with the variables.  Jumpman is mostly consistent through out the game.  He jumps so high, he jumps so far, and he can fall so far.  All he can do is jump.  Except when the can throw spears at dragons (which is a trick level to confuse the player – you think you need to do A, when in reality, you need to do B.  It’s hard to think about draining the swamp when you’re neck deep in alligators.)  Or when he can shoot at other guys with guns (the Gunfighter level), or shoot at UFO’s.

For Jumpman Forever, I’m going to be playing with those variables in more ways than one.  On Jupiter Station Alpha, Jumpan can jump exactly one Jumpman high, and fall exactly two Jumpman heights down.  However, I’m going to mess with that:  there will be stations where he can jump higher and father (but, you still are stuck on a fixed trajectory when you jump), allowing for slightly different level layouts.  Red can’t defuse bombs, but, she can double-jump (which means you CAN change your trajectory once in mid air), which gives her a different set of goals and abilities, which means a different set of puzzles can be presented to the player.

Jumpman’s levels are “distraction free”.  Girders always look the same, ropes always look the same, and Alienator bullets always look the same.  The backgrounds are always black, so the elements always stand out very well.  We’re going to break that, slightly.  Girders do have variations (though, with minor exception, they always have the same functionality, not including things like ice.  Yes, there’s icy girders.  Have fun with that.), but remain consistent enough that they are easily identifiable.  We probably WILL have backgrounds – most of the artwork for them is done – but we’re keeping them low key, so they don’t interfere with the ability to readily and clearly see all on-screen elements, including the Alienator bullets.  (We’ve also got plans for a couple of levels to make active use of the backgrounds.  Hull breach, anyone?)  BUT – if we decide those background elements interfere with that clarity, we’ll ditch them and stick with a black background.  It would be a harder sell in the modern day, where appearance is so important, but here, “Gameplay is King”.  There’s no half-measures for Jumpman Forever, everything has to be right.

And finally, give the player something to think about.  Very little of Jumpman comes down to strictly action levels.  Instead, much of it is a combination of moving quickly while trying to figure out the puzzle.  It’s the old-school equivalent of Portal, but a bit more mean. 🙂

Enjoyed this?  Please, take a moment to look at the Jumpman Forever Kickstarter Campaign! We’re going to be bringing a great game with some incredible levels, and true retro-style gameplay to PC, Mac, iOS, Android, and Ouya!

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