Despite the fact that we’re nearly two decades on, the ’90s are still resonating strongly among gamers. And why not? That slice of time gave birth to some of the most memorable franchises in gaming, one of which is of course Sonic the Hedgehog. This blue spikeball served as an incentive for many kids to nag their parents for a SEGA Genesis / Mega Drive, depending on where in the world you lived. However, those of us without the console could only sit back and regard the whole affair with envious eyes, right…?
Not entirely. In 1994, Epic MegaGames (before they tactfully shortened it to just Epic Games) had an answer to the Sonic series, and PC owners were the ones being treated. Enter Jazz Jackrabbit, a colourful platformer/shooter romp with a knack for blatantly ripping off ideas from other games.
The game saw the titular hero Jazz on a mission to save a rabbit princess from a megalomaniac turtle who was a stereotype of every nerd who ever lived. Although commonly considered a Sonic clone, in truth the gameplay behind Jazz is far more akin to other shooters such as Mega Man and Turrican. Players run around in highly-artistic levels blasting enemies – mainly turtles – to kingdom come with an assortment of weapons ranging from fireballs to bouncing grenades. Many staples of the Sonic games make an appearance, however: there are monitors which bestow upon the player properties such as invincibility or super-speed, complete with an icon of a sneaker. Stars give Jazz temporary invincibility and there are even 3D special stages which can be accessed by finding a red gem hidden in the levels.
Speaking of levels, players are spoiled for choice. There are six “episodes”, broken down into three planets with two levels each, as well as boss encounters and the odd secret level. The CD version adds even more episodes, rounding off the total to nine, with new secrets, enemies and bosses. Unfortunately, almost all of the bosses are pretty easy and not particularly memorable, and seem to be largely an afterthought. Nonetheless, the game as a whole is pretty challenging and is an excellent showcase of old-fashioned, action platforming.
Four years later, after a long and troubled development cycle, the world was treated to the long-awaited sequel, Jazz Jackrabbit 2. Although an altogether more cohesive game, it failed to attain the same fan following as the original. Pity too, because it’s a fine example of PC platforming in the Windows 98 era, even if it is a tad too easy; quite the opposite complaint compared to the first game.
Jazz 2 introduced Jazz’s wonderfully-named brother Spaz, as well as his sister Lori who appeared in the later expansion. The game saw Jazz, Spaz and Lori out to stop Devan Shell yet again after he crashed Jazz’s wedding and stole a massive gem that he needed to power a time machine. The single-player campaign was composed of several episodes full of colourful, well-rendered levels, which included nods to the original game. The real draw, though, was the multiplayer aspect; inspired by Quake, players could shoot each other on the Internet, over LAN and even on a single split-screen PC. Besides deathmatch, it also featured CTF and the option to slug through the single-player levels as a team.
The other big draw was the Jazz Creation Station, which allowed players to create new levels, edit existing ones or change the game’s graphics. Needless to say, the combination of moddability and multiplayer has ensured Jazz 2 a following that continues to the present day.
A third Jazz Jackrabbit game was on the cards, but it never saw the light of day. We don’t have too much to go on, but it seemed like it was shaping up to be something really special. Started by a few of the developers for Jazz 2, the prototype for the third game was designed as a 3D platformer / third-person shooter that could be best described as “Mario 64 with guns”. It ran on Unreal technology and featured non-linear, story-orientated gameplay that saw Jazz out to rescue his children in a time-traveling endeavor. The exact details and specs are a mystery because not everything was revealed and the game was never finished. Like so many other vapourware titles, it fell victim to the corporate machine and lack of funding, though a playable alpha demo showcase was completed, which has since been leaked onto the Internet.
In 2002, Jazz fans were ecstatic to hear that a new game was being developed on the Gameboy Advance. Unfortunately, the finished title departed from the standard formula so much that it was fundamentally disowned by fans of the series. It didn’t help that the game was little more than a mediocre, generic platformer.
And that was the last time we heard from the green bunny. Unfortunately, neither GOG.com nor Steam offer it anymore, so right now you’re consigned to playing the demos if you didn’t buy it back in the day. You can get the Jazz 2 demo here, while the original DOS game demo can be obtained at the DOS Games Archive. The original works pretty much flawlessly via DOSBox, but you can play it on OpenJazz: a native Windows application with higher resolutions and various other options. Either way, if you’re a retro gamer, you owe it to yourself to try out this iconic tidbit of DOS game culture and its sequels.