Cyberpunk is a major part of the vaporwave aesthetic as well as dreamlike visuals. Jazzpunk while is not exclusively vaporwave inspired by any means, does have some elements related to the aesthetic especially its bizarre storytelling as well nostalgia it takes from the 1980s and elements of cyberpunk.
Jazzpunk was developed by Necrophone Games and published by Adult Swim in 2014 and then on PlayStation 4 in 2016. Necrophone Game is actually a two person team, Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse who work out of Toronto.
The game is essentially a comedic, adventure game set in a first person perspective in an alternative reality set in some point during the Cold War era. According to the developers the main influences regarding its stylistic choices is noir, cyberpunk, and espionage.
The world you’re in feels like a world in the 1950s with its music and architecture but also well into the 21st century when it comes to some aspects of technology. Robots are found in the streets, flying vehicles are out and about like in the Jetsons, and doors scan your eyeballs as a security measure, a concept right out of the movies. The game reminds me of an art movement called Retro Futurism. Its a concept that boils down to artistic depictions of the future but still utilizing their present style and architecture, steampunk is commonly associated with it. Apparently this style remained very popular in throughout the 20th century. The game feels like its the past’s vision of what the 21st century would look like without any knowledge of our actual future that being with smart phones and the internet.
So What’s the Story and the Gamplay…
Be advised, there will be some spoilers if you haven’t played the game yet.
The main premise of the game is that you play as Polybank, a spy who works for an espionage agency that operates outside of an seemly abandoned subway station.
You’re always given a bottle of pills by your director that apparently warps reality before starting each mission. From there you’re placed in the level and given free reign to explore and eventually complete the mission. After you complete the first set of missions by stealing top secret information from a Russian Agency and another by stealing a kidney, you then go on vacation for a little R&R at a swanky Tiki Resort. However, you get a call that a person of interest is at the same hotel, called the Editor. You’re instructed to steal a briefcase but low and behold, it was a trap. Polybank escapes the hotel and finds his boss and secretary has been kidnapped. The game ends with you going to the Editor’s penthouse to play several challenges in order to win the freedom of your employers. You manage to defeat the Editor (won’t say how, that I won’t spoil) and the game ends (again won’t spoil everything in this ending). The plot from beginning to end is strange and doesn’t make as whole lot of sense when you look at what your missions entail you to do. You begin to realize that everything about this game is purposeful silliness and nonsense.
The real meat of the game is spending long periods of time in each level to discover all the gags, mini-games, and references. This is NOT a game where you should speed run. When I played it a second time, I found even more jokes that I originally missed.
Its the kind of game where you really need to take your time and explore every nook and cranny that you can find. However, I do appreciate that the game doesn’t force you to find everything in each level. The game lets you do what you want to do, power through at lightening speed or take your time. Unlike other games where cut scenes stop you to watch/interact with the game without any control by the player, there is nothing really forced in Jazzpunk. Just a gentle hand telling you the mission objectives and where to go but if you decide to explore for the next hour there is no penalty in doing so and no nagging reminders telling you what to do.
Now as for the jokes themselves, I think most of them are genuinely humorous and got me to chuckle at points throughout my playthrough. Its not what I could call laugh out loud funny but its still very enjoyably when you finds references or just see something so odd and crazy you can’t help but laugh at it. In one level, all of the sudden the subway car, where the director’s office is, was suddenly filling up with water and then a giant octopus arm was coming up from the water for seemingly no reason. I was so confused I ended up laughing because of how absurd it was.
My only criticism if any was that some of the mini games were a bit hit or miss for me personally. The golf challenge with the Editor was my least favorite as I was a bit confused initially by the controls and I accidentally shot the ball outside of the green so far I couldn’t find it for an embarrassing long period of time (I have no idea how I did that). My other issue was that the game is not long, even with me exploring every thing I could possibly find, it still only took me 4-5 hours to complete the game. I still went back and found more but the game for me was still a bit short.
Q&A by Luis Hernandez with More Background on Necrophone Games
I was able to contact one of the developers via email, Luis Hernandez, and he graciously answered some of my questions regarding the game:
Q: How did both of you get your start in video games? Was it something you both wanted to do or was it a gradual interest? Did you work on previous games before Jazzpunk?
Luis: I started making Half-Life 1 maps in high school, I think Jess got started making flash games in action script. we made a bunch of little games when we met, most of which aren’t online anymore. one was called Beetlenaut which was for android phones.
