Juju is a total surprise. When a platformer such as this comes out of nowhere with little to no promotion behind it, it’s tough not to expect that it will be another dud that deserves to disappear into the darkest corner of the Xbox Live Marketplace. But then we got our hands on it, and within minutes it was apparent that this is a game that the people at Flying Wild Hog – developer of the recent Shadow Warrior reimagining – actually care about. It might not reinvent the wheel or possess the exact same level of polish as the genre’s greatest adventures, but Juju is still a remarkably delightful platformer that won us over in a big way.
When a mischievous little panda named Juju and his dino-lizard buddy Peyo accidentally release an ancient evil upon their world, they must do what they can to set things right. Of course “setting things right” equates to platforming through various worlds – four to be exact – while collecting items, unearthing secrets, and defeating gigantic bosses. This is a traditional platformer in just about every sense, though there are abilities to be earned in each world that help freshen up the gameplay. These are all fairly standard moves for a game like this, but there are a couple surprises (like a dash attack and the ability to bang on bongos, which will interact with specific items in the environments).
The thing that needs to be addressed first and foremost is that Juju not only takes a page from Retro Studios' Donkey Kong Country Returns when it comes to level design, it straight up emulates it. From the jungle setting that makes up the first world to the way secret areas and bonus rooms are tucked away behind chunks of scenery, Flying Wild Hog isn’t concealing its inspirations – it’s wearing them on its sleeve. Now you might think that aping one of the industry’s most prestigious platformers would be a silly endeavor, but the developer has actually done such a good job with the level design that it only takes a few stages of play before you realize it’s not so silly at all. It works and it's fun, so it's hard to complain about it.
The actual gameplay itself might be the weakest link of the package, but it absolutely gets the job done. When starting the first level, it's tough to get accustomed to the slow speed of movement, especially when you realize that there's no run button. However, in that same level, you'll acquire a dash-like ability and that allows you to move around with a bit more haste. Still, it does feel as if the developer made a very intentional decision to keep you from moving along too quickly, but the constantly-involving level design does a good job making it so you won't notice. The controlled speed also serves local two-player co-op rather well, because it helps to keep both players on the same pace at most times; plus, it's what makes this an accessible platformer for the younger gamers — perhaps even the most kid-friendly platformer on the Xbox 360 Marketplace.
Throughout the course of the game you’ll venture from a densely-layered jungle to a land made of building blocks and toys. You’ll also spend time at a beach made of inflatable plastic islands and inhabitants to a candy-laden dessert paradise. While some of these worlds are better than others – the inflatable beach being our favorite – it’s all lively and amusing stuff. There’s little explanation regarding why these outlandish locales exist beyond the realistic jungle environment that makes up Juju and Peyo’s natural habitat, but we hardly think rhyme or reason is necessary in a game like this. When we get to battle a towering octopus that looks like a pool toy and an enormous cupcake fixated on devouring us, well, they're so cool-looking that it's hard to care about the reasoning behind their existence. You'll be too busy memorizing patterns and plotting your attacks, anyway.
One thing we should spend some time touching on is how great this game looks. There are some rough edges — screen tearing in cinemas, very rare frame drops, and the occasional pixelated edge that grabs your attention — but by and large, this is a game that could've been packaged into a physical release if there were a touch more content and polish. And it's not just environments that stand out either; it's the detailed animations of the enemies as they stick to their patrol and attempt to impede your progression. And did we mention that it's all super adorable too? We have to commend the developer on making a game that embraces a young audience even more than most of its contemporaries. Not only is it welcoming on a gameplay level — despite a few challenging boss battles and levels — but it's also visually warm, packing in the kind of cuteness that should certainly resonate with grade schoolers (or any age group, really).
But don't think that Juju is just for kids. Sure, it's not a particularly hard game, but there are many varying difficulty settings that should satisfy players of all skill levels. From the get-go you can play on easy or normal: normal allows you to take a couple hits before being positioned back at the last checkpoint, while easy allows you to suffer many more hits before that happens. After unlocking and beating the "secret" level in each world, a hardcore mode is made available for advanced players. In this mode you can only take one hit before being sent back to the beginning of the level. On top of that is the ability to revisit each level for speedruns, just like you can in Donkey Kong Country Returns and Rayman Legends. Suffice it to say, there's plenty here to keep completionists busy.
It's not far into Juju that you'll realize the level of care that went into making it. Even if all the ideas aren't entirely unique, that hardly diminishes the fact that the enemies, worlds, and boss fights are designed extremely well, with fluid animations and plenty of detail. Seriously, certain parts of the presentation are absolutely top notch, even if there's the occasional unpolished edge to deal with. We had a great time tracking down all the secret areas and earning 100% completion, and we suspect that just about anyone into traditional platformers will find Juju to be a delightful excursion or a snack to tide them over between big releases.
When it comes to its universe and characters, we aren't necessarily sure if Juju has what it takes to be turned into a series; but we do know that we want to see more platformers from Flying Wild Hog, hopefully with more of their own ideas worked into the mix. If they do that, we might be in line for something phenomenal on every level. Until then, however, we know a certain panda and lizard that are eager to make the acquaintance of platforming fans, and you'd be smart to consider spending some quality time with them — especially if you have kids around the house.
Believe it or not, traditional platformers are kind of a rarity on the Xbox 360. Majority of what's available in the genre is either puzzle oriented or an artistic experience concerned with delivering some sort of evocative impact… but not Juju. While Juju blatantly borrows from the best in the biz, it's impressive how high the quality is in this indie adventure. By no means is it perfect or revolutionary, but what's here is highly enjoyable, easily recommendable, and darn good-looking. Because the entire game can be played in two-player co-op, and because there are difficulty options welcoming of all skill levels, Juju is a great purchase for kids and families that like to play together. It's one of the season's biggest downloadable surprises.