I double dog dare you not to have fun with Joe Danger

It’s almost as if Hello Games is daring you not to have fun with its upcoming PlayStation Network title, Joe Danger.

Everything about it screams “you will play this with a smile on your face, and you will like it, damn it.” From the bright, Pixar-like design of its thrill-seeking protagonist to the loop-de-loops and fake shark tanks, it’s hard hard not to love what Hello Games is selling. Even the damned theme music, a happy, jazzy tune that will get caught in your head for hours and have you shuffling your feet, will make you grin. And that’s before you even you press start on the DualShock 3.

Hello Games passed along a preview build of the game to me not too long ago, providing a small peek at a few of the game’s levels, only a fraction of what the full title has to offer.

Once a highly-respected stuntman, Joe Danger’s only goal in life was to thrill a crowd, determined to grab hold of the coveted “Master of Disaster” stuntman title. But when an accident left him crippled, doctors said he’s never walk again. As the “world’s most determined stuntman,” he’s proving them wrong… and he needs your help!

That’s all of the backstory you need to get into Joe Danger, and it’s likely that without even that, you’d still slide into the game just fine. Again, Joe Danger is unashamedly a videogame, with reality-defying physics, and cartoon-like environments that come to life to thwart the stuntman’s ever turn.

It starts off easy enough with a “Joe Danger Returns” level, teaching you the basics of movement on the bike. Press R2 to accelerator, L2 to break, and lean with the left analog stick; pull back on the stick while moving forward to pop a wheelie. As you unlock stages and the game progresses, more skills are introduced — you gain boost by rocking wheelies and doing tricks; you use boost by holding X; hold square to duck under objects, then release it to hop; you can flip in the air after hitting jumps by leaning forward or backwards, and pull off different tricks by tapping combinations of the trigger buttons.

Any one thing by itself is simple to get the hang of, and you’ll feel completely in control in no time. But you’ll soon find that there’s more than what you see on the surface in Joe Danger. It’s not a game about simply going fast, although you’ll be score on that. And it’s not just about pulling off cool stunts, but that’s factored into your total score per level as well. What Joe Danger actually is turns out to be an odd (and unsurprisingly fun) mixture of racing, stunt-based gaming, and… platforming?

Talking about Joe Danger, the four guys at Hello Games (yes, this title was created just by a tiny team of four) evident Excitebike, an obvious influence. But they also reference Sonic the Hedgehog, Tony Hawk Pro Skater, and even pinball. Combine the three, and you see the possibilities — they’re scattered all over the stages of Joe Danger that I’ve played. You roll on top of springs to launch up in the air, over a hurdle and on to a bullseye target to score more points. (You can even move forwards and backwards using the gas/break while in mid-flight.) While in the air, pull off tricks to earn even more points and boost to race quickly to the end, to rocket your score even higher. You can even link tricks together using the wheelie to boost a combo multiplier, not unlike Tony Hawk Pro Skater‘s manual move.

Each level is littered with obstacles — ramps, jumps, shark tanks, and more — and certain conditions are to be met in order to clear the level and earn Gold Stars. Acting as the currency in the game, you’ll use the stars to unlock later levels. It’s possible to complete stages without earning any stars (or even beating the base requirements for getting a bronze trophy), but you’ll want to focus on certain goals to earn them: hit all of the targets in a level, collect all of the silver mini-stars scattered about the tracks, or full combo (by linking with the wheelie) an entire level. It seems like there’s plenty of replayability here in each of the game’s tracks.

It’s impossible to play Joe Danger without getting the sense that Hello Games loved the old-school; in so many ways, it feels like an SNES-era classic, from the visuals to how you progress through the game. But on the other hand, its “Sandbox” mode feels heavily inspired by the more recent LittleBigPlanet. This mode lets you create, play, and then share crazy stunt tracks on the fly.

The mode drops Joe onto an empty track, letting you hit a single button to pause the action and open up a toolbox — drop spikes, ramps, coins… whatever you’d like. It’s simple to use, and a ton of fun — dropping random items on the track is even a blast, and usually results in a usable level with little effort. But if you want to use the tools to craft bigger, better (and likely more interesting), the game gives you the tools to do it. You’ll then be able to save and share the tracks via PlayStation Network; you’ll even be able to download stunt tracks created by other players.

When I first set eyes on the game when it was announced, I was already smiling; the grin I’m wearing now is probably scaring my neighbors. Joe Danger is out next week, June 8 (Europe on June 9), for PlayStation Network.

Nick Chester