If you love the G.R.I.N.D., then this will be your J.A.M.
Where nostalgia is concerned, gaming finds itself in a particularly unique position. While “classic” films construct an iconic past and ask us to take their word for it, games both retro and modern exist on a much tighter continuum. Many of today’s “throwback” titles find themselves paying homage to games we all remember clearly… some of which we still own. In this fine line between asking us to remember, and hoping we’ve forgotten, publisher Forest Moon Games’s first release finds itself in a bit of a – shall we say – jam.
Cutting straight to the chase, JAM: Jets Aliens Missiles (J.A.M.) is a game whose title says it all. Over the course of five sprawling levels, players are tasked with fighting off an alien invasion with things that… make aliens explode. Armed with upgradeable weaponry, players strafe up and down the left side of the screen with one hand, and deploy missiles with the deft swipes and taps of the other. Besides survival, your reward for expert piloting comes in the form of glowing “enerjules,” with which you purchase better missiles, stronger shields, and even new paint jobs.
The gameplay in J.A.M. is sound; everything you’d expect from a space shooter is present and accounted for: hoards of incoming enemies, massive bosses, and mid-air acrobatics. All of it looks wonderful, too, thanks to developer Neptune Interactive’s decision to leave the constraints of arcade visuals in the past. Instead of using their game as a venue for low-fi wistfulness, the team delivers a roster of detailed 3D enemies that are as fun to look at as they are to blow to pieces. Every flying, tentacled fireball-spitter and scaly dragon had me interested in playing researcher, wishing I could parachute out of my ship to the ground below and investigate the worlds they were from.
Equally refreshing is the game’s modernization of the “you’re constantly shooting so just move around!” style of play. Out in full force representing the M in J.A.M., your craft’s missiles are your only friends in the alien-infested skies. Tap a single enemy to target it for automatic shooting, or drag your finger across a group of enemies to unleash a storm of heat-seeking pain. Be wary, though: every deploy depletes one of your available missiles (four to start), leading to a momentary recharge.
The system strikes a great balance between automation and control, allowing you to feel powerful while still requiring a fair bit of strategy. Sure, you can take out the hard shelled fire-breather in front of you for some coveted enerjules, but only if you want to be ill prepared for the zippier arrow-like mutants that follow. Meanwhile, the “tap or drag” format allows for play styles both casual and precise. Things getting too harried? No one’s going to begrudge you the need to tap violently on everything you see instead of taking the tactical approach.
Where things becomes problematic is in the game’s desire to have its cake and eat it too. It moves players just far enough away from the mechanisms of the retro space shooter to feel like something fresh and exciting, only to turn around and maintain some of the genre’s archaic views on difficulty and monetization. In J.A.M., death is, by default, one clumsy mistake away, with the first hit you sustain taking you out. While this normally wouldn’t be a problem in a game with implicit expectations of perfection, clumsy mistakes prove particularly easy to make here. You see, your movement range is limited to the vertical axis, with your ship sailing up and down with the sliding of your finger; set against the tightly-woven horizontal barrage of enemies, however, near-impossible levels of strafing are often required. To make matters worse, the game’s hit box feels unusually large, with shots that seem like near-misses taking out your shield, or your ship.
So you’ve died. No big deal, right? It’s not like there are life totals! Wrong. There may not be life totals, but there are also no “continue” points throughout any of the five stages. Instead, Neptune Interactive offers up a host of purchasable upgrades that give your ship more oomph, and greater chances at survival. The problem here is that the whole thing feels designed less as a carrot rewarding you for the enerjules you’ve collected, and more as a stick, pushing you to shell out real-world enerjules. Having trouble on a stage, for example, I purchased a shield to bolster my defenses; it cost 3000 enerjules (about 4-5 tries worth of play), and would allow me to take one hit extra in each level.
Instead of allowing for even a slow, but gradual recharge of my shield once it was broken, however, the game wants you to pay 3,000 more enerjules to add on an extra shield. And then 5,000, and then — you get the point. The difference is subtle, but paying hoards of enerjules for the ability to take an extra hit is far less intuitive than offering a shield that constantly recharges, whose recharge speed can be upgraded. Like the poorly tuned difficult of yore, it feels designed from the ground up to get you to insert another quarter into the machine; or rather, another credit card purchase into the App Store. This is to say nothing of the fact that the “no continue” principle is silly at the level of gameplay. Why create artificial longevity by forcing me to start all over again after I’ve spent five minutes reaching the boss?
J.A.M. would have done better to double the level count, or tweak the upgrades so that it had more of the few purchasable items that felt exciting and optional. I’m far more inclined to throw my money at a game that feels like it respects my time, not one that feels like it’s asking me to buy survival. A shame really, since this part of the game feels like it butts heads directly with what Forest Moon told us about their policy of taking on games you pay for once, and enjoy. And in a genre crowded with options, it’s just unfortunate to see a solid entry that looks toward the future get bogged down in its allegiance to the foibles of the past.