I’ve previously spoken about my love and loyalty towards SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog franchise and, no doubt, will do again at some point in the future but one thing that I, perhaps, did not mention about Sonic’s impact on my life was a consequential love for fast-paced action platformer videogames. It’s easy to forget these days, when Sonic videogames often struggle to recapture the same success that they enjoyed back in the early-nineties, but Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991) had an immediate impact on the landscape of videogames at the time. Especially after the release of Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Sonic Team/SEGA Technical Institute, 1992) there was no question: everyone needed a fast-paced, attitude-infused anthropomorphic mascot.
While the idea of a brightly-coloured, family-friendly videogame that incorporated a visually striking mascot who fired projectiles had already been done with Zool: Ninja of the “Nth” Dimension (Gremlin Graphics, 1992) and would, eventually, see perhaps its greatest mainstream appeal at the time with the release of Earthworm Jim (Shiny Entertainment/Virgin Interactive Entertainment, 1994), there was one other title that took the concept of “Sonic with a gun” and really owned it: Jazz Jackrabbit. Designed by Cliff Bleszinski and developed and published by Epic MegaGames, who would go on the create the much-lauded and often-licensed Unreal Engine in 1998, and released exclusively for Windows/DOS and Apple computers on 20 March 1994, Jazz Jackrabbit beat Earthworm Jim to the punch by just over four months. Jazz Jackrabbit casts you as the titular blaster-toting hero in a science-fiction parody of Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare; the evil Devan Shell kidnaps Princess Eva Earlong of the planet Carrotus amidst his quest to conquer the universe and the super-fast Jazz, armed with his LFG-2000 gun, must battle across numerous worlds to rescue her. If it sounds bat-shit crazy, that’s because it is but in the most charming way possible. Jazz Jackrabbit is divided into six Episodes, each containing three planets with two levels apiece (and numerous secret levels hidden throughout). Levels are bright, colourful, huge, and filled with loads of branching paths, quirky background scenery, and things to collect as well as numerous enemies (including giant turtles riding rockets, electrified eyeballs, and flying swords).
Jazz is super fast; his acceleration is much faster than Sonic’s and, while this comes in handy due to every level having a time limit, it does mean you will often speed head-first into enemies and hazards. Jazz can jump higher and further the faster he is travelling but, although he curls into a ball like Sonic, he can only attack enemies by firing his blaster. This weapon can be powered up by shooting and collecting various icons; the standard Blaster setting has infinite ammo but the upgrades (including the flame-blasting Toaster and RF-Missile rockets) have limited ammunition and Jazz loses all upgrades once he loses a life. Players can collect Carrots to increase Jazz’s health bar, Extra Life icons, and various other items to increase their score and access pseudo-3D hidden Bonus Stages where, if they manage to collect all the Gems within a time limit, they are awarded with an Extra Life. Jazz can also shoot signposts to respawn upon death and pick up various additional power-ups, such as a shield that protects Jazz from damage, a projectile-shooting bird sidekick, a hoverboard, and the traditional speed up and invincibility power-ups we all know and love.
To complete a level, Jazz must run, jump, and shoot his way through the various enemies and traps to reach a signpost within the time limit and players receive a grading and percentage bonus depending on how well they did. Thankfully, unlike many action platformers, Jazz Jackrabbit does not feature any bottomless pits for cheap deaths. Instead, players can choose from four difficulty settings (Easy, Medium, Hard, and Turbo), which increase the game’s challenge by giving you less time and health. As you’d expect, Jazz must battle a boss at the end of every level which, along with the steady increase of enemies and hazards, is where the game’s difficulty really lies. Bosses are large and erratic, their patterns difficult to predict, and fire multiple projectiles. Luckily, you have infinite continues and can keep plugging away until you achieve victory. Jazz sports a catchy, upbeat soundtrack and cartoonish sound effects and even some voice acting; like Sonic, jazz grows impatient when you leave him idle, and he will berate the player if they leave him for too long. Sadly, unlike Earthworm Jim, Jazz Jackrabbit was never ported to home consoles, significantly affecting both its mainstream reach and impact on the genre, despite being one of the first titles to bring the action platformer genre to the PC format.
Instead, Jazz Jackrabbit was released as a CD and as shareware; players could freely distribute the first Episode amongst friends but were encouraged to pay for the full game upon completing the first levels. Three additional Epsiodes were included in the physical release of the game, one that transforms Jazz into a lizard, and five more Christmas-themed Episodes were featured in the Holiday Hare shareware editions of the videogame. Jazz Jackrabbit went on to spawn a sequel, Jazz Jackrabbit 2, in 1998. Jazz Jackrabbit 2 introduced numerous new gameplay mechanics (such as a rising uppercut, the ability to jump and butt-stomp on enemies, and allowing Jazz to hover briefly) alongside a second playable character, Jazz’s brother Spaz, and a comprehensive level editor. A third title was apparently in development for Windows and PlayStation 2 and would have brought Jazz and his entire cast of characters fully into the 3D realm, however development ended in 2000 and the videogame never saw the light of day beyond the leaked alpha build. Instead, a complete reboot of the series made its way to the Game Boy Advance. Jazz Jackrabbit (Game Titan/Jaleco, 2002) stripped the titular character of his speed, iconic appearance, and turtle enemies in favour of a more Star Wars-inspired aesthetic. Jazz was redesigned to greatly resemble Han Solo and even wielded a similar-looking pistol, and was pitted against hoards of space-faring chameleons. Make no mistake, the decision to strip away everything that made Jazz Jackrabbit so enjoyable mean that you would be much better served playing the original title or its sequel.
While Jazz Jackrabbit 2 was undeniably bigger and better than its predecessor, there’s something to admire in the simplicity and charm of the original. To this day, neither Jazz Jackrabbit or Jazz Jackrabbit 2 have received ports outside of their PC releases (although the 2013 HD remaster of the similarly-forgotten action platformer Superfrog (Team17, 1993) makes me hope that, one day, Jazz will have his time in the sun once again). Instead, I recommended visiting Gog.com and purchasing the fully-Windows 7-compatible editions of both videogames. Jazz Jackrabbit could have be a simple Sonic knock-off but it is so much more than that; Jazz Jackrabbit has an allure and appeal all its own thanks to its unique cartoonish graphics, outlandish premise, and fun, pick-up-and-play gameplay mechanics. Back in my youth, high quality PC titles were all I would play when I visited an old friend of mine and Jazz Jackrabbit was surely among those videogames and deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of gamers.