There’s no denying that platformers have played a major role in gaming history, but it’s also true that good ones are few and far between. That’s especially true these days, where first-person shooters and large scale action-adventure games have stolen the limelight from the genre that Mario defined. Perhaps it’s because it’s so hard to make a great one, what with the need for precise controls, near flawless jumping mechanics and a unique draw to set it apart from the many others out there. Or, maybe it’s just a sign of the times.
Like Nintendo and Ubisoft, to an extent, Flying Wild Hog and Nordic Games aren’t willing to let the sidescrolling dream die. Their latest — a PS3, Xbox 360 and PC digital download bearing the strange name of JUJU — harkens back to the platformers of yesteryear, while mixing together mechanics that borrow from both the past and present. The result is a relatively fun game, which does what it sets out to do but nothing more, albeit one that’s so unoriginal that its name should be Deja-Vu.
JUJU is, first and foremost, a game for kids. It’s cutesy, colorful and very easy. For the most part, at least. What it isn’t is a game for the hardcore crowd that scoffs at anything middling or unchallenging.
The predictable and unoriginal story begins as an adult panda bear leaves his hut and starts walking into its neighbouring forest. He’s not alone at the abode, as his pink-furred son, JUJU, is playing a game with his lizard-like friend. However, his walk is supposed to be a solitary effort, as there’s work to be done and children should not be privy to what’s going to happen. Unfortunately for him, though, it’s not long before the young ones realize what’s up and decide to follow along.
For some reason, the large panda is in charge of a magical staff, which conveniently fits into a hole in a nearby altar. It’s his job to monitor, check on and occasionally use it, it seems, so as to keep the peace in his idyllic world. JUJU’s curiosity gets the best of him, though, and he surprises his father before sending everything into chaos by turning the strange object the wrong way. It’s this accidental mistake that opens a gateway for an evil bat, which captures Father Bear and breaks the staff into pieces, which are then scattered across several different lands.
If the above sounds like something you’ve seen, heard, or even played before then it’s very likely true. There’s nothing unique or creative about this particular tale, and it’s only there to provide reason for all of the left-to-right platforming that follows. Even its conclusion is as predictable as can be.
Unoriginality is unfortunately a trend that mars JUJU and keeps it from being memorable. While its controls are surprisingly solid, apart from the occasional input delay, its gameplay borrows from the best in the business but does so without making any notable improvements. In fact, there were quite a few moments that made me have feelings of deja-vu, as I was reminded of one game in particular – that being Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze. Actually, there are a lot of similarities to the entire Donkey Kong Country series, including the inaugural jungle setting, barrel-like cannons, swinging segments and bosses from the animal kingdom. On top of that, almost all of the game’s forty levels are full of embers to collect – a design that brings bananas to mind.
Of course, Flying Wild Hog’s newest also borrows elements from Super Mario Bros., but that theft isn’t as egregious. Still, you can expect to earn a new heart every time you collect 100 embers, and will also find yourself searching for portals that lead to hidden rooms where coins can be found. In fact, that’s another area where Donkey Kong’s inspiration comes into play, because the only way that you can collect a secret coin is by getting to each and every ember in the area. And, to do this, you’ll use air vents and have to watch for gaps. Does that ring a bell?
Coins can also be earned for picking up certain amounts of embers in each stage, which is easy enough to do considering that they’re everywhere you look. Make sure you try your best, too, because coins are important even if the game doesn’t tell you that. I learned the hard way, after being lazy and running through certain levels instead of thoroughly searching them for secrets. “The coins are just for achievements and trophies,” I told myself, but I was wrong. When I got to the second last boss, I was unable to progress because I was a couple of coins short. Then, when I made it to the end, I needed to go back and get twelve more before entering into the final battle.
The aforementioned design is something that bugs me, mostly because it feels lazy. It’s as if the developer is trying to artificially lengthen its game by forcing backtracking on unsuspecting gamers. At least most titles point this issue out from the start, but JUJU does not, which made it more annoying.
Gameplay-wise, things are pretty straightforward. Your main focus, outside of collecting coins, is to get to the end of each level in one piece. You’ll do this in traditional platforming fashion, but will have some decent skills at your disposal. Those include a throwable piece of candy that can take out foes and pieces of the environment, a helpful dash move, and the ability to flutter ala Banjo-Kazooie. The little bear cub also carries a drum, which can be used to stun foes and make them easier to take out. Trust me when I say that it’s almost entirely unnecessary in that respect. You’ll only need to use it when you come across statues, chests or spinning wheels that only respond to the beat of a drum.
Earlier in this review, I referenced the fact that collecting 100 embers gives you a heart instead of a 1-up. There’s a reason for this, as you’re not going to have to worry about lives here because retries are infinite. Checkpoints are also very common, so you won’t have to worry about frustrating restarts or anything like that. You will, however, be able to choose whether to play on normal (two hearts), or easy (four hearts) mode. Keep in mind that an extra heart can be acquired, bringing the totals to three and five, respectively.
Once completed, the game unlocks two additional options for players to test their mettle against. One is what I call golden mask mode, because it gives JUJU a mask that limits her health to only one heart, whereas the other is a time trial scenario. Leaderboards are available for the latter, and also compare players’ coin totals to others across the globe.
From start to finish, this one will likely only take you three or four hours. It’s not demanding, nor is it long, but it’s also cheap at only $14.99 on consoles. That price point makes it easier to digest the game’s stolen mechanics and other quirks, because at the end of the day, the gameplay can be pretty fun. Yes, it’s relatively basic and sort of mindless, but it’s a nice diversion from all of the challenging, lengthy and large-budget video games that come out at this time of year.
As noted and shown in the embedded screenshots, JUJU is a very colorful game. In fact, it bleeds color from every orifice, and doesn’t have a dark bone in its body outside of some of the nasty (and relatively mediocre) bosses it throws at you. It’s pretty easy on the eyes and has an art style that fits its target market well, but its visuals aren’t up to the standards set by those it apes. I guess the best way to describe it would be to say that the colors mask some slightly dated and familiar assets. On top of that, there’s some screen tearing, a bit of rare but noticeable stuttering and a loading glitch that forced me to have to close the game and re-open it.
The levels themselves are designed relatively well, and feature music and sound effects that are serviceable yet pedestrian. However, the themes that carry through them are all familiar. Forest? Check. Food world? It’s there. Water levels? Indeed! The only remotely unique ‘planet’ you’ll visit is the construction one, which mixes building blocks with jack-o-lanterns in an odd mishmash.
At this point, I think I’ve said pretty much everything there is to say about JUJU, outside of noting that it does have co-op for those who would like to make things even easier by playing with a friend. It’s a game that is what it is and doesn’t try to be anything more, which is something that I respect, especially after the triple-A onslaught that we just experienced. Going further, I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoyed most of my time with the title. There are far worse platformers out there, and it’s refreshing to see that this one was built around a relatively solid mechanical foundation. Even if it’s full of recycled ideas, it at least works pretty well.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which we were provided with.
JUJU is cute and colorful, but behind that visage lays a wealth of borrowed ideas. Still, the game succeeds at what it sets out to do, and presents an easy but enjoyable experience that younger gamers will enjoy.