As I alluded to in a recent “Ask Me Anything” article, my parents did not allow me to own a video game console when I was growing up. Atari made computers, of which my father was a big fan. I still have the Atari 800 and Atari ST I played on when I was little. When Atari got sold off in 1995 after the failure of their Jaguar console, my dad purchased a new PC that ran Windows.
Gaming between PCs and consoles has always been a separate experience. While my friends at school were talking about Super Mario World, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Donkey Kong Country, there was no significant Atari counterpart. I used to pass Rick Dangerous 2 off as a contender; I’ll get around to reviewing that one later. When I finally started getting into PC gaming, there were a few well known shareware titles: Commander Keen, Jill of the Jungle, and Duke Nukem. All were worthy titles for the IBM compatible computer, but with awful sound and graphics in comparison to the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis.
One day in the lunch room at school, the new kid in our class revealed himself as a PC gamer. He talked about a game called Jazz Jackrabbit and said it was faster than Sonic the Hedgehog and had better graphics too. I had never heard of this Jazz Jackrabbit before. I really didn’t know whether to defend him or join in the mob that had formed against him because he had publicly blasphemed Sonic. Eventually he invited me over and I got to see it. A little while later I got my own copy of the shareware episode.
He wasn’t wrong. Jazz Jackrabbit was top notch gaming for the time. It was so good it may have contributed to its designers being recognized for their achievement and going on to create more great games. You’ve probably heard of their company; they are now called Epic Games.
But in 1998, when Jazz Jackrabbit 2 was released by then named Epic Mega Games, they were attempting to answer a many years long call to create a Cadillac platforming experience, the last word in platformers. When I first got my copy and played Jazz Jackrabbit 2, it seemed like it was all I had hoped for in a computer platformer. The designers made full use of the expanded screen resolution available to them on modern computers. There is so much real estate to play in, the game feels huge. When Jazz is running fast, I can still see what’s in front of him and have more time to react than I ever did with Sonic. The graphics are crisp and I don’t think I would be wrong to say this title has the most impressive parallax I saw during the era.
I stayed in contact with my PC gaming friend and we talked on the phone about Jazz Jackrabbit 2 after we both got it. We talked smugly as if we had finally been vindicated. If only all of those kids around the lunch table could see this game, they’d finally agree PC gaming is better. We were such losers.
It was 1998. The N64 had come out in 1996. We had all played Super Mario 64 by then, a great platformer in 3D! The last great 2D platformer of the era, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! came out in 1996 as well. Jazz Jackrabbit 2 was too late; it was the last word in a debate most no one had broached for two years.
It was exciting for me when I reinstalled Jazz Jackrabbit 2 and realized it runs successfully on Windows 10 without any additional tweaking. I had so many fond memories surrounding this platformer. After all, it was the chosen one to save us from the PC platformer darkness those few decades ago. It was in playing through this time that I suddenly had some objective clarity.
You can choose to play as Jazz or Jazz’s brother Spaz, or if you want to play with a friend you can play with Jazz and Spaz locally or over LAN. Both Jazz and Spaz have slightly different abilities that get triggered when pressing the jump button immediately after jumping. Jazz’s ears turn into helicopter wings and help him glide down softly at a reduced rate of descent. Spaz can jump an extra half jump into the air. Spaz is fun to watch when left idle. He shoots UFOs out of the sky and eats birds that land on his finger.
The first level is a tutorial of sorts, helping you get familiar with the character chosen. So far so good. Everything is as colorful, bright, and fun as I remembered it. The catchy chiptunes that were such a staple of PC gaming are here. I’m in my happy place. I jump, skip, and most importantly hop through the first few levels and past the first boss. On to the rest of the game.
It was at this point I realized Jazz Jackrabbit 2 isn’t the bed of roses I remembered. While the increase in screen resolution was welcomed as it makes the game feel bigger and easier to navigate, the collision detection was not increased to compensate. It seems like pixel precision is required to land on some of the tiny platforms. This is not a complaint about the game being too hard, it’s more a complaint of the game not allowing me to progress until I have jumped perfectly across these in game objects that I won’t land on or grab on to if I am not at the precise position and angle to do so. It often looks like you are falling through objects because you are just slightly off from them. It’s time consuming and greatly frustrating. Also, given that the characters move quickly, there are some places they will not occupy when jumping from a particular starting position. Imagine a knight moving in the game of chess. A knight will only move in an “L” shape and all at once when it does. This is the same idea with Jazz. Just because there is a platform right next to him, this does not mean the game intended for you to jump on that immediately close position. I think the game developers strategically placed many platforms in many places so you could hop over some to easily get through to others further beyond in the places you wish to go. If you are having problems hopping onto something directly next to you, try to hop onto something beyond it instead.
There is not much original in Jazz Jackrabbit 2. There are two or three similarly themed levels and a boss for each episode for six episodes. The episodes are all a parody of something that was pop culture relevant in the 90s. The game itself appears to be a parody of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, though it seems to flatter rather than to poke fun. They even included their own pinball level. Jazz and Spaz can swim, however, so there are water levels as well.
There are a lot of collectible edibles strewn throughout all of the levels. Eating carrots will restore health. But eating enough of the other foods will make the Jazz’s sugar level increase. Once enough foods have been eaten, Jazz enters a Sugar Rush and becomes invulnerable for a countdown of seconds. Use this time to kill off as many enemies as you can, and don’t simply discount the collectible items throughout the game, they can be used to your advantage.
Be careful about what you do collect, however. Some of the items you pick up will provide power-up ammo to your weapon. I got really frustrated because I would pick up flamethrower ammo at the worst time to be using a flamethrower. It got to the point in some levels where I wish I hadn’t picked up any ammo at all and I could have just stuck with the default weapon with infinite ammo.
Despite being let down by my outrageous expectations of nostalgia, would Jazz Jackrabbit 2 be worthwhile to a newcomer to PC gaming as a stand-alone platforming title? Yes, yes it would. It’s not the savior of the PC master race, but it’s a really good game that holds up today. It won’t win a modern or even historical beauty contest, but it is a clever platformer that offers a new challenge to fans of the genre who may have missed this one when it first came by provided they can get their hands on a copy. I was shocked to discover copies going for around $25 on Amazon and Ebay on the cheap end. I’m not sure I would pay that much. If I grabbed a working one for $15, I’d say I would have received my money’s worth at this point. I suppose I need to take real good care of my copy so I won’t have to replace it.
As I am already starting to come out of my nostalgic stupor, I’m seeing Jazz Jackrabbit 2 in a new light. It really is a charming game. While I probably placed greater stock in it when I was younger than I probably should have (so much was at stake!), I realize this game still resonates with me and, judging by the demand for it among PC gamers online, others as well. Like a good joke where you just had to be there, I can’t guarantee everyone will see this one with the same rose color glasses I do. The more I realize I have lots more to say about it, the more I’ll have to leave this first impression article stating that it’s certainly a wonderful game filled with wonderful memories for me.