You can go a long way with a smile. When determined stuntman Joe Danger popped his first wheelie on PlayStation 3 in 2010, it was because UK-based indie start-up Hello Games were broke and had to ship the game. Still, that didn't stop the exuberant little game from turning many frowns upside down. The studio's second major effort, after a souped up XBLA re-release of the original and an upcoming iOS version, promises to pack more into its gleefully saccharine presentation, beaming happily once again as you perform death-defying stunts while rocketing uncontrollably through the air.
Joe Danger sings a merry tune many will be instinctively familiar with, throwing players into quirky loop-de-loops of twitch controls, combo meters and irresistible jumps as players manoeuvre courses designed to make them come unstuck. It very quickly becomes a tricky game, which is something you might not suspect from its, like, oh so totally adorable aesthetic.
Despite the high-speed antics, this is a saturated world packed with detail. The happy beaming smiles plastered across everything bring me joy, and the more you look at any given scene the more you find yourself catapulted into your own personal Happy Place. Road signs look like they're from Sesame Street, every sound effect seems to be accompanied by a rambunctious twang, and the charmingly silly billboards can even advertise grenades without feeling violent. It's a modern aesthetic inspired by the aching nostalgia of the 16 and 32-bit eras that Hello Games, like most children of the eighties, is clearly consumed by. Joe's is a fun, bouncy world to inhabit, where everything, including the player, seems to have a spring in its step. Fight dinosaurs! Pop wheelies!
But, like I said, it's tricky. This isn't a game afraid of being devious. The immediate frame of reference for most will be RedLynx's Trials series, but Joe Danger tests you for style, tricks, exploration and combos over control. The core is a very familiar mix of reflex-straining, eye-frazzling tests of hand to eye co-ordination, albeit one where you might find yourself learning those techniques dressed up as a giant pink cupcake riding a small bicycle.
Each clump of levels has been framed around Joe filming the stunts on the set of a film, and Hello Games deals exclusively with the tried-and-tested meat of fiction - adventure, espionage, crime and dinosaurs. There's some lovely little moments sewn in, like when Joe mocaps his own stunts, but these aesthetic framings serve to ground and orientate the player in an understandable structure. This is also Hello Games laying the game's foundations so they can take a wrecking ball to it, such as how the illusion of a crime caper can be capped off with a robotic invasion; peppy presentation delivered with a wink and a smile.
It's a subtle tweak to established formulas - you don't need to look far to see games that bucket off levels into themed categories - but it's done with the kind of aplomb that shows how far Hello Games has matured as a developer in the last three years.
At first, however, the sensory overload can be a bit overwhelming. There's a lot to do in Joe Danger, and players must successfully juggle between pulling off tricks with the shoulder buttons, positioning with the triggers, and plying the boost and jump buttons when required - on some of the trickier levels it feels like Hello Games might as well just make you have a go at spinning plates while you're at it, especially when you're aiming to achieve each stage's multiple objectives in one smooth, unbroken run for one of the game's elusive Pro Medals.
Pro Medals: you've made the left trigger of my Xbox controller awkwardly squeak, so I'm going to say you've won this one. But I'll be back.
There are tutorial levels, of course, and the game does make an effort to ease you into its challenge, but when the training wheels finally come off you're going to find yourself having a hard time if you never played the original. Or, to be more explicit: what comes out of my mouth while playing Joe Danger is often the thematic opposite of the plump world of smiles and sunshine simmering away on the screen.
This is how the game feels to play: you're having a perfect run, and everything is going your way. You're the King of the World. Everyone wants to high five you for that tasty little trick you did by double jumping over a barrier. And now you can see the finish line! You know, thinking about it, you just might be the single best Joe Danger player in the entire wor-- oh dear, you've landed on a meat grinder. Pause. Restart. Hope no children are within audible distance, because hell hath no fury like a Joe Danger player that's accidentally fluffed up their chance of clinching the #1 spot on the Friends Leaderboard.
But perseverance is rewarded, and flying over the finish line while pirouetting in the air is exhilarating. This is a game where the challenge is rarely that you're going to fall off the vehicle, more that you're going to overshoot a banana, fluff up your combo meter or land in a trap, so crossing the finish line with a little flourish - a smidgen of je ne sais quoi - is like giving the staff at Hello Games the warmest, friendliest middle finger in existence. If I can beat the ghost of my housemate (in the game; the last time I saw him in real life he was fine) while doing that, well, let's just say I'll be having a pretty good evening.
Hello Games rounds out their partitioned campaign with multiple vehicles, helping keep things varied between levels. Alongside the signature stuntbike Joe ping-pongs between skiis, minecarts, jetpacks, unicycles (hilarious, but a complete nightmare to control) snowmobiles and a police vehicle. In one level he's even a paperboy. Each vehicle has its own quirks, and the game tests you on the advanced ins-and-outs of it in the Deleted Scenes campaign. These are like Joe Danger's The Lost Levels, and if you can finish them all off you're a much better player than me.
Elsewhere there's a return of the game's decent level editor, a robust tool that lets you play and edit in real-time. All of the game's levels were made using it, apparently, but I can't use these things to save my life. Thankfully Hello Games has worked in some online sharing capabilities - a massive flaw in the original game - so I'll be able to tinker with the efforts of other, more intelligent players.
This is ultimately a modern game deeply rooted in nostalgia, and you can still see the component parts of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Trials, Sonic the Hedgehog and Excitebike in Joe Danger 2: The Movie, but this time around the amalgamation is seamless, unique and completely coherent. Hello Games says this will be the last time we see Joe Danger's canny mix of speed, stunts leaps and bounds, and in some ways that's a real shame - there's a perkiness to Mr Danger that the games industry definitely needs more of, but this is such a definitive and generous downloadable title that I can't imagine where Hello Games could possibly expand on it. Joe Danger 2 can be an incredibly tricky game, but it's one that always puts a smile on my face.
Version Tested: Xbox 360