If you really like the Super Mario Bros. games but for one reason or another would never dream of investing in the hardware required to play them, you might want to take a look at Juju. It’s a platformer that carries you through four vibrant worlds, forcing you to bop and bash a bunch of cute enemies while riding on the backs of dinosaurs, collecting trinkets, and finding hidden bonus areas, much like Mario might.
With the exception of the Rayman games, there aren’t a lot of options for PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 that capture the joy of two-dimensional platforming. Juju doesn’t do that consistently, either, but it has its moments. Sometimes things even come together well enough that you’d swear you’ve been deposited in the Mushroom Kingdom. Perhaps the game’s biggest problem is that it seems to be working to evoke that particular response rather than to establish a consistent and engaging identity of its own.
An introductory cutscene shows two young mammals are playing outside when a wise old bear walks past them on his way to what looks like an Incan pyramid. The youngsters follow him, darting behind trees to avoid detection. They watch as their elder sticks his staff in a pedestal slot and communes with the translucent images of four distant planets. He is interrupted by a little bird that seeks his help, so he descends to the nearby forest. That distraction gives the kids a chance to mess with the staff. Their meddling releases a giant bat and a bunch of bees and assorted pests. Before long, the kindly old bear is abducted, the world is overrun by malicious wildlife, and a little pink bear with a magic mask–one of the two responsible for the mess in the first place–must reassemble the staff by journeying to the four mysterious planets.
Juju takes place almost entirely in these four themed worlds. Each one consists of around eight action stages, along with two boss encounters. Individual stages don’t feature a timer, just a goal at the end where you can stop a spinning wheel to collect a prize before returning to the world hub to select the next stage. Areas are littered with the game’s equivalent of coins or rings, and you earn medals based on how many of them you gather and how many bonus stages you find and clear.
The pink bear cub you control is a relatively weak heroine as the game begins but strong enough to get the job done thanks to the assistance of her magic mask. Mini-boss encounters add additional skills to her repertoire so that, by the end of the game, she is butt-bouncing, hover-jumping, and tossing explosive balls at an increasingly tough group of nasty critters. She often must pause and start banging on her drum, as well, which opens up the path ahead or distracts enemies long enough that they can be defeated. This is one of the game’s few attempts to do something genuinely different, but it mostly falls flat because it’s just a hassle. You press and hold a button for a few seconds when prompted by a situation, and that’s the extent of it. More than anything, it breaks up the pace that the game might have established at that point.
Early on, Juju is rather dull. Exploring the sparsely populated introductory world feels more like a chore than an adventure, and the background artwork–though detailed nicely in the Unreal engine–is too generic to be interesting. Checkpoints are frequent, and the threat from enemies is minimal, so players of all ages should have little difficulty progressing to the end of each stage. However, subsequent worlds are a great deal livelier. By the time they reach the third and fourth planets, the player will need to pay attention to progress and will be rewarded for doing so with some of the most vibrant artwork that the game offers.
The aforementioned bonus stages provide an additional incentive to explore every nook and cranny, but they’re not cleverly hidden. Typically, the player need only rush toward an obviously placed large wall, and part of it will pull away to reveal a magical gate. Bonus areas come in only a few configurations throughout the game, and thus get tedious quickly. Some of them are surprisingly easy to fail until you’ve practiced a lot, and you only get a single shot at them unless you drop into a pit or something on purpose and try again from the last checkpoint. Because the bonus stages are so repetitive and even a little frustrating, they feel like a waste of time and not the reward they might have been.
Bosses serve as another stumbling point. You encounter most of them twice. First, they appear as mini-bosses with one pattern. For instance, you encounter a toad, and you have to get him to swallow stinging bees so that he harms himself and flees the scene. Then you face the same foe, which now has learned a few new tricks, at the end of a given planet. Most of the bosses are difficult to defeat, serving as an abrupt spike in difficulty that could leave younger players out in the cold. The final boss in particular provides a hefty challenge. It’s by no means insurmountable, and older players should be able to persevere after two or three attempts and some attack pattern memorization, but these oversized antagonists are a bit much for the younger set.
That’s a shame, because kids are the obvious audience for Juju.The young heroine doesn’t provide much for adults to identify with, and the overly cute adversaries feel like they belong in children’s television programming. It’s easy to appreciate the vibrant visuals regardless of age (though not the lengthy load times preceding each stage), but that’s probably not enough to keep your attention over the course of a four- to five-hour campaign. There is a good way of bridging the generational gap, however: Juju lets a second player drop in and out at any time. Two people can work together to snag all of the loot, which makes bonus stages easier, and to find all of the secrets. They do have to stay fairly close together, since the camera isn’t willing to pull back very far (players temporarily drop out of sight if they stray too far apart), but it works. There’s no worry about running out of lives, either, meaning the cooperative experience is a positive net experience in spite of a few hitches.
With Juju, the developers at Flying Wild Hog have cobbled together a charming adventure that never surpasses its inspiration but still manages to provide a generally inoffensive romp through gorgeous fantasy worlds. Unfortunate difficulty spikes may keep some youngsters at bay, and the repetition is discouraging regardless of your age, but there’s still some innate appeal to this cute and competent platformer, which gets the job done with minimal fuss.