Jambo! Safari (Arcade) Review


There was once a time where Sega was hailed as the gold standard of arcade gaming. To many this reputation was primarily earned throughout the 1990s when the developer churned out hit after hit—everything from Daytona USA to The House of the Dead. While I’d argue that pedigree was carried into early 2000s, I don’t feel any enthusiasm for the Sega arcade machine of 2020.

Thankfully, there still exist pockets of ‘90s Sega goodness in the world. One of these locations is the Walmart “Gameplay”—always a weird name to utter—in Murray, Kentucky. Here, you’ll find the wonderful, the visceral, and the all too excellent Jambo! Safari. And after playing it through…oh gosh, probably seven times at least, I’d like to share my thoughts on the title.

Without further delay, let’s get into the game.

Jambo! Safari

Developer(s): Sega AM2/AM3

Publisher: Sega

Release date: 1999

Gameplay

I’ve always described Jambo! Safari as Crazy Taxi in Africa. This obviously isn’t to say that you pick up passengers and take them to Pizza Hut, but rather to illustrate the time-sensitive, mission-based, and open-ended nature of the experience.

Wasting no time with introductions, you’re immediately set loose on the plains of Africa with the goal of (safely) capturing exotic animals for scientific research. Your actions are simple: drive toward animal dudes and lasso them up.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find the gameplay loop endlessly satisfying. There’s a constant “push and pull”—quite literally—as you attempt to subdue careening creatures. The base mechanics are a real rush.

What makes this more challenging, and thusly more fun, is the time management necessary for mission completion. Research sites are populated with creatures great, small, meek, and mad—represented by stars and emotes. The more stars attached to animal, the more difficult that animal should be to capture, and the more time and points you’ll earn from capturing it. Just like in Crazy Taxi, you certainly can go for all the “low-hanging fruit” you want, but you probably won’t get very far.

The most valuable “standard” animals are marked with a floating crown above their heads. These animals are worth more time and more points than crownless contemporaries.

The most important animals by far are those marked as “Special Research” and “Final Research”. These can more or less be considered “boss battles”, based on both their level of difficulty and high point values. These encounters break up the first and third research areas.

The Special Research animal is a white rhinoceros. As far as difficulty is concerned, the creature can be a little tricky to pin down but is easily mastered with subsequent playthroughs. I’d almost call it easy at this point.

The Final Research contains one of three animals based on your performance. You’ll meet the saber-toothed tiger if you reach the site using continues; you’ll meet the white lion if you reach the site without continues; and you’ll meet the phororhacos if you achieve an S ranking on the third site and haven’t used any continues. I’ve only encountered the saber-toothed tiger and white lion so far. I’m also not always able to capture the final animal—though I have a few times before. The key for me is learning from previous playthroughs and improving in subsequent trials.

Apparently, there are also events (a.k.a. side missions) within the research sites that you can complete for time and points. Although I have yet to trigger or clear one myself, the events look pretty danged fun in gameplay footage.

All four stages are a blast to tackle, and on the whole, Jambo! Safari is quite fair. On a machine set to $0.25 per credit, I reached the Final Research four times, spending $1.25 on the first run, $0.50 on the second run, $0.25 on the third run, and $0.50 on the final run. It’s more than possible to beat the game on just one credit.

Couple that with the highly rewarding score system—a major part of why I played the game four times in a row—and you’ve got a surefire fun game. On gameplay alone, I can’t recommend Jambo! Safari enough.

Content

Like previously reviewed Sega title After Burner: Climax, Jambo! Safari is admittedly an itty-bitty game. Most of my playthroughs clocked in at around 10 minutes. The short campaign can be experienced in either "Beginner" mode (with tutorial) or "Expert" mode (without tutorial). While that may not sound ideal, I firmly believe that the short game length makes perfect sense in this context.

There are four playable characters—Edward Arniele, George Wildman, Naftali Ngugi, and Marit Söderström—to choose from at the start.The game features four research areas—Embaba Plains, Special Research, Shetani Riverside, and Kuungo Prehistoric Site (Final Research)—creating a very cohesive experience that doesn’t lull or drag on.

Would it be nice if there were additional, unique research sites to bulk up the game length? Sure, but I’d argue that what we have is precisely enough. The existing stages are a joy to explore as it is. Plus, given how inexpensive it is to complete once you’ve mastered it, Jambo! Safari is a genuine value proposition.

Controls

Controls are another department where Jambo! Safari truly shines. The actual control setup itself is quite simple—one start button, one steering wheel, one gas pedal, and one lever—but its implementation flows beautifully.

You’ll use your left hand to steer throughout the environment and your right hand to push and pull and small hand lever that controls your lasso. I’m not sure how this would feel for left-handed individuals, but as a right-handed guy, it feels pretty good.

The pedal, of course, controls your acceleration. For whatever, it doesn’t feel like the accelerator provides true “analog” support but rather a “slow” speed and “fast” speed. This wasn’t a problem in the slightest—in fact, I’d say it improved my precision—but it was something I noticed. You can double-tap the pedal to “dash” (speed boost).

Steering is about as simple as you’d expect and every bit as effective. The only real problem I had with steering was that, once I had entered a dash, I was locked into a direction and wasn’t able to veer left or right. However, since this is how the game is intended to operate, it’s something I learned to work with just fine.

