Top flight: what is the best video game jetpack?

Life can be a lot less awkward when you’re high. Think Exile, the 1988 marvel that cleverly crams an entire alien world and its warlike fauna into the meager 32k memory of a BBC Micro. Chief among the game’s chaotic pleasures is its nifty jetpack, allowing your stranded space captain to explore the hostile planet Phoebus and its clever tangle of interlocking physics systems.

Depending on the modes of transportation, jetpacks are often more about courage than precision. In Exile, you’re engaged in a constant back and forth with wasteful gas geysers, exploding shockwaves, and gravity’s invisible tug Phoebus. But soaring at high speed through low-roofed caverns is a perfect match for a game that asks you to leap headfirst into the unknown and apply seat-of-the-pants problem solving. Exile’s emerging rocket-powered slapstick makes me smile the same way I see a jelly start to wobble: precariousness as pleasure. This is hands down my second favorite video game jetpack. (In keeping with the topic, buckle up and allow me to loop in some discursive aerobatics before revealing my favorite.)

It is therefore a universally recognized boost: the rule of jetpacks. They’ve ruled since the turn of the 20th century, when they first propelled space cowboys like Buck Rogers on grand adventures via unscrupulous novels and comics. For decades, these portable domesticated explosions have been elegant symbols of a seemingly imminent technology-assisted future, shining pointers to a world where humanity would be free to take off at will in the Y axis while brushing the signs. V to the old boring gravity.

James Bond loves the high life.

But it’s now been six decades since the U.S. military helped fund the invention of the Bell Rocket Belt, that spindly, silvery jester of tubes, nozzles, and jet fuel that could give an infantryman air superiority (up to 20 glorious seconds). You might have seen one in Thunderball – where it helps 007 escape not so fast – or in vintage clips from the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Since those brief appearances, technology real seems to be at a standstill. Jetpacks have taken on a different meaning, redeployed as a sarcastic shorthand for a stalled utopia. (As the excellent Scottish indie band says: We Were Promised Jetpacks!)

Fortunately, the games held their end of the bargain, fostering an environment where jetpacks not only survived, but thrived. The Marvelous Exile may have been a notable pioneer, but the game’s long love affair of strapping a volatile fuel source to your back and then merrily igniting it dates back to 1983, when Ultimate Play the Game released its first ZX Spectrum title: Jetpac.

This single-screen masterpiece of mayhem tasks your stressed astronaut with reassembling a rocket and scavenging vital fuel using a combination of carefully timed boosts and strobe laser blasts amid a constant barrage of cosmic debris. It was – and is – great fun, a perfect example of what a good jetpack could bring to the gaming table in an era when the ability to change direction mid-jump was by no means guaranteed. .


Jetpac absolutely rules.

Look at the nearly four decades of gaming since Ultimate’s back-breaking collect-em-up and you can see jetpacks deployed in a variety of ways, from boilerplate to inspired. There are games that look like they’re built from jetpack, like the famous franchise’s FPS combat Tribes and your rookie pilot’s scooter, recon, and hover boosts in Titanfall 2. Games like these give you invite you to reinvent how you navigate the 3D space around you, then demand that you do so under heavy laser cannon fire.

Back in 2010, Dark Void attempted to inject an aerial twist into Gears of War’s fashionable skirmishes. Capcom’s so-called “vertical cover shooter” strapped players into a big retro rocket pack to overcome a rampaging alien invasion in the 1930s. world, Dark Void managed to evoke some of the bravery of The Rocketeer comics and movie. It belongs to the same continuum as Rocket Ranger, one of Cinemaware’s lavish 16-bit (if gameplay-lite) titles that was also in the grip of pulpy retro series like King of the Rocket Men.

For years, jetpacks have added valuable aerial maneuverability tools to dozens of third-person games, from Mass Effect: Andromeda to PS5 bullet-hell alien safari Returnal and even Fortnite (during times they’ve been boosted since safe). But even when they just seem to be sprinkled on like a cool, limited-use add-on, I still get a small charge when activating a jetpack. My theory? The sound effect is usually a variation of a fire extinguisher blast. And after years of driving past emergency-only signs, there’s an illicit thrill to imagine dropping a fire extinguisher just for fun.

Jetpack Joyride keeps the jetpack alive.

What did I miss? The cartoony smoothness of the addictive endless runner Jetpack Joyride, where your bag is both transportation and weapon. The Jet Trooper’s steep, insectoid jumps in the first pair of Star Wars Battlefront games. The cute but annoying and talkative FLUDD from Super Mario Sunshine – because of course a plumber’s favorite jetpack would be water-powered – and all those extra traversal options it gives you.

All strong contenders. But for me, the best video game jetpack is the one lurking in the desert outside of Las Venturas, requiring you to infiltrate a top-secret military installation to retrieve it. It’s only a relatively minor element in the swagger and raucous sprawl of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but after hours spent in noisy cities with hip-hop blaring over machine-gun bursts, your first forays into the (radioless) jetpack can create a very different vibe.

As you glide over a desert of desolate beauty, CJ’s skinny legs dangle and react almost imperceptibly to every minor course correction, the only sound being the throaty whisper of your stability thrusters. This is a vertical slice of GTA at its quietest, most poetic form, rekindling that old-fashioned utopian fantasy that jetpacks once represented: spirit-elevating serenity and, ultimately, escapism.