We don’t laugh at games very often, and it’s rarely got much to do with intent when we do. Moments of videogame comedy tend to come more by accident than design, emerging either through play or cracks in the code. Well-crafted jokes are a rare thing indeed, and it’s an even rarer beast that follows one winning gag with another, and then another. Jazzpunk is such a game. From its remarkable, Saul Bass-style animated opening to, some three hours later, one of the most visceral closing credit sequences in history, developer Necrophone Games barely stops to let you catch your breath between belly laughs. Jazzpunk is hilarious, its script almost faultless, its pace relentless.
While the visual style most readily recalls the work of Thirty Flights Of Loving developer Blendo Games (whose Brendon Chung is thanked in the end credits), Jazzpunk’s real inspirations are spoof comedies such as Airplane!, Hot Shots! Part Deux and Austin Powers. Setting foot in a noirish, robot-inhabited alternate-universe Japan in the year 1959b, you play as Polyblank, an agent carrying out acts of espionage at the behest of a pitch-shifted cockney director operating out of a Tube carriage repurposed as an office. You enter missions by taking a prescription medicine aptly named Missionoyl – the label on the bottle advising that you “take one capsule every mission, or until reality is sufficiently augmented” – and the action begins, the drug’s effects teleporting you to your destination within seconds.
Each mission has just one central objective, but the surrounding area is full of NPCs milling about, waiting to dish out sidequests and gags. In the opening level, you can walk straight forward into the Soviet consulate and get down to business immediately – your target secured from an automated phone service that offers direct lines to both the Kremlin and Satan in addition to a cartridge full of enemy intelligence – but doing so would mean missing out on the treats that line the town square’s perimeter. There’s the saxophonist busker who tells you he’s got some gigs, “almost a terabyte”. A robo-prostitute offers to recalibrate your sensor for a dollar, then asks if she’s Turing you on. There are people in need of help, too, such as the frog in a pink mohawk that’s trying to hack the Wi-Fi of a local Starbux and needs you to retrieve his AR data visor from across the street with a quick game of Frogger. One passer-by gives you a device with which to shoot pigeons from the sky, after which you’re splatted with droppings that are cleared from the screen with windscreen wipers.
Most of these NPCs appear only once and are all the better for it, though there are exceptions. A hobo seems to follow you wherever you go, spouting government paranoia, incoherent babble and endless robot puns. His appearances tend to end with him urging you to look behind you, at which point he scarpers, backed by the appropriate cartoon sound effect. Character models are reused, too, including the goons in beige raincoats who block your path as you escape from a downtown sushi restaurant. As you clear the way with melee strikes, they emit the sound of pins being knocked down by a bowling ball. One of the last you’ll face is a pin wearing a hat; another shouts “Bowling joke” as you approach; another begs for mercy. (“Please don’t hurt me,” he implores. “I’m a sensitive man.”) A level set at a luxury beachfront resort, meanwhile, is dotted with dumb-as-they-come slacker guys and valley girls, while several male tourists ape Johnny Depp’s turn in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas – hat, Hawaiian shirt, and a cigarette holder dangling from each mouthless face.
These familiar sights bring consistency to a varied world, which spans the town plaza, seedy downtown and seaside resort as well as a penthouse, a neon-flecked city and a network of skyscraper rooftops. There are plenty of surprises along the way, some of which take you out of the gameworld entirely. Changes of scenery help Necrophone ensure its simple set of mechanics – there’s a single action button, a jump you’ll rarely need, and a button that cycles through your inventory – doesn’t grow stale. Items are automatically, invisibly discarded the second they’ve finished serving a purpose, a smart decision from a developer aware there’s nothing so pace-breaking as rummaging through a busy inventory.
Thankfully, this is much more than a simple exercise in clicking through NPC dialogue trees and chuckling at the results. Necrophone knows it’s making a game, and ensures that it frequently sends up its host medium in the midst of all the sight gags and tech puns, bending its own mechanical rules to do so. There are nods to Wave Race, Virtual Boy, Duck Hunt and more besides, while Street Fighter II’s influence is felt in a highly one-sided firstperson punch-up and a standout section in which you guide the dotted line of Agent Polyblank’s voyage across a matinee-movie world map. Late on, Jazzpunk perhaps leans on game parodies a little too heavily, but you won’t mind at all. By this point, your heart has long since been won.
Jazzpunk’s greatest success, though, is how its disparate parts all fit together. Its inspirations are, after all, much more finely targeted. Airplane! sends up the disaster flick and Hot Shots! spoofs the war movie, while Austin Powers goes even further, narrowing its sights to a single series. Gaming, however, is a far broader church, and it’s some achievement that Necrophone’s game spans so many locations, styles, genres and eras with barely a single gag failing to hit the mark. Games are so rarely funny by design, but Jazzpunk is much more than a funny videogame. It’s a comedy, and one that wouldn’t be possible – or anywhere near as powerful – in any other medium.