My buddy, Adam, has kindly agreed to help me out with this one as this week we’re looking at Jaws on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Jaws is probably my favourite film of all-time, so I was suitably excited to play a game that used the license. Sadly, my excitement was soon dulled like a filed down shark tooth, and I don’t think Adam felt any different either. Let’s take a look at how this man-eating fish ended up drowning in a sea of misery.
Developed by Altus and Westone Bit Entertainment and published by LJN, Jaws hit the video game store shelves of North America in the November of 1987. The game didn’t actually see a PAL release, so we Europeans had a bit of a lucky escape. LJN has a pretty infamous reputation for buying licenses and then releasing absolutely awful games, with the WWF learning that firsthand during the third generation with the positively awful WrestleMania game that was released on the console.
Jaws on the NES is actually loosely based on the movie Jaws: The Revenge, which is either the worst or at least joint worst (Jaws 3-D is pretty awful too) movie in the entire series, which didn’t bode well for the game, in all honesty. Jaws: The Revenge has the pretty nutty story of a relative of the shark from the first movie coming back for revenge on the Brody family, with Michael Caine starring as a sarcastic seaplane owner (which is ironic because he’s firmly in auto-pilot for the majority of the movie).
Obviously, adapting a full-on stinker of a movie to a video game gave Altus and Westone an uphill battle to begin with, and the eventual game does a pretty good job of living down to the source material. Jaws did manage to receive a few minor good reviews, but in most cases it was a critical flop, and I wouldn’t be surprised if sales weren’t that great and that was why the game never got released in the PAL region.
Mike: Jaws has a pretty straightforward main gameplay loop, and it’s pretty darn dull, in all honesty. Your goal is build up your power level high enough so that you can kill the titular chum-chomping shark, which you do by collecting shells and trading them in at one of the game’s two ports. You can move between the ports in your boat, with enemies popping up when you hit something, not unlike a roleplaying game with random encounters on the main map screen. Once an encounter begins, you will be dropped into a body of water at varying degrees of deepness, where you will have to kill jellyfish, stingrays and smaller sharks in order to collect the necessary shells you will need to raise your level.
Occasionally Jaws will show up during one of these encounters, which can be an absolute pain when you’re in shallow water and already have to contend with a crowded screen of nasties. Eventually, you will reach a high enough level that you will be able to wear the shark’s health down, at which point you’ll go into a first-person mode where you have to stab the shark to death. I never actually saw this climatic battle though as the game gets ludicrously cheap in the latter stages, flinging hordes of enemies at you and generating a random encounter with almost every step you take on the map screen, making it only a matter of time before you get killed.
And that’s the game. No, really, that’s it. You move left to right on the map, kill jellyfish and stingrays, and then get swarmed and killed when you finally reach a level that you can hurt the shark, at which point it’s rinse-repeat. I could maybe forgive Jaws for being so one-note if the core gameplay loop was actually fun, but it really isn’t. It’s an interminable slog, with only the occasional bonus stage where you get to drop bombs from a seaplane breaking up the monotony. It’s amazing to think that they had just an exciting license as Jaws to work with, and this utter bilge was the best they could come up with.
Adam: If I were to describe the gameplay of Jaws in one word, it would be “repetitive”. The game starts off with you in a boat sailing around looking for the titular fish. Eventually, you’ll hit something and be thrown overboard, at which point you are then placed into a mini-game where you have to defeat jellyfish, fish and crabs whilst collecting shells, which can then be exchanged for upgrades for your power level throughout the game.
Once you’ve defeated all of the enemies in the area, you’ll find yourself back on your boat, and this process repeats itself again and again. At certain points you’ll encounter “Jaws” and fight him/her in the same way as the previous smaller sea creatures, only this time your attacks don’t take off much health at all, at least not until you’ve collected enough shells to upgrade your power to quite a significant amount.
When you finally win the battle, you are taken to a first-person screen where you have to deliver the final blow using a harpoon, but you only get 3 shots to do this, and if you fail, then you are thrown back into the repetitive battles to get yourself back to this point. After a while, it becomes tedious rather than enjoyable.
Adam: Visually, the game isn’t particularly impressive, but it’s pleasant enough. For a game of its age, I think the game developers did the best they could given the technology available at the time. The title screen is quite impressive for an NES game, in my opinion.
Mike: Jaws the shark looks a little bit underwhelming, but at least it takes up a decent chunk of the screen and gives off an air of menace. The rest of Jaws just looks pretty generic, to be honest. There’s nothing that really stands out much graphically to me. You fight in the sea against the same enemies over and over, with their designs being okay but little more than that. Jaws is kind of a boring game to look at, in all honesty. It’s serviceable from a graphical perspective, but there are more interesting looking games on the system, and Jaws doesn’t have much to distinguish it from the rest of the NES’ catalogue.
Mike: There’s a lousy version of the Jaws theme on the main menu (although Adam liked it) and then generic, boring music that plays throughout the rest of the game. It didn’t take long for me to get tired of the same tracks playing over and over, and I spent most of the latter stages of my playthrough just listening to podcasts or music. The music and sound effects are just another layer of “meh” in the blasé sundae that is Jaws on the NES.
Adam: The music for most of the gameplay is pretty generic; however, the title screen does have a great midi version of the iconic Jaws movie theme. Not much else to say here.
Adam: Not much longevity with this one. If you manage to beat the game (it isn’t easy and can take a while), I don’t think you’d want to play it again for a long time unless you’re a glutton for punishment.
Mike: Considering Jaws is such a basic game to play, it will take far longer to complete than it needs to due to the game getting cheaper than a discounted waffle house steak once you start levelling up. I finally managed to reach level 6 after much slogging, only to then be killed off in roughly 5 minutes as the game just threw everything at me before I even had a chance to start chipping away at the shark’s health. At one stage the shark just waited outside the port and wouldn’t move after I’d already died a couple of times, meaning I had no choice but to go straight into another fight. However, you drop a level every time you die, so now I had no chance of winning, and I had to fight Jaws whilst homing missile jellyfish were flying at me, and it was game over before I knew it.
So yeah, it’ll take a while to complete this one, but that’s only because it becomes straight up impossibly cheap at one stage.
Would We Recommend It?
Mike: No. I think you’d probably have more fun getting dragged along the road by a tractor whilst in an actual shark cage. Jaws is a lousy game and a complete waste of a potentially interesting license. Avoid like shark infested waters.
Adam: Given some of the things I’ve mentioned above, you may be surprised that my answer is yes. It’s not a game that’s going to give you hours of fun, but for a one-off play if you want a bit of a challenge, then it can be quite addictive.