I have a bit of a thing about ostriches at the moment. I am hooked. I’ve been watching ostrich videos. I’ve been Googling ostrich facts. Do you know that an ostrich’s brain is smaller than one of its eyeballs? Do you know that its eyeballs are so good that an ostrich can see something two miles away? Do you know that it can gut a lion with one kick from its two-toed legs? Do you know that it can run at 40 miles an hour for the best part of 50 minutes if it absolutely has to?
Consider the head of the ostrich. What is not to love? The ostrich head looks like somebody’s hand in a sock puppet. The hair is a bed-splayed fuzz. The eyes are large and wet. The set of the mouth is grim and resolved – it seems to say that life is hard but what can you do?
And life is quite hard for an ostrich I think. Being so visible is probably a bit of a drag out there in the wild. And then there is everything mankind brings with it. I’m not just talking about ostrich sausages and the destruction of habitats. I’m talking about the Google autocomplete that takes “can you actually ride…” and is not averse to adding “…an ostrich?” to the end of it. (You probably can, incidentally, but you certainly shouldn’t.)
Here’s where I would normally say that, short of going on holiday to Africa, I decided to hunt around for ostriches in video games. But I didn’t have to hunt, because there’s really only one show in town for the ostrich-besotted. Joust is an early Williams arcade game. 1982. Famous logo. A bit of a classic. I love Williams, but Joust never clicked with me. You could say, ha ha, that I bounced off it. (Joust reference.) In truth I never really gave it much time. But then I discovered ostriches for real: the tumbleweed body, the War of the Worlds legs and neck. That head, disappointment long since hardened into a will to survive just to show the rest of us. And I knew I had to go back.
And suddenly Joust is fun. It’s certainly a very clever game. It has that elegance and self-involvement that a lot of the good arcade games have. Everything fits, everything does double-duty. Joust is a wave-based combat game. You ride your ostrich and hold your lance and enemies (I think they’re generally riding buzzards) rush across the screen. Hit them above their lance and you defeat them. If their lance is higher, you take the punishment. If you clash with too much symmetry, you both bounce off.
There’s more. Defeated enemies become eggs, and you collect the eggs for points, with any luck, before they hatch into fresh enemies. It’s risk and reward of the kind that Williams was always very good at, but at the core of it, making Joust feel like nothing but Joust, is that bounce of collision, that rubbery backwards proing! that interrupts all the straight lines, all the clever plans.
And actually, at the core of it are ostriches. Would we remember this game so much if you were flying planes? Riding motorbikes? If you were another wibbling space alien? Ostriches lend Joust their quirky specificity, they lend Joust the fact that ostriches are always there, waiting at the back of the mind, ready for you to ponder them and marvel at their strangeness if you have five minutes free.
And they have that determination, of course. The set of the mouth. Survive, they implore you, because that’s what an ostrich seems determined to do.