Curiously, Viewtiful Joe's genius struck me whilst I was asleep. I found that my dreams had started to play out in slow-motion. The people in them began randomly leaping around and performing graceful, arching mid-air twists, reminiscent of the time a late-night Tetris session had turned them all into long thin blocks. Like Tetris, Viewtiful Joe is a bewitching old-school experience, and serves as a wake up call for those who think that immersive gameplay has only emerged since the advent of 3D technology. However, to consider this a victory of substance over style is not quite accurate. It is, first and foremost, a game of effortless beauty.
Quite probably the most visually arresting 2D platformer ever made, Viewtiful Joe's chaotic-yet-intricate graphical style grows on the player surprisingly quickly. For anyone who still holds a candle for the halcyon days of side-scrolling beat-'em-ups, Capcom's radical reshaping of the genre can look almost too good to be true. In the same way as Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series highlights the inherently restrictive nature of most (mainstream) games, Viewtiful Joe makes practically every other title on the shelf look aesthetically pedestrian. The importance of such distinctive and striking game art cannot be overestimated in raising the public profile of the medium.
But let's be honest, didn't side-scrolling beat-'em-ups die off for a reason? We all have our own favourites, but as a genre it's hard to expound the merits of such an inherently shallow and restrictive game template. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Viewtiful Joe lives and dies on the strength of its party tricks, and initially it can't help but feel a little gimmicky. Yet once all of Joe's abilities have been mastered, the experience really starts to gel. The slow-down, speed-up and zoom special effects consolidate the traditional combat system rather than needlessly complicating it. They also help to underscore the incredible animation, which distils the fluidity of (super)human movement as well as any 3D platformer of this generation.
Joe's superpowers ensure that the initial frisson of entering his comic book universe never really wanes—such is the calibre and consistency of their implementation. The most brilliant examples of this are probably the delightful environmental puzzles, which Gene mentioned in the main review. Asking the player to bend the laws of physics in increasingly imaginative and bizarre fashions, they require a kind of illogical logic. Whether it's speeding up time to hurry under a falling barrel, or slowing things to a crawl so that an airborne platform might plummet to Joe's feet, the developer's ability to think outside the box rubs off on the player in immensely satisfying ways.
There is, however, a guilty secret at the heart of Viewtiful Joe's exemplary design ethic. Put simply, I believe the game is several degrees harder than it should have been. Gene claimed that it is "as difficult as the player wants it to be," yet I fail to see how this can be true of a game which so stubbornly refuses to offer the player mid-level saves. This alone creates an unsettling conflict between the wealth of invigorating gameplay touches and the energy-sapping nature of the levels in which they are featured.
I think an old-school sensibility can only justify so much unnecessary punishment. In a game like Ikaruga, for instance, the difficulty arises from an expertly honed risk/reward structure, and F-Zero GX's hardcore credentials were won thanks to its elaborate track layouts and a thrilling sense of speed. By contrast, the impenetrable toughness of Viewtiful Joe's higher skill settings can only draw attention to some flagrant design problems. Why are the end-of-level bosses endowed with such vast reserves of stamina? Why must this arcade action be played in chunks of at least an hour for any progress to be made? And how come success brings more relief than it does satisfaction?
Still, there is never any question about sticking with Viewtiful Joe to the bitter end, and once completed, it really is tough to sustain any criticism with such a wholly admirable title. It works very hard to impress the player, and I am delighted to say that all of Capcom's toil has been well directed. Joe's creator, Atsushi Inaba, wanted Team Viewtiful to produce a game "portraying beauty in fighting." They have succeeded. Viewtiful Joe is an aesthetic marvel and, for the most part, a triumphant return for a long-neglected genre. And it plays like a dream.