Much has been made about Capcom’s “Fab Five” agreement with Nintendo, with most agreeing that it was a poor move on Capcom’s part. The languishing sales, delays (Resident Evil 4) and cancellations (Dead Phoenix) have done little to back up Capcom’s deal. One of those promising games did see the light of day and debuted with much fanfare and savior-like worshipping. That game’s name was Viewtiful Joe. Critics had you believe that it would be the second coming of the action/platforming genre (it was). It was to be one of the best games of last year (it was). And it would single-handedly destroy the menace known as Paris Hilton and her slutty grip on America (ummm?still working on it). But for all the god-like promises the press served up- and Capcom’s wishes for gamers worldwide to be “Henshin-A-Go-Going”- most GameCube owners failed to take notice (damn you, Mario Party 37!). It made such an impression that when the Blockbuster clerk read the box for the PS2 version, he wondered aloud, “Viewtiful Joe?never heard of it.” Somewhere, the ghost of gaming’s past was crying.
Somehow, Capcom managed to make a game SO hardcore, most gamers never heard of it! Oh, the agony! But ever the savvy business folk, Capcom was convinced that Viewtiful Joe could sell viewtifully (I know, I know?) in greener pastures. Weighing the option of the system with the highest sales versus the behemoth that Japan currently uses for a doorstop (and what a doorstop!), the choice was clear. So almost a year later, Viewtiful Joe is back on the PlayStation 2- for many, for the first time. Perhaps the glossy-eyed gamers will take notice of the stunning cel-shaded 3D graphics that leap off the screen like a comic book come to life. Or perhaps the loving nod to old-school game play- with finger-blistering action- would make an impression. Or maybe, just maybe, the hardcore challenge would keep players glued to their Dual Shocks longer than Catwoman was in theatres. If PS2 gamers can wrap their noggins around a spiky blue hedgehog, they can welcome a spandex-clad superhero bent on saving platform gaming, right?
The story of Viewtiful Joe is pretty basic. While at a movie with his main squeeze Sylvia, Joe is startled to find a giant robot reach out of the screen and kidnap his gal. Even more surprising, Joe is snatched from reality and pulled into the movie world he was just watching. Guided by his idol, Captain Blue, Joe taken on the movie baddies to get his boo back. Things get a little complicated as the game goes on, losing some of its focus. But something is slightly puzzling about the events that play out. Before being snatched from the jaws of real-life, Joe is repeatedly fending off the advances of his attractive lady to focus on the movie. Wanting to create a few theatrical moments of her own, Sylvia is reduced to begging for a little “hey-hey” with no luck. Not to say anything about Joe here, but there’s enough subtext here to make Ricky Martin lean forward with interest. But I digress.
There are no hidden implications regarding Viewtiful Joe’s graphics. This is one of the more visually-stunning games I have ever played. Using the cel-shading effect- 3D polygons given a cartoon-like appearance- Viewtiful manages to take the almost-clich? technique to the next level. Characters live and breathe within the comic-book world, bursting with life and color. Animation is fluid and mimics its 2D forefathers well, missing none of the stiffness that plagues many 3D games. The larger-than-life environments, while lacking variation, are beautifully rendered in blazing colors. And those visual effects! Hits, explosions (there are lots), and other pyrotechnics look great. The Slow effect, the Mach Speed rush- with speed-line blurring- and Zoom effect are nicely done. Another great touch is the retro-movie filter on the screen when you revert back to regular Joe. There is some slight slowdown in overpopulated spots, but nothing of concern. In a way, it’s another nod to its platforming roots.
Viewtiful Joe’s audio may not have received the same TLC as the visuals, but is great nonetheless. The soundtrack lacks memorable tunes, but each song rings with bouncy beats and energetic pacing. Sound effects are good and match the onscreen action. The stunner here is the voice acting, which manages to escape the dreaded Capcom hack job. The voice actors actually sound like their characters, and their enthusiasm is infectious (no wooden reading here, folks). Joe’s trademark “Henshin-A-Go-Go, Baby!” has a cheerful coolness to it, and several characters- such as the preacher-like gruffness of dinosaur Davidson (“Davidson is in the house!”)- have uniqueness commonly lacking in Capcom’s games.
The controls of VJ seem a little much for an action-platformer- at first. Being the fighting-game masters they are, Capcom opted for a pugilist-friendly combat scheme. The face buttons are devoted to punch, kick and Zoom functions (also controlled by the right analog stick), while the L1 and R1 triggers handle the visual effects (or “VFX”). The digital pad and left analog stick control movement. I prefer the digital pad for movement, as the left thumb stick feels slippery when controlling Joe, leading to unnecessary dodges. The Zoom button controls more precisely with the circle button rather than the analog stick. It all seems daunting at first as you’re trying to remember how to handle your powers. Once you spend some time with the controls, you’ll be Slow-mo Zoom punching in no time.
Flashy aesthetics aside, the meaty innards of Viewtiful Joe is unquestionably the game play. With yet another throwback to the “game play over graphics” days of old, VJ thrusts its play mechanics front and center for display. From the innovative use of time-tinkering (let’s try to forget Blinx, shall we?) to the fighting-inspired combat, game play in VJ draws attention beneath the surface. A lack of innovation ultimately reveals itself, but its back-to-basics approach is welcome compared to the stale attempts at cleverness in the past few years (Rareware, I’m looking at you).
