Ready for Your Close-Up?
Viewtiful Joewas a surprise hit when it released on the GameCube in 2003, and remains one of the system’s standout titles to date. Capcom mixed tried and true gameplay elements with popping visuals, and created a ultra-stylish, ultra-challenging beat-em-up fest of outstanding quality. They also gave us a new videogame catchphrase to boot!
In the story department, Viewtiful Joe certainly wasn’t going to win any awards. Players assumed the role of aptly named everyman Joe, who had to rescue his girl Silvia from the big baddie’s evil clutches. Not only is this plot device quite hackneyed, but it gets incredibly absurd when both Silvia and Joe are abducted into a movie world while out at a cinema on a date. How are they abducted, you ask? Why, of course by the hero and villain of the movie reaching through the fourth wall of the movie screen and literally pulling them into the movie.
This sets the tone for the rest of the game, as the stages Joe must progress through are all based on standard adventure-movie fare. More importantly, Joe’s moves and abilities are all based on the realm of movie magic as well. At the outset of the game, Joe is presented a special watch, his V-Watch, which transforms him into the game’s badass titular hero, Viewtiful Joe. Despite the fact that Viewtiful Joe looks like the offspring of a Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger and Mega Man, he is actually a tough little dude, and is loads of fun to steer into various battle situations. Joe’s transformation into Viewtiful Joe is accompanied by his battle cry: “Henshin-a-go-go, Baby!”
More Than Just a Pretty Face
The game is essentially a 2-D side-scrolling brawler, but with style to spare. First, the graphics. The game uses cel-shaded 3D graphics – quite a stunning combination – which wasn’t as commonplace at the time as it is now. It does feel like you’re watching a movie at times; the game plane is divided into multiple foreground and background tiers, with all of the action taking place right in the “middle-ground”. When Joe leaps high up into the air, the camera view tilts up to follow him from below (as if you’re tilting your head up in a movie theater) rather than panning with Joe or staying stationary. Enemies are colorful, vibrant, and oftentimes humorous, and during any given battle can turn into a hectic affair of attacking left and right, jumping, dodging, and sliding, with enemies, projectiles, power-ups, and reward tokens flying all over the place.
The star of the game, and its most vital characteristic, is its battle system. This game is home to some of the hands-down most fluent and easy-to-manage combat mechanics around. Joe’s special combat abilities also revolve around the fact that he is, for all intents and purposes, in a movie world. First and foremost, he’s got the abilities to slow down or speed up time, and players will be utilising these tools in battle. A lot. In fact, some enemies – especially bosses – are based around using these mechanics cleverly to expose weaknesses and inflict greater damage. For example, slow-motion can enable Joe to deliver devastating aerial combos to opponents, slow bullets down enough to literally kick or punch them back at enemies, or take away a flying opponent’s momentum, causing him to slowly crash to earth without the necessary upward pull to stay airborne. Its hard not to be dazzled by the stylish edge that is given to the game and the combat in general with these (literally!) cinematic elements. The game does reward the player for pulling off masterful displays of awesomeness by providing higher scores of “Viewtifuls”.
Apart from combat, these powers, dubbed Viewtiful Effects (or VFX), are also used in puzzle-solving. An early puzzle requires Joe to slow down time, causing a water drop from a faucet to grow in size instead of drop to the ground, until it is of such a large size and mass that it depresses a button and opens a door for Joe. This clever integration of platforming interspersed with the brawling adds much additional quality to the gameplay.
It is important to have an understanding of how well put-together this game is, as now we get to the meat and potatoes of this article: the punishing difficulty! This game will chew you up and spit you out, and not even apologize for its merciless manner. On the normal difficulty, the beginning levels roll past quite smoothly, but after the first few stages players will start to get their asses handed to them, even by mere minions. Joe is constantly bombarded from all sides with assault after assault, and each foe requires specific timing and tactics, and will not hesitate to hit back – hard. It is quite possible to enter a standard fray with full health, unawares, and emerge from the other side with badly beaten and bruised egos, begging for a small health-up.
Bosses require – no, demand – the three Ps: precision, practice, and patience. They hit hard, sometimes diminishing up to a fourth or even a third of your life gauge with a single hit, and they come with multiple life bars, all of which you’ll need to drain. Towards the end of the game, there’s a stage in which you’ll face off against upgraded versions of the five main bosses back to back, each of which comes with four, five, or more health bars – it becomes quite insane! You might think that this is where the game separates the men from the boys, or that other games have similar “face all bosses one more time” stages, but I assure you, the latter parts of this game are balls to the wall, sadistically hardcore.
Most games that tread this thin line between challenging and impossible inspire fits of frustration in gamers, and eventually a resigned sigh when the unbeaten game is returned to its shelf. But Viewtiful Joe, despite its unforgiving difficulty, forbids you from turning off your game console in an effort to preserve your sanity; the game is too smooth, the combat too damn satisfying, and even defeat has never been so viscerally enjoyable! It never gets old watching ol’ Joe performing slow-motion backflips, summersault-kicking bullets into a boss’s face, then unleashing a zoomed-in flurry of gut-punches, finished off with a dizzying uppercut. The well laid-out controls make it simple to perform these over-the-top maneuvers, and it all just starts to resemble a Hong Kong martial arts extravaganza, having the little caped smart-ass unleash pain on armored sharks and flame-enshrouded lions.
Viewtiful Joe was eventually ported to the PS2, and a sequel as well as several spin-offs were produced. The PS2 version attempted to make the game more user-friendly by toning down the intense challenge of it, but for the true experience of this game that looked graphically appealing to kids but required patience and literal mastery of its combat system, go with the original GameCube version.