Note: This article is also available at D-PAD Magazine
Joe Danger was perhaps a little underappreciated when it came out, considered a poor man’s Trials. Both were Excitebike style side-scrolling motorbike games and so comparisons were inevitable. However, Joe Danger proved to be quite a different game in practice, and its sequel builds on the strengths of the original, making a characterful game which remains the right side of the thin line between challenging and infuriating.
The first thing to note about Joe Danger 2 is that it is not simply a game about getting to the finish line as quickly as possible; in most cases this is very easy and will fail the player. There are very few courses which require the same rote obstacle memorisation or pinpoint timing just to finish as Trials – instead, the game is more like a skateboarding or other extreme sports game in that the player must complete a series of challenges while performing tricks and stunts before the course ends in order to score as many points as possible. The moment at which this becomes clear is transformative; prior to it, Joe Danger 2 may seem easy and unrewarding. Even playing simply to complete the barest minimum of challenges needed to progress is not seeing the game played to its fullest; trying to complete a level while successfully completing every challenge and never ending a string of tricks is the real challenge and what will have players coming back to past levels.
Unlike many games, the player’s abilities are all unlocked (if not explained) from the start; as a result, they can be found out through experimentation or knowledge of the previous game, and used to great advantage in the technically easier early levels. While someone progressing through the game and using only the skills taught in any given level to complete it may get a respectable score, someone returning to that level with knowledge of other techniques will get a far higher one. The prevalence of online leaderboards, ghosts and a report on completion of a race telling you what percentage of racers you beat encourages this constant replaying for both score and speed. That Joe Danger 2 spends time teaching you to not focus on speed at first, to learn how to pull of the advanced maneuvers needed to complete the challenges, and then rates you on how quickly and efficiently you performed, is a refreshing change for a game – it acknowledges the difference between playing for completion and playing competitively, and encourages the player to move from one to the other.
The game also steadily builds in complexity, not specifically adding new mechanics (although vehicles such as the jetpack handle appreciably differently to the core bikes) but instead encouraging the player to use their fixed library of abilities in new ways; as a result, the controls need to be precise and forgiving, and Joe Danger 2 manages this well. The threshold for failure is much higher than in the unforgiving Trials, because the focus is not on simply completing the course; were it too easy to crash, it would be impossible to do many of the mission objectives. Instead, the game gives the player significant control over their vehicle’s flight, a boost mechanic which is required for making many of the jumps and a kind of bunny-hop move used both to get over low hurdles but also to change the dynamics of flight. Understanding these unrealistic but precise physics is vital to completing some of the challenges, but the game manages to make them clear without the sense that the player is being spoonfed. There are no lengthy tutorials with content or abilities locked until the player completes some busywork – instead the information is provided on loading screens, signs and via the game audio.
Unfortunately, it is the audio and video elements which are one of the game’s few issues; at times, the amount of objects on screen and aural clutter in the form of explosions, dialogue and engine noise makes it hard to spot threats or obstacles, or hear advice. Furthermore, the music and dialogue is entertaining at first but perfectionists bent on replaying levels to get the best score will probably turn it off in time because it does not vary. Were Joe Danger 2 simply a collection of missions, it would be an excellent game; that this is supplemented by multiplayer, a level creator and secret challenges to unlock makes it even better value. The entire package is heavily flavoured to fit the game’s movie stuntman theme, with quaint animated menus and numerous puns and visual references to recognisable films. However, these menus are also another problem – their navigation can be unintuitive and a player can easily accidentally end up replaying a level they have just completed rather than selecting the next in sequence.
That these complaints – really the only ones I can level at Joe Danger 2 – are so trivial means it is a very solidly made and entertaining game. It differentiates itself from its most obvious rival by taking a simple mechanic and melding it with another genre, and then applying a riotous and often amusing theme to the whole package. The result is a game which has universal appeal – a return to the brightly-coloured skill tests that anyone who grew up with earlier generations of console will remember fondly. What is more, the constant emphasis on learning and mastering the game’s rules and then improving on scores and times makes Joe Danger 2 a perfect game to return to time and again.