The main attention grabber to VJ’s game play is the brawler-inspired combat system. Deviating far from the platforming norm of leaps and butt-slams, Joe’s chop-socky antics force you to become engaged in the fights. Kicks and punches are standard fare, and a string of attacks creates basic combos. Taking on your foe in hand-to-hand battles is encouraged, as dodging or ducking an attack leaves the opponent open for a few hits. When joined in tandem with the VFX powers- Slow, Mach speed and Zoom- this opens up a special delivery of pain on your enemies. Knowing how to manipulate your powers can rack up huge combos and points. For example, Zooming in while in Slow increases the power behind your attacks, and a Zoom kick creates a spinning attack. This imaginative fighting scheme strays from the boredom of mowing through mindless minions, and eggs you on to better your skills.
The VFX powers also play a large role in the various levels. Certain objectives in each stage are only met with clever uses of Joe’s special skills. The Slow effect manipulates moving platforms and certain environment objects for safe crossing, and also creates a combustion effect in particular instances. The Mach Speed effect, though better suited for battling enemies- also affects platforms and speeds up movement across dangerous terrain. The Zoom feature puts your special moves to good use, as ground stomps and whirlwind jumps can open up new paths.
The VFX powers are essential for standing a chance, but are limited. The VFX meter gives you a restricted amount of juice for all those fancy powers. If your meter taps out, you revert back to ambiguous Joe. Not that Joe is particularly weak; he can dodge, kick and punch enemies for some nice combos. But turning back in Viewtiful Joe gives him the upper hand.
You can add to your impressive attack arsenal and stamina by purchasing special moves and items with your “V-points” (they’re like money, but more viewtiful!). But you can only earn the big items by dishing out whopping combos and nabbing them “Viewtifuls”. It’s another reason to spend time working on your attacks.
It’s just too bad that there’s little variation in the actual stages or foes. Most of the levels are simple- though lush and vibrant- horizontal treks, with occasional 3D camera movement thrown in. Some stages are short in length, while others stretch on for a little too long. Little surprises such as a side-scrolling shooter stage (in Joe’s coyly named “Six Machine”) break up the monotony of street and sewer levels. And apart from the VFX powers influencing certain stages, there is little interaction with the environments. Similarly, enemies are few in diversity- with a majority being similar-looking robots and costumed oddities.
Another tear in the spandex is the potential abuse of Joe’s moves. Mixing up your attacks with the VFX powers is great for discovering new combos and garnering points, but savvy (or unimaginative) players can scoot by on using one specific attack. This need for instant gratification comes at the expense of learning and having fun with the expansive fighting system.
Listening to the cries of the weaker-skilled players, Capcom tweaked Viewtiful Joe’s challenge for the PS2 release. New to the game is the easy “Sweet” mode (hopefully not a reference to Dude, Where’s My Car?). The “Kids” and “Adult” (kinky!) modes remain, along with unlockable modes of increased difficulty. Even on the standard settings, VJ provides a formidable challenge. The swarms of enemies give Joe some troubles, but the bigger trial lies in blasting through the enemies quickly while taking little damage. The game grades you on your fighting skills, damage you take, and time taken to pass each section- ranging from Viewtiful (what else?) to Crappy and beyond. Half the fun- and madness- lies in perfecting your skills and memorizing each level segment to earn a “Viewtiful”. In a way, it is a warm and fuzzy reminder of summer days spent playing a game trying to beat that nagging level.
Despite the respectable challenge, Viewtiful Joe is a short game. Some may not mind the length (games like Mega Man and Castlevania weren’t marathon runners, either), but those weaned on newer games may feel slighted. Despite the relatively few levels, a nice assortment of unlockables awaits skilled gamers. Four hidden characters are available with the completion of the difficulty levels: Dante (from Devil May Cry), leading lady Sylvia, Joe’s idol and mentor Captain Blue, and Dante’s sword Alabastor. Playing with the hidden characters alters the story and overall experience a bit, lending to a sense of greater replay. Two additional challenge levels- V-Rated and Ultra V-Rated (wonder what the “v” stands for?) – promise even tougher trials for Joe and the gang. A music video rounds out the list.
Capcom’s change of heart on Viewtiful Joe’s exclusivity is a gain for gamers everywhere. Reinvigorating the comatose platforming genre with style and substance, VJ proves that a great game doesn’t have to be overly complex. The spectacular graphics are more than eye candy, adding character to a game already swelling with personality. The audio is above-average for a Capcom effort, and the solid controls provide a great foundation for the flexible and excellent game play. And a host of unlockables balance out the slightly brief play time. While worth the full price of admission, Viewtiful Joe is an unbeatable bargain at $30. No true gamer should be without this game. With any luck, introducing Joe to the mainstream PS2 audience will get him the attention he deserved the first time. Maybe now he can live up to all those promises the critics raved about a year ago- perhaps even making us forget about a certain skanky Hilton sister. A hero like Viewtiful Joe is more than up for the challenge.