We live in a complicated age. Never before has there been so much choice in nigh on every way of life – from televisions to bananas, there are multiple options for consumers living in any demographic and any income bracket. The good news is that choice, in general, is good. With the advent of on-demand television, online newspapers or the downloading of music on a ‘per song’ basis, people can digest media content on their own terms and in their own time more than ever before.
The videogame industry shares similar traits to other forms of media distribution, but – with the recession biting hard and developments costs spiralling ever upwards – the production and deliverance of quality content is a substantial risk. Whilst the Halo’s, Call of Duty’s and Grand Theft Auto’s of this world have no reason to worry just yet, basking in their triple-A loveliness, many studios simply do not have the luxury when it comes to market penetration. Of course, there is the opposite end of the scale, where titles of a more modest outlay can flourish on services such as Xbox Live, Playstation Network and Steam, but unfortunately these sorts of titles can often lack depth, with such rapid gratification failing to offer truly significant gameplay, feeling instantly disposable as a result. Fortunately, there is a middle ground.
Step forward Steve Gaynor, a designer at 2K Marin who – in the height of the recession last year – wrote a blog post detailing his concerns about the industry’s obsession with triple-A blockbusters. Our industry is remarkably top-heavy, and balance is surely critical for talented developers to stay afloat. What is becoming increasingly important for gamers in times of economic woe is the availability of games that retain the polish and commitment to quality shared by their triple-A brethren without breaking the bank, both for the developers making them and the people expected to buy them. These games are known as ‘single-A’. In Gaynor’s words, single-A games “use many of the same design, structural and representational elements as big, triple-A games but are generally shorter in length and lower in rendering fidelity.”
The popularity of such games are on the rise – titles such as Shadow Complex, Battlefield 1943, Zeno Clash, Trine, Braid and the Grand Theft Auto IV DLC packs all share similar traits which would guarantee them all single-A status. Hello Games’ Joe Danger slots alongside these with ease, and is on course to be the best game of its type this year. Made all the more remarkable given the small team at Hello Games, Joe Danger is awash with class – from the intricate physics system at work which offers reliable precision to the kaleidoscopic colours burning into your brain, Joe Danger is accessible to the point of it being simply delicious to play. The easy part of experiencing Joe Danger is picking up the pad and returning the titular hero to his former glory, one death-defying leap at a time…the hard part is putting the pad back down.
Whilst Joe Danger shares all the characteristics of a single-A title, in many ways it is still a very traditional experience. Levels mainly consist of various challenges, from beating pre-set scores to collecting stars throughout the many tracks. The game has many ploys in which it can feverishly gobble up your play time, and chief of these are the neat integration of leaderboards throughout the game, which serves as an almost unhealthy incentive to keep playing. As there are so many challenges for the player to attempt at any point, your assault towards the top of your friends’ leaderboards quickly becomes instinctive, an unerring desire to top just one becoming serious business. Scores which initially appear ridiculously high soon become possible once the player quickly figures out the many foibles of the scoring system – two big tricks, or three smaller ones with extra back flip action? Whilst on paper it may seem tough to learn, the simple control scheme coupled with the rock-solid physics make experimentation a joy. At the same time, whether you are a serial high score chaser, a completionist obsessive, or just after a fun time performing tricks whilst somersaulting through burning hoops, Joe Danger has every base covered.
One of the more less-accessible components of the game is the track editor tool. Here, you can create your very own courses from scratch using a variety of tools which – whilst comprehensive – are not the easiest to get to grips with, given the lack of guidance. With that being said, the Joe Danger-patented spirit of experimentation soon leads to the creation of some entertaining runs which you can share with your friends list as simply as sending them a message through the XMB. A word of warning, though – try to become the master of your own creation before challenging the masses to do better. The chances are that they just might…and THAT is embarrassing.
With an air of challenge and ruthless competition masquerading underneath a bright child-like exterior, Joe Danger is somewhat akin to the output of Nintendo – there are plenty of facets within the package that can cater to almost everybody. It’s a rare and beautiful thing – the urge for just one more go is seldom seen in upper tier triple-A games, let alone a download-only release. Joe Danger, alongside other single-A games of its ilk, are shattering preconceptions about what is available though the digital distribution network. It has a ridiculously high replay ability factor, it’s a game that is dressed in its proverbial Sunday best with regards to both aesthetic and technical ability, and it makes the age-old videogame designer headache of creating an experience that is “easy to pick up, hard to put down” look easy.
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