The simplicity of its controls are a factor in the game's wide appeal. A joystick moves left and right, and a "Flap" button flaps the mount's wings once. Pressing "Flap" in rapid succession will produce a gain in altitude until simulated gravity drags the mount downward.
After destroying a knight, an egg will fall to the ground. The player must touch the egg to destroy it before the egg hatches to produce another, more powerful knight. This hatchling is harmless and may also be destroyed by touch prior to the knight mounting a new buzzard. The award for destroying eggs and hatchlings progresses with each one collected, from 250 to 1,000 points in 250-point increments. This progression starts anew upon the death of the player or the beginning of another wave. Players are further rewarded with 500 bonus points for each egg caught before it touches the ground.
A wave is cleared when the player destroys all enemy knights and eggs. Survival Waves reward a player who avoids death during the round with 3,000 bonus points. If too much time has elapsed during a wave, a pterodactyl will appear from one side of the screen and fly around until it either collides and kills the player, the player clears the wave, or the player destroys it by hitting the pterodactyl directly in the mouth with his lance, earning 1,000 points.
Two players can play Joust simultaneously, and each player earns points for destroying enemy knights as well as his human opponent. Cooperative play is possible by agreement, but accidental kills through collision remain possible. Completion of Team Waves award 3,000 bonus points each to players who successfully avoid killing one another. Gladiator Waves encourage players to kill each other by similarly offering 3,000 bonus points to the first player to do so.
During the first two waves flooring at the bottom of the screen covers a lava pit, which is uncovered on the third wave as the floor burns away. On the fourth and subsequent waves, a troll inhabits the lava pit; if any player or enemy knight flies too close to the lava, the troll's hand will emerge and tug the mount down toward the lava. Players can escape the troll's grip by repeatedly pressing the "Flap" button.
Early ROM revisions of the game presented a situation which a player could periodically exploit to accumulate an indefinite number of points with low risk. The player could maneuver an enemy knight too close to the lava, such that the lava troll would grip it, but not low enough that the troll would succeed in pulling it in, and not high enough that the enemy knight could escape. By doing so, the knight could not attack the player and the wave would never end. The player could then stand in the middle of the central platform to safely face oncoming pterodactyls, striking them in the mouth merely by standing still. Pterodactyls would appear at an increasing rate from different sides of the screen to be killed repeatedly, scoring large amounts of points toward extra lives. Arcade operators were not too pleased to see players exploit this bug.
In 2000 Midway licensed ten Williams Electronics games, including Joust, to Shockwave to demonstrate the power of the content platform through Shockwave Arcade Collection, an online applet created by Digital Eclipse. Digital Eclipse grouped Joust that year alongside five other titles as Midway's Greatest Arcade Hits 1 for the Dreamcast and Nintendo 64 and three other games in Midway's Greatest Arcade Hits for the Game Boy Advance in 2001. A later anthology, Midway Arcade Treasures, released in 2003 for the Nintendo GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Windows, also features Joust; it was subsequently released for the PSP in 2005 as Midway Arcade Treasures: Extended Play.
Publishers have also released ports of Joust for a nominal price to online services that support current-generation video game consoles, such as the Xbox Live Arcade (November 22 2005) and the PlayStation Network (May 24 2007).