Remember when Mega Man was just a blue kid with a mean pea-shooter? It's hard to recall such simplicity; after all the television shows and bizarre game spinoffs, the core has become as weak and pointless as a spoonful of Kool-Aid in a bathtub. Leave it to Capcom to milk an exceptional concept dry. They are, after all, the ones responsible for over seventeen thousand Street Fighter games.
Now that same fate threatens Viewtiful Joe. Red Hot Rumble aspires to become a bash-happy four-player party game, but stumbles with almost every step and squanders the original's appeal. Red hot? Try lukewarm.
Even in the console's twilight hour, developers are trying to take advantage of the Gamecube's multiplayer capabilities. This attempt is a four-player brawler cut straight from the Super Smash Bros. Melee mold. It's got a slew of pretty cool (or is that viewtiful?) characters, all of whom can use fast motion and slow time to beat the crap out of each other.
The plot falls in step with the rest of the series. Aging superhero Captain Blue is holding a casting call for his next flick, and he who kicks the most ass wins the lead role. Through the single-player game, you'll fight as or against over a dozen characters yanked out of the Viewtiful Joe action games.
Despite the presence of the series' vaguely stuntman-like super powers, Red Hot Rumble dispenses with almost everything that made Viewtiful Joe such a cool game in the first place. The object is frequently to grab as many coins/gems as possible, or to simply do more damage to others than is done to you. So there's always lots of stuff on the screen, with the camera zooming in and out to follow the characters as they leap from platform to platform. Instead of requiring a skillful blend of reflexes and pattern recognition, the chaotic brawling here rewards only frantic button-mashing.
In fact, the powers themselves have been significantly altered. The awesome, dramatic blowing away of enemies has been replaced by the art of knocking barrels into other players. From a certain point of view that's true to the spirit of the original combat system, but not true enough.
In keeping with the game's fast action, the control set has been reduced to a simple move, jump, strike and power attack. The controls are responsive, and it's certainly easy to fly all around the screen in a blink, but it never feels like Viewtiful Joe. That was never the case with Super Smash Bros., which somehow managed to preserve the basic feel of at least the core characters. Here all the characters feel the same, no matter how different their individual attacks may nominally be.
The power-ups can't even be relied upon to tip the odds in your favor. For example, rather than making Joe feel like Neo fighting humans in the Matrix, hyper speed turns characters into fiery, almost uncontrollable comets. You'll race around the screen, desperately trying to chart a course to the next power-up, hoping all the while that something to hit will get in the way.
That, at least, will frequently happen. With four players, the screen is a total mess of flying power-ups, gems, coins, barrels and enemies. It's too crazy and chaotic for its own good. To break up the insanity, odd little mini-games in the form of VFX Battles have been added. These are all quite simple, often requiring little more than dedicated button-mashing or stick-twirling, and can quickly tip the balance of the fight, making victory conditions seem utterly arbitrary.
The single-player is mostly good for unlocking battle areas and options to play matches against the CPU or a collection of friends. Unlocking anything can be a pain, though, thanks to A.I. that is sometimes HAL, sometimes Threepio, often switching from smart to dumb within the same battle.
In turn, playing against just one human friend is as good as the game gets. Even when the CPU introduces other enemies, using only two players keeps the action on screen to a jetstream roar instead of a Category 5 hurricane. Removing the chaos shows that it can be decent fun whacking away at each other. But add more people and quickly everyone will jump into whatever open space presents itself, then hit whoever reaches the same spot next.
At first, you'll be tempted to think that the experience is gloriously overwhelming, maybe a throwback to the days when arcade screens were filled with a thousand nifty objects. But after an hour or two, the cold reality dawns: this is just blurry, messy chaos. The zooming works well, but the graphics are dark and muddy, far from the crisp, stylized beauty we've come to expect from Joe.
And because there's now a television series for Capcom to cross-promote, the sweet flash animated cutscenes are gone, replaced by utterly middle of the road animation. That's when there's a cutscene at all; frequently the thin story relies only on scrolling dialogue boxes. For those keeping score, that's style out the window along with substance.
If you really have to get down with some four-player bashing on the Gamecube, grab a used copy of Super Smash. (Or go new; Nintendo could use the cash.) Even diehard Viewtiful Joe fans should think twice before spending the money on this madness.