Q: What made you both decide to open your own video game development team/studio together? Was it just to make Jazzpunk or were there other ideas in the works?
Luis: We never decided to open a studio per say, we just kept working on JP so long that when it came time to decide we’d release it, we needed to be a “company” to sell it on any platform. We never expected to run our own studio.
Q: Why did you both decide your studio name to be Necrophone Games? Luis: We used to be coworkers and we’d name the computers at work in a “portmanteau” style, usually something like a Deathmetal band name. So Necro+Phone was just one of the combinations we liked. BloodModem, KapacitorKiller, etc.
Q: What made you both decide to go with a comedy adventure type of game? From I read it was originally going to be a serious game, what made you decide not to go in that direction?
Luis: We naturally like easter eggs and we’d put little gags in the game for our own amusement, eventually we realized that was the most fun part of the game to make so we decided to make it the main focus.
Q: This one is for Luis. The part of the game where you’re breaking into the cyberpunk bank, what was your inspiration for the choices you made when creating the music.
Luis: I listen to and make a lot of different styles of electronic music. I wanted that Darknet World (the place with the bank heist) to have stuff with a lot of FM synthesis sounds and digital reverbs, for a cold cyberpunk feeling. I selected equipment from the Neuromancer era.
Q: Do you both have parts of the game you absolutely love (favorite jokes, mini-games, etc)? Luis: Its hard to pick favorites. lately I like the Knifejogger and Wrestler stuff, we tend to like the parts we forgot about and get reminded of later.
Q: One theme that pops up a lot in the game is Japanese culture, which coincidentally is a major part of vaporwave music and in artwork found online. What made you both gravitate towards having an entire level, The Golden Lucky Electric Squid part of the story, with themes from Japan but in an alternative reality setting?
Luis: I studied Japanese economic history and Japanese modernization extensively in my 20s, mostly as context for the culture that Japan was still exporting at the time. A lot of those influences built up and found their way into my work as a result of that research. Later on when I was reading cyberpunk literature from the 1980s, it referenced a lot of this foreknowledge I had, and I thought it was important to highlight it in a game that has an underlying neuromancer motif, William Gibson’s version of japan.
The Future of Jazzpunk
The game had one DLC pack released several years after the original game came out in the summer of 2017 along with a upgrade to the game where more content was added as well as renaming the game to Jazzpunk Director’s Cut. The DLC pack was called The Flavour Nexus which is an optional mission/chapter that takes place during the Tiki Resort level, after you pass out from the spiked drink. Basically, what happens is you wake up back in the subway car office, where the director tells Polybank to find smelling salts at the grocery store aka the Nexus so he can wake up. The developers described it as it can be completed between 20-50 minutes depending on how much you explore the level which is the same as per any of the chapters in the game, if you speed run you’ll miss out on tons of the jokes and mini games. Overall, I really did like the DLC, again same humor and I loved exploring every inch of the level because I always find surprises. My favorite would have to be one gag with the Wedding Cake (try it out if you missed that one).
Since then, I have’t been able to find anything else going on with the game. When I asked Luis about any future projects or developments he said he couldn’t comment on any as of yet but to stay tuned. Hopefully that means a sequel or more content for Jazzpunk at some point in the near future.
Would I Recommend this game and any Final Thoughts.
To answer the first question, yes, yes and more YES. The game is well designed, original, funny and just a really great single player experience. Sometimes, it nice to play something where a small group of people can come together to make something so imaginative beyond what we usual get in the sometimes narrow box of video game industry. Jazzpunk could have easily just been enough spy themed point and click but Necrophone Games took it to another level and decided to go with their gut to make something different which in the end worked well in their favor. As evidence by the insanely high review score on Steam, a whopping 92% overall as well as favorable reviews from online publications, the game has been met with much love and support by the video game community.
As a quick side note, watch the trailers if you have not, they are all kinds of campy and silly that they may be my favorite video trailers in a while.
I wish the best for Necrophone Games and I hope both Luis and Jess continue to make games because what they made was truly something very special. Best of luck to both of them.
If you want to try Jazzpunk for yourself, a link to the Steam page and PlayStation page will be below as well as links to the developers own Twitter profiles if you want to keep an eye out for what they have next.
Luis Hernandez @Beetlenaut
Jess Brouse @SkeletonShark