Version tested: PlayStation 3
Motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel once said of his promoters, "they thought my bike had wings". Motorcycle daredevil Joe Danger's bike does not have wings, but it does technically have a jetpack thanks to its boost meter, and you can refill that meter by pulling wheelies and performing death-defying stunts while flying through the air.
Evel Knievel also used to blame his regular injuries on the fact that "I did everything by the seat of my pants". I blame Joe Danger's regular injuries on my failing to land those death-defying stunts properly. Fortunately the little man has an instant-restart button that zaps him back to the last checkpoint, alive and well and smiling.
Joe Danger, the first release from indie startup Hello Games, quickly settles into a rhythm that will be familiar to players of games like TrackMania and Trials HD, where progress is made through surprisingly delightful trial-and-error. You blast along side-scrolling stunt tracks until you come unstuck, and then hit a button to begin again before you've had time to consciously react.
What sets Joe Danger apart is the variety of objectives you're being invited to complete on each run. Before you start you're given an indication of what kind of event it is: on top of driving from start to finish, some levels involve landing on targets, others collecting coins, some locating hidden stars, many by sustaining a combo, a few by collecting D-A-N-G-E-R letters, and others still by other means. Simply finishing may entitle you to post a score online, but you need to complete those extra objectives to earn stars, which unlock new tracks.
Initially the range of controls and number of things to do can be confusing. You can accelerate and brake, jump, double-jump, bash an opponent, pull tricks with both bumpers and do wheelies, and there are also air controls for rotation and lateral movement, while some levels invite you to switch lanes at certain junctions. All the while, you're racing past different-coloured stars, over bull's-eyes, under dangling letters and all sorts.
Even after a dozen hours of focused play, it can take a few too many split-seconds in mid air to remember that you need to brake and manoeuvre with the triggers, hold tricks to sustain your combo and fill your boost bar, and then orientate yourself with the left stick to land, while also considering what to do once you have.
Fortunately, it's never bad enough to put you off, only to hold you up. Joe Danger always remains a game where it's easy to have fun within seconds.
One of the main reasons for that is the way the objectives work. When you start to require additional stars to progress, you revisit older levels to try for different objectives. Each goal is distinctive enough to require a different approach, and once you become proficient it's tempting to go after multiple objectives in one run - something the game encourages with goals that combine speed and hitting targets, among other examples.
Individual elements are also hewn to their simplest and most effective - the trick system, for instance, is accessed by tapping combinations of the two bumpers and holding them until just before landing. There are various advanced tricks to learn to help you make faster progress, too, like double-jumping off of springs, and using the boost button like a jetpack to keep yourself in the air, but figuring out and applying each is a case of logic and intuition rather than superhuman skill.
Level design is never quite so extraordinary or iconic as that of Trials HD, but there are some great courses to run, and you can also design your own. In Sandbox mode you drive around as normal, but by pressing triangle you pause the game and get to add stuff, rotate it, stack it and start playing again. Not sure where to position your landing zone? Fire yourself off the ramp and wait until you're about to hit the ground, then hit the edit button and slap something down. It's that simple.
There's also a two-player split-screen mode with its own suite of levels, and a few other distractions peppered around the Career mode, like ten-pin bowling levels and races against rival daredevils, whose relative positions are indicated by a little bar along the bottom of the screen as you smash out tricks to boost and fend them off.
Joe Danger also happens to be a lovely place to play. It's possibly the cheeriest game of the year, full of bright, retro graphics, music and sound effects. Grandstands bounce, blimps float through deep blue skies, giant blocks smile randomly in the background and even the bumpers designed to halt your progress smirk mischievously, while hand organs blast merrily over the top of everything.
More could have been done in a few areas. There are friends and global leaderboards, but they need more browsing options and faster navigation, and it's impossible to save or upload replays, which is a real shame. Joe Danger may not be Trials HD - it's precise, but in very different ways - but it's easy to imagine a cloud of replays to learn from and compete with would have had a similarly sustaining effect.
Expect hundreds of videos to turn up on YouTube in the next few days all the same though, because Joe Danger invites the same kind of obsessive, perfectionist approach as Trials HD once it makes its mark, and even if your score for the first level is closer to 20 million than 280 million the rewards can be just as thrilling, and your antics just as hilarious and memorable.
The game's four developers apparently had different takes on what they wanted from their cute, fast-moving stunt game when they began to make Joe Danger, and it does show, but only in a good way. Despite traces of everything from Excitebike and Trials to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and Sonic the Hedgehog, the result is accomplished and coherent. You can play Joe Danger in a number of ways, but more importantly each is worth playing, whichever way a given level happens to be dragging you.
If you like collecting things, going fast, beating times, posting scores... If you like videogames, basically, you ought to like this.
8 / 10
Joe Danger is due out for PSN in Europe on Wednesday 9th June and costs £9.99. Hello Games has told Eurogamer that a free patch will be available soon to add replay saving and sharing.