If you were born after the NES was in its heyday, the sparkly throwbacks now being released every couple of weeks might give you the impression that the era was just all killer, no filler for 10 beautiful years. In this dream world, Super Mario Bros. 3 was the only game anyone ever needed, a new Mega Man rained down upon us from the heavens on a regular basis, and Capcom and Konami were revered as gods and their every offering was like delicious, life-sustaining manna. In that regard, JumpJet Rex is a blessing, in that it reminds us that the 8-bit era wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. It was also a lot of screaming, nerve-destroying, controller-chucking aggravation, and none were immune from its sudden onset. Ask anyone who bought the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, expecting a fun, breezy time for the whole family, and watch the thousand-yard stare wash over them like the evening tide.
JumpJet Rex brings back that delightful concept of a cutesy setup being used as a vessel for diabolical evil. In it, the dinosaurs were advanced enough to master space travel, sending up a lone, rocket boot-wearing T-rex to go explore the galaxy. While he’s up there, mission control finds out that an asteroid–the asteroid–is on its way, and sends Rex to the outer reaches to go destroy it. Oh, and to explore a couple dozen random planetoids along the way.
The planets are perfect tile-based approximations of 8-bit pixels, albeit with huge, widescreen playing fields. The environments, sadly, are limited, recycling the same four space base/ice level/plant world/stone temples throughout. Though the enemies get annoyingly diverse later–more on that soon–the levels lose their luster by the end. They are, undoubtedly, on the appealingly colorful side; the ice levels beautifully depict Hoth-like conditions in which to zoom around, and a lightning effect on the later space stages make them look particularly animated and dangerous. The accompanying chiptune soundtrack doesn’t take full advantage of the NES’s jerry-rigged range of instrumentation, but it’s fun, catchy stuff to putter around the galaxy to.
Movement is pleasantly free-flowing. Having rocket boots means that you have an infinite jump, the ability to blast yourself left and right, and lift off vertically, and a tiny blast is given off in your wake that can actually do damage to enemies. Using these abilities, your mission in each stage is to pass through a specified number of gates to open up the finish line, where you earn a star. Like in Super Mario 64, you need a certain number of stars to open up each stage, but you can earn additional stars per stage by getting through without dying and by beating the stage time record.
Sounds easy. It is decidedly not.
Early stages are a delight, with Rex blasting through coins, squeezing through tight corridors, and making split-second maneuvers to dodge lasers or avoid the walls. You’re dead in one hit, so that old tension is here, keeping your reflexes sharp; It’s challenging, but fun all the same. After the first boss, however, the difficulty spikes hard and fast. The game gets projectile-happy in a hurry, where tracking lasers and fire-spewing plants line every surface or are set up just past the outer limits of the screen where you can’t see them, seemingly just begging you to try using your rockets. Tight squeezes are now less a matter of having a few tiles to move around but a scant few pixels. Boss fights aren’t necessarily hard but tedious, with every hit doing minor chip damage at best. Around halfway through, the game ceases to be fun. It becomes a chore. Difficulty isn’t a negative in and of itself, but its merits can be measured in a simple question: “Is it my fault I’m dying?” “Is there a flaw in my own skills that could prevent this?”
Increasingly, the game sits on the bad side of that question, where obstacles are surmountable seemingly by sheer luck more than skill. The game puts import on being able to nab more than one star from a stage to advance, but the time trial records are ludicrous, and dying becomes more and more a certainty; it is a recipe for seething hate. Your rewards for success often come down to little more than the money you’ve collected, which can be traded for insanely overpriced cosmetic items. In one of the stores you open early on, every item costs $100,000 coins. By the time I reached the final boss, I had $78,000. Troublesome economy aside, technical hitches are common, even on fairly straightforward stages and bosses, with the frame rate tanking and button presses ceasing to register when things get too busy.
Just like the most aggravating NES games, it’s frustrating because there’s fun to be had, and had often, in JumpJet Rex. It feels great to play, the aerial trickery is gratifying, and it’s got a lot of goofy charm, but all of this is unfortunately buried under an inexplicable need to test players beyond what should be necessary in a galaxy where you tool around as a T-rex wearing sunglasses.