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Joshua & the Battle of Jericho

Genre: Puzzle Developer: Wisdom Tree Publisher: Wisdom Tree Players: 1-2 Released: 1994

Traditionally, consoles have never sported the strong lineups of puzzle games we see on PCs, and thanks to Sega’s early-’90s “be cool” advertising campaign there are probably even fewer puzzlers than normal on the Genesis. Face it: once you’re done with Klax and Columns, there’s not much else to play. I doubt Wisdom Tree was consciously trying to fill a gap in the Genesis’ software lineup when they released Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, but that’s what they ended up doing. Puzzle addicts should be grateful.

Joshua is the spiritual sequel (no pun intended) to Wisdom Tree’s own Exodus. Although its predecessor was designed for the NES, Joshua was developed with the Sega Genesis in mind and therefore is much improved graphically. The down side is that Wisdom Tree at its best is still sub-par. So although this game won’t hurt your eyes as much as previous offerings, it’s still extremely simplistic and unremarkable. When the most advanced graphical effect in the game is some offset scrolling for the backgrounds, you know you have problems. But like I said, more colors and better detail make it a step in the right direction. Besides, you probably won’t be playing this for the eye candy, anyway.

The real draw of this game lies in the way the designers combined defined elements like tiles, power-ups, and enemies to make over one hundred ingenious puzzles. Action and high adventure take a backseat here, with your only weapons being timed bombs and short range projectiles. (Both of which are used more for clearing out levels than attacking enemies.) The general aim of each puzzle is the same: collect all five question tiles and a certain amount of gold/silver/iron/bronze items. Once you meet the level requirements, an exit tile appears and you can advance to the next puzzle after answering a few Bible questions. Correct answers will net you extra lives, a nice touch, but infinite continues and a password system make it pretty pointless.

It sounds simple, but it isn’t. The main problem is that Joshua, the guy you control, is very easy to kill. Touch a falling rock? Get blown up? Run out of time? Bump into a trap tile? Touch an enemy? You’re dead. There are a lot of ways to meet your doom, and odds are that once the explosions start and debris begin to fall you’ll be kissing your lives goodbye. But take heart, because you get as many shots at a puzzle as you need. At first you’ll probably steam through the game at a decent clip. Then around level twenty the difficulty begins to accelerate until you end up working on a single level for days. When I played through this game I found myself possessed by an almost obsessive desire to clear all of the levels. Other people who’ve played it have experienced the same sort of thing, so I think it’s safe to say that there’s a danger of addiction.

That drug-like quality stems from the way you so often come so close to getting the exit, only to be killed at the end. What’s worse is that you can get through the entire level and meet all the quotas, only to realize that the exit portal is hidden behind some sort of unbreakable barrier you foolishly moved earlier. The euphoria one experiences upon finally solving a puzzle, of course, is even stronger because of these. These tantalizing brushes with victory and puzzler’s highs can turn what was originally a one-hour gaming session into a three-hour marathon. In my opinion, that’s the mark of a good game. (And the graphical style might even grow on you by two in the morning.)

Sound, however, is an issue at the outset and never improves. The music is all tin horns and steel bells; the sound effects are nondescript and muffled. Who’s up for muting the television and cranking up U2? Honestly, one wishes that Wisdom Tree had set the game in outer space and crafted an impressively realistic soundtrack of… total silence. But then again, if it’d been in space then you couldn’t have had Joshua blasting away at the Canaanite scum, could you?

Looking back over the game, I think that we’ve found a Wisdom Tree title worth owning at long last. The brilliant gameplay core and mechanics are enough to brush aside the lackluster visuals and sound as inconsequential, and the streamlined layout means that a puzzle fix is always only a few seconds away. Only puzzle fans need apply, though. If you’re the type who plays shmups for relaxation then you’ll only find slow, agonizing frustration. But for those of us searching for some brainteasers to break up the long hours of shell fests and aliens, then Joshua provides a time of relief. Maddening, controller-breaking, habit-forming relief.

SCORE: 8 out of 10

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