Game Description: In this fighting action game from Capcom USA Studio 4's Atsushi Inaba, players take control of an average, well, Joe as he's transported into his favorite movie. In his new environment, Joe discovers he has all the abilities of Hollywood action-hero when he becomes Viewtiful Joe. Using cel-shading techniques, VJ boasts a unique visual style that blends colorful 3D environments with a twisted take on traditional 2D gameplay. Joe's power stems from his skillful martial arts attacks, high-flying acrobatics, and time-bending special effects. Players can slow down or speed up time when attacking/ dodging enemies, as well as zoom in on the action to execute different attacks.
"I can no longer fight for I have been defeated."
So says Captain Blue to his prodigy and soon-to-be action hero Viewtiful Joe. I quote the awkward line not because they're anything close to famous first words, but rather they firmly establish that this is not a game meant to be taken seriously. Capcom's Viewtiful Joe is an all-too-knowing parody of genre cliches in various forms of entertainment, from videogames to television to film. It's exactly the kind of game where one might expect a hearty wink after an enemy says, "Who do you think you are, some kind of Rock Man?"
However instead of a wink, what the gamer will get is gameplay that feels fresh, even if the concepts are shamelessly stolen from other games(including Capcom's own franchise bank). It's easy to see that all the creative juices were spent on fine-tuning the gameplay, the pacing and the inventive time manipulation engine, and not the story. Joe is an average Joe with a super-deformed buxom girlfriend named Sylvia. He's watching his favorite superhero film about Captain Blue while Sylvia tries to get some love seat action. Suddenly the evil entity that defeated Blue nabs Sylvia through the silver screen and Joe ventures off to Movieland to save her.
The player then takes control of Joe in what looks like grainy film footage, while learning the basic nuances of the fighting engine. Attacks can be dodged high or low, leaving the opponent open for a counterattack punch or kick. But it's not until Joe meets the ghost of Captain Blue that things get interesting. After feeding Joe his ridiculous reason for not fighting, Blue gives him a V-watch, transforming him into Viewtiful Joe, donning a cape so pink it would offend even Grand Theft Auto: Vice City's art designers. With his beady little eyes and exaggerated poses, he's almost a cross between Mega Man (Rock Man in Japan) and Stupendous Man, the alter ego of Calvin from the Bill Watterson comic strip.
Joe's V-watch allows the hero to manipulate time by speeding it up or slowing it down. The concept may seem pedestrian by now, but the most intriguing and original aspect of it is the fact that its time manipulation does not affect the in-game world's physics. If you were to slow down time near a helicopter, its rotors would slow down. Since the rotors aren't moving at the appropriate speed to keep the chopper afloat, naturally it would fall, giving Joe enough time to bash it to bits. Of course, speeding up time would make rotors on floating platforms move faster, lifting Joe to previously inaccessible areas. The game's puzzle solving and exploring elements rely on this function, and I found myself manipulating time just to see what in the environment is affected by it. Maybe speeding time up will fill the area up with pouring water, or slowing down time will supercharge a rocket for greater momentum.
But the game wouldn't be half as exciting if the time element wasn't factored into the robust combat system. A meter that empties the longer he is bending time limits Joe's powers. Once emptied, Viewtiful Joe reverts back to regular old Joe without special time powers. Throughout each stage are little V insignias that extend the meter if enough are collected, though the bonus lasts in that stage only. Slowing down time will make Joe's attacks stronger and makes it easier to dodge attacks. In fact, it's the only way Joe can dodge tank shells and bullets, though that sucks up the meter faster. Speeding up time will literally burn up the atmosphere as his attacks tear up the entire screen. The more enemies you defeat with the least amount of moves, the more points you get that can go towards earning new moves, items and life extensions.
All of this is not unheard of. Hearts used as health indicators, junk food as "health" items, buying new moves and collecting little coins or logos have all been done to death in games that date back to previous decades. But it's the meshing of these old elements with the millennial concepts of cel-shading and bullet-time effects that make the experience so rewarding.
It all came together for me during the fight with the Apache helicopter. My V-meter was still low, so I couldn't manipulate time for very long. Most of the time, I was using it to dodge the maelstrom of bullets and missiles it was hurling at me. The meter was finally vanquished and I had to revert back to regular Joe. The chopper doubled back for another strafing run while three robots chopped and kicked at my very existence. By the time my meter filled back up, the chopper's bullets were right on top of me. I was able to transform into the superhero just in time, with just enough of the meter to dodge the bullet before reverting back to regular old Joe.
That was a close call, and thanks to the challenging difficulty, the game's full of them. Viewtiful Joe is as difficult as the player wants it to be. The Kids mode is forgiving, and can give a player ample time to get used to the game's nuances. The subsequent modes—Adults, V-rated and Ultra V-rated—are all punishing but even more rewarding. After spending ample time with all the modes, the game was able to connect a nerve from my brain to the onscreen Joe avatar. It's difficult, but the challenges come as natural as if camera zooming (with the C-stick) and dodging with the "Viewtiful World" move were instinctual.
For the final paragraphs of this review, it's only appropriate that I shamelessly steal from review cliches, as well as ripping myself off. Viewtiful Joe is the spiritual successor to the 8-bit games of old. Not just because it's about running from left to right and collecting things, but that it requires an acute sense of rhythm and timing that can only be achieved by spending more time with the game. It helps that all of Joe's moves are simple to pull off.
Viewtiful Joe is a wonderful action game lovingly crafted with the weathered but timeless elements of rusty genres along with the new, postmodern concepts of parody and time manipulation. The new concepts were in danger of being trite and meaningless, but Capcom's latest breaths new life into them. The appeal of Viewtiful Joe relies solely on its gameplay, and not from its genre-bending, medium-hopping aesthetics, self-awareness and loopy sense of humor. The game is far from a one-trick pony. Rather, it's an amalgamation of one-trick ponies (cel-shading, time bending, old school nostalgia tickling) to make a fulfilling, satisfying and jaw-dropping experience. Meet the new action game, better than the old action game. Or more appropriately, something old becomes new again.
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.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Intense Violence, Blood
Parents can relax with this game. There's a slight suggestion of sexual intent at the beginning, but it's harmless and even off screen, although Captain Blue's bellybutton is one of the more disturbing images in the game.
Fans of action games will love the game's mix of platforming, puzzle solving and Devil May Cry action, all in beautifully animated cel-shaded technology. The time manipulation element never gets old because of its variety of uses.
Matrix fans will thrill at the death-defying bullet dodges that Joe can pull off. In short, he makes Neo look as graceful as Mario dodging Bullet Bills.
For Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers, Viewtiful Joe has no subtitles, but there are also no audio clues necessary.