A View To A Kill.
At this past E3, I found myself unwittingly zombified by hordes of copycat, run-of-the-mill games. Booth after booth showed off maybe one or two interesting titles sandwiched between the gaming equivalent of Wonder Bread, filler titles that serve the sole purpose of proving that a company can "diversify," even if they have no business whatsoever cranking out yet another faceless furry mascot adventure.
As I slowly turned my attention away from some useless coin-collecting mess and headed to my Capcom appointment, I was hoping for something, anything, to break me out of my game critic doldrums. My eyelids struggled to stay open as I met my PR contact and started roaming the booth.
No sooner had we taken five steps that I was struck by a brilliant flash of red, pink and blue, a miniature Ultraman moving in slow-motion and absolutely wrecking shop on one of the monitors. The little guy kicked more ass in ten seconds than the furry mascot had in an entire career. My blood started moving, my mouth started watering and my hands starting itching to play. I had met Viewtiful Joe, and he was a site for very sore eyes.
First released by those futuristic people in Japan, Viewtiful Joe is a distinctly Nipponese take on the side-scroller with more than a few twists up its sleeve to separate it far from the pack. You play as Joe, a normal kid with a fetish for the films of anime superhero Captain Blue. You and your girlfriend Silvia (not the same Silvia as the one in Kung-Fu, I hope) are at a flick, when suddenly one of the giant robot bad guys reaches through the screen and nabs your girl. Soon enough, you're in the picture too, running around as a modified version of your hero in an effort to save your stolen hottie. It's like The Last Action Hero and the red Power Ranger had a kid.
The plot seems promising at first, but in classic Japanese fashion, it's all a bit jumbled. It's also weird and funny and offbeat, which makes up for the somewhat jagged storytelling.
Besides, you won't care much about the plot once you start playing. Viewtiful Joe's gameplay is straightforward but fairly complex, a brand new take on an old genre. It's essentially a 2D game, allowing you to scroll from left to right (or vice versa) as you progress through the game's seven large episodes.
The game really shines in its combat. Joe has three important VFX abilities – Slow, Mach Speed and Zoom In. Knowing how and when to manipulate time is the crux of doing well. This isn't Final Fight, folks.
The Slow feature is the most impressive. At the press of the L trigger, time slows to a crawl, allowing you to do more damage and set up long, wicked combo streams. You can also use it to dodge otherwise unseen bullets, or slow down a jackpot machine for easier play, or even just to get out of a narrow situation. It's incredibly smooth, looks very cool and works perfectly.
Mach Speed does the opposite, allowing you to blaze through enemies like a madman. It can get pretty frisky and isn't as handy as Slow, but it has various necessary uses, such as speeding up the blades on a fan to raise a platform.
Zoom In is usually used in conjunction with Slow to add even more flair and oomph to your attacks. Several moves are only available here, and while you do lose sight of a number of enemies, you do so much damage that it almost doesn't matter where they are.
Keeping this all in check is your VFX Gauge, which increases as you collect V-Film icons. Using any of the three powers will slowly deplete the gauge, and if it goes empty, you turn back into your lame normal self for a brief time. Even Spiderman had to make sure the tank wasn't empty.
If you just took those abilities and threw in basic kicks and punches, Viewtiful Joe would be ahead of the curve. But there's some added depth in the form of V-Points, which are accumulated by whomping on enemies. You can then spend these at the Shop to purchase a collection of extra moves, including boomerangs, bombs, special attacks and the essential Ukemi defense move, which lets you save yourself from taking damage if pressed at the right time.
And make no mistake – you WILL get damaged, because Viewtiful Joe is a hard game. There are only two initial difficulty setting – Kids and Adults – which doesn't give much leeway. Like its older 2D cousins, it often requires you to play a level several times before you'll know how to beat it and how to deal with the various types of quirky enemies. The bosses are very hard, but again, trial and error will win the day. A few bosses repeat too often, though, which does get annoying.
Luckily, the trial and error nature of the game doesn't hold it back as much as you'd think because playing Viewtiful Joe is flat out fun. Tweaking time and eradicating a screen filled with bad guys is rewarding, giving you the same kind of buzz Keanu must have felt the first time he dodged a bullet.
Plus, the game employs Capcom's patented ranking system: if you get great scores on all the levels, you'll open up some nice new ways to play. Viewtiful Joe is also deceptively long for an action game, clocking in at about 15 – 20 hours the first time through.
And that journey is filled with some of the best sights you'll see on any console. Viewtiful Joe's graphics are stylish and bold. Using a slick cel-shading technique, the game takes the look of Jet Set Radio and expands on it. The animations are superb, really bringing Joe and his enemies to life, and the framerate is rock solid despite all sorts of flashy explosions and bright colors. The environments are fun and the backgrounds are terrific; you feel like you're playing through a comic book. It even supports Progressive Scan if your TV is capable. By all accounts, this is one of the prettiest games around.
The audio is less impressive, featuring some very odd voices (in English) and a cheesy soundtrack. But I suppose it complements the weird nature of the game, and you don't really end up thinking about it much.
Instead, you wind up focusing all of your attention on just getting past each level, and sadly this is where the hero shows some vulnerability. Save points are far and few between, often resulting in you having to replay big chunks of each level over and over simply because you haven't figured out how to beat whatever is kicking your ass at the end. They try to alleviate this by allowing you to continually accumulate V-Points, which means you can stop by the shop before retrying to incrementally buff yourself out. It helps, but doesn't fully do the trick.
When you combine this save problem with the game's overall difficulty, you wind up with an occasionally frustrating endeavor that will likely drive the more casual gamer mad. It plays good and it looks great, but like any game, the graphics and style don't make you feel much better when you've tried to pass a level a dozen times and have burnt three hours in the process.
However, games as stylistically compelling as Viewtiful Joe don't come around often. Thankfully, it has the gameplay to back it up, so Gamecube owners with a taste for action should definitely pick it up. It might require superhuman gaming skills, but who said life as a hero was easy?