The lasso controls are similarly easy to pick up but require a bit more finesse to nail down. The default position of the lever is down, meaning your lasso is drawn. When nearing an animal, you’ll push the lever forward to throw out your lasso onto it, using the steering wheel to gently guide your aim.

From there, you have to get even closer to the animal by tugging on the lasso, or rather lever, just enough to gain traction but not too much that the lasso snaps. You’ll also need to maintain tight control of your steering to keep on track. Once your very close to animal, you’ll throw out a net to capture it for good. (Don’t expect it to be easy, though.)

The three primary inputs—steering wheel, lever, and pedal—come together to provide an excellent control experience. (And for the sake of discussion, the start button is good, too. I’m sure you were on pins on needles waiting to find that out.)

Graphics/Presentation

Jambo! Safari looks just about as good as you’d expect for a game of its age. While it’s not exactly mind-blowing, the aesthetics are still plenty pleasant. Characters are unique and fun, environments are well rendered and relatively expansive, and the general “feel” of the game is just right. Even if the game has no real story to speak of, the end goal is clear from the outset.

All this is made that much better by a HUD equal parts fun and clear. Along the top of the screen are your “Ranger Points” (score), crates representing the animals you’ve captured, and the remaining time. At the bottom-right is a radar illustrating where animals are in relation to your vehicle. Occasionally, radio notifications will pop up in the middle of the screen with tips such as, “Get right behind the animal to catch it!” Although the HUD is much, much larger than we’ve become accustomed to in the high-definition age, I never found it obtrusive or annoying. Heck, I honestly really liked it.

One presentation detail that I genuinely appreciated was the “navigation arrow,” for lack of a better term. Whereas Crazy Taxi had a rotating green arrow at the top of the screen, Jambo! Safari instead employs a large white arrow that “outlines” your vehicle on the ground and bends to and fro to guide you. While I had no problem with the Crazy Taxi method, I must say that Jambo! Safari’s approach was extremely effective.

A very minor “presentation” complaint would be what I consider short timers. While 15 seconds in menus and 10 seconds to continue were pretty standard in 1999, they don’t feel good at all in the year 2020. I dunno…maybe I’m just spoiled.

I will point out that I simultaneously like and dislike the "Name Entry" screen. While the aesthetic elements are properly delightful—your “cursor” can be represented by a different animal each time—the alphabet keys are a real pain to scroll through. Fortunately, I only ran out of time once, logging in a sad “DR” on the high score table.

Other than that, I can’t say anything else really blew me away or turned me off. Jambo! Safari is a good-lookin’ game all around.

Sound/Music

The Jambo! Safari soundtrack is pretty consistent in its quality throughout. I really liked the balance that was struck between “African-influenced themes” and “game-y video game music”. It made for some nice sounds. That being said, I can’t truthfully say any particular composition stuck out to me.

The sound effects, too, were all very good. Not being much of an animal or nature guy, I couldn’t tell you how accurately Sega captured the essence of the region they recreated. It certainly worked for me, though.

The quality of the game’s speakers was also more than acceptable. I really enjoyed the seat speakers that “wrapped” me in tunes.

Cabinet

I played Jambo! Safari on the standard, sit-down cabinet variant. Overall, it’s a wonderful design that invokes enough safari motifs to be visually distinct from more traditional driving game experiences. I’d say all the cabinet art is pretty dang amazing, even if it seems a little odd that the designers used in-game animal models for the marquee as opposed to pre-rendered ones. And the monitor, like many of CRTs of the day, is crisp and pops with color.

The only real qualm I have with the design is that there was not enough leg room between the control panel and the pedals. Though the space generally felt fine during gameplay, it was always such a nuisance to shift about when I had to insert more quarters—so much so that I often worried about running out of time before I could continue. Keep in mind that this constriction could be very well be my own fault for being a 6-foot freak.

To my knowledge, two other cabinets exist: an upright and a sit-down deluxe. The upright is the by-the-numbers NAOMI build that we all know and love. Though I’ve never had the opportunity to play any game in the configuration, I’ve always dug the look in photos online. And with all the custom art, Jambo! Safari is still as groovy as ever in this form.

The deluxe variant looks pretty awesome but isn’t necessarily my style. Far from a bad cabinet, I’ve just never really been into huge games. Plus, I know those rear projection monitors are prone to bad fading over time. Regardless of my personal nitpicks, I can’t deny that the deluxe cabinet is a mean piece of machinery that perfectly channels the Jambo! Safari essence and more.

All in all, I’d say Sega did a wonderful job crafting this line of cabinets.

As I’ve hopefully made clear throughout the entirety of this review, Jambo! Safari is a wicked cool game. Is it the longest? No. Does the standard, sit-down version have enough leg room? Absolutely not. But minor gripes like those could never take away from my love for this title.

Jambo! Safari represents so much of what I miss from classic Sega. Their commitment to experimentation, to quality, and—above all—to fun set them apart in an already competitive market. (Y’all know how much I love ‘90s Midway, after all.) Too bad we don’t get as much of that from Sega's arcade division anymore.

If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a machine, make certain you play Jambo! Safari. I promise it’ll be worth 10 minutes of your time—if not 10 hours down the line.

Keep it real, ya sweaty flippin’ nerds.

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